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How to Use the Photoshop Liquify Tool

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If you haven’t yet discovered the Liquify tool in Photoshop, you’re in for a mind-blowing experience. Portrait photographers have laid claim to this tool. But it’s also powerful for distorting shapes in all types of photography.

The Liquify tool allows me to selectively shape areas of my photograph. This includes body and face shaping, which is why the tool is popular with portrait photographers.

In this article, I’ll show you how to use the Liquify tool in Photoshop and walk you through its various features.

Let’s start with how to use the Liquify tool in portraiture.

Portrait photo of a girl with long curly hair

Ethics of Photo Manipulation

Before I show you how to use the Liquify tool in Photoshop, I need to bring up a rather sensitive topic. There are some ethical issues to consider when altering a person’s face or body.

The fashion industry has a history of digitally manipulating photos. The manipulation can create an unrealistic body image. However, there’s a push to label digitally altered photos to be clear about what is real and what isn’t.

Portrait photographers should use the Liquify tool with care and in consultation with their clients. Just because we can digitally alter how a person looks, doesn’t mean we should. There is beauty in imperfection!

How to Open the Liquify Tool Workspace

Before I start, I copy my background layer. If I don’t like the changes I make with the Liquify tool, I can always go back to my original image.

The Liquify tool is located under the ‘Filter’ tab in Photoshop. Selecting ‘Liquify’ opens a new workspace with tool icons on the left and ‘Properties’ tabs on the right.

Screenshot of editing a female models facial features using liquify Photoshop

Let’s go through some of the tools in this new workspace.

I’ll first talk about the ‘Face-Aware Liquify’ tab located on the right side of the screen. This is the most useful tool for portrait photographers.

How Does Face-Aware Liquify Work?

Photoshop automatically detects facial features in an image and allows me to change them.

I click the triangle on the right that opens the ‘Face-Aware Liquify’ tab. I see very specific presets for digitally altering a person’s facial features. I have options for altering eyes, nose, mouth, and face shape.

Screenshot of editing a portrait using the Liquify face tool

As an example, I’ve loaded an image of a beautiful model who I worked with recently. My model’s face really doesn’t need retouching, but I’ll use this image to show you some of the features in the Liquify tool.

I alter my model’s face using the sliders. I don’t have to move the sliders a lot to make a difference. In this example, I’ve exaggerated to make the changes more obvious.

Screenshot of editing with the Photoshop Liquify tool

I’ve made her left eye slightly larger and narrowed the distance between her eyes. I’ve narrowed the width of her nose and changed the height. I’ve given her a smile and slightly changed the shape of her mouth. Finally, I’ve changed the shape of her face by narrowing the jaw and face shape.

Look at the portraits side-by-side:

Two portraits of the same model before and after editing in Photoshop

If I don’t like the settings while I’m working, I can click the reset button.

Ideally, I want to make only subtle changes. I don’t want the image to look digitally altered or change the model’s features so much that she looks like someone else.

To save these settings, I click the triangle to open the tab ‘Load Mesh Options’. There, I have a ‘Save Mesh’ button. If I’ve taken many photos of the same model, I can apply the same settings (mesh) to all the photos. Load mesh will apply a previously saved mesh to an image. This saves a lot of time.

This tool allows me to alter multiple faces in an image. They will be designated in a drop-down menu Face #1, Face #2, etc.

The Face-Aware Liquify tab is useful with a client who is self-conscious about a particular facial feature (like a large nose). You can easily alter it using the Face-Aware Liquify tool.

Let me move to another situation. When your client may be self-conscious about their weight. Liquify tools allow me to change body shape.

What Are the Liquify Tools?

On the left side of the Liquify workspace, there is a list of icons representing the Liquify tools.

