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The Other Really Cool Feature in Photoshop CS5

Alex Walker

When Arthur C. Clarke first proposed his three laws of prediction, he admitted his last one was really just filler to round out the number.

Funnily enough, it’s this third law that people tend to remember most: Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Adobe’s Content-Aware Fill feature in Photoshop CS5 may just be the perfect expression of this idea. The YouTube video demos feel like an impossible David Copperfield stunt.

Following a crude swipe of the mouse, the delete key becomes the ultimate creation tool. Brand new worlds spring into existence — trees, grass, rocks, and roads just appear as if they’d always been there. Frankly, it’s gobsmackingly amazing and, hardly surprisingly, has attracted most of the hoopla in the CS5 circus.

But the old dog actually has a few new tricks that could easily have slipped by you unnoticed. Puppet Warp is my new super-favorite.

What is Puppet Warp?

Puppet Warp is a completely different kind of image manipulation tool — beyond the traditional clone, scale, rotate, shear, and distort tools that we’re all accustomed to. Puppet gives your image a bendable, posable skeleton.

This is a big call, but I’m going to make it. Puppet Warp will be more useful to you than Content-Aware Fill.

Here’s how it works.

Warp object separted onto it's own layer1. First, you need to prepare an image that’s isolated on its own layer. In tribute to Uri Geller, I’m going to bend the spoon from a recent Saturday breakfast in this picture.

Incidently, the PSD working file is available here if you already have CS5 and want to play along at home.

2. In Photoshop’s Edit menu you’ll find the new Puppet Warp option. Select it, and your image (the spoon in my example) will be temporarily overlayed with a triangular mesh.

Triangulation of the mesh

This triangulation process usually takes less than a second and is completely automated.

3. Next, it’s time to give our skeleton some movable joints. Hover over the mesh and your cursor will turn into a pushpin. Click anywhere on the mesh and you’ll create an anchor. On my spoon I’ve created anchors at both ends to allow the neck to flex.

Add anchors to your mesh

4. Now it’s time to bend the spoons and your minds — simultaneously! Shift-click to select all the yellow anchor points on the handle, and drag your cursor from side to side. Your spoon handle becomes as pliable as a bendy straw.

Bending the spoon

The most impressive part is that the mesh works to evenly distribute the distortion across the bend, keeping the image looking as natural as possible. You’re free to add and remove anchors at any time to help pin down or release particular areas.

The Wrap-up

When an application has been around for two decades, coming up with new and compelling features must be a difficult task. As a general rule, new tricks tend to be highly specialized: 3D, HDR, and Vanishing Point come to mind. Clever stuff to be sure, but unlikely to impact your daily workflow.

Content Aware Fill and Puppet Warp are both wonderful exceptions to this rule. Both are easy to understand and instantly useful.

In fact, perfect proof of Puppet Warp’s genuine utility: I needed to add my own translucent shadow to the spoon image demo above. First, I made a shadow exactly the same shape as the spoon. But, as we all know, spoons are curvy, not flat, so I needed a way to manually reshape the shadow to make it look more believable.

It was immediately apparent to Puppet Warp was now the best way to do that. That’s actually a credit to Adobe’s lab rats, and would certainly count for me as a key reason to upgrade.

From Design View #73.