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  1. Design & Illustration
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Design

How to Create a Sci-Fi Outer Space Scene With Adobe Photoshop

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Difficulty:IntermediateLength:LongLanguages:
This post is part of a series called Astronomical Graphic Design.
How to Create a Set of Space Icons Using Adobe Illustrator
How to Create a Solar System Planets Icon Pack in Adobe Illustrator
Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

In this tutorial I'll show you how to create a sci-fi artwork with planets, spaceships and nebulae. You'll learn how to create a space background from scratch, make a planet in a simple way, and combine space elements using blending techniques. You'll also learn how to adjust the contrast and color, create lighting effects, and enhance the depth of field. 

Tutorial Assets

The following assets were used during the production of this tutorial:

1. Create a Space Background

Step 1

Make a new 3000 x 2000 px document in Photoshop with the settings below:

space background file

The background color must be black.

Step 2

Press Control-Shift-N to make a new layer. Activate the Brush Tool (B) with a soft round one, and set the foreground to #8c92ae. Paint around the middle section of the black background:

space background color 1

Change this layer mode to Hard Light 100%:

space background color 1 hard light mode

Step 3

Create a new layer and use a soft round brush with different colors to make spots on the canvas. You can use colors of your taste, but don't forget that we're creating a colorful background, so pick vibrant colors. Here is my choice of colors: #378c6c, #c20707, #cf53c8.

space background colors 2

Remember not to fill the whole canvas with colors—we need some space for the dark shade and depth.

Step 4

On a new layer, change the foreground to #44595b and use a soft brush to paint on the edges and corners of the canvas.

space background color 3

Change this layer mode to Hard Light 100%:

space background color 3 hard light mode

Step 5

Create a new layer and press D to set the foreground/background to default (black and white). Use the Lasso Tool (L) to make a selection on the canvas and set the feather Radius to 60 px:

selection with feather 60

Go to Filter > Render > Clouds:

apply clouds filter

Change this layer mode to Color Dodge 100%:

cloud filter color dodge mode

Step 6

Use an adjustment layer and set it as Clipping Mask to make the effect more subtle. Go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Levels:

clouds filter levels

On this layer mask, use a soft round brush with black color (soft black brush) to reveal the vibrance on some areas as shown below:

clouds filter levels layer mask
levels mask result

Step 7

Duplicate the clouds layer and move the duplicated one above the first and the Levels adjustment layer. Go to Filter > Render > Different Clouds:

clouds filter layer duplicated and ordered
apply different clouds filter

Select Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and change the Radius to 35 px:

different clouds filter gaussian blur

Step 8

Make a Color Balance adjustment layer to change the resulting color a little.

space background color balance

Step 9

Time to make some stars. Create a new layer and change the foreground to #72c6fd. Use a hard brush to paint random stars over the canvas, remembering to vary the brush size:

paint small stars

Double click this layer, choose Outer Glow and set the color of glow to white:

star outer glow
outer glow result

Step 10

Create a Curves adjustment layer on top of the layers to change the color of the effect:

space background curves

Step 11

Open the nebula image. Drag this image into our main canvas using the Move Tool (V) and enlarge it using the Free Transform Tool (Control-T):

add nebula

Change the mode of this layer to Linear Dodge 100%:

nebular linear dodge mode

Step 12

Add a mask to this layer and use a soft black brush to reduce the effect and make it appear subtle on the existing background:

nebula masking
nebula masking result

Step 13

Use a Color Balance adjustment layer (set as Clipping Mask) to alter the nebula effect color a bit:

nebula color balance
space background result

Save the result as a JPG file for your future use.

2. Add the Space Background

Step 1

Create a new 2200 x 1600 px document and set the background color to black. Open the space background created in the first stage and drag it into this new canvas using the Move Tool.

add space background

Add a mask to this layer and use a soft black brush to reduce the image opacity, making the middle section more visible than the rest:

space background masking

Step 2

To make the middle more visible, create a new layer and use a soft white brush to paint on this area. Change this layer mode to Soft Light 100%:

brighten middle section
brightening result

3. Add the Planets

Step 1

Open the planet texture. Create a new layer and use the Clone Tool (S) to remove the four black lines on the image.

planet texture
clone black lines

Step 2

Press Control-Shift-Alt-E to merge the background and the clone layers into a new one. On the merged planet layer, use the Elliptical Marquee Tool to grab a circle. Go to Filter > Distort > Spherize:

grab a circle
spherize filter
spherize filter result

Step 3

Click this selection and choose Layer via Copy. We have the base of planet on a new transparent layer (I turned off the background, clone and merged layers to help you see the result more clearly).

planet base

Step 4

Drag the planet into our main document and scale it down using Control-T. Place it in the center of the image.

add big planet

Step 5

Make a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer (set as Clipping Mask) and bring the Saturation value down to -87:

big planet hue saturation

Step 6

Use a Curves adjustment layer and decrease the lightness.

big planet curves

On this layer mask, use a soft black brush to erase the outside section of the planet to bring some light to this, and also leave the shadow in the middle.

