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  1. Design & Illustration
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How to Create an Easy Rippled Reflection in Adobe Photoshop

Final product image
What You'll Be Creating

One way to create even more drama in an interesting landscape is by adding a digital flood! Not only does it create an aesthetically pleasing symmetry, but it uses one of the classic techniques of photo manipulation, creating a reflection. In this tutorial we will create the effect a reflective water surface complete with rippled distortions. 

1. How to Create a Simple Reflection

Crafting a reflection from a scene is a great way to learn some basic photo manipulation skills. The approach is simple enough: create a copy of the area to be reflected and flip it upside down. Then adjust the perspective to make the reflection appear to be part of the horizontal water surface.

Step 1

Choosing the right starter image for this technique is one of the most important aspects to achieving a high-quality result. 

The most important thing to look for is a clear horizontal line that will work as the water's edge. For example, in this image of the Chau Say temple by photographer Donyanedomam, the bottom step of the temple makes a great reflection point.

Chau Say temple

Step 2

Open the image in Photoshop and select the Crop Tool (C). Drag the top center handle of the tool downwards to crop the image just above the large tree to the left of the temple. Then drag the bottom center handle downwards to create empty space below the bottom of the image.

Crop the image

Step 3

Enable the onscreen rulers by going to View > Rulers or press Control-R (Windows) or Command-R (Mac). Then click and drag from the top ruler to create a horizontal guideline. Drag this guideline down to the bottom step of the temple. This will become the water line of our digital lake.

Reveal the ruler and create a guideline

Step 4

Use the Rectangular Marquee Tool (M) to create a selection of the top of the image. As the tool is dragged near the guideline, it will snap to the guideline, ensuring the selection is placed exactly at the right spot.

Create a selection

Step 5

Go to Layer > New > Layer Via Copy or press Control-J (Windows) or Command-J (Mac) to duplicate the selected area to a new layer. In the Layers panel you can see this new layer called Layer 1. Double click on that name to rename it, and then enter the name Reflection.

Copy to a new layer and rename it

Step 6

This layer will be undergoing quite a bit of distortion. Whenever putting strain on pixels, it's wise to convert to that layer to a smart object first—this will ensure the distortions don't destroy the pixel information. Do this by going to Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object. The layer thumbnail will show a small icon in the lower right to signify that it is a Smart Object.

Convert to a Smart Object

Step 7

Go to Edit > Transform > Free Transform or press Control-T (Windows) or Command-T (Mac) to get the transformation handles for the layer. Grab the top center handle and drag it down past the bottom of the layer; this will essentially flip the layer upside down. Drag the scale handle until it aligns with the bottom of the frame.

Use Free Transform to flip the reflection

Step 8

While the Free Transform is still active, right click on the layer and select Perspective. Grab the handle at the bottom left corner and drag it further towards the left. Notice that the right corner also moves to give the layer a perspective effect. Press the Enter key or click on the check mark in the options bar to commit the transformation.

Use the Perspective Transform

2. How to Create the Rippled Water Surface

Water is a turbulent substance, and it's very rare that large bodies of water are perfectly smooth and give mirror-like reflections. Most bodies of water, especially in a jungle setting, have ripples or disruptions to the water surface.

Step 1

Create a new layer over the reflection layer by going to Layer > New Layer or pressing Shift-Control-N (Windows) or Shift-Command-N (Mac)

In the New Layer dialogue box, enter a name of Water Gradient, enable the option for Use Previous Layer to Create Clipping Mask, and press OK. There won't be any visible change on the canvas, but the Layers panel will show the new layer with the thumbnail indented. This indicates that the layer is clipped, or restricted by the visible area of the Reflection layer.

Create a New Layer

Step 2

Grab the Gradient Tool (G) and look in the options bar at the top of the workspace. In the gradient preset area, open the drop-down menu and select the Black, White preset. Then make sure the Linear shape icon is selected. That's the first of the five shape icons. Now click on the temple doorway and drag downwards to draw out the gradient. Release the gradient near the bottom of the frame. This will create a gradient that is black near the top and white at the bottom. 

Use the Gradient Tool to add a black and white gradient

Step 3

The gradient completely covers the reflection. Look at the top of the Layers panel for a drop-down menu that says Normal by default; this is the blending mode for this layer. 

Open up the menu and select Multiply. The multiply mode only shows dark colors, so the white areas of the gradient are now rendered invisible! 

Next to that setting is the Opacity setting. Reduce that from the default 100% to 47% so the gradient is less visible.

Adjust the blending mode and opacity

Step 4

Next we need a new document to craft the rippled texture. Go to File > New or press Control-N (Windows) or Command-N (Mac) to launch the New Document dialogue box. Enter a Width of 2000 pixels and a Height of 2000 pixels, set the Background Contents to White and press the Create button (or OK on versions prior to CC 2017).

