The Art Of Distortion

January 10, 2019 | Leave a Comment |



1          Correct lens distortion



2          Remove or reduce panoramic stitch distortions


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3          Modify proportion globally including the aspect ratio of the frame



4          Modify proportion locally within the frame

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5          Change proximity



6          Enhance gesture

We accept the distortions angle of view and lens choice create without a second thought yet rarely do we give a second thought to the possibilities of expressively distorting our photographs during post-processing. The dazzling array of new tools at our disposal begs us to reconsider this. You need to know what’s possible, whether your goal is to correct the distortions introduced by the tools you use or to aesthetically refine or expressively enhance your images, a little or a lot, or to simply know what other photographers have done so that you can understand their creations better. Learn to see with new eyes and a vast new horizon of possibilities will reveal itself to you.

Awareness of the distortions produced by an angle of view and lens choice is the beginning of using them creatively. Curiously, permission is the beginning of using distortion in post-processing creatively. Many people have been told that it’s inappropriate to do so. Why? Why accept an unintended mechanical bi-product but not a consciously intended effect? Why take such a powerful tool for expression off the table? While you can, you don’t have to distort your images to the point that they look like they’re being seen in a fun house hall of mirrors. Even the subtlest applications of distortion can produce powerful results. Once you understand what kinds of distortions are possible in post-processing you’ll frequently find yourself changing your angle of view or repositioning yourself during exposure.

6 Strategies For Using Distortion In Images

Here’s a short list of six strategies you can use when considering distorting your images creatively.

1          Correct lens distortion; straighten a horizontal or vertical while correcting barrel or pin cushion distortion.

2          Remove or reduce panoramic stitch distortions; undistort edges or smooth out uneven horizontals or verticals.

3          Modify proportion globally including the frame; make images more or less horizontal or vertical or even turn one into another.

4          Modify proportion locally within the frame; adjust the height and width of both objects and areas.

5          Change proximity; push together or pull apart items.

6          Enhance or change gesture; make a leaning object more tilted or straighten it out.


Photoshop's 11 Weapons Of Mass Distortion

Here’s a short list of ten go to tools in Photoshop that you can use to distort your images creatively.

1          Angle of view

2          Lens choice (with or without swings and tilts)

3          Lens Correction (with or without Upright)

4          Pinch

5          Transform – Scale, Rotate, Skew, Distort, Perspective, Warp

6          Content Aware Scale

7          Adaptive Wide Angle

8          Vanishing Point

9          Puppet Warp

10        Perspective Warm

11        Liquify

(Stay tuned for detailed examples of each of these tools.)

Make It Selective

 Distortion tools become even more powerful when you consider localizing their effects.

How you choose to accomplish this depends on whether the newly distorted areas overlap (grow larger) or leave a gap in (grow smaller) surrounding areas. In both cases, it’s advisable to keep distorted information on separate layers. Simply duplicate a layer before distorting it. This makes blending it easier and it allows you to go back to undistorted versions. If the distorted areas overlap, mask the distorted areas you wish to hide. Smooth or textured areas often support soft edged masks, while contours typically required harder edged masks. In some cases, you’ll encounter combinations of both. If the distorted areas leave a gap, retouching is required. Try Content Aware Fill before the Healing Brush Tool or Clone Stamp tool.

Should you make a selection before applying distortions locally? Only if doing so provides a better preview or significantly reduces file size, but remember that you can always delete excess pixels after an effect has been blended with the background so delay making this decision as long as practical. In general, it’s advisable to distort areas larger than you plan to use and then mask off the excess. If a distorted object is surrounding by texture, smooth or chaotic, masking and blending will be made significantly easier by this additional information.


These sophisticated distortion capabilities are relatively new and so is the mindset. 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. Simply asking yourself how far you’re willing to go and why will help clarify yours.

Read more in my Distortion lessons.

Learn more in my digital photography and digital printing workshops.


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Terry White demos ways to make Content Aware Scale and Content Aware Fill more selective. Both new miracle features usually succeed or fail epically. When either fails, try these two techniques.

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Richard Harrington demos three features that use Adobe's new Patch Match.
They're game changers.

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I've been out in the field for two long days during my workshop at the Palm Springs Photo Festival. One of the techniques we practiced is exploring how using Photoshop's Transform and Content-Aware Scale can change the way you make exposures - opening up possibilities for both strengthening classic compositions and also for making new compositions you might otherwise pass by - or not see.

The classic Photoshop Transform tools have been long overlooked and underutilized. Now, in Photoshop CS4, we've got a new way to Transform our images - Content-Aware Scale. This will scale specific areas of an image more than others. Many photographers scale an image to resize it. Sometimes portrait photographers squeeze images 10% horizontally to make people look thinner. But how many photographers use these tools to create more compelling proportions in their images? How many use them as a tool to strengthen or weaken relationships in their images by making areas of an image closer to or further away from one another. Few. These are new tools. They're not hard to master technically. Activate the tool of your choice and then push or pull. Simple. (Favor squeezing instead of expanding to avoid upsampling artifacts.) This may be challenging for some to feel comfortable with as an accepted practice. We accept the distortions of lenses. Why is this type of post-processing any less acceptable? This is challenging to master perceptually. Incorporating these new tools into your ways of seeing takes practice. Once you do master them, you'll find you'll make new types of exposures with these possibilities in mind. You'll learn one more way of seeing your subjects. New possibilities bring new ways of seeing. To master them you've got to use them - a lot. It takes practice. Try it. And keep using it. This technique can make an amazing difference in many images.

Learn these and other techniques in my upcoming Workshops.
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