How to Create a Ghostbusters Ghost Effect in Photoshop and Lightroom

Well, all the ghosts I photographed are now busted.  You can see their finished pictures here, here, here, and here.  So all that is left is to show you how I did it.  This will be an intermediate-level tutorial.  Anything I don’t spell out specifically – like how to cut someone out from a background – can easily be found in written or video form online.  However, if you are still struggling with something after you do a search, don’t hesitate to ask questions in the comment section below.

A special thanks to Film Riot for giving me the idea to do this when I watched this video.

Examine Reference Material

Here are two images from the 2016 movie.  We can see that there is a glowing effect, lively smoke, a strong cyan color grade with magenta in the shadows (really shows up in the fringes of the smoke), glowing eyes on some ghosts, and inner light revealing a lit and shadowed skeletal structure.  Clearly, all of the actors were lit from below and most from two main light sources on either side of them.

Photograph Your Subject – Lighting Setup is Key

You want a clean background to make cutting out your subject easier.  I thought I was being clever using a black background because I thought I’d set the layer mode to screen in Photoshop later and not have to worry about masking.  What I should have done, and what you should do, is use a white background because eventually your ghost is going to be glowing and a white edge is easier to deal with than a black one for that.

After finding a white wall, setting up white seamless paper or whatever white surface you choose, position two strip lights with grids (you can see them in the picture below) behind your subject and equidistant on either side of her.  You don’t want them as far back as a traditional rim light position.  The idea is to have the light strongest on the sides but also far enough forward to wrap around and light parts of the front of your subject.  I found about 30 degrees behind the model to be good.  Make sure these two boxes are pointed upward slightly and that the top of the box is not above their eyes or the top of their head will get too much light.  Vertical height will vary from subject to subject based on height, pose, and what they are wearing.  You can see from the picture below that lowering the lights allowed the subject’s dress to really glow brightly.

You will probably need to fill in the front of the subject some as well.  This doesn’t need to be much light.  I just set a bare speedlight on the floor in front of the subject and angled it up at the center of her torso.

Flash settings for me were +1 stop for the rear lights and -1 stop for the front light.

If you have additional lights, putting one or two on your background to get a pure white (about +2 stops) will make your life easier when you cut your subject out of your background.

Assuming you are going to mask your subject into a different background later, you should shoot on a tripod and record its distance from the subject, the height off the ground, and the camera’s focal length and aperture settings.  Use those same settings when you shoot your background plate.  IDEA:  Consider shooting your subject lower than your background plate.  When you comp the two together, shift the subject up in the frame that same amount to make them appear to float with easy correct perspective.

TL;DR & Don’t Understand:  Take a picture of your subject and make them look like the picture below.


Photograph Your Skeleton with the Same Lighting and Pose

At the time of this article it was Halloween so I got a pirate skeleton from Costco.  I hung it from a boom arm in the same spot that the subject had been standing and took a picture with my camera on a tripod in the same spot it had been for the subject.

I’m sure there is a way to import a 3D skeleton into Photoshop, position it, and light it, but I prefer practical effects when possible.  If you go this route with your images, please be sure to let me see the results and tell me what you did.


Move Your Lighting Behind the Skeleton and Photograph

Now turn off your front lighting and move your strip boxes behind the skeleton. Get them as close to being directly behind him without having them visible behind the skeleton.  This will provide a strong backlight to the skeleton and his front will fall into shadow giving the illusion that he is glowing from the inside.


Edit Your Photo in Lightroom

Edit your photo as you normally would for any portrait keeping in mind three things:
1.  You want to shift your color temperature to a strong blue and your tint to a slight magenta.
2.  You want to boost your highlights and whites until they are brightly lit.
3.  Reducing clarity will help things look more ghostly.

NOTE:  If you don’t own Lightroom, you can make the same edits directly in Photoshop using the Camera Raw Filter.  This entire tutorial assumes you are shooting in RAW format, which you should be doing all the time.


Shutup your mouth and gimme dem numbers!  Dem Lightroom settings!!!  Well, each photographer’s set up is going to require different processing so the numbers will be different for different people.  Gimme!!!!


Import as Smart Object into Photoshop and Cut Out

Now using the pen tool, magic wand, quick selection tool, and/or the brush, cut out your subject from the background using a layer mask.  There are enough tutorials on this to choke 1268 horses, so look up your favorite if you need help.


Create a Solid Color Fill Layer and Fill it with Pure Black

Crop the image so it is the final proportions you want (I chose 5 x 7).  Be sure to leave room around the sides and top for smoke.  Create a solid color fill layer and place it behind the layer with your subject on it.

NOTE:  While many people create a new layer and then fill it with black, a much better option is to select “new adjustment or fill layer” and select “solid color” then pick black.  This kind of layer will always be the color you pick no matter how you crop, stretch or modify the image.  A layer that is just manually filled with black will only have those exact pixels filled with color which is problematic if you expand the borders of your image.


Make Final Contrast Adjustments

I added a levels adjustment layer to bump up the contrast slightly so the whites glow a little more and the darks are more dramatic.  Create a clipping mask so that these changes only affect the layer with the subject on it.  If you are really on your game, you can get this adjustment right when you are making your adjustments in Lightroom and can skip this step.  This was an easy fix for me though.

Just look at your image next to this example image and adjust as necessary.


