How to use Free Transform in Photoshop
Learn how to scale, rotate, flip, skew and distort images using the Free Transform command in Photoshop! Now fully updated for Photoshop CC 2020!
In this tutorial, I show you how to use Photoshop's Free Transform command to scale, rotate, flip, skew and distort images. You'll learn tips for getting the most out of Free Transform, and how to transform images without losing quality.
We'll start with the basics and learn how to scale and rotate images. Then we'll look at Photoshop's more advanced transformations, like Skew, Distort and Perspective, along with the best ways to use them. And at the end, I'll show you how to get more impressive results from the standard Rotate and Flip commands, including how to create a four-way mirror image effect!
This tutorial includes changes Adobe made to Free Transform as of Photoshop CC 2019, along with additional improvements in Photoshop 2020. So for best results, you'll want to be using the latest version of Photoshop. If you've been using Photoshop for a while and just need to catch up on the most recent changes to Free Transform, check out my New Features and Changes tutorial.
Let's get started!
The document setup
To follow along, go ahead and open any image. I'll use this image from Adobe Stock:
In the Layers panel, the image appears on the Background layer:
Which types of layers can we transform in Photoshop?
Photoshop lets us transform virtually any type of layer, including pixel layers, type layers, shape layers, and even smart objects.
But one layer we can't transform is the Background layer, and that's because the Background layer is locked:
The Free Transform command is found under the Edit menu in the Menu Bar. But with the Background layer locked, the command is grayed out:
How to unlock the Background layer
To fix that, simply unlock the Background layer by clicking the lock icon:
Then go back up to the Edit menu and you'll see Free Transform ready to be selected:
How to avoid transparency when transforming a layer
The only problem now is that if I select Free Transform, and then I scale my image smaller by clicking and dragging one of the handles, I end up with a checkerboard pattern behind the image. The checkerboard pattern is how Photoshop represents transparency:
And the reason we're seeing transparency is because I currently have no other layers below my image:
Adding a new layer below the image
So to fix that, I'll add a new layer. And my favorite type of layer to use for a background is a Solid color fill layer.
First, I'll press the Esc key on my keyboard to cancel the Free Transform command without saving my changes. Then I'll click the New Fill or Adjustment Layer icon at the bottom of the Layers panel:
And I'll choose Solid Color from the list:
The great thing about a Solid Color fill layer is that it's easy to choose any color you need from the Color Picker. For this tutorial, I'll keep things simple and choose white for my background, and then I'll click OK to close the Color Picker:
Then back in the Layers panel, I'll drag the Solid Color fill layer below the image:
I'll click on the image layer to select it:
And this time, if I select Free Transform from the Edit menu, and then I drag a handle to scale the image smaller, we see the white background behind the image instead of transparency. Again, I'll press the Esc key on my keyboard to cancel my changes:
How to transform images without losing quality
Before we look at all the ways to transform images in Photoshop, there's one more important topic we need to cover, and that's the difference between destructive and non-destructive transformations.
Each time we scale, rotate, or in some way transform a pixel-based layer, we lose image quality. That's because Photoshop needs to redraw the pixels every time. This is known as a destructive edit because we're making permanent changes to the image.
To avoid losing quality, a better way to work is to first convert your layer into a smart object. Smart objects are like containers that protect the image inside them. Any transformations we make to a smart object are applied to the smart object itself, while the image inside it remains unharmed. And each time we apply a new transformation, Photoshop redraws the smart object based on that original image data. So no matter how many transformations we apply to a smart object, the result always looks great.
You can learn more about smart objects in my Resizing Images Without Losing Quality tutorial.
How to convert a layer to a smart object
To convert your layer into a smart object, right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) on the layer in the Layers panel:
And then choose Convert to Smart Object from the menu:
A smart object icon appears in the lower right of the preview thumbnail, telling us that the layer is now inside a smart object, and we're ready to start transforming the image:
Which Transform options are available in Photoshop?
All of Photoshop's Transform options can be accessed by going up to the Edit menu and choosing Transform:
From here, we can choose to Scale or Rotate the image, Skew it, perform Distort and Perspective transformations, and even Warp the image. I cover how to warp images in a separate tutorial.
We also have standard options for rotating the image 90 or 180 degrees. And we can flip the image either horizontally or vertically:
What is Free Transform?
