Warm light filter

If you look through the internet you will see that many popular pictures are characterized for having a very warm and catchy light, which makes the picture very appealing. If you take the time to analyze the pictures you see you will realize that many times the illumination they are depicting is not possible in the real life. It is easy to find thousands of very red dawns and sunsets on the internet but… When was the last time you saw a sunset so intense with your bare eyes? Probably never.

Many of those pictures have the light enhanced by filters or other photo-artistic means. Sometimes is on purpose, by adjusting parameters as the contrast, vibrancy or hue. Others, is just by chance: many mobile devices tend to modify colors in automatic mode to make the pictures more appealing to the viewer. Some of those modifications may be drastic and easy to detect, but in many cases the modifications are subtle and faint, and only the trained eye can detect them. In all those cases, the modifications were made not to get a faithful picture, but an artistic one, a picture able to impress us with its beauty and to transport us to a magical place.

This process I’m explaining here is not in the subtle category, but it can be made as subtle as needed and combined in different ways to get amazing atmospheres. The following procedure creates a global warm light atmosphere for the entire picture, but with a little of patience it can be adjusted for only some areas of the picture, and applied selectively to the appropriate sections. Anyways, even in its global form, it can be useful to enhance a sunset landscape, or, like in this example, to include some artistic warmness into a cold atmosphere picture.

Base: For this example, I’m using a picture of two friends of mine. The base picture is already processed, the color is reliably adjusted and all sharpness modifications have already been done. It’s what it can be considered a faithful finished picture. As the copy is stored in a lossless format in 16 bits, working with it doesn’t mean losing any quality.

00 Base
This is the starting picture. The atmosphere is extremely gelid for such warm gazes.

Step 1: In order to adjust the atmosphere, I’m going to separate it into two parts: highlights and shadows. This separation will allow me to adjust hue and relative brightness considering those two important parts of the image. To adjust the tone of the highlights we will create an adjustment layer using the mode Gradient Map. We have to create a gradient using white for the light part of the gradient, and in this picture I’m using a pale orange / sepia color for the dark part. To get the magic done, set the blending mode of the layer to Multiply. This mode will add the hue of the dark parts of the gradient to the  dark parts of the image but won’t affect (almost) the bright parts. This way we will get a dim painting of the light parts, that will be more evident as the color of the picture gets further from pure white. Of course, we can adjust afterwards the gradient parameters to obtain a better result for our picture. Just play with the controls until you are satisfied.

01 lights parameters
Conditional blending values for highlights.

The problem in this step is that the layer is also modifying our shadows. To avoid it we need to modify the blending options (double click on the layer, to open the blending options box). In the section of “Blend if” we will use the Grey option, and pressing the Alt key we will move the dark triangle of the “Underlying layer” to a middle point, around 128. This way what we are doing is deactivating the light modification gradually as the image gets darker, but without using any drastic cutout that can leave artifacts in the picture.


01 lights
The cold light got a little bit warmer. Still, the dark parts of the picture didn’t realized that the temperature is raising.


02 shadows parameters
Conditional blending values for shadows.

Step 2: We repeat the same procedure as in step 1, but this time we will use a color for the gradient a little bit reddish and darker. To affect the darker areas, we will use the “Linear Burn” blending mode and, because the effect is very intense for this mode, we will reduce opacity under the 50%, to a point where we are satisfied with the result. Again, this method affects also the highlights part of the picture, so we have to modify the “Blend If” controls. This time we will move (pressing the Alt key) the white triangle of the underlying layer to a satisfying middle point.


Of course, this is a coarse adjustment. We can add any other adjustment layer over each one of those, like levels or curves, and using the “Clip to layer” option it will modify only the gradient layer effect, not the entire picture.

02 shadows
The overall tone now is more adequate, according to the situation. Also, the light now blends well with the girl’s hair, which is an incentive for using this processing on this picture.

Step 3: To refine the process, we will add a global warming effect (in this case it is not environmentally dangerous, as it doesn’t require CO2). This will allow fine adjusting the global tone of the image. We have to create a Solid Color adjustment layer, and choosing a color. As we are moving in the warm area of the spectrum, I used a golden color. For a subtle effect, use Linear burn blending mode with an opacity of 20%. For a more drastic effect, use Soft Light with a 5-10% opacity. The first one will tune the color focusing on the dark or more saturated parts while the second one will focus on clarifying the picture and increasing contrast. The decision is up to you. In this case, I used the first one.

In the picture you can see the final result. What do you think? Do you know any other way to add a magic light to a picture? If so, please comment and share your “secret”.

03 Highlights final
A subtle golden glow tone finishes the atmosphere. No more cold white light!

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