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Create a Sci-fi Scene Using Advanced Shading Techniques in Photoshop

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Read Time: 27 min

Applying the right atmosphere and lighting to your artwork can be a tricky task. In this tutorial, we will explain how to create a mechanically enhanced subject, in a sci-fi environment, using advanced shading techniques in Photoshop. Let's get started!

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial. Editor's note: at the time of editing this tutorial, the link for Engine 2 was temporarily unavailable from the stock photography site it was hosted. If image is not available at the time of publication, you may need to find an alternative image to use.

Step 1

Let's start by opening the image of our man. Depending on personal document preferences, adjust the image size to your own needs. Go to Image > Image Size and change the dimensions to 2557x2188px x 300px/inch. Then double click on the Background layer to unlock it. Go to Image > Canvas Size and extend the canvas a little bit (2nd image below). If you're following my dimensions check the Relative option and type 364.32mm x 199.98mm (= 4303x2362px). You should now get the result as shown in 2nd image below. Now create new layer below "man" layer and fill it with #111518 color (3rd image below).

Step 2

Now grab Pen Tool (P) and accurately draw a path around this man's silhouette to extract him from his original background (1st image below). If you will take a closer look at his left hand you will notice that one of the fingers (indicated in 2nd image below) is looking pretty much off for a photo. So go to the right hand (3rd image below), grab Lasso Tool (L), draw path around the same finger (on the right hand), and then copy/paste it (Command/Ctrl + C/Command/Ctrl + V). Now cover the bad looking finger with the one that you just pasted. Use Command/Ctrl + T and make it suitable to the left hand (4th image below). For blending it better with the hand, use soft Eraser Tool or Layer Mask. It might still need some work, as the finger has some light difference, so as you can notice in the 5th image below it looks too bright for this hand. You can blend it better using Burn Tool now.

Step 3

Now we're going to deal with his trousers. It's quite a mandatory retouch, as the pockets and other elements look too ordinary for something sci-fi. So grab Patch Tool and using small areas selections (1st image below), try to make those trousers smoother (2nd/3rd image below). Next I decided to remove the black label and a part of his belt, as they bothered me. To do this use Clone Stamp Tool with settings showed in the 4th image below. Take your time, it may take a while before you do this accurately. But there you go, after, his trousers look much better.

If you're not quite familiar with the clone stamp tool, you can use this or this guide to help you with the retouch.

Step 4

As I said in the introduction - we will be applying some nice shading techniques in this tutorial. So before we can proceed with the scene you need to get rid of all the edge lights over this man's body (1st image below). So first create new layer above "man" layer, name it "light correction" and use Clipping Mask (Alt + Command/Ctrl + G) (2nd image below - Layers Palette view). To cover the light edges you can either use Clone Stamp (as previously) or you can use soft Brush Tool (Flow set to max. 10%), sample the colors from red circles (2nd image below) and paint over the lights areas (indicated by green arrows in 2nd image below). Remember to stay on the new created layer while painting or cloning.

Also same thing goes about the edge shadows (3rd image below). Use the same technique to correct them.

Step 5

Remember only to cover the edges that seem very, very dark to you, there is no need to apply this to slightly lightened/darkened edges. Also you might be receiving problems when it comes to shadow, for example, under his armpit (1st image below). If you'd like to make it a little bit less dark, just grab soft brush and use light brown color (best way would be to sample it from his skin) and cover the dark area (2nd image below). What you need to do is just to add a touch of that paint (like a 1-2 clicks of 5% Flow brush), if you overdo it, you will totally lose the skin texture and it will look highly unnatural.

By the moment create new adjustment layer - Solid Color (fill it with #6d4c32) above "light corrections" layer and use Clipping Mask again (Command/Ctrl + Alt + G). Lower opacity if that layer to 30% and using black brush make sure you paint on the layer mask to only reveal trousers (3rd image below).

Step 6

Ok, now is a good time to decide where will our light source come from. I decided to set mine right behind the man (in front his face) and a little bit below him, like it was coming from the ground. It's not visible yet, just keep in mind how it's planned and remember, if you plan to create the light in front of his face, all his back will be dark, as this is the part where light cannot reach in this case.

