How To Make The Pixel Stretch Effect In Photoshop + Photoshop Action!

The Pixel Stretch Photoshop Effect

As a creator I am constantly on the hunt for fun photo effects to create. Whether it’s in camera or editing effects, it’s a sure way to add a unique twist to your images. The pixel stretch effect is no exception!

The pixel stretch effect samples a small amount of pixels in your photo and stretches them out to create a mesmerizing streak of colour. There are a pretty infinite ways you can manipulate this streak to create some interesting Photoshop effects:

Whether you’re into circles, swooping arches or just a plain old streak; you can’t go wrong! This is one of my favourite Photoshop effects, and I can guarantee you’ll be feeling the same way after this tutorial.

The Pixel Stretch Effect Photoshop Action

The beauty of this Photoshop effect is that it’s as complicated as you want to make it. The more complicated you make it, the more time it ends up taking… if you aren’t using a Photoshop action.


To save you the pre-mature grey hairs, I created a Photoshop action to make the Pixel Stretch Effect a breeze. With just one click you can create 6 unique pixel stretch effects that can be manipulated into whatever form you see fit. Here are the pixel stretch effects included in this Pixel Stretch Photoshop Action Pack:

  1. Horizontal Stretch –  makes a ‘ready to edit’ simple pixel stretch with sampled colours lining vertically in your photo. Best for portrait orientation.
  2. Vertical Stretch – makes a ‘ready to edit’ simple square pixel stretch with sampled colours lining horizontally in your photo. Best for landscape orientation.
  3. Curved Pixel Stretch 1: Pixel stretch based off the colours in your image, warped into a unique curve.
  4. Curved Pixel Stretch 2: Pixel stretch based off the colours in your image, warped into a unique curve.
  5. Curved Pixel Stretch 3: Pixel stretch based off the colours in your image, warped into a unique curve.
  6. Circle Pixel Stretch:  Creates a pixel stretch based off the colours in your image, then warped into a circle automatically.

I’m also including a few great images to begin practicing the effect with, as well as my Photoshop project used in the video tutorial below! There has never been a better chance to dive into the Pixel Stretch effect, than with the help of this Photoshop Action! Click Here to learn more and get your hands in the Pixel Stretch Photoshop Action Pack.

I use this action every time I create a pixel stretch. I can’t recommend it enough to those of you wanting to really push your limits with what you can create!


Video Tutorial

Pixel Stretch Basics: How To Create This Photoshop Effect

Although the Pixel Stretch Photoshop action makes life easy, you can still begin to create this effect manually. Below I outline the few simple steps to creating a basic curved Pixel Stretch from scratch!

Picking The Right Image For This Effect

Not all images will work well with this effect. I find that the best images for the Pixel Stretch are ones with a very clear subject or point of interest. Whether that be a building, person, whatever; just make sure they’re clearly defined!

For this pixel stretch I will be using a person against a white background. An ideal photo for this effect!


Separate Your Subject From The Background

The most essential part of this effect is to blend your pixel stretch into other elements in the photo. How to do that? Just separate the subject from the background! By doing this you can add the pixel stretch in between layers to really sell the effect.

To separate your subject from the background you can call on any selection making tool for the job. In this example I will be using channels to cut out my subject. Some other good options would be the quick selection tool or the pen tool. If you are totally unfamiliar to cutting things out in photoshop, be sure to read this post.

Once you have made your selection, add it to a layer mask. You will be doing adjustments to it later!

If you have any excess left over around your image, now would be the time to clean that up. In this example I want to mask out the left overs around the edges. I can do this by painting black onto my layer mask with my brush tool (B).

Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 2.34.05 PM
The layer mask after getting cleaned up.

Of course you don’t want to have a transparent background so it’s time to fill everything back in. Duplicate the cut out layer (COMMAND + J or CONTROL + J) and drag it to the bottom of the layer stack.

Click on the layer mask and invert the mask by pressing COMMAND + I (MAC) or CONTROL + I (PC) to make the background visible once again. Rename this layer to background.


