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Tutorial: Creating a Galaxy in Photoshop

In this tutorial I will explain how to create a relatively realistic looking galaxy with Photoshop. I was searching the web up- and downwards to find any tutorials that could tell me how to get a similar fantastic result. There are like 100.000 planet tutorials out there and the few tutorials which were about creating a galaxy where either very basic or the result looked like everything but a realistic galaxy. The galaxy I wanted should have looked massive and intricate … just like the real ones but with a slightly more artistic touch. I’ve needed a galaxy that I could use as a star map for a space-themed roleplaying game design and the image you see above is a part of the result. Let’s go try to do such one …

There’s a lot to do to create such a Behemoth so let’s get started! I’ve used Photoshop CS3 for this but it should be possible to create this with CS2 and CS1 as well since none of the really new Photoshop features are required. If I do use any of the newer features then there is a way to get the same result in an earlier version, just not with the comfort the latest version offers.

Preparations

1. Create a new image in Photoshop. The size is up to you but the larger the better, I’ve used a fairly large size of 2800 x 2800 pixels. If you use a smaller resolution be sure to adapt the values I’m using to your image size. Make sure that Color Mode is RGB and the Background Contents is set to transparent. Name the empty layer “background” and fill it with black.

2. Create a new layer and also fill it with black, press ‘D’ to reset the foreground and background color to black and white. Choose Filter/Render/Fibers with a Variance of 20 and a Strength of 4. Then press Ctrl+T to activate the Transform Tool and in the tool’s parameter panel press the Chain symbol to link the width and height values that you now set to 200%. Then enter a rotation value of 45° and commit the transformation. The result can be seen here …

3. Duplicate the fibers layer and transform the new layer again, this time you only need to change the rotation value to 90° and leave the size values like they are. Commit and after that change the new layer’s blend mode to Soft Light.

4. Select the two fiber layers and merge them with Ctrl+E, then go to Image/Adjustments/Levels (or just press Ctrl+L) and enter a value of 70 in the first box, leave the others at 1.00 and 255. Also make sure that Channel is set to RGB. Press Ok. With this we thinned out the white fibers slightly.

5. Currently the image is larger than what we see because we scaled the fiber layer up earlier so let’s get rid of the stuff outside the image area … press Ctrl+A to select all on the fibers layer and cut-paste it back which creates a new layer. After that delete the old fibers layer and rename the new one to “base”.

6. Here comes our secret weapon … go to Filters/Brush Strokes/Spatter and enter a Radius of 25 and a Smoothness of 15. This filter is mostly responsible for the nice wiggly look of the spiral arms later. Now choose Filters/Distort/Twirl with an angle between 500 and 800. This parameter determines how twisted your galaxy will be. I want something with a lot of ‘tracks’ between the spiral arms so I choose 800.

7. The result gives us a whirl with nicely diverse dark and bright lines. Now create a circular selection around it. While dragging hold the Alt key and Shift key to expand the selection around it’s center and keep the aspect ratio. You can also hold then Space key to drag the selection around while doing this. When you got that press Shift+Ctrl+I to invert the selection and then hit Delete to remove the areas around the whirl.

8. With the selection still active choose Select/Modify/Expand with a value of 100 and after that Select/Modify/Feather with a value of 40 pixels. Press Delete two times to smooth out the border of our whirl and then press Ctrl+D to deselect all. Here’s the result. It still looks like everything but a galaxy, don’t worry, we will get to it …

Creating the Structure

9. Let’s start shaping our galaxy out of this what looks like a messed up vinyl record. This part is where it’s getting interesting. First duplicate the “base” layer, name the new layer “outer galaxy” and hide the original layer, we keep it to create more diverse layers later. Use Filter/Brush Strokes/Spatter with the same values like before, Spray Radius 25 and Smoothness 15 and after that give the layer a Gaussian Blur with a Radius of 1 to smooth out the noise that Spatter generated. Then apply Filter/Sharpen/Sharpen to regain some sharpness.