Now it may be a bit confusing but trust me - to balance the shadows we have to shade both arm pits with the same color, as this will probably be the darkest part of his back (to be specific, the gaps will be darkest). So create new layer above all (use Clipping Mask again), change its Blending Mode to Multiply and use color showed in 1st image below. Then simply paint as indicated.

Next, refer to 2nd image below and repeat the same process on the same layer, use color as shown. This time add more overall shadow to this back (to do that kind of shading always use very soft brush, 3-5% Flow).

Now, as I mentioned, our light will shine from below. Notice that his head is the furthest part of the body that stands out to the background. This means his head will receive the most light. But not the whole head, mostly his ears and neck sides. So simply, while making the shadows stronger (3rd image below - red arrows) try to avoid the areas that will receive light (3rd image below - green arrows).

Step 7

Create a new layer above, use a Clipping Mask again and change its Blending Mode to Multiply. Keep adding shadows with another brown tone (1st image below), this time a bit deeper, make sure you also reach his hands and trousers.

Now create another new layer above, use Clipping Mask again, but this time change its Blending Mode to Darken. Paining with the same color, now cover his middle and upper back (as indicated in 2nd image below). By doing this you will cover all the muscles that appear to be too bright in that upper area.

Next go to Layers Palette and create another adjustment layer above all layers - Solid Color (fill it with #5f321f), lower the Opacity to 40% and change its Blending Mode to Multiply (3rd image below), and of course hit Command/Ctrl + Alt + G to create Clipping Mask.

Continue adding shadows, but this time pay more attention to his trousers. Create another new layer above, use Clipping Mask. Change its Blending Mode to Mulitply and use #473227 color to add shadow with it (4th image below, it's indicated with red brush where to paint).

All those shading layers strictly have to stick to the "man" layer by using clipping masks. If something doesn't look right, you probably missed that.

Step 8

If your result is pretty similar to mine then you're doing great job so far. Now break this shading for a moment and let's add some light source. As being said previously, it will reach mostly this man's front body part, so we're going to add it under all layers. Go to the bottom of the Layers Palette, create a new group. Name it "light". Then create new layer in this group, grab large soft brush and start a wide painting in the center as showed in the 1st image below (use #58768c color). Then create another layer, above the previous one, repeat the same step but with different tone (use #b4d396), and remember that this brushing will be narrower (2nd image below). Next, create another new layer above the previous one, change its Blending Mode to Overlay and use white color to paint (3rd image below). Finally, create another layer (with Blending Mode set to Normal) and just use white to paint a very narrow light (4th image below).

Now grab the whole "light" group, hit Commnad + T to free transform, and stretch it vertically to create some kind of ray (5th image below).

Step 9

OK, everything is looking really good, as we just applied a much more natural shading to the man, while following colors only from his back. People tend to just drop only 1-2 layers of random, black shadow and in most cases they wind up with a dirty and ugly result. But we won't fall for that. Now because of a great base, our result allows us to perfectly modify this shadow as we want, and it won't get dirty. So let's just blend this man more with the environment by affecting his body with similar tones. Go to Layers Palette, again add new adjustment layer - Gradient Map of Blending Mode set to Soft Light, Opacity 69% (use Clipping Mask). Set the colors as showed in the 1st image below.

Next add another adjustment layers - Color Balance (use Clipping Mask) and apply similar settings as mine (2nd image below). Now look at the result, appears to be pretty smooth and natural.

Step 10

Now we're going to cast some edge lights on this man's body. Since the light is in front of his face, hitting from below, it will only reach a certain areas (indicated in 1st image below). So grab soft white brush, create another new layer above all, use Clipping Mask again and just paint as shown to create edge light only (remember that you can't add too much of the white brush, as it will cause skin texture loss - so keep the balance).

Next, repeat the same process. Create another new layer above all, use Clipping Mask (Command/Ctrl + Alt + G). Change its Blending Mode to Overlay and now use soft white brush again, then just paint in the same places as you did previously. This will enhance the previous edge light, without causing much of a spread (2nd image below). Now create new adjustment layer above - Color Balance (hit Command/Ctrl + Alt + G for Clipping Mask) and adjust only Highlights as shown in 3rd image below. This caused all the edge highlights mix with the background light.

