Extend the Background to Clean Up a Messy Photo

Photographers spend a lot of time fussing with backgrounds. One of the first photo editing tricks you learn, in fact, is how to erase distracting elements in the background using the Clone tool, which is a powerful way to selectively replace one part of a photo with a different region. But what if you need to eliminate a big swath of background or actually make the background wider to accommodate a particular frame? The Clone tool won't generally work for situations like this, but I've got a better approach.

Why Cloning Won't Work

Reader Elizabeth Conneley wrote to me with this problem: "I have a photo that I want to incorporate into a montage and I need the photo to be wider than it currently is. I can't crop because I don't want to lose the top and bottom of the scene. I tried cloning the background, but it comes out kind of splotchy."

Elizabeth is right--cloning works best when you are working with a small, confined area, and fails when you need to clone a wide area, such as one that runs the whole height of the photo. But if your background is fairly uniform, you can just create a selection and extend it as wide as you need.

I'll show you how to do this in Adobe Photoshop Elements, but this technique works almost exactly the same in Corel Paint Shop Pro and other common photo editors.

Extending a Selection

Perhaps you're starting with a photo like the sample on the left, in which the background detail is small and repeats in a fairly uniform way.

Elizabeth is trying to fit a photo like this in a wider frame. In my example, on the right, the red represents the part of the picture that would be blank because the photo is too narrow--kind of like the bars you see on a widescreen TV when you see an old 4:3 program.

Start by selecting the Rectangular Marquee tool, which is in the fifth cubby from the top of the toolbar on the left side of the screen. Use it to select a narrow region of the photo that goes completely from the top to the bottom of the image. To be honest, this is more art than science; you want to make a selection that's wide enough so it'll look natural when stretched, and you might need to experiment a little. Take a look at the screen on the left to see my selection.

Next, click the Move Tool--at the very top of the toolbar--and click the drag box in the middle of the right edge. Drag the selection to the right, off the side of the screen. Notice that the selection doesn't move; instead, the left side of the selection stays put and it gets wider. You've now "extended" the photo by stretching the background.

If you're happy with the result, click the check box to accept the edit, and then choose Select, Deselect from the menu.

To finish the project, repeat the process on the other side of the photo. When you're done, you should have a photo the one on the right.

Obviously, some backgrounds will work better than others. You'll get the best results from plain, uniform backgrounds like big, blue skies. And you can use this technique instead of the familiar cloning process for getting rid of really big obstructions. Suppose, for example, you have a shot like my example on the left.

I caught the plane just a heartbeat before it flew behind some sort of obstruction. I could simply crop away the offending part of the photo, or I could extend the uniform sky across the top of the unsightly bit, as I did in the photo on the right.

Hot Pic of the Week

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Rich used a Sony DCS-F717. He writes: "This is my 2 1/2 year old granddaughter, who was the flower girl at her uncle's wedding. She's illuminated with natural light coming through the church window. When she saw the light show on the floor, she could hardly contain herself."

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Jill writes: "I am taking a photography class at the local college and our assignment was to use our white balance to change the color of the lights outside. I took this shot with a Canon Rebel XSI and a white balance set to tungsten."

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This story, "Extend the Background to Clean Up a Messy Photo" was originally published by PCWorld.

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