Use Clone and Healing Tools to Clean Up Photos

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When Kevin Costner filmed Waterworld, reports said that one of the most difficult production issues was keeping mundane signs of civilization--such as boats and bits of land--out of the periphery of the giant seaborne set. Of course, that movie was made at the dawn of the revolution in digital processing, when digitally removing artifacts from a scene was almost unthinkable. Today it's child's play to digitally remove unwanted elements from photos and videos. Some time ago, I explained how to remove an unwanted date and time stamp from a photo using the Clone tool. This week, let's spend a little more quality time with this tool, and its cousin the Healing tool, to fix up our photos.

What the Clone Tool Does

The Clone tool is such a staple of photo editing these days that I assume you are familiar with the concept. But just in case you're new around here, I should point out that the Clone tool lets you "paint" over part of your photo with a section of a different photo. That might not sound practical at first, but imagine that you are Kevin Costner and you just noticed a yacht in the water in the background of one of your scenes in Waterworld. Rather than reshoot the scene, you realize that water looks pretty much the same everywhere. So you grab your Clone tool, tell it to use some water as its source material, and you paint right over the yacht. Now you can finish the movie for under $250 million.

Cloning Away Clutter

You might use the Clone tool for all sort of reasons, but a common one is eliminating something in a photo that's distracting. It could be a person, a cow, a telephone pole, or some graffiti on a wall. Consider this photo, for example:

Use Clone and Healing Tools to Clean Up Photos

Suppose you decided that the big, red sign was distracting, and you'd rather that your photo of Manhattan didn't include it. Sounds like a job for the Clone tool.

Open the photo in your favorite photo editor (I'll use Photoshop Elements 10), and select the Clone tool. In Elements, it's called the Clone Stamp Tool, and it's in the 15th cubby from the top of the toolbar.

You'll find a lot of controls in the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen, but only a few are important: the size of the brush, the opacity, and the Aligned checkbox. As a general rule, you'll want to set the brush to a size that's somewhat smaller than the object you're removing, but not so small that erasing it will take a lot of brushstrokes. As you use the tool, you'll get more comfortable estimating the right brush size. Most of the time you should set opacity at 100 percent, but for certain subjects--such as a boat on the ocean--you might start at 100 percent and then finish by painting a bit at a lower opacity to disguise any sharp edges that would give away the editing job. Finally, the Aligned checkbox determines whether every time you click to paint you get pixels from the source location, or from some distance away. For this photo, I'll leave it unaligned.

After you choose the brush size, it's time to pick the source in your photo. To do that, point the mouse where you want to sample from, and Alt-click. Some programs, such as Corel PaintShop Pro, make this step a right-click.

Now it's time to paint. Click in the area you want to eliminate, and paint to overlay pixels from the source area of the painting. In this case, I chose a source area just above the sign and aligned with the left side of the building, so I could just paint downward and extend the building in a natural and realistic way.

As you go, you might need to change the source location. For example, to remove the signpost from in front of the bus, I reduced the size of the brush and set the source in various locations on the bus itself so that I could paint over the post with natural-looking textures. Here's how the final image turned out:

Use Clone and Healing Tools to Clean Up Photos

Correcting Images With the Healing Tool

The Healing tool is very similar, as it works a lot like a Clone tool that's set to a lower opacity. Because the Healing tool doesn't completely erase the object you're painting over, it's not as handy for erasing, but it can help you touch up your photos. Consider the photo to the left, in which my subject has hotspots on her face.

She would look better if we could take the shine off, and that's exactly what the Healing tool can do. Find the Spot Healing tool--it's in the cubby directly above the Clone tool. Now, just dab at the shiny bits you want to powder. The tool will automatically sample nearby skin textures to fix the photo.

If you don't like the results, you can use the more manual Healing Brush Tool, available in the same cubby. It works just like the Clone tool--you need to specify the source location first, and then you can paint.

Hot Pic of the Week

"Grandma's Tulip" by Courtney Clark, Berryville, Arkansas

Courtney writes: "I took this photo last Easter Sunday after a rainstorm. It was growing in my great-grandmother's old flower garden. I shot it with my Canon Rebel XTi."

This week's runner-up: "White Pelicans" by Betty Rieman, Homosassa, Florida

Betty says that she took this photo on one of her many trips to the Homosassa Wildlife Park in Homosassa, Florida. She used a Canon EOS Digital Rebel XT.

To see winners for May, visit last month's Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? Email me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus emailed to you each week.

This story, "Use Clone and Healing Tools to Clean Up Photos" was originally published by PCWorld.

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