How to Use Puppet Warp in Photoshop to Change the Flow of Water

When water or clouds have just the right shape they can create powerful leading lines that direct the viewer’s eyes. For example, the way the water flows through this image below brings you to the main subject, the waterfall. The more that the water is flowing towards the viewer, the more powerful this particular leading line becomes. Unfortunately, putting the camera and tripod in the perfect composition isn’t really an option, because the water is too powerful! The camera would shake and possibly fall over (not to mention the photographer).

So, you have to move the camera out of the main flow of water to shoot the image and sacrifice the in-camera composition slightly. I climbed (and at points slid) down a steep hill to get this shot, so I didn’t feel like compromising the finished image. Thankfully, there is an easy solution. The smooth flowing water can simply be adjusted in Photoshop to bend it toward the viewer. And the best tool for warping water and clouds is usually a tool with a very silly name, “Puppet Warp.” I can’t say I’ve ever seen it used for marionettes, but it’s incredible for water (and clouds).

Puppet Warp allows the most control of any warping tool in Photoshop. The generic warping tool in Photoshop does not allow precise control over small areas of the image. Neither does Perspective Warp. Liquify can be a great tool in small local areas, but would be a struggle to warp a larger area like this water without creating some strange-looking shapes. With Puppet Warp, you can simply define areas at the edge that should not move, and then grab a couple of points in the water and move them where you wish.

In the video below and written steps, you’ll learn how to use Puppet Warp to sculpt the flow of water. But this is just one way to use this amazing tool for landscapes. You can also use it to reshape clouds or other content in your images. This tool works great when you want lots of flexibility to warp something that does not have a lot of texture (so moving subjects with a longer shutter work great) and does not have a known shape (you typically wouldn’t want to warp a straight tree trunk).

Workflow to use Puppet Warp:

  1. Convert the layer(s) you need to warp to a Smart Object. This way, you can go back and easily edit the original layers, or change the warp itself. If you prefer not to use a Smart Object, it is probably best to duplicate your layer first, so that you can blend the warp with the original for greater control (at a minimum, make sure your layer is not background / locked, as this Puppet Warp will be grayed-out if so).
  2. Click Edit / Puppet Warp to start. You can leave the tool settings at defaults to start, but you might want to toggle “mode” to the rigid or distort setting if you know you need to avoid artifacts or make a more extreme warp. **
  3. Create anchor points by clicking along edges where warping should stop (or possibly the edges/corners of image). These are pins that you create but never move to tell Puppet Warp what should not be warped in the image.
  4. Warp the image by adding new points, then clicking and dragging them to warp the image. Watch out for artifacts as you adjust (especially around anchor points, subjects like trees which should be straight, or discontinuities that can occur by dragging a pin too far relative to others).
  5. Click <cmd/ctrl>-Z to undo last change (there is no multiple undo).
  6. If you need to delete a pin, just click on it to make it active (a white dot will appear in the center) and click the <delete> key. Alternatively, you can <alt/option>-click on a point to delete it. However, I recommend not using . If you don’t make the pin you want to delete active first, then the currently active pin will switch from “auto” to “fixed” rotation, causing unwanted changes in your image (curiously, this unwanted warping occurs even though the fixed rotation angle will be set to the same value that was selected by “auto”).
  7. If you wish to move multiple pins, you may <shift>-click to select them and then move all at the same time.
  8. Click <enter> or the check icon in the toolbar to accept the final warp. Click <ESC> or the circle with a slash through it icon in the toolbar to cancel.
  9. Assuming you used a Smart Object, you should see Puppet Warp show up as a filter and there will be a white filter mask. Use that mask to reveal the warping only where needed by clicking on it, inverting it to black (-I), and then painting white to reveal the warped areas. Be sure to zoom in and check that the transition is clean from the warped to unwarped areas.
  10. Assuming you used a Smart Object, you can double-click the “Puppet Warp” filter shown on the layer to continue revising it as needed.

**Comments on the unused toolbar settings for Puppet Warp:

  • Density allows you to place pins closer together (lower density reduces processing time, but isn’t a significant reason to play with this setting). In general, it is best to avoid “more points” unless you really need them, as the warping changes in a way that makes some artifacts more likely. The “normal” density is ideal for most if not all landscape use.
  • Pin depth is useful if you want to bend an object over itself, such as taking a string and looping it into a knot. This is not something you’d use for landscape.
  • Rotation great for bending cutouts of subjects, but also not something you’d use for landscape.
  • Mesh may be helpful for a technical understanding of what is going on (it can help understand areas of artifact, as well as density), but generally not something you need.
Greg Benz Photography