How To Create Realistic Distortions in Photoshop

How To Create Realistic Distortions in Photoshop

In this tutorial I will give you an idea on how you can create realistic distortions in Adobe Photoshop, in particular we will work with warp. Exact same technique (or similar) you an use to match any kind of distortions. Thanks to fantastic Photoshop's feature: Smart Object layer we can create templates for re-use, with as many different photos as we want.

Steps to create realistic distortions

Let me explain you my motivation for my project and this tutorial. There are hundreds and thousands of photo effects created using Smart Object layers, actions and so on which you can discover on the internet. Some of them looks realistic while others does not fit in this category. The question in my head was: how to ensure that distortion which is part of the effect is accurate? In particular, I start creating folded photo effect and I was in need to discover technique. The very first thought was to observe distortions and to create effects based on my memory. It won't work for me, I was sure. I want closest possible and most precise result to the real world sample. I cannot rely on my brain memory for that.

What is the solution? Take printed photo with real world distortion, capture it using a camera and then match everything that you can. This certainly works and along the way I have discovered what can make my and perhaps your life's easier.

In my tutorial I will skip the beginning where I was capturing just printed photo and tried to match distortions, shadows and highlights. It is just too difficult to extract information about shadows and highlights. The next stage was to print photo with gray color only and to extract the shadow/highlights map from capture.

The last stage was to print photo with gray background which was divided into 3x3 fields using vertical and horizontal lines as they appear when using Free Transform > Warp. This actually can really help to match the exact distortion plus to extract shadow/highlights map. That's where we are going to start step by step tutorial.

Step 1 Print photo that you have in digital format
The very first step is to print any photo that you have on your computer in digital format so you can use it for comparison and to check accuracy. I chose to print photo with lot of lines: horizontal, vertical and diagonal.

Step 2 Print photo with gray background and warp lines
The second step in this process is to print photo with gray - solid color background and to draw warp lines which can make life much easier when creating distortion on Smart Object layer.
warp lines

Step 3 Capture scene
The third step is to capture the scene using camera and real world printed photos. It is a good idea to fold printed photo and print with gray background and warp lines together and to put them one on top of another when capturing a scene. Put photo on top, then remove it and capture printed gray background with warp lines. In this way you will get information that you can use for realistic distortion plus you have the ability to check how accurate is your distortion created in Photoshop. I will suggest you to use Smart Object layer in the next step for so many good reasons including re-usability.
photo above

photo warp lines

Step 4 Create distortion in Photoshop
Here is what I did: trace contour of image area using the Pen Tool.
create contour of image area

Draw rectangle in the same proportions as original print (18:13 in my case).
draw rectangle for image layer

Rasterize shape and convert it to Smart Object layer, then hide layer with traced image area. Lower the Opacity of Smart Object layer which you are going to distort so you can see warp lines on original capture which is at the bottom. I have printed photos with white borders because that's can make life much easier with additional flexibility.
lower opacity for sm layer

Distort photo using Free Transform > Warp and try to match shape and lines close as you can.
distort photo using warp

When you finish go and set Opacity for Smart Object layer back to 100% and clip image layer to traced shape of image area.
clip smart object layer

Step 5 Check accuracy
If you follow along, then you have ability to check accuracy by placing real world photo above your creation. Here comes in place my suggestion to print photo that you have in digital format on your hard drive. So, double click on Smart Object layer to which you have applied distortions, place your image using File > Place Embedded and close with Yes.

You can place original print above and lower Opacity or to place photos one next to another and to compare. If something does not match, just press Ctrl/Cmd + T then right click and choose Warp and change distortion for Smart Object layer.

Step 6 Shadows/Highlights
You can use the captured information's for realistic or accurate shadows and highlights. Make selection based on previously traced image area to make things easier then cut or copy pixels from the original shot.
create selection based on image area layer

extract shadows highlights

Remove warp lines using the Spot Healing Brush then place a layer above image layer and use Overlay blending mode. From my experiments, it is good to use Curves or Levels adjustment to increase contrast on the layer with extracted information's for shadow/highlights and then to play with the Opacity after applying Overlay blending mode.
shadow highlights mapping

Keep exploring

Although Free Transform > Warp can give you excellent results in many cases, it may not be enough for what you want to achieve. Sometimes you will need to use Filter > Liquify or Edit > Puppet Warp.
Puppet Warp

The good news is that both mentioned commands can be applied to the Smart Object layers what gives you additional flexibility and freedom to experiment or to make last minute changes. Keep in mind that both commands can be applied to any SO layer as non-destructive Smart Object filters just by dragging them onto another SO layer. You can also duplicate Liquify or Puppet Warp by holding down the Alt/Opt and dragging onto the Smart Object layer.

You can, for example, merge layers and to convert it to SO then to use the Liquify on the merged Smart Object layer where you may have better insight of how much to push or pull pixels. Later on you can simply drag Liquify smart filter onto SO with the image.
merged for Liquify

Product used in this tutorial:
Adobe Photoshop CC 2015


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