Displacement maps

What the heck is a displacement map and why do you need them? Displacement maps will allow you to add a design to a textured surface and make it look realistic. It’s a very powerful and useful feature in Photoshop, and they’re actually pretty easy to use once you know how.

Here’s a quick and simple example of what a displacement map will do. Here I have a lovely crumpled background…
Crumpled paper
Which is nice, but it’s a little boring, right? But wait, I also have this lovely striped overlay – I can just toss that on top, set the layer mode to overlay, adjust the opacity. Much better…but hmmm, the overlay is flat, the lines are straight and now I’m losing that great crumpled effect of the original background.
With overlay
So if I make a displacement map from the crumpled background and use it to displace the top overlay, I end up with this. Much better! See how the lines are actually distorting as they go into the darker and lighter areas? It’s a subtle difference but now it looks like I crumpled a striped paper instead of just sticking a striped layer on top of my crumpled background.
With displacement map

So now you see what it does, how do you make one? First you start with a textured background that you want your design to wrap to. In case you don’t have one, you can download mine. It’s a 12″x12″ PSD file so it’s pretty big, sorry! If you’re going to make your own, I find it’s easiest to use an RGB image. Once you have your texture image open, open your channels palette and select the channel (Red, Green or Blue) that has the most contrast between light and dark areas. Copy that channel and paste it into a new document – this will give you a new greyscale version of your background texture. If it’s got a lot of sharp edges, you might want to do a little gaussian blur on it, or you can test it first and see how it works. Save it as a PSD file, and name it something you’ll remember.

Now go back to your original document, click on RGB on your channels palette to make all your channels active again, then go to your layers palette and make a new layer on top of your texture. Create or paste the image or text you’d like to wrap to the texture. With that top layer selected, go to FILTER>DISTORT>DISPLACE.

Displacement dialogYou’ll get a dialog box like this – set the horizontal/vertical numbers higher for more displacement and lower for less. Click ok, and then another dialog box will open to let you choose your displacement map.

Remember that greyscale PSD we made a couple paragraphs ago? That’s what you’re looking for. Select it and see the magic!

If your displacement is too much or not enough, undo it and change the settings. If it looks too jagged, undo it, open your displacement map and blur it a bit more and run the filter again. Once you get it set the way you want it, then all you need to do is adjust your layer mode and opacity to whatever looks the best.

You can use displacement for rasterized text too. Here are a couple of examples – it’s the exact same text, only the background and the displacement map are different.
Displacement Example 1Displacement Example 2

You can use displacement maps for more than just blending your image into the background. In this last example I used the same rasterized text as above, displaced it with the crumpled texture from the first example, then used the displaced text outline as a mask on my crumpled paper layer.
Example 3

So as you can see, displacement maps are very powerful and you can get a lot of different effects with a little experimentation!

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