Here is what my curve looked like, but of course, yours may differ greatly.  You just want your finished image to be similar to mine.


Create the First Outer Glow

Create an new blank layer between the subject and black background layer.

While holding the Ctrl key, click on the layer mask for the subject layer.  This is a sneaky way to get a selection that is a perfect match for your cutout.  You should now see the marching ants selection line on your screen that follows the outline of your subject perfectly.

Now click on your new blank layer and fill that selection with white.  Now deselect it.

Convert this layer to a smart object and apply a Gaussian blur to it.  Drop the opacity of the layer to around 30%.

For my images I used 30 – 40 pixels of blur.  Just get your picture to match mine.  The beauty of converting this layer to a smart object first means that you can modify the blur at any time.  It is not fixed.


Create the Second Outer Glow

Repeat the steps for the outer glow creating a second larger glow on its own layer.  This time make the blur 2 -4 times as big (for me usually 80 – 120 pixels).  This glow will always have a lower opacity than the first glow (about 20% for me).

Adjust each of the glows until you have a nice transition from subject to blackness.  I wanted it to be more subtle on this subject but you could crank up the opacity on these two glow layers for a more dramatic effect.


Mask in your Bright Skeleton

Now we get to the creative fun stuff!

In Photoshop, open your skeleton picture that was photographed with the same lighting you used on your subject.  Drag that image to your subject file, which will create a new layer with the skeleton on it.  Make sure the skeleton layer is on top.

Now change the layer style from normal to screen.  It should look something like this.

NOTE:  I had to transform the skeleton using scale, warp, and puppet warp to get the bones to line up properly. I also had to clone out or cut out all the pirate-y parts, which you can avoid if you get a regular skeleton instead of a pirate one.


Now create a layer mask and use the brush tool to mask out parts of the skeleton so that the skeleton appears to be visible through parts of the skin but not others.  Reducing the flow of the brush and building the effect slowly may be easier.


Mask in your Second Bright Skeleton for Highlights

Repeat the step above but this time only allow the very brightest parts of the skeleton to show.  On this image I only needed it for the face.  This layer should be on top.



Mask in you Dark Skeleton for Shadows

Repeat the step above with the photo of your skeleton lit from behind.  This time set the layer style to hard light.  When you mask in this layer, use only the front part of the rib cage.  This will help sell the illusion that the light is emanating from the center of the ghost instead of behind.  This layer should be on top.


Create Back Smoke

Now create a new layer between your glow layer and your black background.  Select the brush tool and pick a cloud brush (I just used the default one provided with Photoshop).  Paint in white smoke behind your ghost.

I found this easiest to do by painting the smoke in, then creating a layer mask, reducing the brush size a little, and masking out the edges to shape the smoke and reduce its opacity in the center in a patchy foggy way.

Next make sure you have clicked on the smoke layer (not its layer mask if you are using one) and select the blur path filter.  Make one to two arcs going up and away from the ghost to simulate smoke or fog blasting or burning off of them rather than just clouds floating around.  Refer to the image of the single woman ghost from the movie or my image below.

Once you apply the path blur filter, drop the opacity of the layer to about 25%.


Create Front Smoke

Repeat the step above but make sure this layer is on top.  Be sure to mask out or erase any smoke that is over the ghost’s face.


Make those Eyes Glow!

This is the simplest part of the entire effect and one I ripped off directly from the Film Riot video mentioned above, but it is the most transformative.

Create a new layer on top of the layer stack.  Make a circle over an eye using the elliptical marquee tool.  NOTE:  Hold shift to make a perfect circle and hold the space bar if you need to move the circle while you are sizing it.

Stroke the circle (Edit>Stroke) with a white line.  Set the location to inside.  Apply a Gaussian blur so that the edge of the circle matches the sharpness of the rest of the image (for me about 0.5-0.7).  It can be a little softer actually since it is supposed to be glowing light.

For this to be most effective, the line weight of the stroke should be kept small (about 2-4 pixels) and it should be placed so the pupil and the very dark outer edge of the iris is still visible.  See detail below:


On some of my images I had to duplicate the layer to intensify the glow.  When I did this, I reduced the opacity of the second layer to about 25% and then merged the two layers together.

Once you have one eye done, duplicate the layer, drag it to the proper position for the second eye, and merge the two layers so both eyes are on one layer.

Now create a layer mask and using a brush with a hardness of about 80-90% mask out the part of the glowing circles that should be hidden by the eyelids.


Make it Pop with Color Grading

Now everything is going to come together and pop off the screen with some color grading.

First create a solid fill color layer on top of the layer stack.  Set the color to a medium blue (005aff).  Set the layer style to color.  Set the opacity to 40%.


Next create a gradient map adjustment layer on top of the layer stack.  Set the dark color to a very dark purple-blue (020034) and the light to a bright cyan (a9f0ff).  Set the layer style to color.  Set the opacity to 31%.


WAAAAAAY  TL;DR!!!:  You can achieve a similar but much quicker and easier look by simply doing the step for the glowing eyes and doing the color grading (last step).

Finally, for those who get tired just looking at the work that went into this, remember you can always hire me to do it for you or just click though the pix below to watch a woman turn into a ghost.




2 thoughts on “How to Create a Ghostbusters Ghost Effect in Photoshop and Lightroom

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