Step 11

Now open the tiles image, place this layer under the man and our source light layers. If it doesn't fit the canvas, use Command/Ctrl + T to stretch it properly (1st image below). Hit Command/Ctrl + I to Invert (2nd image below). Duplicate the "tiles" layer and add a layer mask the one above (3rd image below), set the bottom one's Opacity to 10% at start removing tiles of your choice from the upper layer (4th image below). This background low opacity tiles will help you do the erasing properly.

In 5th and 6th image below I've showed a nice easy way to remove the unwanted tiles. By using black hard brush + left click, then Shift hold and left click you can create a straight brush lines for painting and erasing. It's a better, more accurate and efficient way to do the cutting, than using simple pen tool. Besides, also gives you greater control over the erased area.

Step 12

Since we have separated some tiles from the rest, now all those white lines between them have no connection. So using the same technique, get rid of the white lines between the tiles. To do this use a very small brush diameter and make sure the brush is 100% hard. Also, you can delete the 10% tiles background layer that helped us earlier.

Step 13

OK, the tiles still look pretty ugly, but at least we got rid of the lines. Now let's tune them up. Create a new adjustment layer above "tiles" layer - Selective Color, set it as shown in the 1st image below (and use Clipping Mask - Command/Ctrl + Alt + G). This should slightly reduce the ugly whites from the tiles. But since it's not enough, create new layer above the previous one, change its blending Mode to Multiply and create Clipping Mask. Now grab soft brush (0% Hardness, 3-5% Flow), use #63665b (or sample a dark blue/green one from the tiles) and paint as indicated in 2nd image below. You should receive a little bit of additional darkness on them, that will flatten the tones a little bit (3rd image below). Next, do the same thing, make new layer (now with Normal Blending Mode), create Clipping Mask, and using #2a2d2b touch up the white areas over the tiles (paint as indicated in 4th image below). Remember to paint softly; you don't want to cover those tiles all the way with selected color. You should receive a slight but noticeable difference (5th image below), that really helped us covering those too bright areas.

Step 14

Now that most of the whites are hidden, we need flatten the tiles deeper. Because they still look pretty bad, and there is almost no adjusting can actually help you with this (the image itself wasn't the best, and our tiles inversion just totally killed their quality). So create new adjustment layer - Solid Color if #545b40 color, place it above the previous flattening layers, stick it with Clipping Mask (Command/Ctrl + Alt + G). Change its Opacity to 60% (1st image below). It basically reduced all the contrasts flattened the colors while still maintaining some of the tiles texture.

Next, create another new layer above (create Clipping Mask again), change its Blending Mode to Mulitiply, pick #333829 (or a bit darker if you need) and try to paint some edge shading over the tiles (2nd image below). Then create another new layer above (create Clipping Mask again), change its Blending Mode to Overlay, pick #ffffff (white) and using the straight lines technique from Step 11 paint lights as indicated in 3rd image below. In 4th image below is the result. If your light isn't strong enough, duplicate the light layer (with Clipping Mask of course) and reduce its Opacity to 20-30%.

About the light direction, it mostly depends on there you set the light source, if it's like mine – in front of the guy's face and hitting from below, your rays direction should be similar to mine.

Step 15

Create new adjustment layer - Gradient Map above the "light" ones (use Clipping Mask again), change its Blending Mode to Soft Light, Opacity to 70% and for gradient pick #375d7e - #fffeda (1st image below). Next, do the same thing but with other adjustment layer - Color Balance, 2nd image below (no blending mode or opacity change needed). We have to set up the tiles to fit to the environment we created, so they need some touch of blue.

Just not to get you confused, there are only two images below separated by red line, they present adjustment layer and result after applying it.

