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It’s Time to Rethink How You Handle Cloning Out Distractions


Whether you’ve worked with Photoshop for years, or are new to the program and want an updated approach to cloning, healing, and editing out distractions and issues, there’s been a number of updates that have challenged the old paradigm of editing in these situations. Want to know the new approach you should be using?

When I got started with Photoshop, and had to deal with removing an element of an image, I’d reach for either the clone stamp or healing brush tool. Both were fine, but required a good sense of how to rebuild the areas, if you were removing a sizable chunk of the photo. For this next section, when I refer to cloning, you can consider healing and cloning to both run into the same issues, at least to some extent.

Beyond just size, there’s a number of complicating factors that can make these tools more difficult to use than necessary. Consider an object against a pattern background, where you’ll have to pay attention to matching the orientation and periodicity of the pattern itself, rather than just cloning over it with a random sample. Another example is when cloning up against the border of two different objects, especially where there’s a defined edge. Working near that edge with a healing brush can result in a blurry mess, instead of a clean replacement.

To work around these challenges, Photoshop has added a number of tools that I don’t think get enough attention for this part of the workflow. Furthermore, there are a number of optimizations to how you work with the existing tools that can help address these issues.

Try the Easy Stuff First

The first change I’d recommend making is altering how you approach editing out a distraction in the first place. Instead of reaching for a brush of any type or the patch tool, grab the lasso tool. Combined with content aware fill, I find it much easier to make selections quickly, hit my reassigned shortcut for fill (faster than Edit> Fill), and end up with a great looking result for basic adjustments.

I like this better than the brush approach because of how well it leads into making adjustments to the area being fixed. If I need to end up selecting more of a region, like if there’s a color cast spilling onto the background, it’s easy to add to the selection. If I’m removing too much, just by holding Alt, I can quickly remove something  from the selection. In the very rare cases where Photoshop isn’t automatically selecting a good patch to fill with, it’s easy to jump into the dedicated Content Aware Fill dialog, as your selection is already set up.

This approach isn’t just good for its versatility, but also because it is very low effort. Draw a sloppy circle around what you want gone and it vanishes. Content Aware Fill seems to do a remarkable job of leaving things alone that don’t need to be removed, even if it’s in the active selection, unlike when you draw outside the area with the spot healing brush.

Furthermore, Photoshop offers a ton of options for making an easy, effective selection, making this approach even easier. A great example of this is when working with a panorama. After stitching, you can end up with small gaps around the edges of the frame, where the stitch hasn’t resulted in a perfectly rectangular image. To fill these in with a brush-based approach would require a detailed examination of the edges of the frame and painstaking work to brush in only the necessary regions. Instead, by selecting all the content on the layer, inverting the selection, and expanding it by a few pixels, you can quickly fill all these gaps automatically. I’ve even loaded that process into an action, taking what would have been minutes of work into about 5 seconds and 2 clicks.

To sum it up, when working with an easy, or even intermediate issue, I’ve left the myriad healing and cloning brushes in the toolbar, instead relying on sloppy selections and Content Aware fill via both the fill menu and dedicated dialog. It’s saved a lot of effort, and can easily be “stepped up” to deal with more difficult cases.

Not Everything Can Be Automatic

Unfortunately, Content Aware’s AI isn’t at Skynet levels just yet, For some areas, it’s still necessary to go in and manually clone out the region. This is most noticeable in the cases I mentioned earlier in the article, with regular patterns and some literal edge cases. Here, however, I still don’t leave the selection tools behind.

Making a selection before working with cloning tools can be one of the best ways to refine your approach. One of the easiest examples of this is when working with something that comes up to an edge of another object. In these three shots, you can see the initial issue, the selection, and the finished product. By going in with just the regular clone stamp, you can build in some margin around that white pillar, while still keeping a very clean edge on the object. Once that’s done, you can then use any tool, like the healing brush, to go in and finish the job, as well as refine the transition. 

Trying to mirror that rounded edge with a single brush stroke is way more difficult than it needs to be. Setting up the selection ahead of time functions a bit like the bumper guards in bowling, where even a mistake doesn’t ruin your attempt.

Setting up this perimeter also leads into my next bit of advice, which is don’t be afraid of the clone stamp. While the initial strokes can look worse than using the healing brush or spot healing brush, I find that for larger areas, you can never get the healing brush to look just right without first removing the offending object via another method. Healing over a large area can just result in a smudgy mess, often with color artifacts from the removed object. Instead, give a couple swipes of the clone stamp to at least get the area into a more neutral starting position, then refine with the healing tools if necessary.

One last thing to remember is the clone source panel. If you’re working with an offset pattern, or don’t have a great 1:1 match for cloning, you can use the clone source panel to expand your options. In the panel, you can adjust the rotation of your clone source to better match your subject, increase or decrease the scaling ratio, or even mirror it. By playing around with these settings, you can get a far more convincing blend or even create a usable source out of an otherwise dissimilar area.

Conclusion

None of these features are that new, with content aware fill being around for years already, for example. Instead, the iterative improvements of content aware fill, combined with some new techniques I’ve integrated into my workflow, have led me to realize that I hardly even touch the old standards of cloning work anymore. As content aware fill continues to improve, I’ve had to do less and less manual refinement. I’d suggest you see how it fits into your workflow, as well as understand the cases where it isn’t going to be useful, and how to compensate — it might just save you quite a bit of time in your next edit!





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