Creating The Pixel Stretch

Now that you have prepped your photo for the effect, it’s time to start stretchin’! First we need something to sample…

Grab the rectangular marquee tool by pressing M on your keyboard and click and drag out in the area you wish to sample from. This selection should be as narrow as possible to avoid containing any detail; we only care about the colours!

In my example I am only sampling the parts of my subject body that I want the colours of the pixel stretch to be based from. Once you have an active selection, make sure your ‘cut out’ layer is selected and press COMMAND + J (MAC) or CONTROL + J (PC) to duplicate the active selection onto its own layer. Rename this layer to Pixel Stretch.

Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 2.44.19 PM

Select the newly created Pixel Stretch layer and grab the move tool by pressing V. Grab the middle of the selection box, then hold Shift and drag out to stretch the layer. The amount of stretch is up to you, I recommend more stretch if you plan on adding a curving effect.Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 2.44.49 PM

Finally, drag this pixel stretch layer between the cut out and background layer as shown below:

Warp The Pixel Stretch

Now that you have a very basic pixel stretch complete, it’s time to add a little bit of extra flare! It’s time to warp the pixel stretch.

Select your pixel stretch layer and press COMMAD + T (MAC) or CONTROL + T (PC) to transform the layer. Right click and go to Warp.

Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 2.48.56 PM

Once you have selected the warp, you layer will have a grid pattern around it. Drag the corners you want to warp and bring them to the opposite side of the image. Continue to adjust this until you are happy with the effect.

Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 2.49.06 PM

In my example I bring all 3 points from the left side, and drag them to the right. This gives the look of my pixel stretch curving around my subject.

Touch Up The Layer Mask

Remember when I mentioned adjusting the layer mask later on? Well now’s the time! Since I want to have the pixel stretch seemingly wrap around the subject, I need to mask out her foot to give the appearance it’s behind the pixel stretch.

To mask out a part of your layer mask, grab the Brush Tool by pressing B and set your foreground colour to black (D). Click on the cut out layer mask and begin to paint out the areas you want to be invisible!

Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 3.00.01 PMScreen Shot 2019-06-16 at 2.59.54 PM

What specific layer mask adjustments you do will depend on your image, or if you are wanting to hide your subject behind the effect. Depending on your photo, you may not even need to worry about this step!


Add A Shadow

The little detail that goes a long ways. Let’s add a shadow to finalize our effect!

Create a new layer and place it between the cut out and pixel stretch layers. Rename this new layer to Shadow.

Screen Shot 2019-06-16 at 9.35.49 PM

Grab the Brush Tool by pressing B and set black to your foreground colour (D) since that will be the colour of our shadow. With a brush at 0% hardness and 100% opacity, paint just around the edges of your subject. Add a little or add a lot, you do you!

Now that you have a rough shadow, let’s begin to blend it. Change the shadow layers blending mode to “soft light” and then adjust the fill slider accordingly. For my image I settled at a fill of 74%, other images may require something different!

The shadow is a great way to add a bit of dimension to this effect. As you just discovered, it doesn’t have to be fancy to really enhance the photo! A simple black brush does the job perfectly. Here’s how the final image turned out:


Final Thoughts

Now that you have the pixel stretch effect on lock, there’s no limits to where you can take it! I find that the Pixel Stretch Photoshop Action is an amazing way to speed up this entire process and turn the above steps into a one click process. If you like making life easy, be sure to check out the Pixel Stretch Photoshop Action to avoid any chance of a mental break down while creating this effect.


If you enjoyed this effect and created something for yourself, be sure to tag me on instagram @brnwills when you upload. I’ll be sharing some of my favourites on my Instagram story!


Happy editing!



Article By

Brendan Williams

Hey, I'm Brendan! I'm a professional photographer and photo retoucher who has spent the majority of his career shooting or retouching outdoor lifestyle and social media campaigns for brands like G-Adventures, xoxo Bella, P&G, Fitbit, Chevy, Tourism California, and more. These days I primarily focus my efforts on this site, creating guides and tutorials that I wish I had earlier in my career. Each week I publish new tutorials on Photography, Photoshop, Lightroom, and Canva to help you unlock new skills and bring your creativity to new levels! Everything you learn here is backed by real experience, so you can finally skip the fluff and focus only on what matters.

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