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Create realistic rippled reflections with a displacement map

Added on Tuesday 22nd of August 2006 06:19 am EST


Creating a reflection on a flat surface is relatively easy, especially if you have a simple subject. Creating reflections upon rippled water is a little more challenging because the reflections need to follow the ripples in order to look realistic. The simple secret lurks within a displacement map and some layer masking—we’ll show you how it’s done.


To easily create a reflection on rippled water, we’ll:

     Explain what you must know about the physics of reflections to be successful with this technique.

     Show you how to use a displacement map to create the rippled surface for your reflection.

     Demonstrate how to duplicate and flip the image so it’s inline for a realistic reflection.

     Show you how to apply the displacement map and the finishing touches you’ll need to add realism to your reflection.


Surface treatments, such as reflections, can add great interest and visual excitement to images. Simple reflections are quick, and easy to do, but more complex ones that conform to a surface’s texture such as a ripple on the water, can pose a different challenge. How do you get the reflection to conform to the same ripple? We’ll show you how this can actually be quite simple with the help of a displacement map and some layer masking for results shown in Figure A.




The physics of reflections

Simply put, a reflection is light thrown back from a surface. The quality of the reflection depends on the strength of the light source (called incident light), the smoothness of the reflective surface, and the strength of the reflected light. Essentially, strong light sources that bounce off smooth surfaces produce good reflections, while rougher surfaces produce more diffuse reflections.

The state of the reflection also depends on the quality of the surface and the angle at which you’re viewing the subject. For example, a mirror gives you a perfect specular reflection, while rippled water offers a more diffused reflection.



Gather your images

For this technique we’ll show you how to create a reflection of an image on some rippled water. To follow along with our example, download the file from the URL given at the beginning of this article, and extract the file ducks.psd. Then launch Photoshop and open the file. If you’re using your own image, arrange your layers so that the object to be reflected is on its own layer above the water layer, as shown in our example in Figure B.




Get your ducks in a row

The first step in this technique is to make a copy of the object to be reflected, and rotate it into position. In this case, we’ll duplicate the Ducks layer and position the ducks so they’re ready for some Photoshop reflection magic.


To arrange the ducks for reflection:

1.       Duplicate the Ducks layer.

2.      Rename the new layer Reflection.

3.      Move the Reflection layer between the Ducks layer and the Background layer so your Layers palette resembles Figure C.



4.      Select Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical to flip the Reflection layer into proper position.

5.      Choose the Move tool move from the toolbox.

6.      Move the Reflection layer ducks straight down, just below the Ducks layer ducks. Overlap the bottoms slightly, as shown in Figure D.

7.      Set the Reflection layer Opacity to 40 for results shown in Figure E.






Soften and submerge

The first thing we can do to make our duck reflections look more realistic is to soften up the bottoms of the ducks. If they’re sitting in the water, the very bottom of each duck will be slightly submerged. We can soften up the bottom edge with a layer mask and that should do just the trick.


To soften the bottom edge of the ducks:

1.       Select the Ducks layer to make it active.

2.      Click on the Add Layer Mask  


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