Moon Flight: Create a Ghostly Effect in Photoshop

Note: trying to recover the lost content of the blog, here’s one of the most popular tutorials.

This tutorial will teach you a couple of techniques I use to create ghostly effect as those you have seen in The Suicide or in Exodus of the Birds.  In order to follow this tutorial you need to have basic knowledge of Photoshop (working with layers, using the tools, etc.). I am using Photoshop CS3 and a tablet, but you can achieve the same results using a mouse and some older versions of Photoshop as well.

You will learn:

  • To turn a sunset scenery into a night sky
  • To use the Outer Glow and Inner Glow layer effects to create realistic glowing effects
  • To use the Motion Blur filter on multiple layers to create a ghostly vision of an object
  • To blend the edges of objects into a new background
  • To add simple and effective adjustments to enhance your image

To follow along, you will need these pictures from sky, moon, and bird.

Click on the image below to see the finished result that you’ll be creating:

1. Prepare the background

Open the sky picture in Photoshop. We will transform it into a moonscape, something colder and more suited for creating the ghostly mood. Duplicate the background layer (hit Ctrl + J).Name the new layer “Dark Sky”. Hit Ctrl + U to open the Hue/Saturation dialog and fill in the settings below:

Save your work before moving to the next step.

2. Let’s add the moon

Open the moonscape image and draw a circle around the moon with the Elliptical Marque tool. If you didn’t get the selection right from the first try, go to Select > Transform selection to adjust it. Once you have the selection set, hit Ctrl + J to copy it in a new layer. Name the new layer “Moon”. Close the background layer’s visibility to inspect the margins of the moon.

If you can still notice a dark edge, Ctrl + click on the moon’s thumbnail in the Layers palette and then choose Select  > Modify > Contract and fill in a number that should indicate how many pixels you should cut off the edge (probably 2 or 3). Hit ok and then Ctrl + Shift + I to invert the selection. Then hit Delete to get rid of the dark edge and Ctrl + D to deselect. If it still has dark edges, repeat this step. Otherwise,  drag the moon layer over the picture with the background.

Tip: You can drag the moon itself instead of the layer, if you have the Auto-select Layer feature checked for the Move tool.

3. Blending the moon into the new background

So far so good, but the moon doesn’t look like it belongs into the new background. First, let’s blend the edges in. Ctrl + click on the moon layer’s thumb to select it. Then choose Select > Modify > Border and type in 3 pixels. Hit ok and go Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and chose a radius of 1 pixel. Hit ok and Ctrl + D to deselect.

Next, let’s add some layer effects to add some glow. Double click the Moon layer (not the name or the thumbnail, but the empty area of the layer in the Layers palette), or if you prefer the long way, choose fx from the bottom of the Layers palette and select Outer Glow. Fill in the setting below, and then move to the Inner Glow effect and fill in as below, then hit ok.

Your picture should look something like this:

4. Adding the bird

Open the bird photograph. It’s a little blurry, but this is ok in this case, because it actually adds to the ghostly effect we’re creating. Selecting the bird off the background is easy job, since the background is plain white. Choose the Magic Wand, set a tolerance level of 50 and click on the white area. Ctrl + Shift + I will invert the selection and then, Ctrl + J will place the bird I it’s own layer. Name the new layer Bird, then drag it into your composition above the Moon layer.

Two things are happening: One – the bird needs to be scaled down and two – there are white and purple highlights all around the birds. Let’s get rid of the highlights first: Ctrl + click on the Bird layer’s thumbnail, then choose Select > Modify > Contract and fill in 2 pixels. Hit ok, then invert the selection (Ctrl + Shift  + I) and hit Delete to get rid of the light border. Ctrl + D to deselect. Then, hit Ctrl + T and scale down the image to about 75%. Make sure that the wing at the left is partially overlapping the moon, this gives it a nice backlit effect. See my result below:

We need to blend the bird better into this new background. Select the bird (Ctrl + click on the thumbnail) and choose Select > Modify > Border. Fill in 2 pixels. Go Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and fill in 0.7 pixels for radius. Hit ok and then deselect.

Let’s clean up the edges of the bird a little more, to get rid of some unwanted highlights and colors, like at the edge of the tail and the tip of the wing above. To do this, you need to lock the transparent pixels of the layer. The, use your clone toll or the brush to paint over the problem-areas. You can skip this step if you’re finding it too difficult, but if you want to give your image a more polished look you should try it.

After you’re done, you can unlock the transparency of the layer.

