This post was originally published in 2010
The tips and techniques explained may be outdated.

Ever since I saw the recent Star Trek movie I’ve been itching to create a gorgeous sci-fi inspired cosmic space scene. I eventually found the time to do so and created a piece of artwork named ‘First Light’. Follow this step by step walkthrough of its creation in Photoshop, from the making of the planets, to the vibrant nebula and bright lens flares.

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The design depicts the first light of morning in a distant solar system. The bright light from a nearby star illuminates the planet and its moons, while the surrounding nebula gives off vibrant pink, blue and green lights.

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First Light rough sketch

My design began as a sketch to quickly lay out a series of planets and moons to form a rough idea of the overall scene. Unfortunately the UFO never made it into the final version.

When you have your idea in place. Create a new document in Photoshop and fill it with black. Use a small soft brush to draw a few stars in the background. Change the brush size between 1 and 4 pixels.

Find a stock photo of some thin and whispy clouds using the keywords cirrus or cirrostratus. This particular shot is from ThinkStock. Desaturate the image in Photoshop, then set the black point using the Levels window to render the whole sky black. Change the blending mode to Screen at 12%.

Find another stock photograph, this time you’ll need some kind of texture. A rock texture like this file from ThinkStock will make a great looking life-supporting planet with the moss representing the land mass. Draw a circular marquee over the whole area and copy into a new document.

Go to Filter > Distort > Spherize and set the Amount to 100%. The distortion of the shape creates a three dimensional appearance to give the basic form of a planet.

Paste the planet into the main document, then begin adding some layer styles. Start with an Outer Glow using a light blue, adjust the blending mode to Linear Light then change the glow amount and opacity to form a soft and thin atmospheric glow around the planet.

Next, add an Inner Glow. Use a slightly darker blue and give the glow a larger size so it softly spreads inwards.

Hold CMD (CTRL for Windows) and click the thumbnail of the planet layer in the Layers window to load the selection. Fill this selection with black on a new layer, then move it to reveal a portion of the planet.

Add a large Gaussian Blur to transform the black circle into shading on one side of the planet. Scale up the shadow to alter the amount of light and shadow.

Dab a few spots of white over the lighter side of the planet using a soft brush. Change the layer’s blending mode to Overlay.

Use the same steps to form a nearby moon. Instead of a rock texture, this time search for a rust stock image.

When creating the shadows and highlights, remember to keep the position of the light source in mind and position the shading appropriately.

Load a selection of the moon from the Layers palette and erase the highlights and shadows that extend beyond the edges of the moon.

Continue adding moons and planets to lay out the scene. I’ve added another small moon orbiting the planet.

Let’s begin brightening up the scene with some awesome nebulas! Dab some pastel shades of pink and green across the document on a layer above the clouds, but below the planet and moons.

Change this layer’s blending mode to Color Dodge to allow the colours to interact with the cloud layer, creating a beautiful galactic atmosphere.

You can’t get any more realistic than a photograph, so find a stock image of a real nebula taken through a telescope. This shot from ThinkStock features cool blues and has a field of bright stars already present in the scene. Paste it into the document and change the blending mode to screen to allow this shot to also interact with out digital nebula.

Find a stock photograph of some more cirrus clouds. Give them the same treatment by desaturating the image and darkening the levels.

Change the blending mode of the clouds layer to Color Dodge and tone down the opacity to 80%. We now have a series of meteoroids.

Hunt down another stock image, this time featuring a bright lens flare. Cut out the flare and paste it into the main document.

Darken the sky behind the flare to black, then change the blending mode to Screen to render the black area transparent.

Move the flare into position so it’s just creeping over the edge of the planet. Duplicate the layer to double the intensity of the light source.

Dab one spot of white using a soft brush. Press CMD+T and stretch the shape vertically.

Position this long brush stroke over the light source to generate yet another subtle lens flare. Adjust the opacity to around 80%.

Add a new black layer over the whole design, then erase out the centre. Scale up the layer slightly to form a vignette. Change the blending mode to Overlay.

Finish off the design with a cool typographic title. Lay out the title of the piece in a cool font such as Futura Light with a super large 1000% tracking.

Add a Gradient Overlay using the layer styles palette, ranging from white to blue to black running vertically over the text.

Duplicate the layer and remove the layer styles, leaving just a plain white fill. Add a 2px Gaussian blur after rasterizing the text. Then add a layer mask and erase out the lower portion of the white text.

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Add the text to the lower corner of the design to finish off our beautiful vibrant cosmic scene.

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  1. Hey Chris! Just did this tut, I used a green marble texture from CG and it turned out AWESOME as a moon! Thanks for the awesome tutorial.

  2. It’s gorgeous but the texture of the big planet is a little too… bumpy? Mountains, forests, and ravines don’t cast such large shadows when viewed from that distance :). I suppose this could be some incredible planet where trees can grow larger than Olympus Mons (the largest mountain in the solar system, located on mars), but it’s the only distracting thing in this otherwise perfect tutorial :)

  3. You are an amazing artist Chris !! It’s so cool that you can teach others too..

  4. Wow, these planets look super realistic. Never knew you could to this with PhotoShop… o_O

  5. Really nice! I love space sceneries :). Making the atmosphere of the smaller planet red or yellow and adjusting the glow properly would make it absolutely perfect! Thx for the tut!!!

  6. Excellent with the moss texture for land. At a first glance I thought this would be a super long and hard tutorial but you used some really smart techniques.

    You’ve made me want to work with design instead of physics!

  7. @Design Turd:
    “My design began as a sketch to quickly lay out a series of planets and moons to form a rough idea of the overall scene. Unfortunately the UFO never made it into the final version.” Ok?

    But what a nice tutorial! I was wondering how you achieved that great-looking cirrus-style “thing”, and is actually a cirrus cloud. Amazing tut.

  8. Very inspiring tutorial! Love the way the stock images are used in order to create such a realistic spacescene. At the end you actually don’t see if there is any stock material used.


  9. Pretty awesome but you left out some parts in the tutorial. One picture went from the nebula coloring with small stars in the back, then the next photos showed them with flares.

  10. I love your tutorials! I’ve read many other space scene tutorials, but none like far the top of the list! Thanks!

  11. I am trying this tutorial and I am getting very different results, starting with the color dodge to make the nebulas. can you explain more about the levels part? that might be my problem. but my nebulas dont look anything like yours. I have the colors leaking out and diffusing everything and none of the contrast you have. Thank you for any tips you can provide

  12. that’s one great tutorial ^_^ very straightforward. I’m going to try your other tutorials’s my first read here at your blog

  13. This is a very nice tutorial. I like the different methods used to create this scene. Its amazing and not to time consuming at all. 5 starts. I was thinking i might do this and maybe and a space shuttle or satellite. Better yet s ship from star wars like the millennium falcon. Nice

  14. Wow. Amazing! I used this to help me on my own take on this tutorial… It turned out ok.

    ^There’s the result.

    You’ve explained things quite well… but I was slightly lost when you said “Scale up the layer slightly to form a vignette.” I wasn’t sure what you meant, so I just modified the picture with what I could.

  15. I remember this tutorial but from another guy, you have basically taken his stars and planets tutorial and merged to one with some added details, effectfulness deluxe :) So basically you just made it better ;)

  16. Good tut. Have been looking for something like that – how díd you do the stars? Did you use the brush tool for it? Mine never look so good.

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