Creating A Neon Glow
I've had a few requests to explain how I create my neon glow effect. So let's dive right in!
Whether you're painting in a shape that wasn't there at all, or you're just applying a colored glow that wasn't there in camera, the main thing to remember is that light shines on highlights and disappears in shadows. So I'm not going to be painting my color in the shadows, only where that light is naturally falling in the photo. You can go about painting in highlights in lots of different ways, but the way that usually works the best for me is to select the lighter areas (usually with the Select> Color Range tool).
Once I make that selection of just the highlighted area, I create a new blank layer and paint in my color. Usually it looks a little rough and splotchy so I'll soften it some either with a Gaussian Blur or just manually using the Smudge tool to wiggle the edges some and feather them out.
Just a solid color layer isn't going to look quite right, so play with the blending mode. Usually Soft Light and Screen are the ones that work best for creating a glowing look. The placement of the colored highlights may also need some work. Use a layer mask to paint out the areas that shouldn't have that strong of a color on them. Lastly, this method works best when you build it up with multiple layers. In the portrait shot one layer may have caught the neck and jaw highlight, but I may need to create a second layer to get the hair highlights and another to capture the collarbone highlight. Build it as you go!
Now, if you're creating an actual neon shape that wasn't there in the shot you still need to paint those glowing highlights that would be bouncing off of it, but let's look at how to create that actual neon shape.
What is a neon light? It's a tube where the light is brightest at the center and emanating that color outwards. So for the example above I painted a thin white square with a little blur. I then built up about 3 other layers around it. First, a bright green layer that's just a tad wider so it shows on either side of the white. I then created a copy of that green layer and just added a slight Gaussian Blur to it and also lowered the opacity of it so there's a hazy green blur around it. And lastly another copy of that same green layer with a stronger blur so it feathers out wider AND I set it to Screen blending mode to get that super bright glow. The last step is just to paint in those colored highlights I explained before and voila!
Alright, so now we have our finished still image. But what if we want to make it flicker like realistic neon? SUPER SIMPLE! First I suggest watching this video by the always informative Phlearn on how to create a gif/cinemagraph in photoshop just so you know the nuts and bolts of how to create that file type. So to create the different layers that will be the different frames of your gif just simply lower the opacity of those blurred green layers, the white core light layer, and those painted highlights around the scene that we started out with. You're going to want maybe 3-5 different versions of your final photo. The darkest layer which will look like the light is turned off is just the solid green square (not even the colored highlights that you painted in elsewhere, just the square), then the blurred layers getting brighter in each layer. Now to create your timeline in Photoshop remember that neon flickering isn't a gradual change. It's chaotic and random. You should go from darkest to brightest, from brightest to second brightest, from 3rd brightest to darkest, etc- basically just bounce around the layers randomly and also make their durations vary (1 second, 2 seconds, 4 seconds, etc).
All that's left to do is save it for web- Make sure you choose to loop it "forever" instead of "once". This process is actually really simple, but can be somewhat complicated to explain. If anyone has any questions feel free to post below or message me directly. I'm happy to clarify anything! Go fill the world with your bright colored light be it still or flickering!