Know Your Photoshop Distortion Tools

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Adobe Photoshop CC comes with more tools for adding or correcting distortions than you may realize, especially if you’re new to Photoshop. This set of tools has grown steadily over the history of Photoshop, so let’s walk through them to understand why each is a useful part of your Photoshop toolkit.

Rectilinear distortion tools

The Edit > Free Transform command, Perspective Crop Tool, and the Skew, Distort, and Perspective commands on the Edit > Transform menu were some of the earliest Photoshop tools for working with distortion. They're still handy when you want to straighten a rectangular object in a photo taken at an angle or skew a graphic to fit the side of a product box mock-up. These tools can only work with content in a rectangular plane, which limits their usefulness. You can’t use them to correct curved lens distortions, and Photoshop now has better tools for building images in linear perspective (as we'll see later). I used the Perspective Crop tool to (mostly) correct this sign from a subway wall.

Distort filters

The commands on the Filter > Distort menu have been around since early versions of Photoshop. At first they seem like they might have potential for adding or correcting distortion, but their options are so abstract and geometric that they aren’t actually useful for much in straight photography. They're better for creating synthetic graphic effects.

With the basics out of the way, now let’s look at the newer Photoshop distortion tools which make it possible to correct, composite, and retouch more easily and with more natural and believable results.

Perspective-matching tools

The Filter > Vanishing Point command can help you distort an object to fit an existing perspective grid, or to paint in perspective. It’s a way to add new elements to different perspective planes over an existing image. Vanishing Point makes it easy to turn stripes into a crosswalk.

The Edit > Perspective Warp command reshapes the perspective that already exists in a single image. This is valuable for compositing images together. I used Perspective Warp to make a truck photographed in India appear to be parked in lower Manhattan.

With both Vanishing Point and Perspective Warp you typically start with a base image that already contains objects in linear perspective. The feature you use next depends on the image you’re adding. If you’re adding content that doesn't have perspective, like a logo or text, and you want it to match the perspective of the base image, use Vanishing Point. If you’re adding an image of an object that already has its own 3D perspective and you need to match it to the perspective in the base image, use Perspective Warp.

Because Vanishing Point and Perspective Warp are both designed to work with linear perspective, they don’t work so well if you’re trying to add or correct for curved distortion. But Photoshop has tools designed to address that.

Distortion correction tools

Some Photoshop tools exist specifically to remove unwanted curved distortions that are introduced by camera lenses.

If you want to remove image artifacts caused by camera lenses, including barrel and pincushion distortion, chromatic aberration, and vignetting, the Lens Correction filter is for you. Each lens is different, but Lens Correction can precisely account for the peculiarities of each lens using lens profiles created by Adobe or by users. The lens profiles let you correct lens-induced image distortions in just a few clicks.

When you use a fish-eye lens or other very wide angle lens, or stitch a panorama, the image can have so much curved distortion that you might find it distracting. You can choose Edit > Adaptive Wide Angle to reduce this type of extreme distortion. The Adaptive Wide Angle filter involves more manual intervention than the Lens Correction filter, but you also get more control over how much distortion to remove and where to remove it.

Both Lens Correction and Adaptive Wide Angle can make the process more automatic by using lens data that’s saved with the image by most digital cameras.

Creative distortion tools

There’s a set of distortion tools that I call “creative” because you typically use them when you want to alter reality. In other words, instead of wanting to correct or remove distortion, you intend to add it.

The Edit > Transform > Warp command brings up a mesh that you can push and pull to distort an object, and many warp presets are available in the Options bar. While you get more control over Warp than you do with the Filter > Distort commands, the mesh is rectangular with just a few handles. That limits the usefulness of Warp for distortion correction, but it's still an effective tool for graphic design work such as logos and illustration.

The Edit > Puppet Warp command also adds a mesh, but unlike the rectangular Warp mesh the Puppet Warp mesh is triangular, follows the layer shape, and is much more precise. You can pin (lock down) parts of the shape so that they work like hinges around which you can swing nearby areas, like the arms and legs on a puppet. Some retouchers use Puppet Warp to subtly alter the poses of models.

The Filter > Liquify command is the infamous “plastic surgery” tool that retouchers use to re-sculpt faces and bodies in portraits. With Liquify you can push or pull specific parts of an image until you get the shape you want, without altering the whole image like many other distortion filters would. I used Liquify to bulk up this guy's arm.

The freeform and organic nature of the creative distortion tools complements the rectilinear distortion tools, giving you a nice range of options for solving distortion-related problems. 

With so many ways to add or remove distortion in Photoshop, you can save a lot of time by knowing how to choose the most effective and efficient distortion tool for the job.

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