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Transformation tools in Photoshop

The first step of retouching should be the correction and transformation of the whole image. Let's call it shape retouching. This is the time we work with contours. Our main Photoshop tools to help will be the Liquify filter, the Free Transform and Warp modes, the Puppet Warp. It's wise if you do it all before isolation, because the process of shape correction might affect the edges of the objects, and it will be more visible on isolated images. Let's see the tools that are available in Photoshop and the ways how you can use them.

Liquify (Forward Warp, Freeze Mask, Pin Edges)

The Liquify filter is one of the most powerful tools in Photoshop, and its use is necessary almost all the time even with the most simple images. It can be accessed by pressing Ctrl-Shift-X which is a fast method or by clicking on the Liquify tab in the Filter menu which is a slow method. Using it efficiently and fast is an important skill for any retoucher. Let’s see quickly what’s it for and how to work with it. In catalogue retouching, we use just a fracture of what the tool is actually capable of, and it’s okay, as no more is usually required.

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Most of the time we’ll be using just the Forward Warp Tool which is switched on by default when you access the filter for the first time. Its shortcut within the Liquify filter is W. It pushes pixels forward as you drag. If you push too much, using it to push in the opposite direction is a bad idea, as every move distorts the image and reduces its sharpness. Normally we try to limit the use of any distorting tools to a minimum. Learn how to work with it without having to correct the result of your actions. Or if you really have to, switch to the Reconstruct tool by pressing R and drag it over the image to undo the damage. Play around with the Warp Tool to get the hang of it.

If you are in danger of dragging your Warp Tool over something that should not be warped while working, use the Freeze Mask Tool. It often happens with trousers, when we try to Liquify one leg without touching the other one. When the legs are too close, work on the one that has to remain intact with the Freeze Mask, which can be selected by pressing F. Paint over the areas that should stay untouched by the warping. Then you can switch to the Forward Warp by pressing W and Liquify the other leg freely. The red area won't be affected.

Keep in mind, that if you use a big brush and work closely to the image edges, you might as well push them in. When you press Enter to apply the filter effect, the pushed-in space will be filled with the Background color. If the background is supposed to be removed, it’s not a big deal, but sometimes it might be a problem especially if you’re working with model images that are rarely isolated nowadays as it’s time-consuming and looks weird. So if you push some parts of the background in, areas filled with solid color will appear, and if they are small enough, you might not even notice that. To prevent this from happening, tick the Pin edges box here in the Liquify filter interface. From now on, it will preserve the edges from being dragged in by the Warp tool.

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There are many more features and settings here in the Liquify filter, but trust me, if you master the Forward Warp Tool, you can retouch catalogues with ease, there’s no need to learn any other distortion tools and sometimes their use can even be confusing and might ruin your image instead of improving it.

Free Transform (Warp)

It's not always reasonable to use the Liquify filter straight away, as it's intended for subtle work. If there's a need for significant shape correction, working with the Forward Warp brush might take more time than necessary.

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If the image requires even more drastic measures, try using the Free Transform tool by selecting the whole image or a part of the image and pressing Ctrl-T. There’s a whole bunch of things you can do from here.

The most important feature is rotation. Just move your mouse pointer to one of the corners and you'll be able to click and drag to rotate the image. Don't forget that the canvas will be filled with the Background swatch color when you rotate the whole image.

You can also scale your image if you click directly on any of the corner points and drag. If you want to keep the original proportions, hold Shift. The Free Transform is not limited to just scaling and rotating. If you press right mouse button there are more options like Skew, Distort, there’s also Perspective and Warp. Warp is the most useful mode in terms of catalogue retouching. Access it from the menu or just click here in the tab on the Warp button. Now you can transform the image by clicking and dragging around. Just try not to overdo it.

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Puppet Warp

Liquifying and transforming is important, but there are things that are not possible to achieve with just that. Like bending items. Fortunately, there's another powerful tool in Photoshop that makes bending easy.

