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Photoshop’s Liquify Filter

Awareness of the distortions produced by angle of view and lens choice is the beginning of using them creatively. Curiously, permission is the beginning of using distortion in postprocessing creatively. Many people have been told that it’s inappropriate to do so. Why? Why accept an unintended mechanical by-product, but not a consciously intended effect? Why take such a powerful tool for expression off the table? Even the subtlest applications of distortion can produce powerful results. Once you understand what kinds of distortions are possible during postprocessing, you may even find yourself changing your angle of view during exposure.

Many Reasons For Distorting Images

There are many reasons why you might want to distort an image. Here are four:

1. Correct optical distortion that can be produced by many things, including lens choice, angle of view, motion, panoramic stitches, etc. You can choose to make the selection of a wide-angle lens less about distortion and more about including more.

2. Modify proportion; adjust the height and/or width of objects and/or areas. Just for starters, take off the 10 pounds that the camera adds on.

3. Change proximity; reduce or increase the spaces between objects. Make things feel more or less related.

4. Enhance or change gesture; make a leaning object more tilted or straighten it out. Think of this as adding the words "very" or "less" into a sentence.

After Liquify

The Liquify Filter Detailed

When exploring the many distortion tools in Photoshop, you’ll find that the Liquify filter is one of the most powerful. The Liquify filter is so powerful that, when in use, it offers its own toolbar and menus, somewhat like Camera Raw. To get the most of the Liquify filter, it’s worth taking the full tour.

All of the nine brushes that Liquify provides can be controlled with the Brush Tool Options panel. There are four sliders. Size controls the diameter of the brush. Density controls the softness of the brush; a higher value produces a harder-edged brush. Rate controls the speed at which distortions occur when the brush is stationary; lower settings produce slower results, making them easier to control. Pressure controls the speed at which distortions occur when the brush is moving; again, lower settings produce slower results, making them easier to control. The Brush Tool Options panel also provides two check boxes, Stylus Pressure and Pin Edges.

The Liquify Filter

Liquify’s brushes make possible an impressive number of effects.

Forward Warp Tool (W)—The Forward Warp Tool will distort in any direction you stroke.

Reconstruct Tool (R)—The Reconstruct Tool allows you to use a brush to remove distortion before applying the filter, either partially or wholly. The Reconstruct Options panel will allow you to change Opacity of the brush or eliminate all distortions with a single click (Restore All).

Twirl Clockwise Tool (C)—The Twirl Clockwise Tool pushes pixels above the center of the brush right and down, and pixels below the center of the brush left and up. If you want to twirl in a counterclockwise direction, horizontally flip a layer before applying the distortion. The Brush Rate value is particularly useful here, as it controls the speed at which the distortion is applied; higher is faster.

Pucker Tool (P) and Bloat Tool (B)—The Pucker Tool moves pixels toward the center of the brush, while the Bloat Tool moves pixels away from the center as you click or drag on the image. This is pretty useful when you want to inflate or deflate something.

Push Left Tool (O)—The Push Left Tool moves pixels to the left when you drag the tool up and to the right when you drag it down. Drag clockwise around an object to increase its size or drag counterclockwise to decrease its size. To invert the direction, hold down the Option/Alt key.

Freeze Mask Tool (F) and Thaw Mask Tool (D)—The Freeze Mask Tool allows you to protect areas from changes by painting a mask over them. The Thaw Mask Tool allows you to refine a mask by erasing portions of it.

The View Options panel allows you to make the mask invisible or visible with Show Mask in one of seven Mask Colors.

The results Mask Tools create can be further modified with the Mask Options panel. It has three buttons: None removes all masking; Mask All places a mask on the entire area; Invert All inverts the current mask. It also has five drop-down menus: Replace selection; Add to selection; Remove from selection; Intersect with selection; Invert selection. All five allow you to select Selection, Transparency or Layer Mask.

Hand Tool (H) and Zoom Tool (Z) work identically to those in the Photoshop toolbar, allowing you to move around Liquify’s preview fluidly.

Every distortion made can be saved using Save Mesh. You then can apply that distortion again using Load Mesh, either on another layer or another file.

View Options provides you with many ways to see the image, mask and mesh. Three check boxes allow you to Show Image, Show Mesh and Show Guides. You can change the size and color of the mesh with Mesh Size and Mesh Color. You can show Check Show Mask to see the mask currently in use and use the Mask Color drop-down menu to choose one of seven colors for the mask display. Check Show Backdrop to see layers other than the one being distorted; doing this can sometimes provide invaluable visual aids that will help you achieve more pleasing distortions. The Use drop-down menu lets you choose either All Layers or individual layers. The Mode drop-down menu lets you choose between In Front, Behind and Blend. And, finally, there’s Opacity.

Remember, you can distort a layer mask just as easily as you can distort a layer.

Making Distortion More Selective

You can apply the Liquify filter even more selectively using layers. Duplicate a rasterized layer, apply the Liquify filter and add a layer mask. Or, apply a Smart Filter to a Smart Object. Currently, there is only one mask for all Smart Filters applied to a Smart Object, so if you need to make different masks for different filters, first duplicate the Smart Object.

When distortions are applied to objects in an image, the things surrounding them are also distorted. Try distorting a duplicate layer, masking and possibly increasing scale to overlap underlying distractions. In some cases, you may even find it helpful to remove the object to be distorted from the background layer; try using Content Aware Fill. These are two among many ways to have the background remain undistorted when you distort an object.

If you find that gaps or tears occur during distortion, these can be retouched by cloning. I recommend you place major retouching on a separate layer.

Rather than distort a precisely selected area, it’s advisable to distort areas larger than you plan to use and then mask off the excess.

The Liquify filter is so powerful that it’s easy to quickly produce gross distortions. Don’t write it off. Instead, use a little more finesse. Use it with care, and you can do amazing things, like fine-tuning portraits with subtle, but very significant moves, such as shifting the angles of the corners of a mouth and opening eyes a little wider.

The Liquify filter excels at localized irregular orga
nic distortions. Other distortion tools in Photoshop are better for broader planar perspective adjustment, such as Tranform, Upright, Lens Correction and Perspective Warp.

The Liquify Filter


Photoshop’s sophisticated distortion capabilities are relatively new to photography and so is the mind-set of using them to photographers. Both are worth acquiring. Everyone can find a use for them, at one time or another, if not on every image. As every photographer uses distortion to one degree or another, ultimately what separates photographers is not whether they use distortion, but when, how and why they use it. The same tools can be used to achieve entirely different effects. There’s a world of difference between using distortion to remove process artifacts for more accurate representations, using distortion to aesthetically refine the formal qualities of images and using distortion to expressively interpret subjects. Intent is everything. Practice is a reflection of intent. Simply asking yourself how far you are and aren’t willing to go and, finally, why, will help clarify yours. Consider these questions seriously, and you’ll find your vision will grow stronger and clearer.

John Paul Caponigro, author of Adobe Photoshop Master Class and the DVD series R/Evolution, is an internationally renowned fine artist, an authority on digital printing, and a respected lecturer and workshop leader. Get PDFs and his enews Insights free at

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