10. Now we are going to remove the black areas from this layer and also thin out the structure slightly … Choose Select/Color Range and pick the black color from the outer area of the image, then crank the fuzziness fully up to 200. Click Ok and then press Alt+Ctrl+D and set Feather to 2 pixel. Again hit Ok and press Delete 4 or 5 times to thin out the black areas between the spiral arms. It can be helpful here to hide the selection edges (View/Show/Selection Edges). Don’t forget to press Ctrl+D to clear the selection after that. Here’s how it looks so far …

11. Next let’s create some glow. Duplicate the “outer galaxy″ layer, rename the duplicate to “glow” and move it under the original layer. Use Gaussian Blur with a Radius of 50 and set the opacity to 60%. Also now set the opacity of the “outer galaxy″ layer to 50%.

12. If you check out some astronomical photos of galaxies you’ll notice that they get more dense toward their center so let’s do that too! Duplicate the “base” layer, rename it to “inner galaxy 1”, move it up to the top and press Ctrl+T and transform-scale this layer down to 70%. You can enter the values in the tool’s parameter palette and the resized layer content will stay centered perfectly. After that use the Spatter Filter again like you did before on the “outer galaxy” layer. Use Gaussian Blur with 1 pixel radius, then sharpen once and then again thin out the black areas like you did before in step 10 with the Color Range selection tool, just this time only press Delete two or three times. Set the layer’s blend mode to Screen and the opacity to around 55%.

13. We need to fatten up our galaxy a little more. Let’s create three more layers as in step 12, always take the “base” layer as the source and every time scale them down a tad more and increase their opacity. I’ve used scale 50% and opacity 80% on the next layer named “inner galaxy 2″, then scale 38% and opacity 90% on “inner galaxy 3″ and scale 32% and opacity 95% on “inner galaxy 4″.

14. Not bad but it looks kind of dull right now so let’s add some contrasting highlights! Duplicate the “outer galaxy” layer and rename the new one to “highlights”, then set it’s blend mode to Screen and it’s opacity to 100%. Press Ctrl+L and enter 160 in the left box. Press Ok and our highlights are finished. Here’s a preview of the current stage and the existing layers …

My God, it’s full of stars!

15. Let’s add a bunch of stars next! Creating diverse and realistic looking star fields is a whole topic unto itself so I’m not going into detail here how to create one. I recommend checking out this tutorial by Greg Martin to create some really fantastic star fields. For the sake of brevity I’ve prepared a star field template which you can download here.
Create a new layer named “stars”, copy the star field image into it and set the blend mode of this layer to Screen. Then Ctrl-Click on the “outer galaxy” layer to create a selection of it. Switch to Quick Mask Mode and draw with a black soft brush in the areas of the image where you want to have stars left. Leave Quick Mask Mode again, press Ctrl+Shift+I to invert the selection and then – with the “stars” layer still selected – hit Delete to remove all stars that are not within the selection. Increase the Brightness of the stars by 50 with Image/Adjustments/Brightness-Contrast. Finally let’s remove most of the black area that is still on the stars layer. Choose Select/Color Range, pick up the black color from the outer areas and decrease Fuzziness to something around 70, click OK and hit Delete twice and clear the selection. The following image shows the selection in Quick Mask Mode and the result of this stage …

16. We still have a strange looking hole in the centre where galaxies normally have an immense cluster of gas and stars so we are going to create the galactic core now … Create a new layer, name it “core” and grab the Brush Tool with a large, soft brush and a white color. A 600 pixel brush works well for this image size. Click seven to eight times in the middle of the galaxy then increase the size of the brush to 900 and click four more times. Finished is our core!

Coloring

17. So far our galaxy is only black and white and we could have went from the beginning with colors but to make things easier I went without colors so far. Now there are many ways to go about coloring the image. For example we could grab a stylus and graphics tablet and hand-draw colors into the galaxy by using a brush with various blend modes or we could color layer by layer. That’s what I’m going to do now.
Select any of the galaxy layers and press Ctrl+B to bring up the Balance palette and change the colors to your liking. You might want to go for the shadows and leave the highlight untouched to get a better look. You could also duplicate layers, blur them slighly and color these instead or in addition to their original layer. Or you could merge several of the galaxy layers together and color them at once which can look quite good.