But while you can keep coming back to the Edit menu to select these different options, there's really no point. That's because all of Photoshop's Transform commands can be selected using a single command known as Free Transform, a one-stop-shop for all your image transformation needs.
You can select Free Transform from here in the Edit menu. But a faster way is to use the keyboard shortcut, Ctrl+T (Win) / Command+T (Mac). Even if you don't like keyboard shortcuts, this one is definitely worth knowing:
The transform box and handles
As soon as you select Free Transform, you'll see the transform box and handles around the image. There's a handle on the top, bottom, left and right, plus one in each corner:
How to change the color of the transform box
If the color of the transform box outline is hard to see in front of your image, you can choose a different color.
First, press the Esc key on your keyboard to cancel the Free Transform command . Then open Photoshop's Preferences. On a Windows PC, go up to the Edit menu. On a Mac, go up to the Photoshop CC menu. From there, choose Preferences, and then Guides, Grid & Slices:
Down at the bottom of the dialog box is the Control Color option. This is the current color of the transform box:
The default color is a light blue, but you can click on the option and choose a different color from the list. The Classic option is a great choice because it displays a dark outline over light areas of the image and a light outline over dark areas, making it very easy to see.
Once you've chosen a color, click OK to close the Preferences dialog box. And the next time you open Free Transform, you'll see the new color:
How to scale an image with Free Transform
Let's look at all the ways we can transform images using Photoshop's Free Transform command, starting with Scale.
Scaling an image proportionally
To scale an image, click and drag any of the handles. As of Photoshop CC 2019, the default behavior of Free Transform is to scale images proportionally. So no matter which handle you drag, you'll scale the image with the aspect ratio locked in place.
Here I'm dragging the top left corner handle inward:
To scale non-proportionally, hold your Shift key as you drag a handle.
Here I'm squishing the image by holding Shift while dragging the left side handle inward:
To switch back to scaling proportionally, release your Shift key and then drag a handle.
But notice that Photoshop does not restore the original aspect ratio of the image. Instead, we're locked into the new aspect ratio that we created after scaling non-proportionally:
How to undo steps while in Free Transform
New as of Photoshop CC 2020, we can now undo multiple steps while in Free Transform. So if you need to get back to the original aspect ratio, or to some other previous step, go up to the Edit menu and choose Undo. Or press Ctrl+Z (Win) / Command+Z (Mac) on your keyboard. Press the shortcut repeatedly to undo as many steps as needed.
To redo a step, press Shift+Ctrl+Z (Win) / Shift+Command+Z (Mac). Press repeatedly to redo multiple steps:
And after undoing a couple of steps, I'm back to the original aspect ratio:
Photoshop CC 2020 Update: Scaling shape layers
Back in Photoshop CC 2019, Free Transform behaved differently with shape layers than it did with pixel or type layers. Dragging a handle without holding Shift would scale the shape layer non-proportionally. And holding Shift would scale it proportionally.
Thankfully, this issue has been fixed as of Photoshop CC 2020. Pixel layers, type layers and shape layers now behave the same way. Drag a handle without holding Shift to scale proportionally, or hold Shift to scale non-proportionally.
How to move the image with Free Transform
To move the image around inside the canvas while transforming it, click and drag inside the Free Transform box:
How to scale an image from its center
To scale an image proportionally from its center, press and hold your Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) key as you drag a handle.
Or to scale non-proportionally from the center, hold Shift+Alt (Win) / Shift+Option (Mac) as you drag:
How to accept the transformation
I'll scale my image to the size I need:
And then, if you're happy with the size of the image and you have no other Transform commands to apply, you can accept your changes and close Free Transform by clicking the checkmark in the Options Bar. Or press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) on your keyboard:
How to restore the original image size
If you converted your image to a smart object as I showed you how to do earlier, then it's easy to restore the original size of your image even after you've scaled it and closed Free Transform.