Step 16

Next keep still adjusting the tiles, create another two adjustment layers - Curves (both). Create Clipping Masks for both. Set the first one as shown in the 1st image below. Now as for the second one, set it as shown in the 2nd image below, then grab Paint Bucket Tool (G), pick black color, select it's layer mask and fill it with black. Then pick white color, use Brush Tool (Flow 1-3%, Hardness 10-30%) and paint on the layer mask to enhance the lights. Again you can use the straight-line technique from Step 11.

Just not to get you confused, there are only two images below separated by red line, they present adjustment layer and result after applying it.

Step 17

OK, we're finally set up with tuning up the tiles. Now select these layers (tiles + all its adjustments) and drag them to the Group icon in Layers Palette to group them. Name this group "tiles". Now drag this group to New Layer icon in Layers Palette to duplicate it and merge all layers in it, rename this copy to "tiles 3d" and set it below the "tiles" group. Then turn off the visibility of "tiles" group (this should look like the layers palette view in 1ist image below).

Now while you have selected the "tiles 3d" layer, grab Polygonal Lasso Tool (L) and draw a selection around the tiles on the left (1st image below). Then right click and select Layer via Cut. Refer to the rest images below and using this technique cut each side of the tiles to separated layers. Name them and order as showed in the 3rd image below.

Step 18

Now turn on the layer visibility of "tiles" group. Then select "tiles 3d left" layer, zoom a little bit to get a closer view of the tiles, then while holding Alt press 4-5 times Left Arrow on keyboard (it works as duplicate + move). You should receive a nice 3d shape as you can see in the 1st image below (now it's barely visible and we will enhance this further). Now repeat the same process for "tiles 3d top", but in this case use Upper Arrow and so on "tiles 3d right" - Right Arrow, and "tiles 3d bottom" - Down Arrow (2nd image below). Now merge all those tiles 3d layers so you get only "tiles" group and "tiles 3d" layer (Layers Palette view in 3rd image below). Next, use Burn Tool to create shadows on the 3d shape, and Dodge Tool to create lights (everything is showed in the 3rd image below). Burn and Dodge over the all separated tiles, this will give a nice glassy effect.

Step 19

When you're done, select "tiles" group and "tiles 3d" layer and merge them into one "tiles" layer. Then grab Lasso Tool and create a rough selection around chosen tile. Now, when you hold Command/Ctrl you can move the tile whenever you want, and by hitting Command/Ctrl + T you can free transform it (rotate/resize). Using this method, transform, rotate and resize the tiles to give them some movement (1st image below).

Next, duplicate this transformed "tiles" layer and place this copy below orginal layer. Select the copy and go to Filter > Blur > Radial Blur (2nd image below) and use settings as shown. Your effect should look like the one in the 3rd image below and as you can see, there is too much of the blur. So in the 4th image below I've indicated which parts of blur I partly or totally erased (green arrows). Now, the red arrows indicate which tiles I erased - leaving only blur in this case.

To make a proper dynamics, you need to have the flying tiles differently focused. Try to maintain a nice balance between the fully blurred, barely blurred and non-blurred parts.

Step 20

Next, create a new layer above "tiles" layer (Clipping Mask is optional here), change its Blending Mode to Multiply. Sample a dark blue color from the illustration (I randomly chose #0c1015) and softly brush in the corners of the illustration to create vignette (1st image below).

OK, now let's open the image of starry sky. Drag it below all layers in Layers Palette (2nd image below). Change its Blending Mode to Linear Dodge (3rd image below). Hit Command/Ctrl + Shift + U to Desaturate (4th image below). Next, add Image > Adjustments > Levels (5th image below) and Image > Adjustments > Color Balance (6th image below). Use similar or same settings as I did to blend it with the environment.

Step 21

Now open the fusebox image. Use Pen Tool (P) to cut out a part of your choice that you find suitable here (1st image below). Create new adjustment layer in Layers Palette > Solid Color (#423b10), above the fusebox, use Clipping Mask. Lower its Opacity to 28% (2nd image below). Next add a slight overall shading, use new layer (with Clipping Mask), change Blending Mode to Multiply and paint with soft brush of #a29d80 color (3rd image below). Repeat the same process as previously, but now with #353012, and this time try to add some stronger shading to the edges of this box/wires and its elements (4th image below). If it's still not dark enough, you can use Curves (with Clipping Mask) and pull the slider just a little bit to the bottom right to make the edge shadows even deeper (5th image below). Finally put some shadow below these mechanical elements, so create a new layer underneath the fusebox, and change its Blending Mode to Multiply. Grab a dark brown color (like #221911), the best would be just to sample the color from a dark spot over his body. Now use soft brush to create the shadows. You can see in the 6th image below how to treat them. Red arrows indicate where to put a strong shading and green ones - where to put softer shading.

