A Photoshop Photo Retouching Case Study

Excerpted with permission from
Zen of Postproduction: Stress-Free Photography Workflow and Editing (Wiley)
By Mark Fitzgerald © 2013

The image below shows a photo of a kayaker on the White Salmon River in Washington state. It’s a nice action shot, but much of the writing is distracting, especially the writing on the yellow paddle and the word “TEST” on the front of the boat. Both these areas are constrained with edge details near the writing. Using the Healing Brush tool or the Clone Stamp tool in these tight spaces isn’t an option because both tools will smear. Therefore, it’s necessary to use the Clone Stamp to cover the writing on the paddle and the large lettering on the front of the boat.

I like this action shot of the kayaker, but there are several distractions that take away from the impact of the image. The worst offenders are the writing on the paddle and the front of the boat.

Note: When submitting photos for stock sale, it’s necessary to remove all logos, which can be a daunting task when working with sports photography.

Removing the writing from the paddle will be straightforward because there is lots of yellow on the other side of the oar that is similar to the yellow area I need to cover. The “TEST” writing won’t be as easy. There isn’t much clean green around it to sample. If I sample green in other parts of the boat, it won’t match the green in the target area closely enough. I’ll need to build up a larger target area by beginning with small samples.

When I have a complicated retouching project, my workflow is to begin by tackling the most difficult problems first. That way, if I realize I can’t resolve them sufficiently and decide to abandon the project, I didn’t waste time on other issues that become moot.

Here’s how I use the Clone Stamp tool to get this project started and then use the Patch tool to quickly fix some of the easier to fix issues:

  1. I open the RAW file from Lightroom with basic color and tonal adjustments. I’ll take care of cropping, vignetting, and other fine-tuning in Lightroom after I complete the retouching in Photoshop.
  2. I duplicate the Background layer (choose Layer > Duplicate Layer) before beginning retouching so that all retouching is on the duplicate. This serves two purposes: It isolates the retouching to its own layer, and it enables me to check my work by turning off visibility of the retouching layer to compare the retouched version to the untouched Background layer.
  3. After opening the file, I zoom in so I can work closely with the “TEST” writing. I begin by fixing small areas because there isn’t much clean green area that matches the color for sampling. I use several small samples to build up a larger clean area.
  4. I use a small, soft brush at 100-percent opacity. One of the tricks to cloning in tight quarters is to sample close enough to get an accurate sample, but not getting too close. One of the weird things about the clone stamp is that when you sample too close, the tool remembers what it saw. If you begin removing something and the target pointer tracks on top of the thing you were removing, it still sees it and begins to copy it. To solve this problem, do a series of short strokes to let the tool update. But be sure to make strokes. A series of clicks without strokes can make the retouching visible by leaving what are called cloning tracks. Cloning tracks are repetitive patterns that are a sure sign retouching has taken place.
  5. The image below shows where I’ve begun to remove the first “T” by sampling different areas around it. It’s necessary to sample different areas as I build up a larger green area because continuing to sample a single spot usually leads to cloning tracks. After the first “T” is covered I have a larger, more continuous area to sample as I begin covering the other letters, as shown in the next image.

When quarters are tight and there aren’t any large areas to sample, I begin by using multiple samples to clean up an area, as shown in the image at top. After I establish that area, I can sample it when retouching other areas, as shown in the image at bottom.
  1. The second “T” is the most difficult letter to remove because of the white streaks in the artwork next to it. I use a small brush to work around the white and try to avoid covering any of it while I cover the “T.”
  2. When all the “TEST” letters are covered, I use the Clone Stamp tool with a small brush to clone some of the white and blue streaks into the retouched area, as shown in the first image below so it doesn’t look oddly blank. Then I use a 50-percent Opacity value with the Clone Stamp tool, as shown in the second image, to keep the cloned streaks low key and preventing them from looking like exact clones of the streaks I sample. I also sample parts of different streaks to create a new streak to avoid repetition.

After the writing is covered, I’m left with a large green area. I use a small brush in the first image to extend some of the white and blue lines in the artwork, as shown in the top image. Then I lower the opacity and sample different lines, as shown in the bottom image, to vary the retouching so that my extension of the lines isn’t obvious.
  1. When everything looks good, I check my work by hiding the visibility of the retouching layer to compare it to the unretouched Background layer. This is the moment of truth on a retouching project. If I see any problems, I make the layer visible again and fix them.
  2. I use similar techniques to remove the obvious writing on the back of the boat.
  3. When I’m satisfied with the retouching on the front and back of the boat, I know I can do what is necessary to fix this photo so I turn my attention to the oar. I need to use the Clone Stamp on it also because the writing is so close to the edge of the oar and the line down the middle. Using the Patch tool or the Healing Brush tool near these edges would cause smearing. I increase my opacity back to 100 percent and increase the size of the brush. Then I clone the clean area on the left side of the oar to cover the writing on the right.
  4. After the oar is done, I move to the inside of the boat to remove the three obvious logos. I use the Patch tool to deal with each logo individually. The Patch tool may not seem like the obvious choice because of the bubbles in the area. But I use them to my advantage by sampling the water, as shown below. In the first image, I sample the water with the Patch tool and drag it on top of the logo on the right. The color and tone blends, but the texture of the water remains adding to the bubbles in the scene. Then I sample the retouched area and use it to cover the other logos one at a time, as shown in the second image.
  5. Finally I use the Patch tool to quickly remove the logos on the man’s helmet and sleeve.

