Plumeria Reflection Created in Photoshop
Photo Processing,  Software

How to Create a Water Reflection in Adobe Photoshop

Water reflections are a popular subject for photographers.  But sometimes you just can’t get the best reflection in camera.  Adobe Photoshop can create a realistic water reflection image and it’s not that difficult to do.

This technique can be used to improve existing reflections and also to create reflections in photographs that do not have any water present in them.

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Here are the steps to create your own mirror images in Adobe Photoshop.

Create Mirror Image

1. Open the image in Adobe Photoshop

Marquee Selection Tool
Marquee Selection Tool

2. Using the Rectangular Marquee Tool select the Portion of image that you want to be in the reflection

Create Layer Via Copy
Create Layer Via Copy

3. Right click on the image and select Layer Via Copy

Transform - Flip Vertical
Transform – Flip Vertical

4. In the Edit menu, select Transform – Flip Vertical

Align Top and Bottom of Image
Align Top and Bottom of Image

5. Using the Move Tool align the two sides of the image where the reflection and image will meet.  You won’t be able to see the entire reflected side of the image.  That’s OK, we’ll fix that in the next step.

Crop To Resize Canvas
Crop To Resize Canvas

6. Using the Crop Tool, drag the bottom side of the image down to enlarge the canvas to fit the entire image.  Click on the Check Mark in the options bar at the top of the window when finished.

Convert To Smart Object
Convert To Smart Object

7. Right click over the layer with the reflection and select Convert to Smart Object.  This will allow us to make modifications to the blur and ripples in the reflection without starting over.

Blur the Water

Add Motion Blur
Add Motion Blur

8. In the Filter menu select Blur – Motion Blur.  Set the Angle to 90 degrees, the Distance depends on subject and how blurry you want your reflection.  For this image, I used a distance of 54.

Create Water Ripples

For this step you need a Displacement Map. 

I’ve included the steps to create a Displacement Map in a separate blog.  Displacement Maps are not difficult to create but there are quite a few steps.

The good news is that once you create the Displacement Map it can be used again in future reflection images.  It’s a good idea to create two Displacement Maps – one with a wide stretch and one with a more narrow stretch.  For images with more vertical objects, I think the narrow stretched displacement map works better.

Displace Settings
Displace Settings

9. Once you have your Displacement Map, select your reflection layer and in the Filter menu select Distort – Displace.  You will want to vary the settings based on your image and preferences.  For this image I used Horizontal Scale = 15, Vertical Scale = 10, Stretch to Fit.  Click OK.  I selected a Displacement Map with a Wide Stretch.  Click open.

Select Displacement Map
Select Displacement Map

Once you’ve added your blur and ripples to the reflection, it is easy to modify the values if you don’t like the outcome.  Click on the filter in the smart object and tweak the settings until you get an image you like.

Motion Blur & Displace Results
Motion Blur & Displace Results

Finishing Touches

Below are a few more finishing touches that you may want to apply to your image to give it a more realistic look.

Darken the Shoreline

The shoreline where the image and reflection meet is usually darker, so we will want to darken up that area of the image.  This can also help to hide any errors you might have made when aligning the two halves of the image.

10. Create a new Brightness / Contrast Adjustment Layer above the smart object

11. Select the Layer Mask.

Gradient Selections to Darken Shoreline
Gradient Selections to Darken Shoreline

12. Click on the Gradient tool.  In the Option Bar settings at the top of the window, click on the 2nd dropdown from the left and select Foreground to Background (1st from left) in the basics folder.  Also select the Reflected Gradient type (the 4th icon from the left).  Make sure your foreground color is set to white.

Set Foreground and Background Colors
Set Foreground and Background Colors

13. Draw Gradient on the image just above and below the shoreline. 

You can see the result in the layer mask or you can press the \ key to see the gradient in red overlayed on the image. Press the \ key again to remove the red overlay from the image. You can also hold down the Option Key (Mac) Alt Key (Windows) and click on the layer mask to see only the mask in the image.  Click on the adjustment layer thumbnail to remove the mask display.

Brightness / Contrast Adjustment Layer to Darken Shoreline
Brightness / Contrast Adjustment Layer to Darken Shoreline

If you don’t like the Gradient, just redraw it.  Make sure the layer mask is still selected.

14. Adjust the brightness to darken the area around the shoreline.

Result of Shoreline Shadow
Result of Shoreline Shadow

Darken Bottom of Image

Reflections are normally darker that the area that they are reflecting, so we will want to darken the bottom half of the image containing the reflection.

15. Create a new Brightness / Contrast Adjustment Layer above the smart object

16. Select the Layer Mask.

Gradient Selection to Darken Reflection
Gradient Selection to Darken Reflection

17. Click on the Gradient tool.  In the Option Bar settings at the top of the window, click on the 2nd dropdown from the left and select Foreground to Background (1st from left) in the basics folder.  But this time select the Linear Gradient type (the 1st icon from the left). 

18. Set your foreground color to Black.

Brightness / Contrast Layer to Darken Reflection
Brightness / Contrast Layer to Darken Reflection

19. Draw the Gradient so only the bottom of the image is affected by the adjustment layer (white areas of the mask will be impacted by the adjustment.  Trying starting the gradient about 1/3 from the top of the image and drag it all the way to the bottom. 

20. Adjust brightness to darken the bottom of the image.

Results of Darken Reflection
Results of Darken Reflection

Add Color Tone to the Water

Often the reflection will have a cooler tone the other parts of the image.  So let’s add a color tone to the image.

21. Select a new Photo Filter Adjustment Layer above the smart object.

Deep Blue Photo Filter
Deep Blue Photo Filter

You can draw a new gradient mask for this adjustment or reuse the layer mask we created to darken the bottom of the image.

22. Hold down the Option Key (Mac) or the Alt Key (Windows) and drag the layer mask from the Brightness / Contrast layer to the Photo Filter layer.  You will get a message about replacing the layer mask.  Click Yes.

23. Select a color tone for the image in the Filter dropdown in the adjustment layer. Adjust the Density of the Photo Filter to your taste.

Results of Deep Blue Photo Filter
Results of Deep Blue Photo Filter

Save the Image in Photoshop Format

If you save the image in Photoshop format, you can come back and adjust the filters in the smart object and the adjustment layers in the future.

Save In Photoshop Format
Save In Photoshop Format

24. Under the File menu select Save As.  Make the format Photoshop and make sure the Layers checkbox is selected.  Check that the folder is correct for where you want to save the image.  Click Save.

Below is another example of water reflection images that I created using Adobe Photoshop this time using a Narrow Stretched Displacement Map.

Sailboats in a Foggy San Diego Bay Reflection
Sailboats in a Foggy San Diego Bay Reflection

For the sailboat image above. I used 90 Degree Angle and a Distance of 90 for the Motion Blur. For the Displace Filter, I used a Horizontal Scale = 2, Vertical Scale = 10 and a Narrow Stretched Displacement Map.

I also darkened the edge where the water and boats meet, darkened the reflection, and added a Deep Blue Photo Filter to the reflection.

Written by Martin Belan

Related Posts

How to use Photoshop to Selectively Edit Colors in Your Photos
How to Roundtrip from Adobe Lightroom to Photoshop and Not Lose Your Layers
How to Create a Displacement Map in Photoshop for Ripples in Water Reflections

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