Displacement maps in photoshop

The image in the thumbnail is a crop from an image that was prduced using displacement maps in photoshop.

Click on the image for a larger view. The original image I have posted is 900 pixels wide (it’s still a small file though), so it won’t fit on this page except as a thumbnail, so click to see it bigger.


I learned about displacement maps as a method of blending a type layer so that it appears to follow the contours of a background layer – so, for example, one could make a slogan appear to follow the folds of a T-shirt.

But displacement maps can be used with any two images.

The method
You are working with two images. One is the image you are working on to create an arty image (I’ll call the image you are working on, Fred for convenience) and the other is the image you are going to use as the displacement map.

Both images should be PSDs and 8 bit.

The displacement map image can be any image in 8bit PSD on your drive, but I have found that using another version of the original image you are working with, can work well. So open Fred, increase the brightness and contrast; desaturate it, play about with the hues or desaturate it, and save it with some convenient name – maybe James?

James doesn’t have to be open while you use this technique.

Open Fred and go to Filter > distort > displace

A box appears and asks you for values. You can put positive or negative values in the boxes, such as -30 in the top box and 21 in the lower box. It is up to you. I used to use small values of 5 or so, but I tend to use bigger values now. A lot depends on the image. Images with a lot of small detail (leaves on a tree for example) might suit one set of values, whereas a face might suit a different set).

Click OK and you are asked to choose a displacement image. Choose James.

That’s it – just watch the result appear.

You can repeat the process. You can use the same or different values, or you can use a different displacement map image.

And you can of course intersperse each repeat using other filters such as the artistic, sketch or liquify filters.

If you like the result, don’t just save it or you will have overwritten Fred. Save it with a different name (Arthur, perhaps?).