I use the Patch tool to remove the logos inside the boat. In the image at top, I sample the water to cover the first logo. The Patch tool blends the color but leaves the texture of the water, which works well here. Then I sample the retouched area to remove the other logos in the image at bottom.

The kayak and the guy in it look great now, so it’s time to back out and take a look at the rest of the image. I really like everything except the large boulder in the upper-left. Its dominant shape competes with the main subject for the viewer’s attention, especially with the yellow oar pointing at it. I try the Patch tool in Normal mode and get a smeary mess, so I press Command+Z and Ctrl+Z to back up and try again with the Patch tool set to the Content-Aware mode, but it doesn’t perform any better in this case. I could try the Clone Stamp tool but it would be hard to make the coverup look convincing without taking lots of time. Fortunately, Photoshop has a pretty cool solution for just this kind of scenario, called Content-Aware Fill.

Automated Retouching with Content-Aware Features

Tip: Using Command+Z or Ctrl+Z to undo and back up in history works differently in Photoshop from Lightroom. In Lightroom, like most other programs, each consecutive undo continues to back up in the history. In Photoshop, pressing Command+Z or Ctrl+Z backs up only one step. Using the shortcut again causes it to redo instead of undo. Repeatedly using the shortcut is great for toggling the last step off and on, but if you want to continue to back up, press Option+Command+Z or Ctrl+Alt+Z instead.

Because retouching can be time-consuming, Adobe is always looking for ways to automate the process. Adobe began adding content-aware features to Photoshop with the release of CS4. As well as the Patch menu’s mode options for the Patch tool, two other content-aware features retouchers should know about are Content-Aware Fill and Content-Aware Move.

Using Content-Aware Fill

Content-Aware Fill was added to Photoshop CS5. It enables you to create a selection around something you want to cover and then automatically fill the selection with a combination of nearby image content. The results can be hit-or-miss. Much of the time it’s necessary to follow up with other retouching tools to blend the fill. But when Content-Aware Fill performs at its best, it’s like magic.

Tip: You can also access the Fill menu by right-clicking when you have a selection in place.

To use it, create a loose selection with any selection tool. Make the selection loose enough so it extends slightly into the area you want Content-Aware Fill to sample. You can see the selection I used around the rock in the kayak photo in the first image below. When the selection was in place, I chose Edit > Fill to open the Fill dialog box. I selected Content-Aware Fill from the Contents menu and clicked OK. This was one of those cases where the results worked like magic. The second image shows how well the samples blend to create water in the area around the boulder. It’s possible to see repeated patterns, but you really have to look closely for them.

Content-Aware Fill does a great job of removing the boulder in the upper-left. I use the Lasso tool to draw a very loose selection, as shown in the first image. When I fill it, surrounding content is automatically blended into the selected target area.

A nice feature about Content-Aware Fill is if the results are close, but don’t quite hit the mark, you can try filling the selection again. Content-Aware Fill will generate a slightly different result. I tried filing the selection two more times and then went back through my last three history steps in the History panel to see which had the best result. I chose the second fill application because it looked most convincing and I liked the shape of the waves the most. The illustration below shows the completed kayak photo ready to be saved and finalized in Lightroom. No one would notice the retouched upper-left unless they were looking for it.

Using Content-Aware Move

Tip: You can use any selection tool to select content and then switch to the Content-Aware Move tool to move it.

Content-Aware Move was added with the release of Photoshop CS6. It works similarly to Content-Aware Fill, but is used for moving something in an image instead of covering it. The Content-Aware Move tool (shortcut: J) is stacked with the Healing Brush and Patch tools. You use it to draw a selection around the element you want to move. When you drag the selection to a new location, the old location is covered using Content-Aware Fill. The Content-Aware Move tool’s options have the same Adaptation menu as the Patch tool when it’s in Content-Aware mode.

The illustration below shows me moving the numbers on the side of a train locomotive from the upper area. I drew a selection and dragged it, as shown in the first image. When I release the mouse, the content in the selected area is placed in the new location and the upper area is automatically filled with surrounding image content. The Content Aware Move tool does a convincing job in this simple scenario. But like Content-Aware Fill, results can be hit-or-miss.

To use Content-Aware Move, select the area to move, as shown in the image at left. Then drag it to the location where you want to move it to. When you do, the original location is automatically filled with nearby image content, as shown in the image at right.