I am an aspiring author, and am creating a map of my fantasy world in Photoshop. The map is very detailed, containing information on wind patterns, temperature changes, and tectonic plate movement, amongst other things. I've been able to successfully convey all of this. What I'm having trouble with are the mountains/hills.

I've been able to represent a mountain/hill with a symbol from a custom brush, but I'd also like some way of having the ground 'bulge' outwards so that it looks like there is actually a hill there.

How can I do this?


A fairly generic example of what I want to achieve:

Terrain map

A slightly more accurate example of what I'm looking for. Note how the hill in the lower left corner just seems to 'rise up' from the city:

enter image description here

What I do not want:

enter image description here

Further details, and what I've tried:

I've been able to get around this problem for mountains, by actually drawing the snow and glaciers. This doesn't make the ground bulge, but you can at least see where the mountain extends. This won't work for smaller mountains or hills though, where there is no snow.

I experimented with the Emboss function, which does make a nice plateau/lava flow effect. It does not look like a hill though.

I tried the Pinch function, going into negative numbers so that it would bulge instead of pinch. Unfortunately, the function is so large (effecting the entire image), that I can't localize it enough. Also, I cannot seem to target it on any one area of the image.

The best idea I've had is to make a 3D hill somehow, rasterize it to a flat image, and then somehow turn that into a brush. I could then use the brush to tint the ground so that it looked like a hill. The problems with this are that my 3D creation abilities are questionable, and the brush has to be only black/transparent black to work. Grays, which would be included in the flattened image of the 3D hill, would not convert into a custom brush.

The best result I've had: drawing in black, embossing, and setting the layer to 'Overlay'. It looks halfway decent, though still rather amoeba-like.

enter image description here

  • Can you post your best attempt? My initial feeling is to airbrush it but not sure what you've got.
    – Ryan
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 20:34
  • Sounds to me like you need to brush in some shadows... ( or add in shadows.. depending on the style of the map it could be done with pen tool as well. )
    – Joonas
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 20:52
  • 1
    Well.. it's all really just illustration techniques using light, shadow, and foreshortening. There won't be a "magic' button for that in Photoshop really. The Liquify options or warp options will be as good as you are going to get without actually drawing things.
    – Scott
    Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 21:05
  • @Ryan I don't have a best attempt, because I haven't been able to think of a way that I feel will work yet. I'm not sure how the airbrush works though... Commented Aug 5, 2015 at 22:16
  • @Jenna Thanks for the link, but it looks like it doesn't work. I would agree that realistic-looking depth of the mountains would be my issue. Commented Aug 13, 2015 at 16:53

7 Answers 7


Start with a very loose idea:

Loose Idea

Marquee tool to quickly go over the High:

Marquee the high

Add your high color:

Plateau color

If I press Cmd/Ctrl+Plataeu thumbnail on Layer Panel it will select it for me. Then do SelectModifyExpand. I used 15 pixels. Notice the bottom of the Plateau and the Selection now have an offset to it:

Plateau with offset

Create a layer beneath, color it, repeat. Use progressively smaller expansion sizes. The more you do the nicer it'll look:

(Note: If you have Adobe Illustrator you could use the Blend function to do this a bit automated for you)


Add in your Water:

Added Water

Add a very thin stroke to your water:

Water with Stroke

I then used a drawing tablet to add some small lines to it. Lower you get the less pronounced they become. This can be done with mouse or even strokes and masks, but a drawing tablet certainly helps:

enter image description here

Alright let's add a bit of a drop off on the bottom to the water. At this point I'm going to use brushes and drawing tablet but you could again use the selection > expansion > fill method like you used earlier. After I have a base shape since I'm going to do a little airbrushing, I'm going to add a layer mask:

enter image description here

Then I can use my airbrushes to smooth it:

enter image description here

Again add a few lines here and there just for some texture and such:

enter image description here

Alright so now it's at a pretty good place without any manmade structures or trees yet. That bottom right looks a bit more ridgy though and a key part is having at least something look less like a ridge and more like a hill. Let's try to go back and fix that up a bit. I just used airbrush here, if you don't have a tablet then use lots of colors with your mouse and possibly smudge it as well:

enter image description here

But still hills have some drops so add just very very few lines.

enter image description here

I'm gonna stop here. The more detail, texture, colors you add the better. Next thing to do is drop-off to water on bottom left now that the hill is fixed. After that I would probably start with buildings. Once the buildings are in I'd add lighter and darker areas to the ground, then trees between the buildings, and finally details like bridges, walls, maybe some textures and labels.

Notice the light is coming from the left side so after I add in the structures and whatnot I would want to adjust the colors to indicate this. The left side of the valley should be a bit darker than the right. I'm not sure what the "correct" way to do this is but I would do that after adding buildings. See like here how much lighter this section is:

enter image description here

Hope this helps you out. Entire process took me an hour, would've been less if I wasn't taking screenshots and documenting as I went. Final look:

enter image description here

  • Thank you for taking the time to go through this. I like user6811's answer for its simplicity and ease of use, but it does suffer when it come to drawing large hills or mountains. I believe your method is better for those. Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 17:11
  • I've found this method works best for creating elevation maps. Without using the lines to indicate cliffs, it's fairly easy to just go through with the lasso selection tool and add several layers of white topography, which I then make 20% transparent. The lower ground is dark, the higher is light. It's not exactly what I was looking for, but it does look more realistic than what I had, and adds elevation detail that I did not have. Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 16:54

Mapmakers use embossing to create the effect from a height map. You can use the emboss filter on a image that represent your height field. If you must use photoshop for this then i would use the:

  • Filter → render → Lighting Effect, rather than emboss.

Start with a small white brush, with a very low flow on a black canvas then start drawing out the contours of your surface for a circular mountain draw out form the summit, along the lines for dunes etc. You can use blur after a few paths and then add more layers.

enter image description here

Image 1: Quickly made 1 stage

Then copy this images R (B or G) channel in the layers palette for further referencing.

After this apply a gradient map on your image for color variation from height. Merge the layers. For better effect add some noise to this image etc..

enter image description here

Image 2: Quickly made 2 stage image map

Then apply the Lighting Effect, use the saved channel as the detail map.

enter image description here

Image 3: Quickly made lightning effect. Note i could have used a smaller brush with less flow and blur passes and more levels but you can also paint onto this for better effect.

Now you have a passable lightning effect, and cosiderable amount of teaking ability. And finally paint with color on top of this one for tah final artsitic effect you need.


Image 3: Quickly made mountain, take your time and build slowly and youll get a better result, im just outlining the method.


  • use a non round brush
  • save your layers if you notice something went wrong
  • paint canyons with black on the built up structure, paint blue on the color map
  • Follow @Ryans outline think black and white version of Ryans method.
  • PS is really should take my time to redo the pictures in more than 15 minutes.... I mean documenting took about 10 minutes of my time.
    – joojaa
    Commented Aug 10, 2015 at 15:06

I have discovered another method which achieves the effect I was looking for far better than any other answer I've seen here. It has the added bonus of being 'non-destructive', meaning it can be changed or edited at any time, and does not effect the image beneath. It also very closely resembles satellite imagery of mountains.

The drawbacks are that the elevation is difficult to control. All valleys are at the same elevation, and the elevation of the mountains is determined purely by the size of their base. Elevation increases at a steady rate, and that rate cannot vary. The mountains also have a tendency to look a bit wierd about the outside edges, but that can be remedied with sufficient time. So if you're picky about the exact elevation, this method might not be for you. But if you're just after the perfect look with a fully editable shape, then you might want to use this.

I start out by creating a base. I'm using a green cloud background with added noise to simulate grass, but you can use whatever you want. The more realistic you can make it look, the better.

Grass BG

Add another layer, fill it with 50% gray (solid, not 50% transparency), and set the layer to overlay. Your image might be a shade brighter, but it should look basically the same (you can play around with different shades of gray if you want it to be exactly the same hue as before).

Working with the gray layer, add a bevel and emboss effect. You'll want an inner bevel, and set the technique to 'chisel hard'. Depth can stay at 100%. Change the direction to Up, and scale the size WAY up. Depending on how 'close' to your mountains you are (what elevation you are viewing them from) you can tweak this later. I set mine to 100 px.

enter image description hereenter image description here

Now comes the fun part. You're going to draw your mountains. Or more accurately, the valleys that shape the mountains. You need the eraser tool and you should set it at a fairly small size. 3 or below should work. Then simply draw where the valleys should be. Larger brush sizes can be used for larger valleys.

enter image description here

You may notice parts of the image where the top of the mountain sort of flattens out. That can be fixed by adjusting the size in the bevel&emboss options. The higher the size, the higher your mountains can go. Do be aware that this puts some strain on low/medium end systems. If you have two many layers in a single document with a high pixel count, Photoshop can lock up when trying to open it. Keep your images small and rasterize as many layers as you can.

Once you get familiar with creating valleys, you can mold the mountain layer to your liking, and change it any time.

enter image description here


Use what's available:

Photoshop has had at least 6 years some 3D tools. One of them is "Create a mesh from BW layer". You can give the height map as greyshades. A gradient means a slope. A sharp edge means a precipice or scarp. You can define the light and the watching direction for the rendering.

This is an example. The height map has mid grey base color, a lighter rectangle and a darker round shape. Both are blurred to make height changes less sharp. On the right the same map is used and the result is shown fron 2 different directions.

enter image description here

The following example is trying to be a ridge

enter image description here

It's a double sided linear gradient from white to black that has tasted some smudge pushes in the Liquify filter.

