Create Christmas Light Twinkle in Photoshop Elements

X-mas twinkle lights

malcolm park/Getty Images


To get the starburst twinkle on Christmas lights in-camera, we use a tiny aperture (large F-Stop). This is similar to squinting your eyes. This also puts nearly everything in your viewfinder in focus and requires a lot of light to strike the sensor to capture the scene.

Putting the Twinkle in the Christmas Lights with Photoshop Elements

Christmas Light Twinkle


When we don’t or can’t do this we turn to editing to create the starburst, or twinkle, after the fact. It is a fairly simple edit but does require you to think about your choices a little bit.

This tutorial is written using Photoshop Elements 12 but should work with any version. You can practice with this photo by downloading it here. ChristmasStarburstPractice-LM.jpg

Christmas Light Twinkle: Chose a Brush and Color

Photoshop Elements brush settings


We’ll be using a starburst brush to create the light effect. The first decision to be made is which starburst you want to use. There are two good brushes that come preinstalled with Photoshop Elements 12 (and most other versions). These brushes are under the assorted brushes menu after you open the brushes. Look for number 49 and number 50. Sue also has a nice set of starburst brushes by Leprakawn set up for free download if you chose to look for more shape options.

Now you have chosen a brush. We need to make a couple of adjustments to the brush tool options. First, change from brush mode to airbrush mode (click the airbrush icon). This will let you add intensity by simply holding down your mouse button longer. Next, from the dropdown menu next to Mode:(on the right of the brush controls), select Linear Dodge (add). This lets the original light shine through a bit. Finally, click on the Brush Settings button and rotate the brush just slightly. I find this makes the effect more organic and less artificial feeling but it is a personal preference.

Next, chose the first color of light you want to work with. Use the eyedropper tool and select the bright color glow at the bulb. Please note that if you are working with white lights they are not actually true white. The glow itself will be some shade of yellow.

Christmas Light Twinkle - Create a New Layer and Adjust the Style

Photoshop Elements Outer Glow Layer Style


The starbursts will be brushed onto a blank layer so we can better control the options for the starbursts. To easily create a new blank layer press Ctrl-Shift-N and hit OK. Now, we need to add an outer glow to everything we create on this layer (to make the starbursts shine, not just sit on the photo). Getting the setting of this glow is easier if you have one initial starburst to watch the effect than just setting it on a blank layer. So, with the new layer highlighted, open your brush and place one starburst over a light. We suggest one that is slightly off to the side and not in a very prominent position.
Now that you have a visual reference, open your layer style menu and click outer glow. Select a color very close to your brush color. Then enlarge the glow until it looks a bit diffused on your initial starburst. We personally like to set it where the edges of the glow roughly line up with the starburst points. Adjust the opacity a little if needed, you don’t want the glow as strong as the starburst.

Don’t worry if it still looks slightly fake at this point; we have other adjustments to make later.

Christmas Light Twinkle - Add Starbursts

Add the Starbursts


To add the starbursts, center your brush over a light and click. Hold the mouse button down until it is as intense as you like. Remember bulbs near the front would be stronger and bulbs completely exposed are stronger than bulbs partially hidden by limbs. Also, be sure to adjust your brush size to match the bulb. The simplest way to do that is with the bracket keys. Left bracket for smaller and right bracket for larger.

Repeat steps three and four for each color you need to add. The sample photo above shows several different starburst brushes just to show the different styles possible.

Christmas Light Twinkle - Final Adjustments to the Twinkles

Adjusting the Twinkles


Select all of your light layers. Now go to the filter menu and select blur, then Gaussian blur. Use the slider to take the sharp edge off your twinkles. Just a hint of blur is usually all you need.  Next, adjust the layer opacity just slightly to let your lights better merge with the original lights.

If you like, you can now go back and add a small number of new lights on each layer that will remain sharp. This helps simulate a natural depth of field and break up the uniformity of the lights.