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How to Create a Dark Futuristic City in Adobe Photoshop

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Read Time: 6 mins
Final product imageFinal product imageFinal product image
What You'll Be Creating

I don’t know about you, but here at Tuts+ we are very excited for Blade Runner 2049, so we thought we’d tip our hat to the futuristic dystopia and show you how to create your own futuristic city effect in Adobe Photoshop.

Getting Started

What You’ll Need

If you’d like to follow along with the tutorial, you can download the example I’m working on. 

Installing the Action

When you unzip the action's folder, you'll see that the download is comprised of an action, a brush, and a pattern. You’ll need to install all three of these for the action to work.

Avoiding Trouble

  • Your image needs to be in RGB colour space and, as mentioned, high resolution. (This Tuts+ tutorial will help you sort out what resolution you need.)
  • Make sure your brush opacity is up to 100% before you run the action, or certain layers may appear faded out.
  • Your background layer should be called Background and be the only layer in your file before you run the action.

Running The Action

Select the Number of Pixels

There’s a stopping point right after you start the action, which will look like this:

Changing the number of pixels will determine how much detail will be included.

The action is asking you to set the range of pixels that will be affected by the action. The more pixels you select, the heavier the action will be, and a little goes a long way. This is the difference between 2px (left) and 4px (right):

2px (left) and 4px (right). Small changes make quite a difference.

I’ve stuck to 2px

After setting the number of pixels, the action will continue to run and add all sorts of bright delights.

Making Changes

This is the image once the action has finished running:

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This is how the action looks once it's run, without any adjustments.

Get to Grips With Layers

There’s a lot going on here, and a lot of layers too:

The action is broken down into a number of layers, many with a mask so you can make simple, non-destructive changes.

First, hide the Plexus Element layer. That will kill the blue light effect at the top of your image. We’ll come back to it later.

Bring Back Detail

There’s a layer called Brush Mask to Reveal Unaltered Scene. You won't be surprised to see that if you brush over the mask with a white brush…

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Brushing over the mask reveals the city underneath.

... you reveal the city in your original image. With a low opacity, soft brush, bring some of the detail back into the image, working from the bottom up.

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Bring back the details of the city gradually. You can always come back and add or remove more.

I’ve stayed away from the sky when brushing over the mask and mostly concentrated on the foreground buildings. I’ve also very lightly brushed over the skyscrapers in the background to give them a little more detail, so they don’t just look like hollow outlines.

Adjust Colours

The colours in the image are all created with colour fill or gradient layers with layer masks, so you can brush out particular elements or change the colour entirely. The colours you see in the processed image will have been generated from the colours in the original image you used.

Duplicate the Gradient Fill 1 layer and hide the original, in case you want to revert to it. Then double click on the duplicated gradient and experiment with the colours until you find something you like. Remember, you can dip the opacity or brush out the effect on the mask, to bring back some of the original layer, for a more subtle effect.

Gradients and colour fill layers can be changed to suit.

Under Scene Effects Scene Effect 1, you’ll find background details like the clouds and lines around the buildings. I’ve changed these to white:

Scene effectsScene effectsScene effects
Adjust the colours of lines around the buildings.

Light Elements 1 and 2 are the small squares and sharp lines of light. If you select the layer's effects (click fx), you can change the colour of the light elements and other blending options. If you do change the Colour Overlay effect, remember you may need to adjust the Outer Glow colour to match. I’ve mixed white with hot pink here:

colour adjustmentscolour adjustmentscolour adjustments
Try and keep colours interesting and think futuristic and neon. Basically, be tasteless!

You might also want to take out some of the small squares (Light Element 1) if they’re too distracting. Just add a layer mask and brush squares out until it looks right:

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Remove anything that looks too distracting. You can always remove more later or brush them back in if you change your mind.

Come Back to Hidden Layers

By now you should be ready to come back to the Plexus layer that we hid at the start. Your city might look better without that layer, in which case leave it off. If you’d like to include it, you might want to change the colour to suit other amendments you’ve made. To do that, select the Colour Fill layer just above Plexus Element. Double click the colour fill to change the colour of that layer.

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The Plexus layer makes the image very busy.

As with the Light Elements, the Plexus additions make the picture incredibly busy again. If you want to reduce that, just add a layer mask to the Plexus Element layer and brush out to suit. You also have this graphic element installed as a brush, so there’s an option to add more or mix it up with more than one colour.

Finish Up

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Make final adjustments.

I took out the Plexus layer altogether as it was all a bit busy. I also reduced the number of light squares and brushed in some more city detail.

The great thing about this action is that you can hit play and get a nice result, even if you’re not confident about changing the layers. However, if you want to get something more customised, you can do that too; each layer is editable and it’s easy to make changes.

This action does work best when you chose an image with strong lines, so as you’d expect from the name, it fits architectural pictures best.

Here are some more examples using the action:

example 1example 1example 1
Upward perspectives work nicely.
example 2example 2example 2
A minimalist look can also work well.
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