1. Design & Illustration
  2. Photo Manipulation

How to Create a Ghostly Horror-Themed Photo Manipulation in Adobe Photoshop

Scroll to top
Read Time: 12 min
Final product imageFinal product imageFinal product image
What You'll Be Creating

Today, we will be learning how to create a ghostly woman and tormented child composite that would please any horror movie fan. We will be looking into how powerful adjustment layers really are and how color grading can be a powerful tool for adding atmosphere and mood and bringing a scene together.

Make sure to keep your lights on, and let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

Here are the resources we will be using, found on Envato Elements:

1. How to Create a Dark Solar Eclipse Background 

First, we are going to be creating a minimalist solar eclipse background. Keeping a background simple will help draw all of the attention to the main subject, keeping the viewer's eyes focused on what matters. 

Step 1 

Create a New 2359 x 3332 px Document.

Create a Color Fill Layer,  filling it with black #000000

Using the Ellipse Tool, create a large white circle in the middle of the canvas. 

create canvascreate canvascreate canvas

Step 2

Duplicate the white circle and clip it to the original circle. Change the color of the duplicated circle to black. 

Create a crescent moon shape by moving the clipped black circle about 30 pixels down and to the left. 

make moonmake moonmake moon

Step 3

To bring back the outer left edge of our eclipse, add both an Inner and Outer Glow to the original white circle. Settings: 

inner glowinner glowinner glow
outer glowouter glowouter glow
glow results glow results glow results

Step 4

Create a New Layer below our eclipse layers. 

Using a 1 to 3 px hard round Brush, paint white dots on the upper portion of your canvas to create a minimalistic starry sky.

paint stars paint stars paint stars

Step 5

Next, we are going to be creating the white aura surrounding our eclipse using texture "03" and "13" from the 20 Smoke Backgrounds texture pack.

Place and warp texture "03" around the eclipse using the Warp Mode in the Free Transform Tool.

Set the texture to Screen.

Repeat the above steps with texture "13." 

add smokeadd smokeadd smoke

Step 6

Add a Filter > Blur > Radial Blur to both textures. Settings: Amount 4, Blur Method "Spin", and Quality "Best."

blur smokeblur smokeblur smoke

Step 7

Copy the two textures and merge the copies together. Reset the now merged layer back to Screen. 

Rotate the merged texture around the eclipse, duplicating and rotating again until the aura completes a full circle.  

Don't worry about the bottom of the eclipse; it will be hidden by our subject. 

duplicate smoke duplicate smoke duplicate smoke

Step 8

Let's finish up the background by creating a New Layer above all your current layers, filling it with black. 

Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise, adding a noise of 3%.

Set the layer to Screen. Why do we do this? Adding a noise layer like this often helps prevent things like color banding!

Group all your current layers together and name the group "Background."

current layerscurrent layerscurrent layers

2. How to Place & Add Shadows to Our Subject

Next, we are going to be placing and shading our main subject, as our monster has some significant shadows obscuring her face. 

Step 1

Extract everything but the subject's hair—we will be saving that for later. 

Place her in the middle of the canvas. 

place subject place subject place subject

Step 2 

Create and clip a Color Lookup Layer into the subject. Settings: (3DLUT) NightFromDay at 75% Opacity.   

Select the color lookup's Layer Mask and hit Control-I to invert it. 

Using a medium, soft round Brush, mask shadows onto the subject's body, inner hair, forehead, chin, and neck area, but not her face or outer hair. 

We want the front of her body to be quite dark. 

shade subjectshade subjectshade subject

Step 3

We are going to adjust the color of the shadow using a couple of adjustment layers. Both of these layers should be clipped above the color lookup layer. 

First, a Color Balance Layer. Settings: Red -27, Green -23, and Blue -33. 

Second, a Vibrance Adjustment Layer. Settings: Saturation -42. 

Copy the color lookup's layer mask to both the color balance and vibrance layers. 

current layerscurrent layerscurrent layers

3. How to Extract the Hair and Flyaway Hairs 

Now for the tricky part: extracting our subject's hair. The subject has a significant amount of tiny little flyaway hairs that I personally love, so it would be a shame to lose any of them!

Extracting hair is not an exact science, and there are several different methods to choose from, so feel free to experiment. It can be frustrating and is sometimes the thing I spend the most time on, meaning it isn't always quick! Just take your time and remember that art is 50% patience.

Step 1

Right-Click > Apply Layer Mask if the subject has a layer mask already in use. 

Using the Quick Selection Tool, select the rest of the subject's original background around her hair. It doesn't have to be perfect—just a rough selection!

select subjects hairselect subjects hairselect subjects hair

Step 2

Add a Layer Mask to the subject and invert it by hitting Control-I.

Double Click the Layer Mask or hit Control-Alt-R to open up Refine Edge.

