How to create dispersion effect with Photoshop


One of the most demanded creative effects in Photoshop is about creating a dispersion effect, like if particles from a subject were fading through space in a wide variety of shapes and scale. Such effect became popular with the rise of visual effects in the film industry, used for crystal shattering effects or explosions, as well as some popular brand advertising that used the same techniques in order to approach to its audience.

Today we are going to learn how to accomplish such effect with three simple layers inside Adobe Photoshop and all the necessary elements to make this possible.

Resources needed for dispersion effect

First of all, you obviously need a picture with a clean subject that is going to have the dispersion effect applied to it. If our subject is surrounded by too many people or distracting elements like vegetation then we need to pick another picture as this won’t fit the criteria needed to work with dispersion effect – the object needs to be isolated in order to create a good dispersion effect.

Then you will need brushes in order to accomplish this effect. Brushes with particle effect are ideal for this kind of job, otherwise, choose brushes that emulate strokes of paint like oleo painting or watercolor. Remember to have two or three brushes in hand as you will need to switch between brushes for making the effect look realistic enough.

Finally, you can get your hands on a good background texture, like a bokeh effect, but that is completely optional. In my case, I’m only going to work with the subject and a white fill as background.

Workflow of the dispersion effect

Start by opening your image in Photoshop. My goal here is to make a clean selection using the Quick Selection tool for then isolating the subject in a new layer and proceed with dispersion effect.


Select the entire subject using the Quick Selection tool. Try to work with a small brush in order to select the most of the image, even if later on we can refine this selection prior isolating it.


After selecting the subject, go to Select menu and choose Refine Edge. Work with parameters similar as I show below in order to refine the selection you made.


Right-click on the image and select the option ‘Layer via Copy’. Then you have to make another copy of that layer for the effect of dispersion.


Create a new layer and fill it with White. Place this layer on the bottom as it will act as our background for the subject.


Select the first layer and go to Filter – Liquify.


With this filter selected all we want to do is grabbing parts of the image and “liquify” (dragging points as if you were moving water along the scene) them as they were fading away from us. The more you extend your image with this effect, the larger the dispersion effect will be.


Apply a Layer Mask to this layer and fill it with Black; also apply another Layer Mask to the layer on top but this one filled with white.


The idea on this is to paint with a white brush all the way through the areas where we want the particles to appear, and with a black brush on the other layer mask at the areas where you want pixels to fade. It is important to work with the layer masks instead of the image or you will lose data and the effect won’t work properly.

Keep changing between brushes and also adjusting the opacity of the brush, that’s the key to realism with this effect.


Finally, if you feel like you can replace the white fill layer with a bokeh effect texture or the texture you feel it can bring more to the composition you are making.

Common errors in this procedure

Putting aside the atrocious mistake of working with the image instead of the layer mask, there are other known errors that can affect the outcome of this creative effect.

  1. Not erasing enough parts of the mask: If your main layer image looks too static and the particles are showing up, then it’s an unrealistic feeling to consider at the image. Instead, find your middle ground by alternating areas where the image seems to disappear and where the image remains intact.
  2. Not giving brush variety: Another key point to bring realism to the equation is to play with different brush sizes and shapes. In real-life, a scattering effect would never produce a group of particles of the same size and shape, then why do it yourself?
  3. Not changing direction: Like stated above, the aim is to craft an effect as real as possible, thus you need to work on how to create a realistic effect for the images you are retouching. Keep changing direction to give the shards a windy effect that boost the realism over this dispersion style.
  4. Ignoring Opacity: Opacity tool is there for a reason, then use it to your benefit. When masking areas of your effect, keep changing opacity values to give depth to the effect you are making – more intense colors means the shards are nearer, farther ones imply the particles are far away from you.

Remember never to use the eraser tool if you erased more than what was needed; it is best if you work your way masking color with the brush tool as the eraser will also delete background data in the process as well as your subject data (which by using the layer masks is preserved).

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