Changing Perspective

18. Currently we are looking top-down onto the galaxy but what if we want to look at it like seen from a window of a spaceship that approaches the galaxy (remember the last scene from Empire Strikes Back?!)? We will change the perspective of the image. The Distort tool under Edit/Transform is what we want for this! Try to distort the image like on the following screenshot. You only actually need to move around the upper and lower left corners. You can flatten your image for this or put all the layers into a layer folder and use the Distort tool on that folder which works as well.

19. This looks a lot better but something seems not right. The whole thing looks more like a flat disc than a voluminous star cluster so we are going to bulge out the core of the galaxy to make it look more realistic. Photoshop’s Liquify tool is actually perfect for this. Time to flatten your layers together now (except the background), then enter Liquify over the Filter menu, select the Forward Warp Tool and a relatively large brush (350) and off you go. Start bulging out the core towards the top-left like in the following image and after that you might want to choose a smaller brush size and reconstruct the area above the upper edge of the core with the Reconstruct Tool.

That’s basically it! Of course these steps are not set in stone. You could experiment with different values or use the Liquify tool early on the base layer to add slight irregularities etc. Your imagination is the limit! Here’s the resulting image and the other galaxy from that you already saw a piece earlier …

  1. July 22nd, 2008 at 16:05 | #1

    Nice tutorial. Thanks for posting!

  2. July 28th, 2008 at 20:16 | #2

    wow this is totaly awesome, i looked for som,ething like this 4 a long time! THANKS! :D

  3. Krisp
    September 3rd, 2008 at 13:43 | #3

    I have a problem! When i use color range and i press delete to thin out the dark areas it doesn’t work!:(( Do u know any procedure so i can get the same results? Perhaps there is a video tutorial! If so send me the link please!

  4. September 4th, 2008 at 14:47 | #4

    @Krisp:

    Check that you have selected the right layer in the layers palette before you press delete.

  5. Merlin
    September 13th, 2008 at 16:35 | #5

    Nice tutorial. this way is a pretty quick way to create nice galaxies.

  6. Octopooce
    September 18th, 2008 at 08:41 | #6

    Awesome Tutorial, took a while to figure out where all the tools were etc as this is the first time i ever used Photoshop, but i have to say im totally hooked after this.

    Show me more plz plz plz

    Gaseous Starfields would be cool if you can do em :)

  7. sheepinatorz
    October 20th, 2008 at 02:52 | #7

    i follow your directions exactly, but mine doesnt look remotely like yours, ive tried it multiple times, same size on everything, i get about 2/3 of the way done and it looks completely different form what you have………idk, i might be missing something, but when i do certain things u say to do, it does something different than waht you say it does………im also using CS2, idk if thatd make a difference…..

  8. October 21st, 2008 at 12:41 | #8

    sheepinatorz, it could be indeed the difference between CS2 and CS3 but I’d say it’s definitely possible to get similar results with CS2, even if not with the comfort that some of new CS3 features offer. So with a bit of Photoshop knowledge and some experimenting you should be able to get similar results.

  9. December 3rd, 2008 at 03:50 | #9
  10. December 9th, 2008 at 15:53 | #10

    Thanks for the link Eric! I corrected it since the old URL seem to have changed. Most of the tutorials I already know but there are one or two that are new to me. I would be especially interested in making planetary textures for usage in Games, i.e. textures for 3D planet models. If anyone knows of any resources I’d love to hear them.

  11. December 9th, 2008 at 23:28 | #11

    Thanks, the blog switched domains. :P

    I’ve seen a few people use Terragen to make 3D planet textures and them somehow port them into Photoshop or 3DSMax. I have no clue how it’s done though.

  12. frnando
    December 22nd, 2008 at 11:23 | #12

    amazing tutorial.
    most realistic-achieving one i have found

  13. lochy
    June 26th, 2009 at 20:47 | #13

    hey man your tutorial is awesome but im stuck at step 15. if u can could u tell me a bit more better what to do

  14. Jesper
    August 25th, 2009 at 03:54 | #14

    Fantastic!!!!

    This is the best Galaxy Tutorial i ever have found on the internet:p

  15. Martijn
    November 11th, 2009 at 04:20 | #15

    Hello everybody, really a nice tutorial but I’ve got one big problem. I don’t have the Spatter plugin under brush strokes what should i do? I did it without with some result, but not as great as the one it shoul be.