First, press Ctrl+T (Win) / Command+T (Mac) to re-select the Free Transform command. Then, notice in the Options Bar that the Width and Height fields are both showing values less than 100%. In my case, I'm seeing a value of 60% for both the Width and the Height:
Because we're working with a smart object, Photoshop knows that the original image inside the smart object is larger than the scaled size. To restore the original size, first make sure the link icon between the Width and Height fields is selected:
Then simply change the Width or Height value to 100%. The other value will change along with it. Press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) to accept the new size:
And now the image is back to its original size, and with no loss in quality:
How to cancel Free Transform without saving your changes
That's not actually what I wanted to do, so to cancel Free Transform without saving your changes, click the Cancel button in the Options Bar. Or press the Esc key on your keyboard:
And now I'm back to the scaled size:
How to rotate an image with Free Transform
To rotate an image, move your mouse cursor outside the Free Transform box. Your cursor will change into a curved, double-sided arrow:
Then click and drag to rotate the image freely. Or hold Shift as you drag to constrain the angle of the rotation to increments of 15 degrees:
Entering a specific rotation angle
Instead of dragging your mouse to rotate the image, you can also enter a rotation value directly into the Angle option in the Options Bar:
How to reset the rotation angle
And to reset the angle at any time, just enter 0:
The transformation Reference Point
In earlier versions of Photoshop, the Free Transform box included a target icon in the center. The target icon is known as the Reference Point because it marks the center of the transformation. We'll look at what that means in a moment.
But for whatever reason, Adobe decided to hide the Reference Point in the most recent versions of Photoshop. It's still there, but we can't see it unless we turn it on.
How to show the Reference Point
To turn the Reference Point on, go up to the Options Bar and click the Toggle Reference Point checkbox:
Then look in the center of the Free Transform box and you'll see the target icon:
Moving the Reference Point
Earlier when we scaled the image from its center by holding Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and dragging a handle, what we were really doing was scaling the image from the Reference Point. And we can move the Reference Point just by dragging the target icon to a different spot.
I'll move the Reference Point onto the tip of the butterfly's wing:
And now if I hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and drag a handle, I'm scaling the image with the tip of the wing as the new center point:
And if I rotate the image, the image now rotates around the wing:
Tip: A faster way to move the Reference Point is to hold Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) and simply click on the spot where you want the target icon to appear.
The Reference Point Grid
Another way to move the Reference Point is by using the Reference Point Grid in the Options Bar (directly beside the Toggle Reference Point checkbox). Each outer square in the grid represents one of the handles around the transform box.
To move the Reference Point to a specific handle, click on its square in the grid. It's pretty small, so you may want to keep a magnifying glass handy:
How to center the Reference Point
And to move the Reference Point back into the center of the transform box, click the center square in the grid:
How to turn the Reference Point on permanently
If you want to see the Reference Point all the time without needing to click the Toggle Reference Point icon in the Options Bar, you can do that from Photoshop's Preferences.
If Free Transform is active, press the Esc key to cancel it. Then press Ctrl+K (Win) / Command+K (Mac) to open the Preferences dialog box. Select the Tools category on the left, and then choose Show Reference Point when using Transform. Click OK to close the dialog box:
How to access any transform command from Free Transform
So far, we've looked at how to scale and rotate an image with Free Transform. But what about Photoshop's other transform commands that we saw under the Edit menu, like Skew, Distort and Perspective?
With Free Transform active, that same menu of options can be accessed by right-clicking (Win) / Control-clicking (Mac) inside the Free Transform box. Then just choose the one you need:
How to skew an image
Let's look at the next three commands in the list (Skew, Distort and Perspective), starting with Skew. Select Skew from the menu:
With Skew selected, click on either the top or bottom handle and drag to skew the image left or right:
I'll press Ctrl+Z (Win) / Command+Z (Mac) to undo that.
And to skew the image up or down, click and drag one of the side handles:
Again I'll undo that by pressing Ctrl+Z (Win) / Command+Z (Mac).
You can skew opposite sides at once (the top and bottom or the left and right) by holding Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) as you drag:
How to distort an image
To distort an image, right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) inside the Free Transform box and choose Distort:
Then click and drag any of the corner handles. This is known as a four-point distortion because you're distorting the image from its four corner points:
How to undo a distortion
As I mentioned earlier, Photoshop CC 2020 now gives us multiple undos while in Free Transform. So to undo a step in your distortion, press Ctrl+Z (Win) / Command+Z (Mac). Press repeatedly to undo multiple steps.
How to distort an image in perspective
Along with performing a four-point distortion, we can also perform a perspective distortion. Right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) inside the Free Transform box and choose Perspective:
What's the difference between Distort and Perspective?
The difference between Distort and Perspective is that Distort lets us move each corner handle independently, but Perspective moves the opposite handle at the same time, in the opposite direction.
