The Making of Gaia's Ladder

Gaia's Ladder

Gaia's Ladder

Driving back home, we noticed this small swamp area that was totally encased in hoar frost from the recent cold snap. I thought I could get some cool shots from a place that doesn't get photographed very often. 

 I returned the next morning at first light with my constant companion, Teama (our amazing dog), who is always up for a walk in the woods. After scouring the area for both a dry spot to set up, (the swamp in an overgrown beaver pond) and to get a good angle in between the trees, I settled on a spot looking up the pond. 

 The light that day wasn't the best for shooting, but the sun was in a good spot, so I started shooting. Meanwhile, Teama wanted nothing to do with anything except for being hyper focused on the stick at her feet.  I noticed something in particular about a couple trees growing up in the middle of the swamp, and realized they looked like the electrode uprights of a Jacobs Ladder. 

 The idea hit me then to try working in lightning bolts climbing up the trees, eventually firing off from the tops. Little did I realize then, how much work I was about to set myself up to do...

 Fast forwarding a couple weeks... I've found that there is much that needs to be manipulated in the image to get it to match my vision. I'd found the lightning I was going to use on Fotolia which is a phenomenal stock image website. 

 Now the trick was removing portions of the image to clean it up, swap out the sky (it was totally blown out due to ice fog that day), and to incorporate the lightning in a way that made it look like my vision. For that I needed a crash course in Photoshop. 

 Enter Aaron Nace and his team at There are over 700 free tutorials on their site, and while many of them are very informative, and believe me I still watch them often, I needed more in-depth instruction, so I bit the bullet and purchased my second pro-tutorial. (The first being a free one when I signed up for their newsletter!) I'll list the pro tutorials I used below along with the links. 

 The time flew by, with my photoshop skills getting better with every day I practiced. The steps I followed go like this:

  •  Clean up the background & remove distractions.
  •  Color balance the image and set the overall tone of the image 
  •  Cut out lightning bolts, position and warp them walking up the trees and balling up out of the earth
  •  Blend the layers together, covering seams, and making all the lightning the same color and hue. 
  •  Fill in highlights, lowlights, dodge and burn using the existing colors throughout the image. 
  •  Select out and replace the sky....

 Now this last step proved to be the crux of the entire image. As I got faster using the different tools in PS, the placement of the lightning became simpler, falling into place seamlessly. But that damn sky was frustrating me. Then I learned about the gradient snapped into place like it belonged there the whole time. I think I actually yelled in jubilation when I got the right fit..!

 A little bit of tweaking here and there, and finally my first challenging composition was complete! 

 I decided right then when I got to see what I had drawn, visualized, and built had become real, that I was hooked;  my artistic avenue was discovered. 

 Now I have so many ideas spinning around, endless sketches, and an amazing partner to bounce concepts off of. I have plans to take this all to another level. For now, however, I continue to teach myself and learn this medium I have always loved and am now finally able to create the images I've had in my head for all these years

TLDR: Photoshop and Phlearn helped me become an artist to create Gaia's Ladder. 

Links to the pro and free tutorials from Phlearn: