Displacement Maps

Displacement mapping allows a texture input to manipulate the position of vertices on rendered geometry. Unlike Normal or Bump mapping, where the shading is distorted to give an illusion of a bump (discussed on the previous page), Displacement Maps create real bumps, creases, ridges, etc. in the actual mesh. Thus, the mesh deformations can cast shadows, occlude other objects, and do everything that changes in real geometry can do, but, on the other hand, requires a lot more vertices to work.


In the Influence panel, the strength of the displacement is controlled by the Displace and Normal sliders:

  • If a texture provides only normal information (e.g. Stucci), vertices move according to the texture’s normal data. The normal displacement is controlled by the Normal slider.
  • If a texture provides only intensity information (e.g. Magic, derived from color), vertices move along the directions of their normals (a vertex has no normal itself, it is the resulting vector of the adjacent faces). White pixels move outward in the direction of the normal, black pixels move in the opposite direction. The amount of displacement is controlled with the Displace slider.

The two modes are not exclusive. Many texture types provide both information (Clouds, Wood, Marble, Image). The amount of each type can be mixed using the respective sliders. Intensity displacement gives a smoother, more continuous surface, since the vertices are displaced only outward. Normal displacement gives a more aggregated surface, since the vertices are displaced in multiple directions.

The depth of the displacement is scaled with an object’s scale, but not with the relative size of the data. This means if you double the size of an object in object mode, the depth of the displacement is also doubled, so the relative displacement appears the same. If you scale inside Edit Mode, the displacement depth is not changed, and thus the relative depth appears smaller.


Displacement maps move the rendered faces, not the physical mesh faces. So, in 3D View the surface may appear smooth, but render bumpy. To give a detailed surface, there has to be faces to displace and have to be very small. This creates the trade-off between using memory and CPU time versus render quality.

From best to worst, displacement works with these object types using the methods listed to control the render face size:

Subdivision Surface Meshes
Rendered face size is controlled with render subdivision level. Displacement works better with smooth normals.
Manually ( Edit Mode ) subdivided meshes
Control render faces with number of subdivides. (This can be combined with the above methods). Displaces exactly the same Simple Subdivision Surface, however, the overhead of drawing extra faces can slow down editing.
Meta Objects
Control render faces with render wiresize. Small wire == more faces.

The following are available, but currently do not work well. It is recommended that you convert these to meshes before rendering.

Open NURBS Surfaces
Control render faces with U/V Surface Resolution. Higher numbers give more faces. (Note normal errors).
Closed NURBS Surfaces
Control with Surface Resolution controls. (Note the normal errors, and how implicit seam shows).
Curves and Text
Control with Surface Resolution controls. Higher gives more render faces (note that the large flat surfaces have few render faces to displace).


Displace Modifier

If you want more control over your displacement, you will probably want to use the Displace Modifier. This feature has lots of different options so that you can customize the displacement exactly to your liking.