Photoshop Water Tutorial

In this Photoshop water tutorial I cover the creation of a water surface in Adobe Photoshop CS3. Photoshop water is pretty simple to create. Basically we need two things to create water in Photoshop, we need reflections and we need waves.

Water in Adobe Photoshop
Picture 1. Convincing water sufrace is pretty simple to create in Photoshop.

A Photo for Water Tutorial

Sunset photo of Castle of Molyvos
Picture 2. This is the photo I am going to use in this tutorial. The photo portrays the Castle of Molyvos.

First we need to choose and prepare a photo for this photoshop water tutorial. We need a photo that suits water surface well. I chose the photo in picture 2.
The Reflection in Water

Larger canvas for Photoshop water
Picture 3. Doubling the canvas size makes room for the Photoshop water.
Basic water in Adobe Photoshop
Picture 4. Basic Photoshop water reflection is created by flipping an image vertically.

Basic Photoshop water is created with a reflection. Let's create a basic reflection:

  • Duplicate the background layer by right clicking on it and selecting Duplicate Layer... from the menu.
  • Double the height of your photo with the Canvas size function (Image > Canvas Size...) according to picture 3.
  • Select the new layer and flip it vertically (Edit > Transform > Flip Vertical)
  • Use the Move Tool (V) to move the new layer according to picture 4. Now it already looks like water but the reflections are too perfect. The water is dead calm and therefore doesn't look very realistic.

The Waves
There are several different methods to create waves or ripples in Photoshop. Basically we just need to distort the layer so that it looks like water. We could use for example the Displacement filter but I feel that the Glass filter is more user friendly solution for this Photoshop water tutorial.
To use the Glass filter (or displacement filter) effectively we first need a picture that we are going to use as a texture in the Glass filter. The Glass filter will distort the water according to the texture. So next we are going to create a texture image that looks something like waves.
Texture for the Glass Filter
Let's create the texture. First Create a new file (File > New...). In the end the pixel size of the texture will match the pixel size of the water layer but at this stage the new image file should be a lot larger. The suitable size depends on the viewing angle of your photo. In my case (should work with many different cases) the width of the texture will be 4 times and height of the texture will be 3 times the size of the water layer. Size of my water layer is 1000 x 612 pixels so the size of my new texture file will be 4000 x 1836 pixels.
Noise Filter

The effect of the Noise filter in Photoshop
Picture 5. 50% crop after the Noise filter.

The texture for the Glass filter will be created by simply applying several different Photoshop filters to an empty image.
First add noise with the Noise filter (Filter > Noise > Add Noise...). Suitable amount of noise depends on the pixel size of the image. I used the following settings:

  • Amount: 75%
  • Distribution: Uniform
  • Monochromatic

Now the texture looks like in picture 5. Note that picture 5 is just a small piece of the texture in 50% size.
Bas Relief Filter

The effect of the Bas Relief filter in Photoshop
Picture 6. 50% crop after the Bas Relief filter.

Next add Bas Relief filter (Filter > Sketch > Bass Relief) to the texture. I used the following settings:

  • Detail: 10
  • Smoothness: 3
  • Light: Bottom

Now the texture looks like in picture 6. The color of the texture doesn't matter.
Motion Blur Filter

The effect of the Motion Blur filter in Photoshop
Picture 7. 50% crop after the Motion Blur filter.

Use Motion Blur filter (Filter > Blur > Motion Blur...) to make the texture pattern look more like waves. Proper amount of motion blur depends on the pixel size of the image and the effect you want to achieve. I used the following settings:

  • Angle: 0
  • Distance: 60

Now the texture looks like in picture 7.
Perspective

Guides and Perspective tool
Picture 8. Perspective is added to the texture.
Cropping an image
Picture 9. Cropping the image.
Texture for Photoshop water tutorial
Picture 10. The final texture to be used to distort the Photoshop water.

The next step is to add some perspective to our texture. At the moment the size of the waves is uniform throughout the texture. However when we take perspective into the consideration, the waves in the upper part of the texture should be smaller. This can be achieved with the Perspective tool:

  • Duplicate the layer by right clicking on it and selecting Duplicate Layer... from the menu.
  • The final width of the texture should match the width of the water layer in the original file. Use Photoshop guides to mark area in the center of the texture that is as wide as the water layer (in my case 1000 pixels). If you don't know how to use guides you could just estimate with your eyes. Next use the Perspective tool (Edit > Transform > Perspective) to change the perspective according to picture 8.
  • Crop the texture according to picture 9.
  • Change the size of the whole image (Image > Image Size). Turn off Constrain Proportions and change the height of the image to match the height of the water layer (in my case 612 pixels). Now the texture image is ready. It has waves, it has perspective, and it's pixels dimensions match the pixel dimensions of the water layer. Now my texture looks like in picture 10.
  • Save the file in PSD-format. That's the only file format you can use with Glass-filter.

Waves with the Glass Filter

Waves in water are added with Glass filter
Picture 11. Glass filter with proper texture creates waves.

Let's go back to the original image to enhance our Photoshop water. Select the water layer and convert it for smart filters (Filter > Convert for Smart Filters). Now we can use smart filters which basically means that filters have masks and they can be added as layers. Select everything on the water layer by pressing CTRL in the keyboard and clicking the thumbnail in the layer. This will ensure that the texture will be aligned correctly. Next add Glass filter (Filter > Distort > Glass...) to it. I used the following settings:

  • Distortion: 10
  • Smoothness: 3
  • Texture: the_texture_we_just_created.psd
  • Scaling: 100%

Now the Photoshop water should look like in picture 11.
Reduce background waves

Mask reduces waves in the background
Picture 12. The waves in the background are reduced.

The problem is that the waves near the horizon are far too big. Let's reduce them by coloring the filter mask with the gradient tool:

  • Choose 50% gray (#808080) as foreground color
  • Choose pure white as background color
  • Select the smart filters mask in the layers window
  • Select the gradient tool. Click and hold on the shore and release on bottom of the image to color the mask with gradient. The image and the filter mask should look like in picture 12.

Now the layer resembles water even more. There is just one more optional thing left to do in this Photoshop water tutorial.
Simulate the Fresnel Effect

Layers and masks for photoshop water tutorial Picture 13. Layers and masks for Photoshop water tutorial.

According to the Fresnel Effect the amount of reflection depends on the viewing angle. According to the Fresnel Effect the water should look more reflective in the background and more transparent in the foreground. Let's simulate the Fresnel effect with a simple layer mask:

  • Create a new empty layer below the other two layers and fill (Edit > Fill) it with dark turquoise color (#314b4d). The suitable colors depends on the photo and on the effect you want to achieve.
  • Add layer mask to the water layer.
  • Choose 60% gray (#999999) as foreground color
  • Choose pure white as background color
  • Select the water layer mask
  • Select the gradient tool. Click and hold on the bottom of the image and release on the shore to color the mask with gradient. The layers and masks should look like in picture 13.

Photoshop Water is Ready

Photoshop water tutorial
Picture 14. The final image made according to this Photoshop water tutorial.