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There’s also the Puppet Warp mode, but in order to access it, you have to make another layer, as it doesn’t work on the Background layer. Press Ctrl-J to copy your image to a new layer and the Puppet Warp becomes available. There’s no shortcut by default, so if you need it, you can assign it yourself. It’s a great way to bend objects and it's especially helpful with high boots that tend to lean back. In this mode, you click to set pins that will prevent movement as you move other pins. It looks tricky, but if you spend some time with this tool, you’ll get the hang of it pretty quickly. It’s more precise than the basic Warp Tool and helps in cases when no other tools can do any good. In fact, it’s the only tool that can bend objects without having to severely distort them.

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“Use it once” rule

There’s one big rule though, one thing you have to know about all the transformation tools like the Liquify, Transform and Warp. As they all distort images, which is not good and as it affects sharpness in a bad way, whatever you do, do it once. It’s as easy as that: you want to rotate an image? Do it once. Wanna warp? Do it once. As for the Liquify, it’s also true if we’re talking about the same area of an image.

Not many people actually notice the quality degradation due to excessive use of transformation tools, and I’ve seen a lot of puzzled faces when I mentioned the necessity of using them only once. And it’s true that the subtle distortion of an image every time you warp or rotate it is not very evident. But if you don’t keep it in mind, it’s very easy to lose concentration and apply transformations many more times than necessary. Of course, even if you do it twice or three times it’s not a big deal as long as you work with the high-resolution images, but it’s a bad habit that might hurt the whole workflow.

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The fact that the images get severely blurred after rotation is easy to prove. I have this crispy image here, and all the edges are pretty sharp and distinct. Now I’ll run the script that will rotate it 15 times, 1 degree clockwise each time, and we'll see how it affects the overall sharpness. See? After 15 rotations the image is neither crisp nor sharp anymore. The reconstructing algorithm that is used every time you resize, transform or rotate is far from perfect, so it’s a good idea to refrain from overusing it.

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Click on this preview to see the image

If I take this texture, which is also sharp enough, and rotate it 90 times with the same script, you'll see that it also degrades quite significantly.

The image to the left was rotated once, the one on the right was rotated 90 times

If you would like to experiment yourself, just run the following script from ESTK:

#target photoshop
function main(y) {
for (x = 0; x < y; x++) {
app.activeDocument.rotateCanvas(1);

app.activeDocument.trim(TrimType.TOPLEFT);
}
}
app.activeDocument.suspendHistory("Rotation script", "main(15)");

It rotates an image 15 times by 1 degree, but if you want to change that, change (1) to any degree you need, and (15) to any number of rotations. Try to rotate an image by 360 degrees and you'll be really surprised! Seriously, try it out.

It’s also important that you don’t use distorting tools to correct any mistakes you’ve made with distorting tools. It means, if you Liquified too much, undo it and do it again, don’t Liquify one more time over the same area. If you Warped it too much, undo it and Warp again, don’t Warp twice. It is especially important when it comes to enlargement, which reduces the sharpness drastically. So if you shrink something and it’s too much, don’t try enlarging it, just undo the previous step and start over. Stretching images is a big no-no in catalogue retouching. I've had to fire people because they stretched images despite all the warnings, and they hoped I wouldn't notice. Trust me, to a professionally trained eye the fact that some low-res image has been enlarged or stretched, or transformed extensively is totally evident, there's no way to hide it.

Watching your do’s and undo’s is a good way to measure skill progressing. A professional retoucher works without having to retrace their steps very often. If you have to undo all the time, it means there’s yet much to learn. By the way, you can undo one step by pressing Ctrl-Z, and you can also keep undoing by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Z and redoing by pressing Ctrl-Shift-Z – it’s faster this way than clicking through history, especially if it’s just a couple of steps. If undoing with Ctrl-Alt-Z doesn't feel natural, as you can just keep pressing Ctrl-Z to keep undoing in many programs (but not in Photoshop), well, you can always change the Shortcut settings.

If you've updated to CC 2019, it's just the opposite to what I've written. It turned out that many Adobe users were not aware that they could keep undoing by pressing Ctrl-Alt-Z, so they thought it was impossible and kept asking Adobe to change that. And they did. Some people love it, but I've had to switch to legacy after the latest update.

Next: Imperfections removal

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