    Greetz,

  16. November 11th, 2009 at 11:17 | #16

    Martijn which Photoshop version are you using? The Spatter filter should be included by default in more recent Photoshop vesions. I’m not sure when it was added though but I think it should be default since Photoshop CS.

    The Spatter filter is the ‘secret weapon’ of this technique (as I wrote above) so I’m not quite sure which other filters could produce a similar result.

  17. Martijn
    November 11th, 2009 at 23:01 | #17

    Well, I have CS4 (trial still, but that shouldn’t make a difference), but I can’t choose Brush Strokes. What have I done wrong?

  18. November 11th, 2009 at 23:12 | #18

    You mean it’s visible but disabled? Then you might wanna check if you’re on the correct layer and the layer isn’t locked etc.

    If the menu choice isn’t there at all I don’t know what went wrong. If you installed CS4 correctly the brush stroke filters should be there.

  19. Martijn
    November 12th, 2009 at 03:33 | #19

    Well, I have the trial version of CS4. But that’s full function right? I have the same problem using other distort plugins. The only one available is Lens Correction and Brush strokes is completely disabled. I’ve selected the right layer etc. What’s wrong with my Photoshop CS4

  20. Martijn
    November 12th, 2009 at 04:03 | #20

    This is the link of my screenshot:

    http://img24.imageshack.us/i/23222238.png/

    What have I done wrong???

  21. November 12th, 2009 at 10:42 | #21

    I have really no idea what could be wrong Martijn. My only guess is that’s it’s indeed locked because of the trial. Sorry can’t be much of help there. :(

  22. analicia
    November 12th, 2009 at 23:14 | #22

    How do you switch to quick mask mode?

  23. analicia
    November 12th, 2009 at 23:17 | #23

    Nevermind my last question–
    I figured it out.
    Great tutorial!

  24. Clara
    November 14th, 2009 at 15:12 | #24

    Agh, I’m stuck on step 15. It just doesn’t look right…at all.

  25. Clara
    November 14th, 2009 at 17:13 | #25

    Nevermind, got it figured out. :D Awesome.

  26. Kevin
    November 26th, 2009 at 02:42 | #26

    Can paste the star field in my Galaxy image :S
    can anyone help me?

  27. December 28th, 2009 at 10:54 | #27

    Sascha, this is an awesome tutorial. I used it to create a galaxy for the background in a DVD cover design I’m doing for a Photoshop contest. Thanks.

  28. Steven
    January 22nd, 2010 at 07:43 | #28

    Wow, tard. Way to make your fucking star layer UN COPYABLE. douche

  29. Steven
    January 22nd, 2010 at 07:47 | #29

    plus its fuckin BLACK when you transfer it to the other. Tarmonkey

  30. January 22nd, 2010 at 12:45 | #30

    ^ I leave the last two comments here as an example of how grateful some people are if you offer a piece of work for free!

  31. arctic
    January 24th, 2010 at 17:20 | #31

    @Steven fail. lolz.

    @sascha: great tut, best looking ps generated galaxy I’ve seen so far -you’ll know exactly what you’re looking at when you see it.
    -but it’s still a little bit too stylized I think.
    -however, it pointed me in the right direction, and thanks to you, i now have something I can actually work on!

  32. MorituriMax
    February 8th, 2010 at 05:00 | #32

    Awesome Tutorial, but step 15 is just throwing me completely off. Part of it is I am not sure where the stars layer was supposed to be when I created it. Right above the outer galaxy layer? at the top of ALL the other layers?

    Then when I ctrl-click the outer galaxy layer to make a selection, and go into quick mask mode, the whole image goes red, not just the part where the galaxy is, in other words the whole image turns red with no black around it like in your example.

    When you say draw with a black brush where you DO WANT stars, am I not basically drawing over the stars that I DO want, since what is selected is the galaxy itself and not the space in and around it that is empty space.

    That is what is really throwing me, step 15 doesn’t cover where the stars layer goes, and the ctrl-click instruction is pretty vague since I am not sure if what I am clicking and what is being selected is the same thing you meant.

    Thanks, and I’ll try and muddle through it until/if you have a chance to read this.

