How To Create The Dispersion Effect In Photoshop (Step By Step)

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The dispersion effect in Photoshop can make any subject look like they’re being snapped away by Thanos (sorry if you’ve never seen Avengers) and is a fun, creative effect to try. Although the process may seem intimidating, especially if you’re a beginner, you can easily recreate the dispersion effect in Photoshop in no time by following the steps below.

How To Create The Dispersion Effect In Photoshop

Step 1: Duplicate The Image Layer

Start with the image you’d like to use open in a Photoshop document. In the Layers Panel, you’ll see the image layer open as a Background Layer.

Duplicate the layer by Right clicking or Control + clicking the Background Layer in the Layers Panel and selecting Duplicate Layer.

In the window that comes up, I recommend naming the layer so that you can keep track of it. For now, you can name it Layer 1.

The duplicated layer will appear at the top of the layer stack as Layer 1.

Before moving on, hide Layer 1 by clicking the eye icon to the left of the layer thumbnail.

Hiding the layer will ensure that you can only see the work you’re doing on the Background Layer without the appearance of Layer 1 interfering.

Step 2: Draw A Lasso Around The Background Layer

Next, you’ll need to make a selection of your subject or whichever part of the image you’d like to use for the dispersion effect.

In the Layers Panel, make sure the Background Layer is selected.

Head to the Toolbar and select the Lasso Tool (L).

Now, draw a selection around the part of the image you’d like to apply the dispersion effect. For instance, in my photo, I want to create the effect to the left of the woman in the image to look like she is dissolving into the air. So, I’ll draw my selection around the woman.

The selection doesn’t have to be perfect. You can hold the cursor slightly outside of the edge of your subject. Once you’ve made the selection, fill it by Right-clicking or control + clicking the selection on your document and then selecting Fill from the options that come up.

The Fill window will appear, and here you can set the Contents section to Content-Aware if it isn’t already. Click OK when you’re done.

It may process for a moment, so wait until it’s finished.

In the Background Layer thumbnail in the Layers Panel, you’ll see that the selection you made is now black.

Deselect the selection you made using Control + D (Win) or Command + D (Mac).

Step 3: Select And Mask The Subject

Make Layer 1 visible again by clicking where the Eye Icon was to the left of the layer thumbnail and selecting Layer 1.

Select the Quick Selection Tool (W) by clicking the icon in the Toolbar. You may need to click and hold the Object Selection Tool or Magic Wand Tool to see the Quick Selection tool.

Drag the cursor along the subject (or whichever part of the image you’d like to disperse) until the entire object is selected.

You can use the Addition and Subtraction icons in the Options Bar to add to and remove parts of the selection and clean it up as needed.

Once the selection is made, head to the Options Bar and click the Select and Mask button.

This will apply a mask to the selection you’ve just made, but you won’t see any changes to the image yet. In your workspace, you’ll see a set of tools on the left near the Options bar. If you want to refine detailed areas like hair or trees, click the Refine Edge Brush Tool.

Using the cursor, draw along the edges that need to be refined without going further than the edge. You won’t see much change in the image, but in the panel on the right, scroll until you see the Output Options. You can then click the Output To dropdown menu and select Layer Mask to ensure this is added to the layer mask you’ve just created. 

Click OK when you’re done, and you’ll be returned to the Layers Panel, where you’ll see the Layer Mask thumbnail next to Layer 1.

Step 4: Apply A Layer Mask

Once again, duplicate the top layer, Layer 1, by Control + clicking or right-clicking Layer 1 and selecting Duplicate. The layer will appear in the panel as Layer 1 Copy. Make sure the layer is sitting at the top of the layer stack.

With the white border around the image thumbnail, right-click, or Control + click the Layer Mask thumbnail and select Apply Layer Mask.

In the Layer 1 Copy thumbnail, you’ll see that the subject now sits atop a transparent background (represented by the gray and white checkerboard pattern). In the document, the image will remain the same.

I suggest renaming the Layer 1 Copy to Dispersion to keep your layers organized, as this layer will form the dispersion effect. Double-click the name and type Dispersion.

Step 5: Warp The Image

Hide the middle layer (Layer 1) by clicking the Eye Icon, then duplicate the Dispersion Layer again.

You can rename this layer to whatever you’d like to keep it organized. For my purpose, I’ll rename it to Subject.

Select the Dispersion Layer.

Head to Filter > Liquify.

