How to Make a Rippling Flag in Photoshop

It’s easy to find flat flag artwork online. But it’s not so easy to find images of rippling flags, especially shot against the background you want. Fortunately, you can use Photoshop to create a multi-purpose rippling flag, and then replace the design with the flag of your choice. Pretty cool, right? So let’s see how it’s done.

1. The initial setup

Here’s our starting image: a flagpole and a flag, on separate layers. I’ve chosen the flag of Sweden to begin with, because it’s a simple design that will allow us to see the distortion and shading process clearly. We can change the design to whatever we want later.

flag step 1

2. Make a Smart Object

Before you start distorting, turn the flag into a Smart Object. You can do this by choosing Layer > Smart Objects > Make Smart Object. You won’t see any initial difference, other than the fact that the icon in the Layers panel now sports a tiny Smart Object logo in the bottom right corner.

flag step 2

3. Enter Free Transform

Use Command T/Ctrl T to enter Free Transform mode, and adjust the size of the flag so it fits onto the existing tape attached to the flagpole. Don’t perform any more distortions yet. All we’re interested in here is the approximate size.

flag step 3

4. Switch to Image Warp

Press the Image Warp button on the Options Bar, and choose—naturally enough—Flag as the distortion preset from the pop-up menu (the menu will default to reading Custom). The initial effect is a little extreme, but it’s a start.

flag step 4

5. Modify the distortion

There’s only one handle on the Flag distortion, about a third of the way along the top edge. Grab it and drag it to create a more traditional flag shape. You can choose to wave it up or down; I’ve chosen to go up first.

flag step 5

6. Switch to Custom

From the pop-up menu in the Options Bar, change the type from Flag back to Custom. The shape itself won’t change, but you’ll now have access to all the control handles.

flag step 6

7. Fit the tape

The flag needs to be adjusted so the left side matches the tape that’s already attached to the pole. Drag the adjustment handles until it fits the shape. It doesn’t need to be exact.

flag step 7

8. Ripple the flag

Now it’s time to adjust the rest of the flag so it’s waving more effectively. You can drag the handles, or the corner points, or the four interior intersections in Image Warp to move it around. Try to make it look less stiff by waving the edges in a more realistic, organic way. When you’re satisfied, hit Enter.

flag step 8

9. Load the selection

With the basic shape done, you can move on to the shading section. First, load up the pixels in the flag as a selection, by holding Command (Mac) or Ctrl (Windows) and clicking on the thumbnail of the flag in the Layers Panel. You’ll see the familiar “marching ants” border appear.

flag step 9

10. Make a Hard Light layer

Make a new layer and set its mode to Hard Light. Also, check the box marked Fill with Hard-Light-Neutral color. This fills the layer with 50% gray, which is invisible in Hard Light mode.

flag step 10

11. Invert the selection

With the selection still active, use Select > Modify > Inverse so that everything except the flag area is selected, and hit Backspace to delete it. You won’t see any difference to the artwork, but the Layers panel should now show the shading area to match the flag shape.

flag step 11

12. Lock the transparency

On the Hard Light layer, check the first icon next to the word Lock. This locks the transparency, so that no painting or smudging operation can extend outside the bounds of the pixels already present on the layer. This will be very useful later.

flag step 12

13. Start the shading

Switch to the Burn tool, set to Highlights at 100% opacity. Using a soft-edged brush, drag from the top left of the flag to the top right, performing a loop downwards in between.

flag step 13

14. Add more loops

Continue to work around the flag, adding more loops with the Burn tool below and above the original. In the corners, just match the direction and shape of the original loops.

flag step 14

15. Dodge the shadows

The Burn tool darkens the image; the Dodge tool brightens it. You can hold Alt or Option to temporarily access the Dodge tool. Drag another loop just above the original Burn loop, to add the highlight to the flag.

flag step 15

16. Keep on Dodging

Continue to add highlights above each fold. You should set the Dodge tool to about 50% strength, to avoid burning the gray of the Hard Light layer to pure white.

flag step 16

17. Smudge those folds

The folds created so far can look a little lumpy. So use the Smudge tool to smear the ends into more precise, tighter folds. Use a small brush, with a strength of around 90% for best results.

