Post-Processing Tutorial: Special Effect – Fire

June 13, 2012

Note: This tutorial assumes the readers are familiar with basic to intermediate Photoshop tools

Post-processing has always been something that I find very interesting and challenging in the realm of photography. With recent opportunities to photograph two mage Hawkes from the game series Dragon Age, I decided to experiment with an aspect of post-processing that I have never quite done before: fire special effects. As such, here is a little tutorial documenting my progress towards creating that effect.

For this tutorial I am using a shot of rockinmonkeyninja taken at Chibi Chibi Con 12. Since she was cosplaying as a mage Hawke, I sparked the idea of having her pose as if she was holding a fireball, with the intention to play with a fire special effect after getting back home. Lesson enforced that day: shoot with post-processing in mind.


So with the right image to experiment with, it’s time to play. The first image you see here has already undergone my first pass of usual touch ups, it sort of gives you an idea of what we are working with.

To begin with the effect, my “trick” is to use pre-made brushes. Find some brushes online that give you the look you want, and start painting them around the area where you want the fire to be. Some important notes for this stage:

  • Feel free to utilize “shape dynamics” and “scattering” under brush tool options.
  • Rome wasn’t built in a day. Brush and erase multiple times to get the look you want.
  • I erase using the same flame brushes and some fractal brushes (also found online).
  • use gradient color <bright-yellow> to <orangy-red>. Adjust accordingly.

The image below shows you the progression. I used two layers of fire (first and second frame) to help give it a more dimensional look (in front of, or behind, the hand). Feel free to use just one layer or as many as you find necessary. The next step was to duplicate the fire layer and apply the “Gaussian blur” filter to create the “glow” of the fire. The last frame shows the look of all three layers combined. One very important aspect at this stage is to apply “motion blur” filter to the flame once you are satisfied with the base look. It adds a little motion to the fire and makes it look more realistic, after all, fire is never static.

Here is a quick comparison image to show the difference we have made so far. Pretty good, but something is amiss…

Light cast!

Remember that fire itself is a light source, by introducing this artificial light source into our image, we have to consider how this light will affect other objects in the image. In this case, the fire should cast some warm light onto our Hawke, so that is what we will do next.

The way I go about it is actually fairly simple:

  1. Select your working area to avoid “spill” when we “paint.”
  2. Create a new layer and set it to “soft light.”
  3. With an orange basic circular brush at 0% hardness and low opacity (I used 10%), paint over areas that you think the light from the fire would cast naturally. Use multiple painting and erasing passes accordingly, with stronger light cast at places near the fire that gradually fades away as the distance from the fire increases.

Your fire should look pretty realistic by this point with vivid looking flames and fairly believable light cast. To enhance the effect even further, it is down to the nitty-gritty, “tedious” fine-tuning. Without going into too much detail as this aspect largely depends on the look you want to achieve, here are some adjustments I applied to get the result you will see below:

  • Select the fire (it would be useful to combine your fire layers at this point for easy selection) and apply that layer mask to all of the adjustment layers for it.
  • Use “contrast”, “curve”, “saturation”, and “vibrance” adjustment layers. Apply additional adjustment layers as desired.

In the middle frame from the image below you can see I pushed the effect a bit too far, so I had to re-adjust the effect by toning it down a bit to get the look you see in the right frame.

As I surveyed through the image to see if there were other places I should take into consideration for this fire effect, I came across her eyes. Indeed, you should see fire reflection in her eyes! So, taking that into consideration, here are the steps I took:

  1. On a new layer, use a small soft brush and paint on the eyes where the reflection should appear.
  2. Apply “Gaussian blur” filter to your reflection painting. I used 5px for this particular image.
  3. Change the layer to “soft light” or “overlay” accordingly. Adjust opacity as desired.

Voila! Now your fire should look fierce. Note that this step can be applied anytime and does not have to be the last step, it just happened to be so for this particular case.

After the fire is completed and I am pretty satisfied with the result, I proceed with the second pass of my touch ups, toning, etc. Here you can see the before-after comparison. It was quite a bit of work, lots of trial and error, but in the end the result should speak for itself.

Here are a couple shots of the other Hawke that I applied the fire effect to. Some variations in the process, but overall the steps are pretty similar.

Have questions or suggestions? Feel free to send me an e-mail or simply leave a comment. And if you find this tutorial useful, make sure to “like” our Facebook page and share the post!

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I am a Seattle, WA based lifestyle fashion photographer who has Cosplay to thank for his adventure into the photography world. In addition to fashion, I also maintain Costographer as my cosplay work outlet:


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