The rule is simple, when the object is further from the surface - it drops softer/lighter shadow.

Step 22

Cut out and add next element from the fusebox image. Use Clone Stamp Tool to extend the pipes, that they can easily reach the first elements (1st image below). Next, grab soft brush with a very small diameter; change the color to #3c3225. Create new layer above the new box ( + Clipping Mask) and change its Blending Mode to Mulitply. Refer to Step 11 and use the straight lines technique to create straight vertical shading over pipes (2nd image below). Do each of them the same way (3rd image below).

Step 23

Create another new layer above ( + Clipping Mask), change its Blending Mode to Overlay. Use white color and same technique as in previous step, now to paint some lights (random areas indicated 1st image below). You can see that it brings a little bit of life to this box (2nd image below). Create new layer above ( + Clipping Mask) and change its Blending Mode to Mulitply. Paint over the whole box, but mostly around the edges and where the pipes connect with another box (to make them connect better) - 3rd image below. Next, create another new layer above ( + Clipping Mask) and change its Blending Mode to Mulitply again. Use #231a12 color and make this shading even deeper, also make sure you put more of it in the edges, as this box isn't quite plain and needs more shadows by the sides (4th image below). Finally move to the layer where you have put shadow underneath the first box, and create additional shadow with the same color (#221911) to the second box (5th image below).

Step 24

Now we're going to create wires. To do this change your foreground color to #708d3d, make the brush diameter 100% hard and 34-36px big (the size depends on how big your project document is, it may actually be to big for you if you're working in a smaller document!). Also depending on how many wires you want to have there, you need to create the same amount of paths using Pen Tool (P), and then right click > Stroke Path (1st image below). For Tool choose Brush and hit OK. Your paths should automatically get filled with green lines. Next, go to layer Blending Options of the created lines, select Inner Glow and apply the same settings as I did (for color use #3c470f) - 2nd image below). Move to Layers Palette, then right click on the FX icon on "wires" layer and choose Create Layer. The layer will transform from layer styles to regular layer with clipping mask (3rd image below).

Step 25

This is how the basic 3d shape should look like - 1st image below. Let's focus now on creating complete 3d look and shading these wires. Zoom the image even to 200-300%, create new layer ( + Clipping Mask), change its Blending Mode to Multiply. Grab soft brush (use small diameter) with a dark green #363914 color and look at 2nd image below. You need to softly paint over the whole shape egdes, but with the only exception of few areas. Yellow arrows indicate where you should put less shadow and red arrows indicate where to put more. You should get the idea once you start painting (3rd image below). Next, grab a lighter green #bfcc74 create new layer above ( + Clipping Mask), don't change its blending mode. Then softly paint to create a highlight in the only spot that is the furthest standing out of the arm (4th image below). This is the only part that should receive a strong light, you can notice that it looks now like it's affected by the background light. For the rest parts of the wire, create another new layer above ( + Clipping Mask), don't change the blending mode and paint over it with #0f0406 to flatten the shape and blend it with the body (5th image below).

Step 26

Now you need to cast the shadow of this wire. I often see mistakes people make with this kind of stuff. Notice that the body is not plain, neither is the wire, so you can just drop a tiny, regular shadow all the way along with the wire - this will look totally flat and unrealistic. So what you need to do is to picture this wire as it was bouncing on his body. This way you will realize that there is a need to cast two kinds of shadows - lighter ones and stronger ones. In 1st image below yellow arrows indicate the lighter (also softer) shadows and red arrows - stronger ones. Now to create this shadow, make a new layer below the wire, change its Blending Mode to Multiply. It would be good to sample a dark brown color from the man's body to paint the shadows, but if you are confused of that you can simply use mine #190a04. Then proceed as shown (1st image below).