flag step 17

18. Keep on Smudging

Continued use of the Smudge tool can turn that coarse shading into something altogether more appealing. The good thing about the Smudge tool is that you can keep working away until you’re happy with the result.

flag step 18

19. Increase the contrast

Depending on how much you darkened and brightened the image with Dodge and Burn, you may find it looks a little washed out. Use the Brightness/Contrast adjustment if desired to boost the contrast for a more dynamic look.

flag step 19

20. The finished flag

Here’s the result of the work so far. The flat artwork we started with now looks much more like a real rippling flag—so much so that you barely notice that the design of the flag itself isn’t really rippling.

flag step 20

21. Open the Smart Object

We’ve finished with the Swedish flag, so let’s replace it. Double-click the flag layer in the Layers panel and, because it’s a Smart Object, it will open in a new window.

flag step 21

22. Replace the contents

You can paste any flag you want into this window. Here, I’ve added the Stars and Stripes, and resized the flag so it fits the original dimensions.

flag step 22

23. Save the Smart Object

Choose Save and the contents of the Smart Object window will be saved back into the artwork, replacing the original flag. You can also simply close the Smart Object window, and you’ll be prompted to save it.

flag step 23

24. Adjust the distortion

When we view the Stars and Stripes, though, it appears that the Stars box on the left is too distorted. It’s too high compared with the stripes beneath it. Fortunately, we can fix that. Because it’s a Smart Object, choosing Free Transform and clicking the Image Warp button will return us to the state of the image as we left it, with all the control handles in place.

flag step 24

25. Complete the adjustment

It’s now an easy matter to drag those handles on the left, to change the flag’s distortion so that it better matches the flagpole.

flag step 25

26. Add a background

With a background added, the flag looks much more realistic. Here, I’ve also reduced the opacity of the flag to 80% to allow a little of the background color to show through, which produces an even more convincing effect.

flag step 26


Posted on: May 22, 2013

Steve Caplin

Steve is a freelance writer, artist and designer, and the author of over a dozen books, including the popular How to Cheat in Photoshop series and the Amazon #1 best-seller Dad Stuff. His training videos can be seen on, Retouch Pro and elsewhere.

28 Comments on How to Make a Rippling Flag in Photoshop

  1. Superb, simple and effective. Thanks for the post.

  2. Step #13 doesnt’ work for me. It doesn’t appear to do anything to my image. I have the “shading” layer selected.

  3. Specific guidelines and details, it is useful for beginners in Photoshop. Thank you very much!

  4. Wow… Thanks, buddy. You filthy genius 

  5. Wow- a whole new vista of techniques to explore. Thanks so much!

  6. Fabulous! great tutorial and technique, very much appreciated!

  7. Your work is beautiful. it has made me a new inspiration Last. thanks for your new information.

  8. I cannot find the ‘flag’ distortion – there is no pop-up menu! I am sure I am just being stupid but can someone help?

  9. great job Steve. completely done. I really didnt know how to do that, but now I have made a beautiful flag of my logo. Thanks man.

  10. Thank you.

  11. Page 2 doesn’t work. Now I have only half of a rippling flag. 🙁

  12. Please share this ready file so that we just have to add the flag

  13. Thanks. I made it into a ping, then created a layer with the outline and contracted it 30 px then filled with grey then subtracted again by 1 px and deleted. This gave me a thread line which made it more realistic. Set the thread layer to 30% transparency.

  14. Thank you so much for this!

  15. Mahdi HM Suhaili

    July 25, 2018 at 1:24 am

    Thank you so much. It is easy to understand

  16. can you email the PSD of this? I cant seem to get the look yours does! I can just follow your flag replacement that you have XD

  17. Hey I’m using Photoshop 7.0.1, and I can’t find the Layer > Smart Objects > Make Smart Object. What should I do?

  18. HI. I cant find Image Warp button on the Options Bar. Can you help me, please?

    • It’s the button that appears to the left of the Cancel button, when you’re in Free Transform.

      You can also use Edit > Transform > Warp.

  19. I found. Sorry for distract you…

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