  33. February 8th, 2010 at 12:33 | #33

    @MorituriMax sorry if step 15 was confusing. I’ve edited it now to make it more clear. The word ‘galaxy’ was a bit misleading in that situation so I changed it to ‘image’.
    Basically you have your “stars” layer above the “outer galaxy” but you keep the stars layer selected. Then you go into QuickMask mode and paint with black everywhere where you want to have stars remain later (which is around the galaxy but not over it). After that you invert the selection and hit delete to remove the stars, i.e. the ones that are over the galaxy (since you inverted the selection). Hope this makes it clearer. It’s very easy actually, my explanation was just too confusing.

  34. Sarah
    February 24th, 2010 at 04:21 | #34

    Help D: I’m at step 12 and I’ve done all of the transforming yet I’ve ended up with the small bit in the middle of the galaxy then like, loads all around it.

  35. Leone
    February 28th, 2010 at 23:50 | #35

    really to nice

  36. abbi
    March 23rd, 2010 at 00:47 | #36

    thanks :D worked great. i liked the very specific directions.

  37. pheobeRKZ
    July 8th, 2010 at 05:06 | #37

    It’s annoying coz for some reason the shortcuts e.g ctrl+t didn’t work on my computer so i spent ages trying to find the transform tool and other shortcuts maybe you could add directions but otherwise it’s a very good tutorial.

  38. Mikky
    August 20th, 2010 at 16:20 | #39

    @pheobeRKZ
    go to edit>transform>free transform. That’s where it is on most photoshops I have used.

  39. Jimbob
    October 18th, 2010 at 00:32 | #40

    Nice tut,

    Heres mine, had to skip a few steps as i have elements 6 :D

    http://FastFreeFileHosting.com/file/47899/Galaxy-gif.html

  40. Chris
    January 5th, 2011 at 22:00 | #41

    You need to eplain things more clearly especially in the last steps i have no idea what your on about.

  41. Zapdos
    January 18th, 2011 at 18:18 | #42

    The star layer you offer for free, won’t download for me
    =[

    I’d do it myself, but I’ve spent several hours trying it and I can’t get it to a satisfactory stage, it’s killing me >:[

  42. Mike
    January 26th, 2011 at 19:53 | #43

    @Martijn
    Hey Martijn
    What i am guessing is that the trial version of CS4 does not have that certain plugin you need most trails of software only has a very limited amount of tools so it might not be included in the trial.

  43. Mike
    January 26th, 2011 at 19:58 | #44

    Hey Sascha i dont know why but the stars layer you have linked isnt loading on my computer is it some sort of wierd file that i may not have the software to load it or something ?? thanks

  44. January 27th, 2011 at 02:21 | #45

    @Mike
    The file has been moved, sorry. You can get it here now: http://files.hexagonstar.com/images/textures/galaxy_starfield.png

  45. Zapdos
    January 27th, 2011 at 22:24 | #46

    Thank you so much!!!!!!!
    THANK YOUUU!!!

  46. mike
    January 27th, 2011 at 22:31 | #47

    Thanks helped alot with my work

  47. Random Person
    March 10th, 2011 at 23:18 | #48

    This is my first time submitting a comment on anything, but what I think about of this tutorial is great,but I’m having trouble because I’m not getting the resaults that I want and all I still have is twirls and twirls and can’t get things down right. I think there you should have explained this very specific becuase if you didn’t lots of people will or would get confused and not know what to do or find what they need to use in this tutorial.

  48. eva
    March 28th, 2011 at 10:18 | #49

    does anyone have a way to download photo shop for free??????

  49. flamerounin
    August 11th, 2011 at 16:19 | #51

    pretty good tutorial. been working on this one lately. though i have one question: where did you get the 600 and 900 pix soft brushes? there seems to be none in the standard brush set in CS3. i had to settle for 300 at the biggest.

    also, here are some nifty suggestions for those working on this.
    1. for the core it would be better to reshape it before mrging, so that you won’t have to reconstruct the edges later.
    2. for the stars, you can also use starfields with big stars and put those larger stars on the edge nearer to your POV. that would give a nice 3d effect to the galaxy.

  50. bayu
    August 22nd, 2011 at 11:36 | #52

    when i use cmd+alt+D, my dock is disappear but the image is still didn’t work, what is that shortcut in mac?

