With any image element on its own layer (either a duplicated background, a selection or a masked or isolated image element) click Puppet Warp under Photoshop’s Edit menu. First, Photoshop loads a triangular mesh that forms the foundation of the tool. The density of these triangles can be adjusted from the normal setting to include more points (for finer control, although the processing takes a bit longer) to fewer points (for faster working, with the sacrifice of a bit of fine control). You’ll notice the options bar also includes a setting for Expansion, set at two pixels by default. The higher this number, the more controlled the warps will be. The lower the number, the more wild and free flowing the warps. Starting at 2, decrease the Expansion to 1 if you want to up the warp effect, or increase to 3 or more pixels in order to provide some stability to the adjustment.
The other factor that might need tweaking via the options bar is the rigidity mode—from Normal to Rigid or Distort. If the normal setting is the baseline, Rigid generally minimizes the warping that occurs away from the part of the frame you’re clicking on. This makes it ideal for situations in which you’d like to bend one scene element while having very little impact on other parts of the picture. The other end of the spectrum is the Distort setting, which is ideal for making big changes in scenes—great for use with ultrawide shots or other images where it makes sense to see greater distortion.
For the sample image here, I simply wanted to add a bit of symmetry to my original composition by clicking and dragging a few points in the scene, not only to straighten out the arch of cars but also to straighten the head and shoulder position in order to provide a bit more symmetry to the scene. For this, I was able to use the normal mode and the standard triangle mesh distribution. The next step is to start placing pins on the scene in order to get warping.
I clicked areas that I would want to move, as well as areas I wanted to use as anchor points. With at least three pins placed (via simple clicking) you can start warping, although the more pins are placed the more refined the adjustments will be. Sometimes as you click and drag a pin, an area of the scene will move in a way you hadn’t anticipated—be it good or bad. This is simply Photoshop intuiting what it believes to be the ideal adjustment based on the placement and movement of your pins.
Clicking and dragging to move pins can be just that simple, but you can also control-click to select multiple pins simultaneously, or option-click in order to bring up the rotation circle that allows the warp to happen in a rotating fashion around a selected pin. Standard undo controls work within the Puppet Warp, as does clicking to select a pin and then hitting the Delete key to eliminate it and its associated warp.
While the Puppet Warp works on any type of image and can make everything from the fairly subtle adjustments shown here to some major image overhauls, what really sets the tool apart from Liquify and other warp controls is the way it treats an isolated image element on its own layer as if it were a physical object, where moving one part of that image element impacts every other part of the image element. In practice, what this means is if you have an isolated element—such as a masked selection of the young boy in this photo—when you click and drag on one side of his body, it bends and distorts the other side as well, as if you were physically pulling on a piece of paper or some other physical object rather than just a series of side-by-side pixels. With certain image elements, they really bend and react to the touch of the mouse almost as naturally as real world objects. Imagine bending a piece of wire. As you twist one end down the other end might naturally react by bending up in the opposite direction. This is the effect that happens with Puppet Warp, and it can be profound.
Sure, you can use Puppet Warp for a unique way of moving around all sorts of scene elements just as you would with the Liquify tools or other distortion controls, but none of them work in quite the same way as Puppet Warp. If you’re looking for a way to bend and reshape image elements that feels a bit more natural, even intuitive, give Puppet Warp a try.