How to Use the Displacement Map in Photoshop: Top Tips

December 16

12 min. to read

In Photoshop, there are many filters for all kinds of distortions of the original photo. Today we're going to focus on one of them namely learning how to use Photoshop displacement maps. With it, you can create an unusual picture.

Displace is probably the most understudied seldom-used filter in the Distort group (menu Filter>Distort). The principle of its operation is very simple: the filter combines two images, using one of them as a Photoshop displacement (Displacement Map). According to it, the pixels of the original image change their position.

How can I find a displacement map?

Double-clicking the filter name in the menu takes you to the settings window (very small and unpretentious). In this window, you can set the vertical and horizontal scaling, choose how the displacement texture map in Photoshop mound will “lie” on the image, and determine the behavior of the areas of the image that will not be touched by the filter. Once you're done with all the presets, you need to select the file that will be used as the displacement mapping in Photoshop. That's it, the filter is all set to work with our tutorial!

When to use a displacement map?

If you need to create a complex object, for example, a landscape, then this is your choice! In general, they are used in various situations where you want to emphasize the details of objects: when creating logos, three-dimensional text, or 3D images. Despite the fact that the Displace filter offers few settings, you can achieve very interesting results with it. Do you want to know how to achieve them? There's no need to find out, we'll take you to step by step!

When would you not use a displacement map? It is not always necessary to use such sophisticated tools, sometimes you can do with standard filters.

When the main thing is over, you can put the finishing touches (touch up shadows and color) — and the portrait is ready.

By the way, did you know that the Displace filter is one of those few filters that work smoothly with images in CMYK mode? That is, if you are preparing photographs for printing, you won't have to perform all sorts of manipulations by converting the image first to RC8 and then back to CMYK. You can get to work right away! Now we will tell how to create a displacement map!

How To Make A Displacement Map In Photoshop

The “Offset” filter moves pixels in the image according to the brightness value of the offset map. You can use any PSD file as an offset map (if it was saved with “Maximize compatibility”). Now we will start the Photoshop mapping tutorial. Use the first and second channels of the PSD file for horizontal and vertical offsets, respectively. Each channel is a black-and-white image. Dark values will change the image in the positive direction (in Adobe coordinates). Bright values will change in the negative direction. The offset value can be controlled separately. On a scale of values from 100, the offset measured in pixels is 128 minus the brightness of the offset map. For example, a white pixel will change the image move slider from to128-255 = 127 pixels in the corresponding pixel.

Here, we will tell how to create a relatively simple displacement map in Photoshop and water surface. This method gives good results if the water is calm and the surface is not crossed by other elements.

We begin by adding textures to an image in which the brightness represents the height of the surface. The size of your image controls the size and shape of the waves. Start with a larger image you want to create smaller waves.

  • Create a New Document (Ctrl + N) in RGB mode, 1000 pixels wide and 2000 pixels high.

  • Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Enter the following parameters: Amount: 400%; Distribution: Gaussian; check Monochromatic. Click OK.

  • Then choose Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Set the radius to 2.0 pixels and click OK.

We will use the result of the previous steps as a relief map to create an image of the surface slope. To do this, we will channel 1 (red) and channel 2 (green) separately. Channel you choose 3 (blue) can be ignored, as it does not affect the shifting filter.

  • Go to the Channels panel. There you need to select the Red channel.

  • Apply Filter > Stylize > Emboss to it. Enter the following parameters: Angle: 180°; Height: 1 pix; Effect (Amount): 500%. Click OK.

  • Select the Green channel.

  • Apply the Emboss filter again, but this time use an Angle of 90°, instead of 180°.

  • In the Channels palette, click RGB to make the image color.

Now let's change the perspective. Stretching the base lowers the horizon. We would have to stretch the angles to infinity to extend the water surface completely to the horizon, but we won't do that. Stretching about 3000% will suffice. Perspective stretching only works between 0 and 700%, so we will stretch to 600% twice. We will get, 3600%.

  • Go to the Layers panel and unlock the adjustment layer to the smart object (double-click it and click OK in the dialog box that appears).

  • Select the Zoom (Z) tool and, while holding down the (Alt) key, click several times on the image to reduce it roughly as in the image below. Choose Edit > Transform > Perspective.

  • Drag one of the bottom corners to the side to a width of 600% (you can see the width value in the tool's settings panel) and press Enter.

  • Press Ctrl + Shift + T to apply the transform again.

  • Crop the area outside the canvas. To do that, select the canvas (Ctrl + A), and then apply the Image > Crop command. Remove the selection (Ctrl + D).

  • Reduce the image height to make it a square (Alt + Ctrl + I) (uncheck the Keep aspect ratio and enter the necessary values). In our example, it is 1000 by 1000 pixels.

It is also worth mentioning that this is not the only way of Photoshop displacement mapping. In reality, the waves cause rotations in the reflection, not shifts. As a result, horizontal distortion decreases toward the horizon, and there is no vertical distortion. Now we have to adjust the green channel because the perspective shift caused smoothing near the horizon. Later, we use the blurring of the image to correct this. If you make some mistakes with the opacity level, you always can go back to your original image.

First, let's set up the Red channel:

  • In the Channels palette, select Red channel.

  • Press Q to switch to Quick Mask Mode.

  • Select the Gradient tool (G) and with a black-and-white linear gradient, sweep upward across the image to create and save a gradient mask.

  • Press Q to return to the standard or blend mode. We have a gradient selection.

  • Fill (Alt + Backspace) with medium gray (#dadada) and deselect (Ctrl + D).

Now tune the Green channel in the same way:

  • In the Channels palette, select Green channel.

  • Press Q to switch to Quick Mask Mode.

  • Select the Gradient tool (G) and, this time, sweep a black and white linear gradient from bottom to top over the image, stopping a little higher than in the previous step to select a narrow part near the horizon.

  • Press Q to turn the mask into a selection.

  • Fill (Alt + Backspace) with medium grayscale (#dadada) and deselect (Ctrl + D).

This is what the finished offset map should look like with the Blue channel hidden. Notice that in the green channel, the bright areas shift the reflection upward, which represents the tilt angle toward you. The dark areas create an angle away from you. This may seem a little confusing because the brain interprets the change in brightness exactly the opposite. Save the offset map (don't forget that the Blue channel must be turned off) as a PSD with “Maximize Compatibility”. Then you need to save changes. Now that you know how to make a displacement map in Photoshop, let's move to the final words.

Try Luminar Neo!

Such tools can be used not only in Photoshop. A great alternative is Luminar Neo. The user-friendly interface makes it easier for a beginner to get the hang of it than a more specialized Photoshop. The fast and powerful editor allows you to improve your photos with technology based on artificial intelligence. The user will clearly be surprised by the wide range of tools that can bring his creative ideas to life.


In real-time engines, displacement is used to give texture to medium forms, and a normal map is used for fine detail. In VFX, all detail is most often created by displacement, although bump and normal are also used for fine detail.

Finding the right solution and approach is always a creative process, so good luck!