Life & Style tutorial: Create an underwater scene

Make a splash with an incredible underwater scene, with tips on underwater lighting from Fabio Sasso.

There’s another world under the waves, and in this tutorial, Fabio Sasso shows you how to recreate it convincingly. You’ll learn all sorts of ways to combine found images seamlessly, learning compositing and saturation techniques to integrate them into a backdrop that’s been created using Photoshop filters and gradients.

Sasso is skilled when it comes to tracking down and adapting images, and he shares some of his favourite sites for downloading free or donation-only brushes and images. Most importantly of all, you’ll learn to pay close attention to how light behaves and to think of your scene as a little world all of its own.

01. Create a new landscape A3 document in Photoshop at 300dpi. Fill the background layer with a gradient using colour reference #050808 for the bottom colour and #41616d for the top colour (click on the swatches at the bottom of the Tools palette to input the colour references). Next, create a new layer, fill it with black, and select Filter > Noise > Add Noise. Set the Amount to 400%, distribution to Gaussian, and ensure Monochromatic is ticked. Then select Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur, setting the amount to five pixels. Rename the layer ‘Surface’.

02. With the ‘Surface’ layer selected, go to Edit > Transform > Distort. Make the top part wider than the bottom – this will require you to drag the corners off the canvas, pulling the vertices while holding Alt/Opt. Next, go to Select > All and copy and paste the layer area. Delete the old layer, rename the new one ‘Water Surface’, change the blend mode to Color Dodge and select Image > Adjustments > Levels. Increase the black and white – I used 96, 1.00 and 149 for the levels. Next, select Filter > Blur > Motion Blur. Use 0 for the angle and 100 pixels for the distance.

03. With the Eraser tool (E) use a big brush set to a hardness of 0 to erase some areas of the ‘Water Surface’ layer so that it looks as though light is piercing the waves from directly above. Duplicate the layer and name it ‘Light Reflections’. Select Motion Blur (see Step 02). Use 90º for the angle and 999 pixels for the distance. Then select Edit > Transform > Scale. Increase the height only and go to Distort (see Step 02). This time make the bottom part much wider than the top. That will create the rays of light from the surface.

04. To create the bottom of the ocean, create a new layer and select Filter > Render > Clouds, make sure that you have black and white as your background and foreground colours. Rename the layer ‘Bottom Lights’. Then select Filter > Render > Difference Clouds and Image > Adjustments > Invert. Change the blend mode to Color Dodge and select Image > Adjustments > Levels. Increase the black input – I used 125; 1.12; 255. Then go to Edit Transform > Distort and distort the bottom of the layer, making it much wider to give a sense of perspective.

05. Still on the ocean floor layer, select a Gaussian Blur with a radius of ten pixels. Next, use the Eraser tool to delete some parts of the layer, and all of the top to give the effect of fading into the distance. As our water is quite murky you shouldn’t be able to see too much ocean floor.

06. Next, let’s create some 3D text in Illustrator. Type in the text you want and select Effect > 3D > Extrude & Bevel. The most important thing here is the depth and the lights: create three lights to illuminate the top and back of the text. Imagine how the light would work in your scene. Next, copy and paste the 3D text into your Photoshop document, and go to Filter > Distort > Wave. Set the number of generators to 3, the wavelength to 10 and 999, the amplitude to 5 and 18, and the scale to 100%.

07. Now to apply some layer styles: select Layer > Layer Style and enter the following values. For Inner Shadow: blend mode – Color Dodge; colour – White; angle – 90º; distance – 5 pixels; choke – 0%; and size – 46 pixels. In the Bevel and Emboss menu: style – Inner Bevel; technique – Chisel Hard; depth – 81%; size – five pixels; soften – 9 pixels; shading angle – 90º; highlight mode – Color Dodge; and opacities – 100%. In the Color Overlay menu, set the colour to light blue (reference #66b9d8); and the blending mode to Multiply.