Set the settings as follows: Radius 6 px with Smart Radius checked. These settings may vary for you. If they don't work, adjust them. You may need to add some feather, contrast, or shift edge as well.  

Step 3

With the Refine Edge Brush Tool (R) active, brush around the edges of the subject's hair. More and more hair will become selected. 

If too much hair or some of the background becomes selected, press Alt and the brush will then subtract from the selection instead.

Change the size of the brush as needed. You can always Control-Alt-Z to Undo a selection or deselection. 

Step 4

Keep running the brush over the edges of the hair, paying attention to how the hair strands come and go until you are satisfied. 

refine edgerefine edgerefine edge

Step 5

Finally, with a hard round Brush set to black, mask out any unwanted edges or leftover background.

Also mask back in some of the longer or finer hair strands by hand painting them in with a very small, hard round Brush or a hair strand brush. 

We will be filling the edges of the hair with white, so don't worry if some of the hair strands have portions of the background in them—it's the shape the matters! Feel free to freestyle in some hair strands as well.

The more you paint hair, the better you get at it, so just keep at it. Again, sometimes practice and patience are all you need. 

pant in rest of hair pant in rest of hair pant in rest of hair

Step 6

Create a New Layer and clip it into the subject's layer, above all other clipped layers. 

With a large, soft round Brush, paint white around the edges of the hair and hair strands. 

add white to hair add white to hair add white to hair

Step 7

Create and clip a New layer into your subject. Repeat Step 6, only this time change the layer to Soft Light. 

Create and clip yet another layer into the subject, setting the layer to Overlay. Using a small, soft round Brush, paint highlights on some of the thicker hair strands with white.

We want to avoid having a hard white glow in the hair. Everything should be blended, subtle, and natural feeling. 

highliht hait highliht hait highliht hait

Step 8

Create a New Layer below your subject's layer. 

Using a medium, soft round Brush with a 10% Flow, paint white behind your model, giving her a very subtle back-lit glowing effect.

subtle glowsubtle glowsubtle glow

Step 9 

Create a New Layer and set it to Overlay. Bring the new layer above the last layer we created. 

With a large, soft round Brush, paint white behind your model in a circular motion, creating a soft white circle that is about the size of our eclipse. 

Create another New layer and repeat the above step, only this time set the layer to Soft Light and lower the Opacity to 30%.

add more glow add more glow add more glow

As you can see, I love layering different layer modes and opacities. I believe it gives a much more dynamic yet subtle light that's easy to play with! 

4. How to Paint Black Blood Reflections

To finish up our model, we are going to turn her face paint into black oil/blood, while also intensifying her shadows to keep her dark and foreboding. 

Step 1

Create a New Layer and clip it into your subject, placing it above all previously clipped layers. 

With a large, soft round Brush, paint black towards the bottom of the subject. Make this a fairly intense shadow. As our main light source is located behind our subject, she would be casting quite a dark shadow in front of her.

add shadow add shadow add shadow

Step 2

Next, we will be adding shine and reflections to our subjects face paint to give it an oil or blood-like texture.

Create a New Layer and clip it above all previous layers inside your subject. 

Using a small, hard Brush with a Flow of 3 to 15%, paint white dashes, lines and dots on the model's black face paint. Setting your brush to a 30 to 40% Smoothing may help as well. 

The trick here is to let the light build up gradually. Think of it like painting black blood. 

Create and clip a New Layer set to Overlay and paint soft shadows and highlights over your reflections to give them more contrast and brightness if needed. This can help with blending, but it all depends on if you need it or not. I only needed a small amount below the subject's left eye. 

paint facepaint facepaint face

Step 3

To darken our monster even further, create and clip a Curves Layer into the subject and bring the left anchor down. Settings:

curves settingscurves settingscurves settings

Group all your subject layers from the last four steps into a group, naming it "Model."

current layers current layers current layers

5. How to Create Crying Ghost Children

Now, we will be adding the poor young victims of our horror villain. Most of their effect is achieved with intense color grading. 

Step 1

Extract and place our three children, Child 1Child 2, and Child 3, at the bottom of the canvas, and set their layers to Screen.  

Group them all together in a group and name it "Children."

Add a Layer Mask to the group. Then, using a large, soft round Brush, fade out the bottom of the children. 

place kidsplace kidsplace kids

Step 2

To give them their ghostly color, we will be adding six different adjustment layers. All these layers will be clipped into the "Children" group and are ordered from bottom to top.

