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The Pain Free Tattoo

Ever wanted to have a tattoo but were too afraid to ask? Well, here’s a quick and simple Photoshop tutorial to show you how you can do exactly that; and what’s more if you’re squeamish there’s no need to look away 🙂


Step 1: Duplicate the Original Image

Ok so the first step is to create the actual Displacement Map which is basically a black & white version of the original image but with a few tweaks.


We’re going to make a duplicate of our original image so with it open in Photoshop go to the EDIT MENU and click on DUPLICATE. You’ll now be asked to give this duplicate copy a name which in my case I called ‘Displacement Map’ … just to keep things simple 🙂

Step 2: Black & White Conversion

Now we have a duplicate image in front of us we’re going to convert this to Black & White. For the displacement map we don’t need to concern ourselves with making the perfect black & white conversion here; choosing IMAGEADJUSTMENTSDESATURATE will work perfectly just fine.

Step 3: Increase the Contrast

For the displacement map to work really well it helps to have an image that is quite contrasty so there is an obvious distinction between the Shadows, Midtones and Highlights. Most of the time I’ll increase the contrast at this stage by simply choosing IMAGEADJUSTMENTSLEVELS and just simply moving the sliders around a little to increase the contrast sufficiently.


Step 4: Dodging & Burning

The next thing I like to do is to enhance the Shadows, Midtones and Highlight areas that much more with a little dodging and burning. Simply add a new blank layer and fill this with 50% Grey by going to the EDIT MENU and choosing FILL, and from within there choose 50% GREY


Then change the Blend Mode of this 50% Grey Layer to SOFT LIGHT


Now all we need to do is a little dodging a burning, so choose say the DODGE tool from the Tool Bar and with an EXPOSURE setting of 20% and RANGE set to MIDTONES paint a few strokes over all the highlight areas on the image so as to make them stand out that much more.


Repeat this process but this time with the BURN TOOL, again keeping the EXPOSURE setting to 20% and the RANGE set to MIDTONES.

Here’s what my displacement map looks like after this stage…


Step 5: Reduce the Roughness/Texture

The final stage in making the displacement map is to reduce the roughness or texture in the skin of our model. The reason for this is that if we keep it in, it will be exaggerated when we finally add in the tattoo which will then leave it looking rough and have jagged edges; not ideal if we want this to look as realistic as possible.

Now the way to do this is by using the Despeckle tool found in the FILTERNOISEDESPECKLE menu. I tend to find that applying this particular filter say 3 – 4 times does a good enough job of removing any unwanted roughness/texture. If we’d used a blur filter of some description like the Gaussian Blur it would have smoothed out the dodging and burning that we’d just worked on meaning it wouldn’t be as effective when we finally use the displacement map itself.

Having done all this FLATTEN the image by going to LAYER…FLATTEN IMAGE, then just SAVE the displacement map as a Photoshop file (.psd) to your desktop for ease of finding in a short while and close it.

Step 6: Adding the Tattoo

Ok so having saved and then closed the displacement map you’re now left with the original image open in Photoshop, so now it comes to adding the tattoo.

I like to add the tattoo as a SMART OBJECT for reasons I’ll cover in a short while, but for now just go the the FILE menu, click on PLACE and then find the image you’re going to be using as your tattoo.


Now that you have the tattoo image open in Photoshop, using the adjustment handles surrounding it resize it to taste by holding down your SHIFT key and clicking and moving one of the ‘adjustment handles’, and then also rotate it by positioning your cursor outside of the adjustment handles and dragging your cursor up or down. Once then positioned correctly simply press ENTER/RETURN.

Now my particular tattoo image was black with a white background, and as a side note and an extra little tip, we can actually remove all this white with one click by using blend modes i.e the MULTIPLY BLEND MODE.


Step 7: Using the Displacement Map

So now our tattoo is positioned correctly, we just need to make it look like it’s real by following the contour of our subjects muscle and this is exactly where our displacement map comes into play.

Go to the FILTER menu and choose DISTORT followed by DISPLACE. Having clicked on this you will then be presented with the dialogue box below which basically controls the amount of distortion you want to be applied to the tattoo. I like to start off with low numbers in both the HORIZONTAL SCALE and VERTICAL SCALE choosing ‘5‘ for both.


When you now click ‘OK’ you’ll be asked to locate your displacement map which in this case was saved on the desktop. Locating it and clicking on OPEN will then cause Photoshop to map your tattoo onto your subjects physique so that it now realistically follows the shape of the muscle as would a real tattoo. Now, if the distortion isn’t to taste that’s no problem. You see the tattoo is a SMART OBJECT so all we need do is double click on the filter which then re-opens the filter dialogue box so that we can then adjust the HORIZONTAL and VERTICAL SCALE to taste.


Step 8: Finishing Touches

The final stage is just a little bit of tidying up. in my case some of the tattoo needed removing so I simply added a white layer mask to the tattoo layer and then using a black brush, painted away what I didn’t want in the picture.

Finally, reducing the opacity of the tattoo layer down to around 50-60% gave that final bit of realism and also allowed a little of the model’s skin texture to show through as it would.


So there you have it…the ‘Pain Free Tattoo’.

Displacement maps offer endless creative possibilities and can be used on almost anything, so have fun experimenting and I’ll catch you next time 🙂

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