08. Remain in the Layer Styles palette and enter the following settings. In the Gradient Overlay menu: colour – Black to White; blend mode – Multiply; Style – Linear; Angle – 87º; scale – 50%. In the Pattern Overlay menu: select one of the default Photoshop patterns – I used Texture Tile; blend mode – Linear Burn; opacity – 75%.

09. Create a new layer beneath the ‘Water’ layer. Use a soft black brush to paint shadows beneath the letters, then add details to the type. First I used a custom brush (which can be downloaded from to create the crack. To create the underwater plants, use a custom grass brush from and add a layer style, with a gradient overlay from black to grey, a drop shadow and Bevel and Emboss.

10. Keep adding elements and use Shadows, Bevel and Emboss in the Layer Styles to give more realism to the elements. You can download the plants I’ve used for free from and Use the Hue & Saturation palette (Image > Adjustments > Hue & Saturation) to match the colours of the photos with the scene. Reduce the Saturation and add a little green to the image. I also created some purple plants on the A.

11. Now let’s add the seaweedencrusted rocks to our image. To create the rocks, extract a section of rock from a photo (downloadable for free from and then duplicate this several times. Rotate, scale and distort these rock sections to create the wall of rock on the right-hand side, then create a new layer above the rocks layer. Select Layer > Create Clipping Mask, select the Brush tool and paint the clipped layer, using a soft brush and leaving some parts more visible.

12. For the rocks on the left of the image, repeat Step 11, but before creating the clipped layer adjust the colours of the rocks. Go to Hue/Saturation (see Step 10) and reduce the Saturation to -70, the Lightness to -45, and Hue to +118. Now create a new layer and paint it with black, covering the rocks. Reduce the brush’s opacity when painting the right-hand side of the rocks: this area will be shinier because of the light coming from the surface. Also paint the transition from the rocks and the ground.

13. Duplicate the ‘Bottom Lights’ layer, rotate it and scale it to cover the rocks on the left. Use the Eraser tool to delete unnecessary parts and set the blend mode to Color Dodge. Add some plants to the front of the scene. Use the grass brush and paint in black to create the plants. Create a Gaussian Blur, using 3.5 pixels for the Radius. This will create depth of field.

14. Duplicate the ‘Light Reflection’ layer and move it to in front of the text, then use the Eraser tool to delete some areas. Keep only the reflections in the text and plants. Add some bubbles by downloading this image: Place the image in the document and select Image > Adjustments > Desaturate; change the blend mode to Color Dodge and use the Eraser tool on some parts of the layer so that it fits in with the background.

15. Create a new layer at the top of the layer stack and select a cloud filter (see Step 04), with black and white set for the background and foreground colours respectively. Set a Gaussian Blur, using around 40 pixels for the Radius. Next, create a Motion Blur, changing the angle to 90º and the distance to 550 pixels. This will create some shadowy areas for the scene.

16. Add fish, divers and any other elements you want to the scene. If you’re adding a diver, be sure to put some bubbles in front of him. The key to making elements look like they’re part of the scene is to duplicate the ‘Light Reflections’ layer and place it in front of the elements layers. Also, adjust the Hue & Saturation of any image you add to the scene, reducing the saturation and adding a little green and blue to the image.

17. The final step is easy but effective. Select all the layers and group them. Rename the group ‘Scene’, and duplicate it. With the duplicated group, select Layer > Merge Group. Use a Gaussian Blur with a radius of 15 pixels, change the blend mode to Screen and the opacity to 85%. This will make the whole scene brighter and give it a glow. Again, you can add more elements, plants, lights, bubbles and fish. It’s about layering and using real elements as a guide to how elements behave in that scene.

Who: Based in Porto Alegre, Brazil, Fabio Sasso is a graphic and Web designer. As well as running Zee, a small Web-design studio, Fabio has a creative arts blog, Abduzeedo, which he uses for tutorials, experiments, and articles about Photoshop, Illustrator and other creative applications.
Software: Adobe Illustrator, Adobe Photoshop
Time to complete: 2 hours

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