The Digital Art Studio: Quick Fixes #2 (Shape References)

The first post in this series, Quick Fixes #1, showed how to use Smart Objects and Free Transform in Photoshop to align an image that should be a true square within the perimeter of a square document. (If you’re not totally comfortable with Smart Objects and Free Transform, please read through the previous post before continuing on to this one.)

To keep the number of steps to a minimum while adding another level of complexity, this tutorial will continue to stay within the square format. Instead of  “squaring-up” the image against the edges of a cropped square document, here you’ll now see a couple of ways to create references against which you can correct a square element within a larger image.

I created this off-kilter and off-angle image of a cool door with inset square panels as a quick snapshot with my iPhone. Unfortunately, I didn’t have time for another shot, and this one didn’t capture what I’d loved about the concentric squares within the rectangular door. To help me correct most of the distortions, I created a reference square around the inset top panel to guide me as I transformed the photo.

As with the first post in this series, for each of these ways to fix the image I began by converting the photo layer into a Smart Object (from the Layer menu, but again, check out the previous lesson for help if this isn’t a familiar task). When you’re adjusting a larger image, your image corners might end up extending beyond the edges of your canvas. In order to make sure that you can easily access all four corners, before invoking Free Transform, make sure that you’re in Full Screen mode (press the F key to cycle through to modes that hide the title bar).

As long as you’re working with a Smart Object, feel free to apply the current transformation (Return/Enter, or Command-./CTRL-.), and then re-invoke Free Transform if you want to do a bit more tweaking. While in an active transformation you can use shortcuts to zoom in and out (Command-+or -/CTRL+ or  -, and Command-Spacebar/CTRL-Spacebar with/without Option/Alt), as well as use the Spacebar to access the grabber hand.

There are so many ways to do everything in Photoshop, and because each project has its own set of issues that might be best solved with a different solution, you’ll find here two variations on using Photoshop vector shapes to create square reference templates against which you can align and adjust your image.

#1 Creating a Shape layer

Creating a square shape vector object is probably the simplest and most elegant way to draw a reference in Photoshop. Select the Rectangle Shape tool.

In the Control panel, set None for fill, choose a stroke color that’s in contrast to your photo, and start out by setting a 3-pt stroke weight.

While holding Shift, draw your square in place.

Once it’s drawn, you can modify it use the Path Selection tool. Click on it, and then you can adjust its style in the Control panel, or move it manually, or with arrow keys. To resize the shape, press Command+T/Ctrl+T to transform it, then holding Shift to maintain the aspect ratio and drag a corner.

Once your rectangle is sized, styled, and in place, target your image layer in the Layers panel, and use Free Transform to adjust the image. Hide the Shape layer when finished.

#2 Creating Guides from Shape layer

This method is helpful when you’re also trying to keep other elements in alignment when adjusting the main portion of the image with the square itself. In the case of my door photo, it helped to ensure the second panel in door didn’t get too distorted as I fixed the main panel.

To create the guides, in the Layers panel, target the vector shape layer created as in step #2 above (you don’t have to select the shape itself with the Path Selection tool).

Next, from the View menu choose New Guides from Shape.

Once you’re ready to adjust your image layer, target it and apply Free Transform (Command+T/Ctrl+T). As always, as long as your image was first converted into a Smart Object, you can keep applying and re-entering Free Transform as needed without degrading the image.

To view the image alone, hide the shape layer in the Layers panel, and toggle the guides off (Command+;/Ctrl+; or choose the View > Guides).

For the final versions of my transformed door, I cropped it to a square format, then added a Levels adjustment layer with Layer Mask (this can be covered in more detail in a future post).

Next up: In #3 in this series I’ll show how to use a Layer Mask to temporarily isolate the view of the area to be adjusted.

Posted on: October 16, 2017

Sharon Steuer

Sharon Steuer has been creating, writing about, and teaching workshops on digital art since the early 1980s. The current edition of her Illustrator WOW! book, The Adobe Illustrator WOW! Book for CS6 and CC, is the fourteenth book in the series, and her "Artistic Painting in Illustrator" online video courses are available from Sharon is also the author of Creative Thinking in Photoshop: A New Approach to Digital Art, and is a regular contributor to Her digital paintings and illustrations have appeared in numerous books and magazines and have been exhibited nationally. Find Sharon via,, and @SharonSteuer (Twitter).

2 Comments on The Digital Art Studio: Quick Fixes #2 (Shape References)

  1. Why not just turn on the grid overlay?

    • Good question Alan!
      With some images that might be just the perfect solution!
      Often for my images it would take me longer to custom configure the grid and then to align it properly thank to just drag out the proper square and go from there.
      I love how there are so many zillions of solutions for achieving similar ends.
      Reminds me of what I loved about Geometry.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published.