In this tutorial, I am going to show you how to quickly create a photorealistic planet in Photoshop CC (Updated for CC 2019). This technique will use a combination of 3D tools and traditional Photoshop blending modes. I am using Photoshop CC 2018 and this tutorial requires a version of Photoshop which has 3D tools. If your version does not have 3D I’m afraid you will be unable to complete this tutorial.

Update: Now with city lights

The Tutorial

The Planet Texture

Link to the photo I used: NASA Image

I guess the best way to create a photo-realistic planet is to start with a real photograph. NASA is a great resource for free photos. NASA photos are usually extremely high quality and they have almost no copyright restrictions. There are some limitations so I would advise checking for yourself, but generally, as long as you are not trying to sell their material you should be fine.

I grabbed this photo of the Amazon river, it is a great photo to use because it already has clouds and the landscape has lots of rivers and interesting details. The photo is also very big which is very important for this technique.

Ultimately this is the most important part of the whole process. How much time you dedicate into detailing the surface image of the planet, will determine how good the planet looks. I am only using this one photo because it’s enough to demonstrate the process.

You may wish to spend some time creating a more detailed texture map. I may revisit this in the future maybe I will create a cool star wars scene or something. I fancy creating the Star Killer Base form the Force Awakens (watch this space).

So I open the photo into Photoshop and tweak the brightness and levels a little bit.

Photoshop 3D

Now the fun bit. From the top menu select:

3D > New Mesh from Layer > Mesh Preset > Sphere.

One click and you have a planet… kind of.

Let Photoshop change the work-space to 3D we will change it back later.

What Happened?

In the world of 3d, this is known as spherical mapping. Photoshop created a sphere and then wrapped our image around it. You may notice some ugly seams on one side of the sphere this is because our texture map was not seamless. This doesn’t matter though because we won’t keep the 3d object we will render it into a flat 2D layer.

So rotate the scene or the object a bit until you find the best angle – preferably one with no visible seam or error. By default, the Photoshop 3D utility has a light illuminating our sphere. Ignore this we will make our texture unlit.

On the top right you should see a 3D properties panel, next to texture you should see a drop-down menu for the diffuse channel. If you cannot find it try looking under the 3D scene settings.

Select Unlit Texture, this will make the surface texture of the sphere unaffected by the 3D light.

That’s all the 3D we need, so to be done with the 3D tools select the sphere layer and then go to layer rasterize 3d. This will flatten the 3D object into a flat 2D disc.

You can now select the workspace you are familiar with for me it’s the Painting work-space.

Back on familiar territory.

I also add a new black layer under the planet.

Atmosphere

Probably the most obvious thing that gives a planet a realistic look is the atmosphere. The atmosphere of our planet will be a nice light blue.

Outer Glow

Right click on the planet layer and then select blending options. Next select outer glow, the default settings are usually pretty good, but have a play around.

Try to resist the urge to crank the outer glow up too much, if you look at photos of earth you will notice the atmosphere is not as big as you might expect.

These are my settings:

Don’t worry about copying my exact settings just have a play with all the options and see what happens. When you find a colour you like copy the colour data.- we will use this to create the inner glow.

Inner Glow

Still in the blending options panel, select inner glow on the left-hand side. Paste the colour into the inner glow colour options.

Just like before the default settings are pretty good, have a play with the options and see what you like.

It’s looking a bit more planetey now but it’s missing the final piece of the puzzle – the shadow.

Shadow

(there is a deviation from the video here as I discovered a better way to create the shadow since recording the video).

Now, this was the tricky bit, how to give the planet a dark side which also darkens the glow effects (the atmosphere). I wanted to be able to easily paint the dark areas on or off non-destructively. I also wanted to be able to paint stars etc behind the planet so the dark area needs to be constrained to the size of the planet.

So we have a planet texture with the atmosphere all set up.

Duplicate this layer and rename the duplicate something like shadow layer. This layer will become the dark shaded side of the planet.

With the Shadow layer selected go to the blending options and remove both inner and outer glows we don’t need them on our shadow layer. Still, in the Blending Options window, add a colour overlay to this layer and set it to black.

Move the new shadow layer under the planet texture layer.

Now the tricky bit, what we are going to do is add a layer mask to the planet texture. Therefore anywhere we mask on the texture layer will expose the black layer beneath it, this will create our shadow effect.

So with the texture layer selected go to layer, layer mask, reveal all. Currently, everything is white on the mask so everything is visible, grab a soft brush set to black and paint some shade on the planet texture mask.

AAH looks terrible right. This is because all the glow effects are being recalculated to fit the new mask layer, we can alter this.

With the planet texture selected go to Blending options again and check this little box here: Layer Mask Hides Effects this will change the way in which the layer mask affects the blending options. The layer mask now masks the glow effects which is exactly what we want.

That is pretty much it. You can now illuminate and shade your planet anyway you like.

I advise grouping the planet layers together that way you can move the planet around easily. You can still change all the glow effects too.

Something to look out for which I missed, pay attention to the lighting of the photo you use. If the photo is lit from a certain direction you might need to light your planet accordingly. Clouds cast shadows and this should give away the lighting direction.

Adding Stars

Some tutorials will show you how you can add stars using the add noise filters but personally, I don’t like the way it looks.

What I do is create a custom brush like this:

It is a basic hard round a with a size jitter set to the max, some scatter set to the max and the brush spacing set to the max.

Next, I paint the stars onto the black layer (there is a reason for this) by moving the mouse around, it is time-consuming but the end result is much better.

You might feel like you have too many starts if this is the case you can adjust the levels which will affect the number of stars you see.

Done!

Bonus! – City Lights on the dark side of the planet

I thought I would add this on because I just figured it out and it looks frickin cool. If you create a new layer between the shadow layer and the textured layer you can add city lights which update with the mask.

Create a new layer and add some white dots, try to group them together like real cities with roads etc. I created a custom brush to do this it is very similar to the previous brush i used to make some stars.

Next add a bit of outer glow to the lights layer and you have some awesome city lights. Don’t draw any rude shapes !

Watch on YouTube

The video below currently still shows the older method of creating the planet, I will re-do this video soon.

Closing

This is just one way of creating a planet there are several ways of approaching this task. Have a go and see what you can create. I kept this tutorial relatively short for the video so there is plenty of room for improvement and many chances to add more detail.

This technique can be used to create any planetoid object. Rather than use a photograph for the texture you can also use the Photoshop filters and textures. Photoshop has a plethora of tools for modifying textures so you can create anything. I used Difference clouds filters to create this burning sun.

I might do a quick tutorial on the sun texture in the future.

Update 06/04/2019: here is the sun tutorial I teased.

I try to design my tutorials with the intention of teaching you how to teach yourself. I hope you learn something useful which you can apply to your own work.

If creating space art is your thing check out my Cosmic Brush Pack for Photoshop.


David

Works part-time as a Graphic Designer and Website Designer. Studied Animation and has been using and learning design software for over 15 years.