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Professional Workflow for Adding Smoking Fire to a Building

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For quite some time I've been thinking about simplifying my everyday tasks in Photoshop. Over the years I have collected tons of different techniques… here is one of them. In this tutorial I'm going to show how to "burn an apartment" building in a few easy steps. No time to waste, let's begin!

You'll find the Photoshop PSD file in a directory labeled "source" that came in the ZIP file that you downloaded. You may wish to look through it briefly before we begin.

Step 1

Let's start with getting source images. For this particular tutorial I'm using stock images from iStockphoto, but you can use any comparable reference photos. One image of the building, one image with some thick smoke and one or two images of flames/fire… preferably on a black background. Why on black? The answer can be found in Step 3.

Step 2

Let's open our files and drag all of our stock images into our base image of the building. For the time being please turn off visibility of our layers, except the base one with the building. Press F7 to show the Layer Palette and click once on the "eye," (click next to layer name).

Step 3

Now select the layer with our image of fire and select Screen from the Blending Mode menu in the Layer Palette. Yes, that's why I have chosen fire over a black background - so I simply don't have to mask it out. Simple right? Awesome!

Now, with our "fire" layer on Screen mode, let's transform it to fit the windows using Edit > Transform > Warp… - after one or two attempts it should be fine. Dragging those corners can be tricky!

Step 4

Now it's time to turn on our "smoke" Layer, drag it in between the "fire" layer and the "building" layer - and add a mask to it: Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All. Once the image is hidden (masked out), select a brush from Brush Palette (F5) and unmask some smoke here and there by painting a white color on the mask. For this particular masking we can use a Soft Round Brush and change its size by pressing the Bracket keys.

Step 5

Once the basic shape and position of the fire is set, we can freely experiment with mixing in some additional pieces of fire and smoke in order to make it feel bigger/better.

Step 6

In this step I'm going to create a few darker spots on the walls behind the fire, dark burnt spots. For this I'm going to use the same image of the fire, but slightly modified. Here are the modifications… let's desaturate this layer: Image > Adjustments > Desaturate. Now let's invert colors in this layer: Image > Adjustments > Invert… and select Multiply from the Blending Mode palette.

Step 7

Now use Transform > Scale to scale down our "dirt" layer. Press Enter when scaling is done and in place. Once we place this layer in between our "base" layer and "fire" layer, we can multiply it a few times by Alt-dragging it to apply burnt areas to more than one place. With the previously used brush let's paint a few dark spots in places where our burnt windows are, below the "fire" layer.

Step 8

Our image is almost ready, but not completely. To make this scene more realistic I would like to use a Gradient Map and paint orange light caused by fire on some elements of the building. In order to do this please click on a top layer and go to Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Gradient Map, and create a new adjustment layer, then click OK.

Now, let's double-click on a newly created layer or go to the Adjustments Palette and click on gradient. In the Gradient Editor we can easily create a new gradient, as shown below. One click below the gradient strip, then select the desired color, another click below the gradient strip, another color and so on. Just in case, let's save this gradient in the Gradient Editor by clicking New.

Step 9

By default the whole image became orange, but don't panic... we can solve it. Click on the mask connected to the gradient map and press Command + I to invert the mask. Now use a large, soft brush at 5% Opacity to unmask our gradient in few areas to create an illusion of orange light. We can also apply some of the gradient map onto our fire and smoke itself - be sure to experiment!

Step 10

This step is totally voluntary for Adjustment Layers, Hue/Saturation, Color Balance, and more. Feel free to throw some of them on a top of your file and experiment with the overall tone of your image.


The last thing to do is to add some Sharpening. The "down-and-dirty" way is to click on a top layer in your PSD file, then press Command + Shift + Alt + E to Merge All Visible Layers. Now go to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask, select the amount and press Enter. Save it by going to File > Save and we're done!

Have fun applying these techniques in your next project - enjoy! The final image is below.

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