  51. October 1st, 2011 at 19:51 | #53

    Nin

  52. hanciong
    October 6th, 2011 at 18:27 | #54

    hello, excuse my noob question, but how to actually download the star field? if I click the link you give in step 15, it just gives the picture, but it seems there is no way to download it. Thanx for your information

  53. RogueKnight24
    November 18th, 2011 at 05:20 | #55

    Awesome tutorial dude! I needed it for just the same reason you made it! :D
    Btw, is there any way to replicate Messier’s 31 Andromeda Galaxy? I’m trying to make a Starmap of it but it’s trickier :P

  54. weartginette
    December 11th, 2011 at 04:56 | #56

    view , just clicks away , just clicks away

  55. Dipayan
    February 24th, 2012 at 04:59 | #57

    this is soo damm good work…thanks for sharing these kind of good works…..

    this is my work….!!

    https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=1780765253103&set=a.1658428194753.73094.1658584126&type=3&theater

  56. Paradox
    February 27th, 2012 at 12:26 | #58

    @sascha
    How do you copy the star layer anyway? It isn’t letting me. =/

  57. March 1st, 2012 at 05:22 | #59

    Thanks,

    I actually am using P-Shop 6.5 ( the really old one!)

    However, I was able to follow along and it works…

    I did have to find a work around for some of the tools which I don’t have…

    Like the “Fibers” filter, which I made do with “Add Noise” and “Motion Blur”

    Plus, the “Starfield” import was helpful…

    But, overall, it was a good tutorial in the methods used and I got a reasonable result…

    Thanks Again,

    Van42

  58. March 1st, 2012 at 05:48 | #60
  59. Diogo
    March 16th, 2012 at 03:57 | #61

    What a lifesaver! Amazing ;)

  60. Eric
    June 3rd, 2012 at 08:00 | #62

    Thanks so much for a great tutorial! One thing that would have been helpful is specifying how you quantify a “soft brush”. Not a big deal by any means though, thanks for spending the time to put this resource together for us!

  61. Eric
    June 3rd, 2012 at 08:04 | #63

    Here is an easy way to create a starfield:

    http://shecriedpeace.hubpages.com/hub/How-To-Create-A-Realistic-Star-Field-In-Photoshop

    Also, for those who cannot figure out how to download the starfield provided in this tutorial, all you have to do is right click it and open in new tab.

    Then save image as from that tab.

  62. Epic McAwesome
  63. Peter
    November 3rd, 2012 at 09:47 | #65

    Okay, this is not that good really. Not realistic at all. What kind of galaxy looks like that?

  64. Hakim
    November 29th, 2012 at 05:20 | #66

    Thinx, made my first galaxy

  65. scott
    January 11th, 2013 at 09:14 | #67

    Im using CS4 on my mac and when I go to filters I have no brush strokes. Please help cause its the secret weapon….

  66. scott
    January 11th, 2013 at 09:16 | #68

    I mean CS6*@scott

  67. February 22nd, 2013 at 11:25 | #69

    @scott
    You can find the Brush Strokes if you go to the CS6 Plugin Preferences (File>Preferences>Plug-Ins on mac, dunno where it is on Windows) and check ‘Show all Filter Gallery groups and names’.

  1. April 20th, 2009 at 20:30 | #1
  2. June 24th, 2009 at 22:40 | #2
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  4. October 5th, 2009 at 07:52 | #4
  5. March 2nd, 2010 at 08:05 | #5
  6. March 25th, 2010 at 07:57 | #6
  7. July 6th, 2010 at 13:16 | #7
  8. October 15th, 2010 at 02:36 | #8
  9. December 27th, 2010 at 22:04 | #9
  10. March 7th, 2011 at 12:43 | #10
  11. March 16th, 2011 at 22:02 | #11
  12. March 16th, 2011 at 23:02 | #12
  13. March 26th, 2011 at 06:48 | #13
  14. March 31st, 2011 at 01:02 | #14
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  18. February 3rd, 2012 at 23:41 | #18
  19. August 3rd, 2012 at 17:58 | #19
  20. September 30th, 2013 at 03:52 | #20
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