1. Color Lookup Layer: (3DLUT) HorrorBlue 

2. Color Lookup Layer: (3DLUT) Moonlit

first adj layersfirst adj layersfirst adj layers

3. Curves Layer:

curves settingscurves settingscurves settings

Hold Alt to separate and move toggles. 

blend if settingsblend if settingsblend if settings

4. Curves Layer:

curves settings 2curves settings 2curves settings 2
blend if settings 2blend if settings 2blend if settings 2
results of curves results of curves results of curves

5. Vibrance Layer: Vibrance -68 and Saturation -82

6. Color Balance Layer: Red -64, Green +22, and Blue -12

final adj layersfinal adj layersfinal adj layers

Step 3

Add an Inner Shadow to the "Children" group. Settings: 

inner shadow settings inner shadow settings inner shadow settings

Step 4

Group all the adjustment layers and the "Children" group inside another group, also naming the new group "Children." As you can see, I like to keep things nice and tidy. 

current layerscurrent layerscurrent layers

6. How to Add Ghostly Eyes and Shadows 

To finish up our ghost children and our monster, we are going to give them subtle glowing eyes and add some tormented ghostly shadows. 

Step 1

Duplicate the "Children" group and bring it above all current layers. 

Right Click > Merge Group to merge the duplicate child group into a layer. 

Using the Warp Mode of the Transform Tool, warp and pull the merged children so that they look pulled and distorted. 

distort kids distort kids distort kids

Step 2

Add a Filter > Blur > Radial Blur to the children. Settings: Amount 2, Blur Method "Spin", and Quality "Best." 

Set the layer to Lighten. 

blur kids blur kids blur kids

Step 3

Next, add a Filter > Blur Gaussian Blur. Settings: 4.0 px.

blur kidsblur kidsblur kids

Step 4

Clip a Brightness/Contrast Layer into the merged children. Settings: Brightness -19 and Contrast 100. 

Group all three layers into a group and name it "Ghost".

Step 5

Finally, we are going to give eyes to our ghost children and monster.

Crete a New Layer set to Screen. 

Using the Ellipse Tool, create two pale blue #defaff dots on the eyes of our main subject.

Using a small, soft round Brush, mask out the tops of the pupils.

add eyes to subject add eyes to subject add eyes to subject

Step 6

Duplicate the eyes and place them over the children's original eyes, as well as in random places on the lower background around the children. This will give the effect that there are more stolen souls in the background, deep in the darkness. 

Reshape and tilt the eyes as necessary to make them fit the children. 

Group the eyes together into a group, naming it "Eyes". 

current layerscurrent layerscurrent layers

7. How to Create a Ghost Horror Story Font Effect

Now, we will be adding the title of our horror movie. I choose to keep it minimalistic with the title of "Mother", but feel free to think of your own title and horror movie tagline! 

Step 1

Using the font Haext Plain, type out your title and place it above the heads of your ghost children. 

type font type font type font

Step 2

Create a copy of your title and Right Click > Rasterize Text.

Add a Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. Settings: Angle -33 and Distance 40. 

add blur add blur add blur

Step 3

Duplicate the Blurred text and add another Motion Blur with a 162 Distance.

Duplicate that layer and set it to Overlay to intensify the glow. 

Group all your text layers together, naming the group "Font."

current layerscurrent layerscurrent layers

8. How to Add Horror-Inspired Color Grading

To finish up our image, we will be color grading our entire scene with dark blue horror-inspired tones, as well as adding subtle wisps of fog. 

Step 1

Go back to your smoke textures, and add them to the ghost children and monster, placing them above our subjects and setting the layers to Screen.

Morph and warp the textures using the Warp Mode in the Transform Tool.

Use a very large, soft, round Brush to erase any hard edges or portion of the fog that is too thick, while also bringing the texture's Opacity down to 15 to 30%.

Give all the Textures a Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Settings: 5 to 9 px.

Group all the fog layers together into a group named "Fog."

add fogadd fogadd fog

Step 2

To do our final color grading, we will be using a total of five adjustment layers. These layers are ordered from bottom to top and should sit above all previous layers in a group named "CC". 

1. Color Lookup Layer: (3DLUT) FoggyNight at 26% Opacity 

2. Color Lookup Layer: (3DLUT) HorrorBlue at 29% Opacity 

3. Gradient Map: Dark Blue #0d3c49 to Dark Red #110000

first adj layersfirst adj layersfirst adj layers

4. Color Lookup Layer: (3DLUT) Filmstock at 12% Opacity 

5. Curves Layer:

curves settingscurves settingscurves settings
blend-if settingsblend-if settingsblend-if settings
final layers final layers final layers

We've Done It!

We have successfully brought our own big bad horror-movie villain to life! Take a look at how drastic the change in mood is between before and after the color grading. Often with composites it's the difference between having a cohesive, harmonic scene and a disconnected, jumbled mess.

As always, keep experimenting with different techniques, and don't forget to post your version below, along with any questions, comments, or critiques!

Did you find this post useful?
Want a weekly email summary?
Subscribe below and we’ll send you a weekly email summary of all new Design & Illustration tutorials. Never miss out on learning about the next big thing.
One subscription. Unlimited Downloads.
Get unlimited downloads