advanced photoshop

Displacement effect tutorial Part 1

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Tips & Tutorials, by Adam Smith

Use simple Photoshop layering techniques, such as combining layer masks and smart objects to create this brilliant image

You’ll find many different interpretations of the displacement effect online when poring over numerous digital art portfolios.

Alberto Seveso has really championed this style and recently Adobe adopted it to promote its software products.

Here, we reveal techniques that will provide you with the basic skills to build exciting results.

Layer masks and Smart Objects are an essential part of our creative arsenal. These tools offer Photoshop users the ability to cut and customise layer shapes at any point during the workflow.

Layer Style options also play a huge part, enabling us to produce effects that simulate depth of field.

So let’s get started…

Lift the model

Select the Pen Path tool and activate Rubber Band from the tool’s options. Trace around the model (Dreamstime image number 10869704) and activate the Paths panel.

Cmd/Ctrl-click the new path layer to make an active selection.Reactivate the model layer and apply a layer mask, setting Feather to 2px in the Properties>Masks panel. Also set a solid black layer behind the model.

Displacement effect tutorial Part 1

Edit exposure

Duplicate the model copy layer and select Image>Adjustments>Shadows/Highlights. Set Shadows>Amount at 35%, Tonal Width at 50% and Radius at 30px.

Apply all Highlight values at 0 and add a Curves layer with an upward curve, setting Input at 105 and Output at 135. Click and invert the layer mask, then paint highlights back into the centre of the face using a 50% Opacity soft black brush.

Displacement effect tutorial Part 1

Merge layers

Start by merging the model and lighting layers into one whole layer (Cmd/Ctrl+Opt/Alt+Shift+E). Set this layer’s Opacity to 20% and duplicate.

Ensure you follow this and the next step carefully as well as continuing to follow the exact technique throughout the workflow. This may seem a convoluted process, but it will save you bags of time when making edits later.

Displacement effect tutorial Part 1

Cut out elements

Select the Pen Path tool once more and use this to draw out a section of the model’s face, including lips, eyes and nose. Apply flowing edges, activate the Paths panel and Cmd/Ctrl-click the new Path layer to make an active selection.

Add a layer mask to the model, merge the copy layer and set Opacity at 100%. We now have our first displaced element. The low-opacity model merge layer lies beneath, acting as a reference for further selections and displaced elements.

Displacement effect tutorial Part 1

Gradient overlay

Continue to duplicate the model layer, make selections with the Pen Path tool and apply layer masks to create displacement effects. Carefully layer these and replicate a depth-of-field effect through applied layer styles.

We’ll now add a black-to-transparent Gradient Overlay set to either Overlay or Linear Burn. Hit Apply Angle, alter the opacity and position to suit. To save time, we can select Layer Style>Styles and save initial settings as a New Style. This can instantly be applied to a layer and adjusted any time.

Displacement effect tutorial Part 1

Edit lighting

You can apply Drop Shadow effects (from the Layer Style options) to the displaced layers in order to replicate a 3D effect. Combining these styles creates a believable depth of field, but it can be enhanced using Smart Objects.

Double-click the Smart Object layer, open the initial layer state and then apply Levels and Brightness/Contrast to affect the lighting on the shapes. Swap in and out of Smart Objects to assess and tweak effects, as well as edit shapes using the original mask. These shapes can always be customised.

Displacement effect tutorial Part 1

Add colour shapes

We’ll continue to push depth-of-field effects by adding Pen Shape layers. Use the Pen Shape tool to personalise a form that corresponds and interweaves with displacement layer edges.

There’s a lot of trial and error with this technique, so persevere, be patient and don’t be afraid to delete shapes and start again. Work with bright colours, as these make placement much easier to comprehend. You can also colour-tag the layers (Cmd/Ctrl-click the layer) in relation to each shape’s colour.

Displacement effect tutorial Part 1

Create 3d shapes

Continue to apply these shapes, tweaking the settings to achieve the looks you want. To make the image look a lot more vibrant, we’ve created a spectrum colour scheme, from red to yellow ochre to green.

Try adding shapes to the edges of the displacement layers to replicate a drip effect, placing these behind to create a warped 3D result. Everything is geared towards improving this 3D outcome. Don’t forget to revisit the Layer Style>Styles presets and add them to coloured shapes.

Displacement effect tutorial Part 1

Apply smaller shapes

With all the main shapes in place, we’ll continue to detail the elements. Scatter smaller shapes in and among the larger examples as well as away from the model, while also applying coloured lines.

All of these small effects improve the sense of direction and movement in the image. Even smaller details require our attention and the application of Styles presets. This process ensures lighting is consistent throughout the image, keeping all the vibrant elements unified.

Displacement effect tutorial Part 1


…Click here for Part 2 of this tutorial!