big planet curves masking result

Step 7

Make a Color Balance adjustment layer and change the Midtones settings:

big planet color balance

Step 8

Create a new layer (set as Clipping Mask) and use a soft brush with the color #b68fa4 to paint on some areas around the planet to color it (we've put it on a colorful background). Change this layer mode to Soft Light 100%.

big planet coloring 1

Step 9

Make a new layer and change the brush color to #b6eadd. Paint on some other areas of planet with the same purpose, and set the mode to Soft Light.

big planet coloring 2

Step 10

Add two other planets to the sides of the big one, making them much smaller.

add small planets

Step 11

Select these small planet layers and press Control-G to make a group for them. Change this group mode from Pass Through to Normal 100%. Make a new layer above these planet layers and use a soft black brush with the Opacity about 70–80% to paint shadow in the lower part of the planets.

small planets shadow

Step 12

Create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer and bring the Saturation value down to -86.

small planets hue saturation

Step 13

Use a Color Balance adjustment layer to change the planet's color.

small planets color balance

4. The Basic Color and Light

Step 1

We'll be coloring the planets and adding more light to the space. Create a new layer above the planets group and use a soft brush with the color #b6eadd to paint on the top center of the scene. Change this layer mode to Soft Light 100%.

space coloring 1
space coloring 1 soft light mode

Step 2

Use a new layer with the brush color changed to #b68fa4. Paint on the top area of the big planet and alter the mode to Soft Light 100%.

splace coloring 2
space coloring 2 soft light mode

Step 3

Make a new Curves adjustment layer on top of the layers, and increase the highlight.

space curves

On this layer mask, use a soft black brush to reduce the brightness at the bottom of the planets and space as they're hidden from the light.

space curves result

5. Add the Spaceships

Step 1

Open the spaceships image. Select three spaceships which have similar poses and add them to the space. Duplicate them and rotate them towards the big planet. The nearer the foreground, the bigger the spaceship.

add spaceships

Step 2

Make a group for the spaceship layers and change this group mode to Normal 100%. Use a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer within this group to desaturate the spaceships.

spaceships hue saturation

Step 3

Create a Color Balance adjustment layer to add some cyan/blue to the spaceships.

spaceships color balance

Step 4

Use a Curves adjustment layer to darken the spaceships.

spaceship curves 1

On this layer mask, use a soft black brush to reveal the light on the top of the spaceships because they should be brighter than the bottom:

spaceships curves 1 result

Step 5

Create another Curves adjustment layer to give more light to the top of the spaceships.

spaceship curves 2

Select a soft black brush and paint on the Curves layer mask to maintain the shade of their bottom.

spaceships curves 2 result

Step 6

Use a new layer with a soft white brush to paint more highlight for some of the spaceships. Change this layer mode to Overlay 100%.

spaceships highlights
spaceship highlights overlay mode

6. Add the Asteroids

Step 1

Open the asteroids images. Select different asteroids to put around the big planet, duplicating and transforming them if needed, and make them very much smaller than the planets. Rotate the bright parts of the asteroids towards the light. 

add asteroids

Step 2

Add some asteroids to the bottom left and right corner of the space scene, and make them bigger than the existing ones. Blur them to bring some depth to the scene by applying a Gaussian Blur of 8 px to each of these layers.

more asteroids with gaussian blur

Step 3

Make a group for all the asteroids layers. Use a Color Balance adjustment layer to match the asteroids' color with the other elements:

asteroids color balance

Step 4

Create a Curves adjustment layer and reduce the lightness:

asteroids curves 1

On this layer mask, use a soft black brush to reveal the luminosity on the asteroids:

asteroids curves 1 masking

Step 5

Make another Curves adjustment layer to bring more light to the asteroids.

asteroids curves 2

Use this layer mask to maintain the shade of the asteroids, especially the parts which are hidden from the light.

asteroids curves 2 masking

7. Add the Lights and Light Trails

Step 1

Make a new layer and take a hard brush with the color #eebde2. Add small dots in order to create the lights on the spaceships. The bigger the spaceship, the bigger the dots.

spaceships lights

Step 2

To make a glowing trail we often see in space art, make a new layer and use a soft colored brush (#7b3e51) to create a spot on the canvas. Resize the brush size down and choose a lighter color (#d69e96) to put a spot in the center of the existing one.

light trail making

Convert this layer to a Smart Object and use Control-T to change its perspective and make it look like a trail. Place it at the bottom of a spaceship:

add in light trail

Step 3

Duplicate it several times and add the trails to other spaceships.

add light trails to others spaceships

Step 4

Make a new layer and set its mode to Color Dodge 100%. Use a soft brush with the color #eebde2 to paint the lightest part of the trails at the bottom of the spaceships.

lightest part of trail

8. The Final Adjustment

Make a Curves adjustment layer to brighten the whole scene, especially the top center:

Whole scene curves

Use a soft black brush to erase the sides and the shade on the big planet to create a nice contrast of the final effect.

whole scene curves result

Congratulations, You're Done!

Thanks for following this tutorial, and I hope you've learned something new from it. Feel free to leave your comments in the box below—I'd love to see them. Enjoy Photoshopping!

final result
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