For some, ‘retouching’ is a dirty word, associated with the kind of reality distortion and fakery that programs like Photoshop have become (in)famous for.
However, photo retouching is one of a handful of basic and necessary adjustments for photos that photographers will rely on repeatedly to correct flaws or faults ahead of any creative adjustments or ‘looks’.
There are at least three reasons for using photo retouching techniques:
- To make things look better than they actually are, such as enhancing portraits to remove wrinkles and blemishes.
- To get rid of things that should never have been there in the first place. This can include tourists, litter, signs or other ugly intrusions.
- To get rid of sensor spots, which are a very common problem with interchangeable lens cameras.
Increasingly, portrait enhancement is a specialised process with specialised software, but regular retouching techniques are still useful if you want to keep things simple. For this and other kinds of object removal, it’s all about choosing the right tool for the job.
Almost every photo editor has a clone tool (or ‘clone stamp’) tool. These work in a simple way, though there are all sorts of tips and tricks for skilled repairs.
With cloning, you choose a ‘clone source’ area with a tone or a pattern as close as possible to that of the area you want to repair, then brush or dab over that area. The clone source moves with the clone stamp tool to help you brush the ‘good’ area over the ‘bad’. You can keep changing the clone source to avoid building up repeating patterns, and change the brush size and softness to blend in your repair more subtly.
Cloning is a very successful technique for a lot of retouching, but you have to match the source area very carefully to the part you want to repair, because clone tools make no attempt to match the tones and colors. It’s a relatively simple, old-fashioned technique, and there are more modern alternatives that may give better results, faster.
Spot healing brush tools
The names are different, but these tools work in essentially the same way – you paint over the area or blemish you want to repair (or the object you want to remove) and the software will find and match a suitable source area automatically.
Spot healing and erase tools work extremely well on sensor spots – one dab and they are gone. With larger objects there’s more trial and error. The tool may work brilliantly at the first attempt, or it may pull in wrong areas and details and leave you with a clearly botched repair.
These tools typically select a ‘source’ area automatically and then highlight it once it’s been applied. If a repair doesn’t look right, you can then try moving the source area manually to try to find a better match.
Spot healing brush tools can even work well on small unwanted objects like passers-by or small signs, but the larger the object, the less likely you are to get a good outcome.
Content aware and erase tools
Content aware is the term used by Adobe for Photoshop and Elements. Adobe’s content aware technology is used to ‘intelligently’ select suitable source areas and blend them in for larger object removal. Luminar and ON1 Photo RAW have Erase tools which do a similar job.
With these ‘magic’ fixes, the results can be spectacular, or they can be completely useless. It can be difficult to tell in advance how these fixes are going to work out, so you just have to take a suck-it-and-see approach. If the repair doesn’t work, there’s no ‘source marquee’ you can move around and no control over the outcome. All you can do is try redrawing the mask, this time a little more tightly around the object you want to remove.
Cloning and retouching tips and tactics
- For small repairs like sensor spots, skin blemishes or small object removal, spot healing tools are typically the fastest, simplest and most effective tool, often producing completely invisible repairs with a single mouse-click.
- Spot healing tools can also be effective on slightly larger objects, and you can experiment with brush sizes and the position of the source area to get better results.
- If you want to remove relatively large objects, you can try ‘magic’ erase tools that choose source areas and blend in the repair automatically. But you have no control here – either it works, or it doesn’t.
- If erase tools don’t work, cloning is a great fallback. It requires more time and skill than the other methods, but also a lot more control, and it is still the best method for replicating and blending fine, intricate details and patterns.