realistic reflections in photoshop
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Easiest Way to Create Realistic Reflections in Photoshop

Easiest Way to Create Realistic Reflections in Photoshop

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Easiest Way to Create Realistic Reflections in Photoshop

Well, I guess this is my first tutorial kind of post about Photoshop, and it’s going to be about something that I see way too many people getting wrong – creating reflections. Making realistic-looking reflections in Photoshop is not hard at all, but you gotta make sure that the finished reflection looks convincing. The idea is that, once you’re done, nobody can tell that the reflection has been Photoshopped in.

As I said, this is not rocket science. There are probably several ways to do what I am about to show you, but about seventy percent of the time, I find myself using just this one, simple method. So, let’s dive right in to this and see what it’s all about.

Step 1:

For this project, we need a somewhat reflective-looking surface and some object to place on it. For now, let’s go with something that sits flat on the surface and isn’t a very complex shape. I’ll explain why a bit later.

I’m going to use a scene with a polished tile floor, and for the object I’ll use a phone I created a while back when I was writing my book. In fact, you can download both files here in case you wanna follow along.

Okay. Once we’ve found some material to work with, we’re going to open our scene in Photoshop and then import the object as a smart object (File>Place Embedded or Place Linked). Next, position the object in whatever way you want. You can see my scene in the image below.

Import and position the object
Import and position the object

Step 2:

The object has no reflection… and we all know what that means, don’t we? So, to avoid any confusion on the matter, let’s give it a reflection now. To do this, we are just going to duplicate the object and flip it on the horizontal axis. To duplicate it, just select the object in the Layers Panel and hit Cntrl+J (Cmd+J on a Mac). Next, select it on the canvas, right click on it, and press Flip Vertical. Yes, I know – we just pressed Flip Vertical to flip it on the horizontal axis. Makes a lot of sense, right?

Give the new, upside-down object a new name and place its layer below the original object in the Layers Panel. When you’re done, you should have something like this.

Duplicate and Flip Vertical
Duplicate and Flip Vertical

Step 3:

Right now we’ve got a pretty terrible reflection going on. Maybe it would be okay if or object were sitting on a mirror or some other highly reflective surface. But since we’ve got tiles, this is going to need some work. As a general rule, the visible depth of a reflection decreases relative to the reflectivity of the surface it’s on. Translated into Photoshop terms, that means the reflection should slowly fade away the further it gets from the original source. We can accomplish this effect with a mask and the Gradient Tool.

First, select the reflection in the Layers Panel. Next, give it a mask by pressing the mask button at the bottom of the Layers Panel (highlighted below) or navigating to Layer>Layer Mask>Reveal All. Either way you do it, you will now have a blank layer mask pinned to the side of your layer.

Create an empty mask
Create an empty mask

Step 4:

Now set the Photoshop colors back to the defaults by pressing D and then grab the Gradient Tool by pressing G. Select the new mask in the Layers Panel, and drag a gradient from the base of the phone downwards about one-fifth the phone’s length. This will have to be longer or shorter depending on the reflectivity of the surface. When that’s done, you should have something similar to the image below.

Fill the mask with a gradient
Fill the mask with a gradient

Step 5:

Next, we are going to add a bit of a blur to the reflection. For this, we can either use the plain old Gaussian Blur or the Blur Gallery with a tilt-shift blur, but I’m going with a Gaussian for this one. Again, this step will change depending on the material of the surface. A more reflective surface would need less blur if any at all. So, select the reflection in the Layers Panel and give it a Gaussian Blur of about 7 pixels (Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur) for the tiled surface.

Apply a Gaussian Blur
Apply a Gaussian Blur

Notice that, since the reflection is a smart object, the blur is applied as a smart filter. This means that we can edit it at any time without having to invoke the Undo command. Another great thing about smart filters is that we can apply a mask to them. In fact, that’s exactly what we’re going to do right now.

Click on the smart filter’s mask in the Layers Panel and drag another gradient mask. This time drag the gradient upwards. It will take a few tries to get it looking right, but the gradient should end just a little above the reflective surface. You can see my gradient mask as well as the result below.

Apply a gradient mask to the blur
Apply a gradient mask to the Gaussian Blur

Step 6:

Now, we’re just going to lower the opacity just a bit… okay a lot actually. You’ll have to play with this one a bit until it looks right for the surface you’re working with, but I think I’ll go with around 20% opacity. Yeah, that looks alright for now.

Lower the opacity of the reflection
Lower the opacity of the reflection

Step 7:

This is the last step, and it’s everybody’s favorite – tweaking. Now that we have all the effects in place, we can see how they are all working together. So, at this point you just have to keep playing with the settings until the reflection looks right. I’ve gone ahead and done that on my project. I didn’t change much, but I did edit the reflection layer’s mask to make the transition softer and lowered the opacity to 16%. I’ve also gone ahead and added some shadows and highlights based on the lighting of the scene. I won’t show all that here – maybe in a future post. Anyway, here’s the final result. Pretty realistic if I do say so myself.

realistic reflections in photoshop
The finished reflection

Before you go…

Well, that’s that for this project. But before you go, I want to show you a few of the limitations this method of faking (I mean making) realistic reflections has. Remember how I told you we were going to use an object that sits flat on the surface? Well, here’s why, and this is where I see a lot of people mess up. When you have an object that doesn’t sit completely flat on a surface, things get complicated. There will be parts showing in the reflection that aren’t actually visible on the main object or vice versa.

Let’s say you held your hand in front of a mirror. From your vantage point, you can’t see the palm of your actual hand, but you can see it in the reflection. Even if you look at you hand from the side, you will still see a bit of your palm in the mirror from most angles. Let’s look at an example in the Apple iMac below. At first glance, the reflection may seem okay. But if you look at it a bit longer, instinct takes over, and it just looks wrong. I can see some things in the reflection that I shouldn’t be able to see, and I can’t see some things that I should be able to see. Yeah. That was wordy.

badly made reflection
Wrong way to make a reflection

Now, let’s look at another example where the shadows are done correctly. As you can see, it looks much more believable and realistic.

well made reflection
Right way to make the reflection

For this one I actually had to create some new parts for the iMac’s reflection. They didn’t have to look real good or anything since it gets blurred out anyway, but it was an extra step and involved a lot of trial and error. This was actually really tricky the first time I did it because my desk is not reflective, so I couldn’t quite picture what it should look like. In the end I literally had to get out an old monitor and put it down on the floor before I could get the reflections right. It took me most of the day to get it right.

Another thing to watch out for when making reflections in Photoshop is textured surfaces like metal or even water – anything that isn’t absolutely smooth and flat. Texture plays funny tricks on reflections, and you’ve got to find ways to make it work properly. This is actually kind of fun because you’ve got to get really creative sometimes… but that’s a subject for another blog post. 

Well, thanks for reading, and I’ll see you around the bend.

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