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Take the Transform Tools to the Next Level

"An Offering" featuring Simon McCheung

So obviously almost every Photoshop novice has "transformed" something in Photoshop. As in, "I just dragged this image onto my canvas and it's way too flippin' huge. Let me make it smaller with the transform function." But how many of you have really taken it much further than that? (Yes, I know there are exceptions; we are all at different levels of expertise.) Transforming seems like a pretty simple/straightforward thing to do in Photoshop - you're just re-sizing something, right? Well with a little creativity, not only can you transform the size of something, you can completely transform a handful of random images of, say, lizards into a freakin baby dragon! WHAT!?!?

Just a quick backstory before we dive into some tips and tricks for upping your transform game: The delightful fellow you see below is Simon McCheung. Like basically all of my photography friends, guess where we met? Yup, the internet. We were aware of each other's work for a while, lurking in the shadows and watching the other create. Then BAM ( ... it didn't actually make a "bam" noise) one night I got a message from him and we've chatted back and forth ever since. I'm a huge fan of his work. (And what do you know, he feels the same about mine! So that works out quite nicely haha ...) When he agreed to come to my Flickr gathering ALL THE WAY FROM BLOODY LONDON (see how British I went there?...bloody.. hehehe), I just couldn't contain my excitement. Some might say I simply, "could not even."

Fast forward to the last day of the meet-up, and I had still not shot any images of Simon. There was no way I was going to let him leave the country without that happening! The incredibly talented Aleah Michelle Ford had dressed him in this great old grey suit/coat situation that we found in my attic. (Thanks parents for having random awesome stuff!!!) Aleah shot some masterfully artistic portraits of him in this very outfit. So, big thanks for letting me borrow your subject/styling, Mrs. Ford. <3

I had a pretty solid idea of what I wanted to create with Simon. I knew I wanted him to be bending down and presenting something to ... something. Hahaha ok so I had a vague idea. I just knew I wanted to really push my Photoshop skills and try to create a (hopefully) realistic creature of some kind for him to be offering something to .... and guys, I think I did it. I'm so incredibly ridiculously obnoxiously pleased with how this little dragon turned out. (Is it wrong to love your own work this much!? I'm way too freakin' proud of myself.) Soooo anyway I'm not saying that by reading the rest of this post that you'll be making exactly this sort of beast, but I'll do my best to provide you with some of the "transforming tools and techniques" to at least get you started, should you decide to take on such an endeavor. At the very least, these tips would be pretty dang helpful for transforming just about anything you might want to resize/reshape. 

KNOW THE BASICS - Quick Commands

There are some super handy quick keys that will make your image transforming go so much quicker! The main and most obvious one (that most of you probably know and use) is COMMAND + T. It's pretty straightforward and will bring up your transform controls. Just for my own sanity, and not having to type out every quick command for both MAC and PC, I'm just going to speak in MAC terms. But for you PC users - fear not! Just replace every COMMAND with CONTROL and every OPTION with ALT .... SHIFT is just SHIFT. Speaking of SHIFT, it's pretty important to know that if you hold SHIFT while transforming, it will maintain your proportions. You don't always want this, but most of the time you do. Also, it's good to know that at any point during a transform, if you hit the ESCAPE key it will cancel whatever altering you've done. 

One of my favorite slightly lesser-known keystrokes to help out while transforming is simply the COMMAND key. If you hold down the COMMAND button, it will turn your cursor into a white arrow and then you can grab any of the little points on the outer edge of the transform box and move them around independently of the rest. (Or use Edit Menu/Transform/Distort.) Also, if you hold down OPTION + COMMAND and then grab a side, it will move the opposite side out equally. Or if you move a corner while holding those keys it will move the opposite corner in a mirrored sort of way as well. (Like turning a rectangle into a rhombus ... kinda hard to explain, just try it.) 

before and after gif

One quick command that I use often is to press COMMAND + OPTION + SHIFT. Then when you grab a corner and move it outward, the adjacent corner will move out as well so you can fix keystoning/perspective issues. (You can also access this through the Edit Menu/Transform/Perspective). This last one I use basically 100% of the time. If you hold OPTION while transforming, it will enlarge from the center outwards. In other words, rather than dragging one corner out in one direction to make it bigger, when you drag the one corner all the corners will go out equally from the middle. It's just a much faster, nicer way to enlarge or shrink something. (Holding SHIFT in addition to OPTION will keep your original proportions.) Give it a go and you'll never look back. 