5. Creating the ghostly effect

Using the lasso tool, make a rough selection of the fanned wing. Ctrl + J to copy the selection in a new layer. Name the new layer Wing. Hit Ctrl + J again, to duplicate the layer. Hide the duplicate layer and go back to the Wing layer. Choose Filter > Blur > Motion Blur and fill in as below (40/200):

Next, move the Wing layer under the Bird layer and change its blending mode to Hard Light. Then, select the Wing copy layer and make it visible. Hit Ctrl + Alt + F to recall the last filter used, Motion Blur. It will come up with the parameters last used, but we’ll change these as in the image below (80/50):

Add a layer mask by clicking on the third icon at the bottom of the Layers palette. Select a large, soft brush (500 px) and set its opacity very low (16%). Dab over the right area of the wing, to reveal the head, body and feet of the bird again. You can switch back and forth the color from black to white. Black will hide, white will reveal again. Then, set the layer’s blending mode to Lighten.

Repeat this for the other wing: roughly select it and hit Ctrl + J (make sure you’re on the Bird layer before doing so). Name the layer Wing 2 and then duplicate it (Ctrl + J). Place the Wing 2 layer under the birds layer. Ctrl + T to transform it, then drag the center point somewhere at the junction of the wing with the body. Then, rotate from the opposite corner.

Select the other copy of the wing (on top of the Bird layer) and rotate it in the opposite direction.

Then, select the Wing 2 layer and recall the Motion Blur filter (Ctrl + Alt + F). Fill in 80 for the angle and 85 for the distance and hit Ok. Change the blending mode to Hard Light. Then, select the Wing 2 copy layer and apply Motion Blur with 20 for the angle and 35 pixels distance. Change the blending mode to Lighten.  You might want to erase some of the lower part of the Wing 2 copy or add a layer mask to hide parts of it just like with the first wing. You might also want to rotate both the Wing 3 layer and its copy to position them better relative to the bird’s original wing.

Now that you learned how you can use the motion blur in combination with blending modes to create this ghostly effect, you can do the same for the bird’s tail (but keep it moderate here, as the tail down’t move as fast as the wings are).

6. Further adjustments

The effect is complete, but let’s spice things up a little further. Select the Bird layer and go Image > Adjustments > Exposure. Fill in 0.18/-0.0020/1.08 like below.

Make a small oval around the bird’s eye and copy it into a new layer. Name it eye. Then change its blending mode to Screen. This will make it pop out more. Use Image > Adjustments > Brightness and Contrast to up the brightness even more.

Duplicate the Bird layer and add an Inner Glow layer effect with the following settings:

Then, create a blank layer on top of the Bird copy layer. Select both the blank layer and the Bird copy layer (hold Shift to do so), then hit Ctrl + E to merge the two. This trick is necessary to merge the layer effect with the layer itself. Name this layer Glow. Next, use the Eraser to delete parts of the Glow layer (you only want to keep the glow showing on the head and the fanned wing, maybe the on tail’s highlight too).

One more thing before we wrap it up: go back to the Moon layer and create a new layer on top of it. Name it Warmth. Then hit B to make your brush active and select a large, soft brush (900 px) at low opacity (10%), and a yellow-orange color, then dab a little over the moon area to make the light slightly warmer. Change the layer’s bending mode to Color. You can adjust the hue of the color using Hue Saturation on the Warmth layer. Then make another new layer and name it Stars. Use a small brush half-way soft and vary the size to create smaller and larger stars. Also vary the opacity. Then add an Outer Glow layer effect.

7. Add the text

The Outer Glow filter works great on text too. Add some text to your image (I used a font called Amorous). Choose something with rounded letters and a dreamy feel. Then add  an Outer Glow layer effect with the following settings: Opacity 75%, color white, spread 0%, size 27 pixels. Leave the rest default. Or vary to suit your choice of font! Then, duplicate the text layer and make the duplicate 10-20% larger. Then merge the duplicate with a blank layer to flatten the layer style (as explained above). Afterwards, apply Motion Blur with 0 degrees for the angle and 23 pixels for the distance.

You’re done!

4 Responses to “Moon Flight: Create a Ghostly Effect in Photoshop”

  1. this is very beautiful~

  2. Lovely work. Saw you from deviantArt, from an article original featured on hongkiat, from smashing.

    As to lost content…have you tried the “waybackmachine”at:

  3. only the sunset pic is still available. this looks lovely and I would be thrilled to be able to attempt this tutorial.

  4. I love your work. It’s really beautiful. I run a blog and wondered if you would allow me to publish your reference to my blog. And I wonder if I could post some of his work.
    Thank you.


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