Apply this kind of shadows to every wire that you have created and remember to vary them, so you don't wind up with completely flat look.

Step 27

To make those wires more complete, we will attach some screws to his body. So create a path around two screws of coming from the fusebox, hit Command/Ctrl + Shift + C (Copy Canvas). This option will allow us to copy actually what we see, these screws don't need new adjusting (1st image below). Next, hit Command/Ctrl + V to paste (2nd image below). Separate these screws to 2 layers (each one on different layer). Then using Command/Ctrl + T (Free Transform) build up some kind of a mechanical connector (3rd image below). Duplicate those connectors several times and place them over various spots (4th image below). Next, refer to Step 26 and add shadows below the connectors the same way you previously did with the wire (but this time create only strong shadows all around them) - 5th/6th image below.

Step 28

To build up fully functional equipment - let's add engine elements now. So draw a path around the selected parts and delete the rest (1st/2nd image below). Spread those elements to the shoulders to make more sense (3rd image below). Now let's adjust it properly:

4th image below - add new adjustment layer above - Solid Color ( + Clipping Mask), fill it with #2b2b30 color, lower the Opacity to 50% and change its Blending Mode to Multiply. 5th image below - create another layer above, change its Blending Mode to Multiply ( + Clipping Mask), and use #272c31 to enhance the whole shading + darken the shadows more, where indicated. 6th image below - create another layer above, change its Blending Mode to Overlay ( + Clipping Mask), use white color and paint over indicated spots to enhance lights (we don't want to lose them totally, so bring them up slightly); also Overlay may not be enough to fill the edge highlights on the top of this machine, so you can enhance these lights by creating another layer ( + Clipping Mask) and painting a tiny white lines there (without changing the blending mode). 7th image below - for final blending add 2 adjustment layers as shown.

Step 29

Before we finish this piece I thought it would be nice to add one more thing that connects better the fusebox to his body. You can use any curved pipe of your choice, I picked a quality one from the engine. So use Pen Tool (P) to cut it out and paste in you project (1st image below). Then duplicate it 7 times, and place on both sides of the box, merge all those copies into one layer (2nd image below). Now create new layer above it ( + Clipping Mask), change it's Blending Mode to Multiply, grab soft brush + #3b393b color and make some brushing over those pipes to darken them a little bit (3rd image below). Next again create a new layer above ( + Clipping Mask), no blending mode, and choose white color. Add a tiny touch of light over the indicated edges (4th image below). To enhance the effect you can repeat same thing but with the layer Overlay Blending Mode.

Looking cool so far! Now let's try to give an impression that those pipes are sticking out of the skin. Create new layer below the pipes layer, change its Blending Mode to Overlay. Grab soft white brush and paint around where each pipe sticks to the skin (5th image below). Finally create one more layer below of Blending Mode set to Multiply and we will add shadows now underneath all metal parts. Use soft brush + some dark brown color like #170e07 or similar and paint as showed in the 6th image below.

Use the same method to cast shadows for the rest metal parts and do it on the same layer. Remember that his body is not plain and sometimes you need lighter (indicated by yellow arrows) and stronger shadows (indicated by red arrows) - 7th image below.

Step 30

So we've reached the last step of this tutorial. To make it fully complete, in my opinion it needed some computer stuff applied. So I decided to put some screen there indicating power supply or something like that.

Open image of VU Meter and use Patch Tool to get rid of the central numbers part (1st image below). Drag this image to our project, place it on the box (2nd image below). Then apply some layer styles for 3d shape (3rd image below) and we're done with the mechanical parts.

As for final adjusting, create new layer above all layers, change its Blending Mode to Overlay, grab soft white brush and paint as indicated in 4th image below. This should bring a little bit more focus on his head. Then add a series of adjustment layers to mix all the tones properly.

Now you can flatten your image and add a nice sharpen through Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask, and we're done!


Thanks for taking your time and getting into this tutorial. Hope you made it all the way to the end and enjoyed the tutorial as well as the techqniues used. Now, good luck with your own projects!

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