A screenshot of how to find the Photoshop Liquify tool

Let me start by defining the tools and then I’ll show you how to use them. The hotkey used to select tool is in parenthesis. Liquify tools in order from top to bottom are:

  • Forward Warp (W) – Allows me to push pixels around by clicking and dragging on them.
  • Reconstruct (R)– Selectively erases liquify modifications by clicking and dragging on the area.
  • Smooth (E) – Smoothes edges and wrinkles.
  • Twirl (T) – Twists pixels in a clockwise direction. To twist counterclockwise, hold the Option (or ALT) key.
  • Pucker (S) – Pulls pixels to the centre of the brush. Makes centre area smaller.
  • Bloat (B) – Moves pixels away from the centre of the brush. Makes centre area larger.
  • Push Left (O) – Warps pixels to the left as you drag. To drag right, hold the Option (or ALT) key.
  • Freeze Mask (F) – Creates an area that won’t be affected by liquify tools. Mask will appear as red overlay.
  • Thaw Mask (D) – Selectively removes mask from image.
  • Face Select (A) – Selects faces in image allowing the face shape to be changed.
  • Move Image (H) – Hand tool drags image around the workspace.
  • Zoom (Z) – Magnifies image.

These tools work with brush size and pressure. The larger the brush, the more pixels are moved. If you click on a section and hold, the effect will become stronger.

You can change how the brush works in the Brush Tool Options tab on the right side of the screen.

Brush pressure affects the speed of the change. The higher the brush pressure, the quicker the changes. Lower brush pressure applies the effect slower.

Brush density affects the hardness of the brush. The higher the brush density, the harder the edges of the effect. Lower values feather edges.

Brush rate affects the quality of the effect. The higher the brush rate, the starker the changes. Lower brush rates will give me subtle changes.

Liquify Tools in Portraiture

A few of the Liquify tools are useful when altering portraits. One of the main tools is the ‘Forward Warp’ tool. This tool pushes around pixels.

If my client is weight-conscious, the Forward Warp is the one I use.

Carefully – really carefully – I push at edges of my client’s body. I do many little pushes. I want the change to be as subtle and natural as possible.

Let me show you an example. This model is ok with her body shape, but you may have clients who want to photographically lose a few pounds.

Screenshot of Photoshop Liquify tool

I push a little on my model’s arms and her hip. I make sure her waist still looks natural.

When I tuck in her left arm, I mask the background, so I don’t warp the straight lines in the curtains.

When I’m doing a general photography diet, I change places where we naturally hold fat (arms, face, hips, belly). I don’t want to completely change the model’s shape, just tuck it in a bit.

Look at the portraits side-by-side:

Diptych portrait of a female model before and after editing with the Photoshop Liquify tool

I also use the Pucker tool to pull in some of the model’s features and the Smooth tool to remove a few wrinkles. But I don’t use many of the other tools when I’m liquifying portraits.

You can go “Dali” on someone easily with the Liquify tool.

With portraiture, I keep modifications subtle. But with other sorts of images, like abstracts, I pull out all the stops.

How to Use Liquify Tools in Abstracts

The Liquify tool is one of the many ways I can distort an image in Photoshop to create abstract or surreal effects.

I love the Twirl tool. I can’t think how to use it in portraiture, but I can create cool starry night effects. I swirl clockwise and then click the option key and swirl counterclockwise.

The longer I apply pressure, the more the area swirls. If I want less of the effect, I lower the brush rate. Changing my brush size adds a dimension.

Photo of a river with the starry night sky above with abstract effect

The Bloat tool expands a select area. I use the Bloat tool to make things swell. I rarely want to do this in portraiture, but I might use this tool to poof clouds. I can create a reflecting ball or water drop effect with this tool.

I used both the Bloat and Pucker tool to create these dripping stairs.

Photo of an old wooden staircase

The Push Left tool in conjunction with the Forward Warp tool pushes pixels around This can distort the image in a funhouse mirror sort of way.

I warped this sunflower field with just a few swipes across the image.

Abstract photo of a field of sunflowers

Remember to mask areas that you don’t want to be affected by the distortions.

Conclusion

Photoshop’s Liquify tool selectively distorts an image.

This Photoshop tool is particularly useful for portrait photographers. You can change face and body features to create a more flattering appearance. The tool allows me to easily save and apply the changes to a series of photos.

You can also use this powerful tool in wonderful ways to create abstracts or surreal images.

Have fun experimenting with it!

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