Here I'm dragging the top left corner handle towards the right. And notice that the top right handle moves along with it, but to the left:
Or if I drag a corner handle up or down, the opposite handle again moves along with it. Perspective mode is great when you need to reshape an object to match the perspective of the image, or to create simple 3D effects:
The Skew, Distort and Perspective keyboard shortcuts
The problem with selecting transform commands from the menu is that the commands are sticky, meaning that you can't do anything else unless you select a different command. For example, if you select Skew, and then you try to scale or rotate the image, you won't be able to. You would need to first select Scale or Rotate from the menu, which can quickly become tedious.
A better way to select Skew, Distort or Perspective is to temporarily switch to them using their keyboard shortcuts. Again, even if you don't like keyboard shortcuts, these ones are worth knowing.
With Free Transform active, press and hold Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac) on your keyboard to temporarily switch to Skew mode. Then click and drag a top, bottom or side handle to skew the image.
To constrain your movement to horizontal or vertical, hold Shift+Ctrl (Win) / Shift+Command (Mac) and drag.
Add the Alt (Win) / Option (Mac) key to skew opposite sides at the same time. Then release the key(s) to exit Skew mode and return to Free Transform.
To perform a four-point distortion, hold Ctrl (Win) / Command (Mac) and drag any of the corner handles.
To constrain your movement to horizontal or vertical, add the Shift key. Release the key(s) to return to Free Transform.
And to temporarily switch to Perspective mode, hold Shift+Ctrl+Alt (Win) / Shift+Command+Option (Mac) and drag a corner handle. Then release the keys to return to Free Transform.
The Rotate and Flip commands
And finally, if you right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) inside the Free Transform box, you'll find standard options for rotating the image 180°, rotating it 90° clockwise or counter clockwise, and for flipping the image horizontally or vertically:
Create a four-way mirror image effect with Free Transform
On their own, Photoshop's Rotate and Flip commands are pretty straightforward. But if we combine them with the transformation Reference Point (the target icon) that we looked at earlier, we can do more interesting things. For example, let's learn how to quickly create a four-way mirror image effect using the Free Transform command.
I'll scale my image a bit smaller, and I'll move it over to the right side of the canvas. Then I'll press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) to accept it and close Free Transform:
Making a copy of the image
I'll make a copy of my layer (or in this case, my smart object) by pressing Ctrl+J (Win) / Command+J (Mac). And now in the Layers panel, we see two copies of the image.
I'll make the sure the top smart object is selected:
Moving the Reference Point
Then I'll press Ctrl+T (Win) / Command+T (Mac) to select Free Transform. But before I select one of the transform commands, I'll click on the Reference Point in the center of the Free Transform box and I'll drag it over the left side handle:
Flipping the image horizontally
Then I'll right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) inside the Free Transform box and I'll choose Flip Horizontal from the menu:
And because I moved the Reference Point over to the side, Photoshop flips the image using the left side as the center of the transformation, creating a mirrored version of the image. I'll press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) to accept it:
Moving the images
Back in the Layers panel, I'll select both smart objects at once by holding Shift and clicking the bottom smart object:
Then I'll select Photoshop's Move Tool from the toolbar:
And in the Options Bar, I'll make sure Auto-Select is unchecked:
Then I'll drag both copies of the image into the upper half of the canvas. I'll hold Shift as I drag to make it easier to drag straight up:
Making a copy of the two images
With both copies of the image still selected in the Layers panel, I'll press Ctrl+J (Win) / Command+J (Mac) to copy them:
Flipping the images vertically
And then back in the document, I'll press Ctrl+T (Win) / Command+T (Mac) to select Free Transform. This places the Free Transform handles around both images at once.
I'll click on the Reference Point in the center, and this time, I'll drag it down onto the bottom handle. This way, the bottom of the images will become the center of the transformation:
Then I'll right-click (Win) / Control-click (Mac) inside the Free Transform box and I'll choose Flip Vertical:
Photoshop flips the copies vertically, again using the Reference Point as the center of the transformation, creating a four-way mirror reflection of the image. Press Enter (Win) / Return (Mac) to accept it:
Where to go next
And there we have it! That's how to use the Free Transform command in Photoshop CC 2020!
In the next tutorial, I show you how to warp images using Photoshop's newly enhanced Warp tool!