April 12th, 2010
Photography Tutorial: Surrealism Pt.1


This week I've decided to change up my tutorial format. Due to my desire to do more complex shots, which often times require more planning and testing, I've decided to stretch my tutorials out across several weeks. Each shoot will become a series of articles that cover an area of shoot preparation or testing, and finally be concluded with a master tutorial where everything from the previous weeks articles come into play.

This week is the start of a series about creating surreal images. I've got a lot of ideas in my head, and being a former magician, I've also got a whole bunch of tricks up my sleeve to work with. This weeks tutorial is about displacement mapping and blending options inside Photoshop. I've seen many displacement mapping tutorials in the past, but few seemed to go beyond the absolute minimal basics of it, much less get into one of the most critical areas of displacement mapping: blend modes. Pictured below is this weeks subject image(s). Essentially this is a post production tutorial, and I'll be covering how to digitally wrap an image onto a textured surface. If you are a creative director or art director and are interested in the image below, you can license it here.

Before You Begin

Before you begin this tutorial, you'll need the following:

  • Photoshop or comparable program with the ability to displacement map and blend images.
  • A texture layer, this can be anything technically, but if your just learning how do do this, I recommend starting off with a black and white texture layer of something like a piece of crumpled paper.
  • An image to displacement map. This can be anything really.
  • This tutorial :P


If you decide to shoot your own texture, I highly recommend having a lot of side light to bring out as much texture as you can. Without texture, displacement mapping is essentially pointless.

Post Production

Before going any further, please keep in mind that this is an introductory tutorial to a technique that can easily become more complex when put into real world use. What I'm showing you will certainly require additional techniques in real life applications, and I will be sure to point out areas where this could be the case.

Start by opening up you're texture layer, which is also the picture you will be morphing your other image onto. Once open add a curves adjustment layer, then on top of that, add a hue/saturation adjustment layer. You're goal here is to create a high contrast black and white image that will be used to morph your image later on. Desaturate the image first, and then move onto your contrast adjustments. I recommend making sure you don't totally blow any highlights or totally crush all your shadows. My rule of thumb here is make sure you can see everything texture wise, but still maintain a healthy amount of contrast. Feel free to play around with the individual channels to get something that works. Once the contrast is set, select your image layer and apply a gaussian blur to it, my rule of thumb with this is to apply just enough to smooth out very minor textural detail yet enough to maintain the bigger contour details. The displacement maps only function is to be a guide for creating broad elevations and depressions in the image you're going to manipulate it with, the finer details are added later using layer blending modes. Once finished, save the image as a PSD file. My finished displacement map is pictured below.

Note:In more complex applications of displacement mapping where only a portion of an image is being used as a displacement map (ie. a piece of paper on a table in a wide frame shot), its far more easy to create your displacement map inside the actual project your working on instead of separately. I simply duplicate the base layer that has the surface I'm mapping onto and create the displacement map as a layer inside my main project, save it as a PSD file, then toss the layer out.

Open up your image to be manipulated, along with the image you are going to be mapping onto. Drag the main image on top of the image your mapping too, between these layers, add a curves adjustment layer. Pictured below is my layer's arrangement in photoshop.

Select the image being mapped and click on the blending modes drop down menu (located at the top of the layers palate), which by default is set to "normal". Now here comes the real magic, blending modes are what bring out the textural details of the image your mapping onto, which one you choose depends on what your doing - there are no rules here! I recommend using "multiply" in most situations, but you can duplicate your image and use several blending modes all at one time. My best advice here is to play around with your options, AND also play around with your curves adjustment layer. The curves adjustment will allow you to manipulate how deep your shadows appear and how bright the highlights are. I can't stress enough how important it is for you to understand that you can make dramatic changes to the blending effects by controlling the appearance of the image your mapping onto.

Note: In real world application of this technique, you will most likely need to employ clipping layers and layer masking techniques in order to adjust the surface you are mapping onto.

After you are happy with your blending mode setup, select your image layer that's being mapped and open up the displacement dialog box (located at: Filter menu > Distort > Displace). you will see several options.

I recommend not setting the horizontal or vertical scale numbers too far beyond 10. These numbers essentially control how much distortion will be applied to the image, higher numbers will cause more and more exaggeration of depth, stretching, etc. I personally stay within the 5-10 range for both values. I recommend keeping the other settings set to their defaults. Click "OK" and you will be taken to a file browser box, navigate to your displacement map PSD file and click "OPEN". Your image will now look like its "shrink wrapped" onto the surface you mapped too! Pretty cool eh?

Note: You'll notice that when the displace effect kicks in, the image you are mapping might no longer be lined up properly with the surface its conforming to. In other words, you might have some edges mis aligned, keep this in mind when you position your image before you displace it! You might need to undo, adjust your layer, then reapply the effect. Keep in mind that you do have other options for dealing with this like the erase tool, liquefying, smudge, etc...

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial! You can comment below. If you are in need of a photographer for a commercial assignment, contact me here.

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