  • After some experimentation, I've found this is a way better method than I thought. With some practice, it is actually quite easy to create elevation changes, even after the 3D has been rendered (as long as your system can take it). The only drawbacks are the difficulty of viewing the terrain (the view tool is a bit clunky), and the problem of water: I would simply add in another flat 3D plane as the water, but I can't figure out how to snap it to the first plane. Any advice on that? Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 15:52
  • 1
    @ThomasMyron Draw a selection for a lake. You can reserve some heihgt (=greyshade) inside the selected area for the surface of a lake and floodfill the selected area with that grey. Be sure that nothing at the border is deeper. Otherwise you have a waterfall or you try something that Moses did when quitting from Egypt.. Make a blue fill on another layer into the same selection. Blur the oversteep border outside the water. . Paint the rivers manually onto the colored water -layer.
    – user82991
    Commented Mar 13, 2017 at 16:08

I've discovered an answer to this question.

I found if I set the brush hardness to 50% (varying depending on map texture) and made a simple black circle, then embossed the circle, and then set the layer to 'Overlay' a nice 'bump' is created on the map. Another screen mode that works and is a little less vibrant is 'Soft Light.' The height of the emboss can be adjusted, so that the feathered edges meet in the middle of the circle. This avoids the 'plateau effect,' and ensures that the hill has an even, sloping gradient. I would imagine you could create ridge-lines and any amount of detail using this method, by drawing on the black circle, though I have not tried this.


Doing it by hand, I would use dodge and burn to maintain the color underneath.

First, orientate your map so that the sun is directly north (You should have the sun somewhere on the north side rather than south anyway). Then with the dodge tool start airbrushing in the northern sides of the hills you want to add. Then take the burn tool and darken the southern sides. Just go back and forth with dodge and burn and playing with various brush sizes.

  • Hmm, that seems to work quite well. The only problem I see with it is that you're forced to alter the image (destructive). With the emboss method, you can just delete or turn the hills off. Is there a way I could do that with this method? Besides duplicating everything I wanted to work on? Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 1:29
  • blog.photoshopcreative.co.uk/blog/tutorials/… Add a new layer. Set it to "Overlay" mode. Then go to "Edit > Fill" and select "50% Grey" from the dropdown.
    – user6811
    Commented Aug 6, 2015 at 2:59

A slightly more accurate example of what I’m looking for.

To me, that image looks like an illustration. Not something created in Photoshop.

If you are still keen on creating your image with a computer, I think the best approach for this kind of thing is to use a 3D app. I’d start with a height map, where lighter pixels represent higher ground.

This was created using FilterRenderClouds and FilterRenderDifference Clouds, then some black circles with 20% layer opacity on top. Pretty boring, but it should show the technique in action.

Photoshop height map

The height map can be used to create a mesh. The relief object in Cheetah 3D does just that — load in the image and it’ll use it for the mesh height. Photoshop can render 3D objects, so it may be able to do the same.

Cheetah 3D

This scene just has the one relief object (the height map mesh) and one light. I think the result is far nicer than using bevel and emboss type of effects in Photoshop. It has the advantage of abstracting the height data and the rendering and material. You can edit the height, then re-render to get a new image. The light is also a Sky Light, that lets you edit the time and date, making it easy to produce very different results (midday vs dawn etc).

Render in Cheetah 3D

You may even want to consider specialty landscape rendering software, like Bryce Pro.

Here’s some stuff I made for a game a few years ago, using a similar technique. This was all just a few height maps and some trees, then some retouching afterwards in Photoshop (the painted lines etc).

Sideways racing

Sideways racing

Those were created in Bryce and Photoshop, but if I was doing it today I’d use Cheetah 3D and Photoshop. Terragen also looks amazing. It could be worth considering.

  • As far as I can tell, both of those programs are mac-exclusive. I'm using a PC. What would you recommend for that? Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 15:42
  • My hesitancy about using 3D is that if you want to edit something (take the height map you make in Photoshop), you have to redo the whole thing. Tweaking elevation can also be a problem, as you can never eyeball exactly where something will land, and you are constrained in height to the difference between white and black. Is there some way you can create the 3D plane, keep it editable, and be able to put additional 3D objects on top of it (that are anchored, not just free floating)? Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 15:45
  • @ThomasMyron Yep, Cheetah 3D is Mac only. Bryce is Mac and Windows, but very old and it looks like it’s not getting updates. But, I just found Terragen. It looks great and is available for Mac and Windows. planetside.co.uk Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 23:10
  • @ThomasMyron As for the heights, there’s quite a few solutions to that. For the game I worked on, I used a few objects with separate height maps for the different elements (grass, road, barriers), which gave me explicit height control for each element within the 3D app, and also let me use a different material for each. Using something like Terragen would likely let you place trees and houses easily, too. Commented Mar 10, 2017 at 23:15

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