Create 3D models of the moon and the solar planets!

  • Photoshop :
    CC, CS6 Extended
  • Intermediate


Astronomy is an awesome science. Backyard astronomy & astrophotography are very fascinating subjects as well. Personally I can spend hours gazing the beauty of the Cosmos through my telescope.

Don't you have a telescope? Don't worry: In this tutorial I'll show you how to use Photoshop CC or CS6 Extended to create some amazing photos and animations of the Moon and the planets. And you won't have to stay out in the cold to create these.

For the purposes of this tutorial we need to start with a panoramic image which is called a 'planetary map'. You can find many excellent hi-res maps on this page:

I would like to thank Steve Albers (NOAA affiliate) for granting us the permission to use these maps.

This is a demo video created using the steps in this tutorial:

Example 1: Creating a 3D Moon.

Click on the link above and scroll down till you find the link to the Moon map. Click on that link and wait till the image loads on your screen. Right-click on the image and save it in your hard disk.

Load the image in Photoshop. Since it is very large (32 Mpx) we will downsize it for the purposes of this tutorial. Press Ctrl-Alt-I (PC) or Cmd-Opt-I (Mac), enter 3000 (pixels) in the width field and hit OK:

Now we will sharpen the image to emphasize the surface details. Use the Smart Sharpen filter with the following settings:

Double click the Background layer and rename it to "Moon map". Create a new blank layer below, name it "Space" and fill with black color (to fill with black color press D, then Ctrl-Backspace or Cmd-Backspace):

Click on the "Moon map" layer. From the main menu select 3D > New Mesh from Layer > Mesh Preset > Sphere.
This will map the "Moon map" image layer inside a 3D sphere. We have just created a digital full moon on the screen:
The angle of view doesn't look exactly the same with the familiar image of the full moon we see from Earth. We will take care of it now: 
If you haven't switched to the 3D workspace, please do so by selecting Window > Workspace > 3D from the menu.
In the next step we will rotate the moon around its Y axis so that we look the familiar face of our digital moon.

Press V to select the move tool.
Go to the 3D panel and click on "Sphere":

Hover your mouse on the Y axis rotation handle (yellow arrow below). A tooltip saying "Rotate Around Y Axis" should show up:

Drag with your mouse to the left till you see the familiar image of the "man in the moon":

Now we will illuminate the moon from the right side (Waxing Gibbous):
In the 3D panel click on the "Filter by Lights" icon (yellow arrow):

Now drag your mouse and move the light direction, so that the moon is illuminated from the right side (Waxing Gibbous):

You can also change the Intensity for this light from 1 to 1,5.

When you look at the moon through a telescope what you observe is not a flat terrain but a rough surface full of craters and mountain ranges. It doesn't look like the flat moon you are currently looking at on your screen. Let's give some texture to our digital Moon's surface:

Go to the Layers panel and double click the "Sphere_Material - Default Texture":

This will open a new document with the original moon map. Press Ctrl-A and then Ctrl-C (PC) or cmd-A and then cmd-C (Mac) to copy the layer content into the clipboard. We will use this image to create a texture for the 3D object. Press Ctrl-W (PC) or cmd-W (Mac) to close this document.

Go to the 3D panel. Click the "Filter by Whole Scene" icon (arrow 1). Click on "Sphere Material" (arrow 2):

Now go to the Properties panel (Window > Properties).
Then click the little folder icon to the right of "Bump" and select "New Texture":

A "New document" window opens up. Click on "OK":

Click again the icon to the right of "Bump" and select "Edit texture":

This will open a new document. Press Ctrl-V (PC) or cmd-V (Mac) to paste the moon map. Press Ctrl-S (PC) or cmd-S (Mac) to save the changes and close the document.

Presto! You can now see the Moon's mountain ranges and crater rims standing out. Depending on the size of the original image map, you may need to amend the bump percentage value which is 10% by default.

We are ready to render the 3D Moon. Select 3D > Render from the menu.
The scene will be rendered in a few minutes. Flatten the image, adjust the levels to preference and sharpen slightly. You have just created a beautiful shot of the moon:

Example 2: Create an animated (rotating) planet.

Similarly you can use the other planetary maps available on Steve Albert's article to create similar images or even animations of rotating planets. In the example below I used the map of Jupiter to create this animation:

Note: Jupiter is not a rocky planet hence there is no point in creating a bump map in this case.

You can follow the same approach and create a rotating Earth, etc. If you are not familiar with Photoshop's new animation panel, you can watch this tutorial that shows you how to animate my 3D Cubes. The principles are the same.

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