WARP MODE - Bend Pixels to Your Will

I vividly remember the day I discovered that magic of the warp transform mode. I came across a tutorial on how it worked and it was like opening a present. Suddenly nothing had to be the shape it was, and anything could be anything else with a little ingenuity. It does take some practice, but once you get the hang of it, the warp transform can be used to create some super cool stuff. Like IDK a little dragon creature! 

After I sketched out the position of my little critter, I cut pieces from different images of iguanas and lizards to warp and reshape on top of my outline. I find when creating something like this it's much easier to use many smaller pieces and slowly build my character up. Rather than trying to cut out an entire iguana head and wrapping it into the shape I wanted, I cut just the top jaw, then the bottom jaw, then the back of the head, and so on. I even re-selected the eye socket from my source image and warped that to my liking and put it back in place. You'll see in the below image that the eye area got stretched in a way that I just wasn't going to stand for. The warp tool can only move something around so much before it starts to look really weird and obviously messed with, so I find it's best to work in small increments like this. Also any usage of the warp mode will slightly blur your detail, so you'll want to do some sharpening once you're satisfied with the shape of it. 

Warp Tool Photoshop Example

To get to the "warp mode" you can either use the Edit drop-down menu and go to Transform/Warp, or just use the COMMAD + T shortcut to bring up the transform controls. Then at the top in the middle-ish of the option bar you'll see three little symbols. The left one is what you want - it looks like a bent window with a rainbow-esque-arching-arrow below it. The middle one that's a circle with a diagonal line through it will cancel a transform (or you can use the ESCAPE key), and the right one that looks like a check mark is to "commit" to your transform ... but I don't think I have ever clicked it because duh you can just click enter/return.

Once you've activated the warp mode, you'll notice your transform box gets cut into 9 pieces. (Two extra vertical lines and two extra horizontal lines will dissect the layer in question). Now you can simply grab a corner/edge/anywhere within the box and start to push and pull the pixels around. This is another one of the many Photoshop techniques that you just sort of have to take a stab at and try some things until you get the hang of it.

PUPPET WARP - Be The Puppet Master

The Puppet Warp is relatively new in terms of the lifespan of Photoshop, so some of you may have yet to master its intricacies ... or possibly any part of it at all.  Well friends, let me tell you it's pretty freakin' spectacular - like, blows my mind every time I use it. You see as fantastic as the warp tool is, there are just some things you can't quite achieve with it. Those are the things for which you turn to the Puppet Warp. For example, the tail of the dragon - the image I used was of a lizard with its tail mostly straight, but I wanted it to curl up a bit at the end. The warp tool just wasn't gonna cut it for the sort of smooth bendy curl I wanted, so I Puppet Warped it.

Once you activate Puppet Warp (from the "Edit" drop-down menu), you'll notice that the layer you want to warp now has sort of a triangley-sectioned-spiderweb of lines all over it. Some of you may have tried to use it, and found it to be cumbersome (perhaps you figured it out right away, in which case ... well done). Right off the bat if you try to use this like the regular warp tool and just grab a spot and move it, it will simply add a little marker where you clicked and move the entire object as is. Then, if you add another point somewhere and try to move that point, it will simply rotate the object around the first point you made.

The trick is to think of this layer like it is a puppet! Let's say you're trying to bend an arm; I did this very thing in order to place the first arm and then again to re-use the already created arm for the other side. I wanted to re-position it so it didn't just look like a copy of the closer arm. Before you can start warping it around like you do with regular warp, you have to lay down your jointy points. Huh? Allow me to explain. If (like I said) you imagine this layer like it's a puppet (almost as if it's one of those poseable wooden dolls with all the little joints that are often used as art reference), you have to mark all the "bendy joints." For example, place one on the hand, one at the wrist, one at the elbow and one at the shoulder. Now if you grab any of those points and move them, you can position them differently and it should (for the most part) bend and alter like it's an actual arm. 

LEFT: place points    RIGHT: Move points

The Puppet Warp works sort of like rotating hinges, but you have to set up the hinges first so it knows how to bend.  As I mentioned a couple paragraphs ago (hopefully you can remember that far back ... ), if there are only two points, moving one will just rotate the object around the other point. But as soon as you add a third point and move it, then the other two points will essentially remain in place and you can bend the object around the center point, like it's an elbow. Are you following? (Kindly review the above graphic for visual learning stimulation.)    

I hope you found some of these tips useful! If you watch the speed edit video below, it should give you somewhat of a visual of what it looks like to put these tips into action. (Like really sped up action ... ) Good luck on your next Photoshopping adventure - bring some of these transforming weapons with you, and may the odds be ever in your favor.

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