Create a new document

Step 5

Make sure the foreground and background color are set to the Default black and white by pressing the D key. Then go to Filter > Render > Fibers. Set the Strength to 16 and the Variance to 4. This creates a pattern of ragged vertical stripes.

Create a fibers texture

Step 6

Use the Move (V) tool to drag the fiber texture over to the tab of the main project file. Don't release the mouse button yet! Once Photoshop switches files, drop the texture onto that canvas area. Notice the fibers layer shows up in the Layers panel as well—rename it to Fibers. At this point, the file used to create the fibers can be closed without saving because it won't be needed anymore.

move the fibers texture to the main project

Step 7

Convert the fiber layer to a smart object with Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object. Then use the Free Transform again to rotate the layer, and while rotating hold down the Shift key to constrain the rotation to 45-degree angles. Rotate the layer to 90 degrees and Scale it up to fit over the reflection area. 

Transform the fibers texture to fit the reflection

Step 8

Go to Edit > Transform > Perspective and adjust the perspective of the fibers layer in the same way as the reflection layer. Apply the transformation with the checkmark or by pressing Enter.

Use the Perspective Transform on the fibers layer

Step 9

Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and use a Radius of 1.5 pixels. Another advantage of using a Smart Object is that filters are applied as Smart Filters, which means the settings are live and can be edited at any time.

3. How to Add a Displacement Effect to the Reflections 

The water surface is appropriately rippled, but the reflections need to be likewise disrupted to appear realistic. Photoshop has a useful filter called Displacement that is perfect for this task.

Step 1

In the foot of the Layers panel is a small icon that looks like a dog-eared sheet of paper. This is the New Layer icon. Hold down the Control key (Windows) or Command key (Mac) while pressing it to add a new layer underneath the current layer. This ensures the new layer is added beneath the fibers layer.

Create a new layer beneath the fibers layer

Step 2

Go to Edit > Fill and change the Contents to 50% Gray. Then press OK to fill the new layer with a midtone gray.

Fill the layer with midtone gray

Step 3

Go to Image > Duplicate and in the Duplicate Image dialogue box, change the name of the document to Water_Ripples_Displacement and engage the option for Duplicate Merged Layers Only. Press OK and Photoshop creates a new file that is the gray background and the fiber texture merged together. 

Go to Save As and save the file as Water_Ripples_Displacement.psd. It's important that the file is saved as a .psd file—that's the Photoshop file format. Once the file is saved, it can be closed—it will be used as a displacement map later on.

Duplicate the image to create a psd file

Step 4

Return to the project file and delete the gray filled layer by going to Layer > Delete > Layer. Then click on the fibers layer in the Layers panel to make sure that it's the active layer. Set the blending mode to Soft Light and reduce the Opacity to 25%

Adjust the blending mode and opacity of the fibers layer

Step 5

Click on the Reflection layer to make it the active layer. Go to Filter > Distort > Displacement. Set the Horizontal Scale to 25 and the Vertical Scale to 10. Set the Undefined Areas to Repeat Edge Pixels and click OK. Photoshop will prompt you to choose a displacement map. Select the Water_Ripples_Displacement.psd file we created previously.

Use the displacement filter

The displacement map works by using the grayscale values of the map file to distort or displace the pixels of this layer. Midtone gray produces no pixel shift, while black and white produce the most dramatic shift but each in opposite directions. The amount of the displacement is set by the horizontal and vertical values. In the case of the reflections, the horizontal shifts need to be more dramatic than the vertical.

Step 6

The water reflections need to have a slightly different color tone and brightness than the actual objects being reflected—this gives a subtle visual clue that makes the reflection more realistic. Go to Image > Adjustments > Hue/Saturation. Set the Saturation to +28 and the Lightness to -21.

Add a HueSaturation adjustment

Step 7

The reflected image should also be a little blurry when compared to the actual temple. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. Use a Radius of 1.5 pixels

Use the Gaussian Blur filter

Notice how the filters are being listed underneath the Reflection thumbnail as Smart Filters. If you ever need to readjust the filter settings, simply double click that filter name to reopen the dialogue.

Step 8

In the Layers panel there's a small white rectangle next to the Smart Filters. This is the thumbnail for the mask that is used to apply the filters to the Reflection layer. Click on it to make it the active element. You can tell it's active by the white outline around the thumbnail. 

Next, grab the Gradient Tool (G) again. It should have the same tool options set as last time, the Black, White preset and the Linear shape. Drag the gradient downwards again to create a gradient on the mask. This will fade the effect of the filters out as the reflections get closer to the temple and further from our viewpoint. 

If you don't like how the gradient works on the first try, just draw another one to replace it! Keep going until you are satisfied with the results. 

Use a gradient to fade the filter effects into the distance

Congratulations on Your Digital Flood

Now you are done! In this tutorial you have created a digital water surface in a landscape image that includes ripples and distortions to the water's reflection. Nice work!

Final Rippled Water Reflection Effect
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