Stretching a Photo in Illustrator (and Elsewhere)

Hey gang,

Meant to have this post up bright and early Monday morning, but the punative Internet gods conspired against me and robbed me of my usual beloved-martini-in-hand 3am site access. Jerks.

Anyhoo, as promised, more detailed information about the “Stretching a Photo in Illustrator” trick from last week’s dekePod. Remember her?

Image ©2008 Andrzej Burak. Used by permission of iStockphoto.

Here’s the full story:

  • Photoshop CS3 doesn’t offer an envelope-style distortion function. Adobe’s vector drawing program Illustrator does.
  • Make sure both Photoshop and Illustrator are running.
  • Copy the image from Photoshop and paste it into Illustrator. Why copy and paste versus File > Place? Because Illustrator’s Envelope Distort command requires an embedded object, and Edit > Paste automatically embeds the image instead of linking to it.
  • Choose Object > Envelope Distort > Make with Mesh.  Set both values to 1. Anything else will evenly space the vertices, and so much as a single unwanted vertex will come back to bite you. Click OK and enjoy your first of several maddeningly slow progress bars. (It’s powerful, not fast.)
  • Get the mesh tool (U). Take a deep breath and prepare to wield it like a surgeon applying the scalpel. It’s time to get serious.
  • Click to place the vertices you want. I clicked around the portion of the image I wanted to protect — at her heels and above her head — and then branched out.
  • Use the white arrow tool to select vertices and move them around. And think about every step before you apply it. It’s hard to overemphasize the benefit of operating deliberately at this phase. For reasons that I’m sure I would sympathize with if it wasn’t so irritating, Illustrator doesn’t cache its envelope states. So undoing takes every bit as much time as doing. Meaning: Do it right, do it once. Do it wrong, do it three times (do, undo, do again — not to mention smack your head on the desktop as the progress bars drift by because I’m here to tell you, undoing an enveloping operation applied to an image in Illustrator is the definition of torment).
  • See the dekePod video for my aproach. It goes by fast, but seeing the process unfold is more helpful than reading about it.
  • When you finish distorting the image, get it back into Photoshop. Still inside Illustrator, choose File > Export. Name the file, select the TIFF format, and click Save. Then Set the resolution to 300 ppi, turn on all check boxes (including LZW), and click OK.
  • Go back into Photoshop and open the image. Then edit is as you like.

I did a lot of cloning to produce the symmetrical effect below. Oh, and just for larfs, I’ve included the text from the final RX drug advertisement. Click on the relatively tiny image below to see the ad comp at high-res. And be sure to read the fine print. It’s there for your protection.

ad comp

Conclusion: Using Illustrator for distortions offers the twin benefits of power and flexibility. But it also requires a methodical approach. Illustrator regards pixels in much the same way your body regards foreign bacteria, as intruders. Illustrator cannot produce antibodies (amen to that!) so it responds allergically with progress bars.

Which brings me to a bit of technology called rsizr that I first learned about nearly a year ago from Tim Grey’s blog. This online tool squishes the low-detail areas and leaves the high-detail areas unscathed. I used it first-hand on the photo of the jumping woman to bring the woman closer to the grass — a completely different effect than the one I pulled off in Illustrator, but easier as well. (That red line below is rsizr automatically gauging the image and tracing the low-detail seams that can be folded together without harming the more important high-detail info.) I wouldn’t go so far as to say that rsizr is the distortion tool we’ve al been waiting for, but it’s fascinating to play with. And with any luck, it may be the harbinger of things to come.


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