Photoshop brushes are a brilliant way to add interest to your photos but did you know you can use brushes on layer masks? Say, for example, you want to create a bird made of fire, you could take a picture of fire, add a black layer mask to it and then using a bird-shaped brush paint with white on the mask to reveal the fire in just the shape of the bird. Here, let me show you what I mean …
Yeah, phoenix baby!
Using brushes on layer masks you can create a fun dispersion effect that makes your subject look like they’re breaking into pieces and scattering away. Perfect for those moments when something really awkward has happened and you wish you could dissolve away into nothing.
How to photograph for the dispersion effect
If you Google dispersion effect you’ll notice that 90% of the results show subjects against plain backgrounds, which is most likely because the effect would get lost against a busy background. So if you’re shooting a subject specifically for this technique I recommend shooting them against a plain wall or a seamless backdrop (since I can’t afford a seamless I use a bedsheet hung over a clothes rack. Fancy.). Then to save yourself a bit of work take a second exposure of the same scene without your subject in it.
But really, you can do this technique with any subject you please. To show you how this is done I’ll use a single photo example for this tutorial. For interest’s sake the photo I’ve chosen also shows the background and lighting I used to shoot my main image.
How to edit the dispersion effect
Open your image and duplicate your layer twice using Ctrl/Cmd J so you have three copies. Make an optional fourth copy if you want to change the background. (If your background is already separate place it below the subject layer and duplicate the subject once).
My base image
Highlight the top layer and go to Filter>Liquify. Keep the default settings and use the Forward Warp Tool in a largish size start to push the edges of your subject in the direction you want the scatter to go. Press OK when you’re done. (It’s weird to me that Photoshop has misspelt Liquefy, but whatever). (Also weird that my spell check thinks misspelt is misspelt.)
Add a layer mask and invert it (Ctrl/Cmd i) and using the brush you wish to scatter with (I used Photoshop’s default maple leaf brush) paint white on the layer mask to reveal the liquify layer. If you’re not getting random scattering with your brush please refer to my previous tutorial on how to change your brush properties. I usually have to scatter a few times until I’m happy with the result.
Dispersion effect on liquify layer
Now we’ll work on the background (bottom layer). Just skip this step if you have your background already separate. You need to have background behind your subject so that when you start scattering them there’s something behind them to see through to. I roughly selected my subject using the Quick Selection Tool and then chose Edit>Fill and selected Content-Aware in the ‘Use’ box. This replaced my subject but left a yucky outline, so then I created a new layer (Layer>New>Layer) and selected the clone stamp tool (s) making sure the sample was set to ‘Current & Below’. Holding down ‘Alt’ I clicked to select a blank piece of wall and then painted over the messy area. It doesn’t have to be perfect as you’ll only see small snippets.
With the middle layer selected, add a layer mask and paint black with your chosen brush around the edges of your subject to make some holes.
And that’s the answer my friends! But if you want to take it a step further and give your subject a new background highlight the fourth layer and select your subject using the selection tool(s) of your choice. You may want to turn off the other layers so you can see what you’re doing. Go to Select>Inverse and then press delete to remove the background. Then add in your new background which can be as simple as a layer filled with a colour. You can even add a texture to give it some interest.
There is ANOTHER way to achieve this effect by using the clone stamp tool and it can be done on one layer. Press s to select the clone stamp tool, choose your brush and go to Window>Brush to change its size and scatter amount. Alt click to sample inside your subject and then paint the scatter around them. Alt click to sample your background and paint over your subject. This technique is not as easy to control but it’s handy if you only want your subject to scatter a little.
About ‘Under the cloak of night’
I’ve seen a few people use the dispersion technique with bird brushes and I always look at their photos and think ‘that would’ve been better with bats’. With a bat theme in mind I set out to photograph a cave, settling on Kweebani Cave at Binna Burra National Park (which turned out to be more of a rock formation than a cave). I photographed myself in costume in my garage and Frankenstein-ed different body parts, hair, dress and cape flicks to make the final girl. I replaced the sky and composited in a moon from photos I’d shot separately and added the bats using the method above. The only difference is that my subject became all streaky when I liquified her and I didn’t like how this made the bats looked so I used a black solid colour layer instead. Always better with bats!