This will bring up the Liquify window. Make sure the Forward Warp Tool is selected in the left toolbar.

Now, using the cursor, warp the image in the area and direction you’d like the effect to occur. This will likely be a diagonal direction going away from the subject. Do this until you’ve warped the image all the way to the edge (or as far as you’d like the effect to go).

Click OK when you’re finished, and you’ll see the warp effect you’ve made sitting behind the cutout of the subject so that the edges are still intact.

Now, Alt + click the Mask Icon at the bottom of the Layers Panel.

This will apply an all-black Layer Mask (transparent mask) to the Dispersion effect and remove the warped effect from your image. We will add parts of it back in a few steps.

Step 6: Find And Install A Dispersion Brush

Before you complete the dispersion effect, you’ll need to ensure you have a dispersion brush pack available in your brush library. If you haven’t already got a dispersion brush pack, you can purchase a pack or find a free one online.  I was able to easily find a free pack of 20 Dispersion Brushes on Brusheezy.

Download the brush pack by clicking the Free Download button.

To install and use the brush pack, head to the Brush Tool (B) in Photoshop and open the Brush Panel in the Options Bar. Head to the Settings menu, which looks like a gear icon.

Select Import Brushes and then find and import the brush pack from your files. It will then appear in your Brush Library.

Step 7: Apply The Brush To Remove Particles

Now that you’ve installed the brush pack into Photoshop, you can use the brushes to create the dispersion effect. You can first use the brush to remove a few bits and pieces from the original image.

Select the Subject Layer and then click the Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers Panel.

Ensure that the Foreground color (at the bottom of the Toolbar) is set to Black.

Head to the Options Bar, open the Brush Panel and select a dispersion brush from the pack you found and downloaded earlier.

You can start by applying the brush along the same edge where you pulled the image out. With the foreground color set to black, you will remove parts of the image along the side, and in the next step, you’ll add the floating pieces in the space next to the picture.

You can then alter the brush’s size, rotation, and even the type of brush you’re using while you work to make the effect more realistic.

If it looks a bit messy at this point, don’t worry; we’ll clean everything up at the end.

Step 8: Apply The Brush To Add Particles

Once you’re happy with how the effect looks, you can head to the Layers Panel and select the Dispersion Mask. If it helps, you can click the Eye Icon beside the Subject Layer to hide the effect you’ve made above.

Set the Foreground Color to White.

Then, using the dispersion brush, stamp the brush in the area where you warped the subject out to add the effect of pieces flying off of the subject.

Again, you’ll want to rotate, change the size, and even change the dispersion brush you’re using so that it doesn’t look like a pattern.

Step 9: Clean Up The Effect

Now that you’ve added the effect, you can clean it up so that there aren’t any dispersion brush stamps in any areas you don’t want them.

First, select the Subject Layer Mask.

Then, make sure the foreground color is set to white.

Now, select a brush with a soft edge and brush out any parts you want to be removed from the effect. 

For me, this is mainly a few areas of the hair that I want to remain clear as part of the image. So, I’ll paint white over where I’d like the full picture to remain.

The effect now looks cleaner.

Step 10: Sharpen The Effect (Optional)

Finally, you can sharpen the overall effect using the Unsharp Mask to make it appear more crisp and professional.

To do this, use the shortcut Control + Shift + Alt + E (Win) or Command + Shift + Alt + E (Mac). This will Merge all visible layers into one additional layer, which will appear at the top of the layer stack.

For organization, I’ll rename this layer Sharpen. Right-click or Control + click the Sharpen Layer and select Convert to Smart Object.

Now, head to Filter > Sharpen > Unsharp Mask.

The Unsharp Mask window will appear. In the Amount area, drag the slider to the right to increase the sharpening effect until you’re happy with the results. For my project, I’ll set the Amount to 65.

Click OK when you’re finished, and your image will appear sharper than before.

You can work on the layer masks to remove more areas of the subject or add in more floating pieces to create a more flowing effect. You will now have a crisp, beautiful dispersion effect applied to your image. You can repeat these steps whenever you want to use this effect on your pictures.

Photo of author
I'm a Canadian photographer and photo retoucher turned founder of bwillcreative.com. Around here I help you to decode the mystery of photo editing with no-fluff videos and written guides to help you achieve your creative goals. Outside of shooting photos and my passion for educating, you'll find me mountain biking or on the trails with my dog, Sunny!

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