Home How-To Tip Of The Week Print Spotting For The Digital Age—01/23/12
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Monday, January 23, 2012

Print Spotting For The Digital Age—01/23/12

Eliminate distracting dust and dirt to improve your favorite photos

This Article Features Photo Zoom

Many photographers lament the death of the silver darkroom, but there's one aspect they rarely pine for: spotting. This laborious technique was a necessary evil of the darkroom print, and thank goodness it's not something we have to worry about any more. Sort of.

Dust these days may not be a result of enlarging a dusty negative, nor does repairing it require tiny brushes and inks, but spotting is still very much alive and well—or at least it should be. We should be spotting our digital image files, but there are an awful lot of folks who seem to be forgetting this crucial step. There are few things as sloppy looking as a carelessly spot-filled photograph, so to help ensure that you're part of the solution rather than the problem, here are a few quick tips to help you identify problem spot areas in your pictures, and then eliminate them efficiently.

- Before tackling spotting itself, allow me to point out that the best way to spot your digital image files is to keep the sensor clean in the first place. I'm not here to delve into the myriad options you have for cleaning your camera sensor, so let's just agree that whatever method you choose you've got to diligently stick to it or your spotting job becomes an even bigger one.

- No matter how careful you are, though, and no matter how often you clean your sensor, odds are good that you'll still run into dust spots eventually. In fact, I put your chances at 100%. Spots are most visible in areas that are otherwise clean and devoid of much detail. In most pictures, that means the wide-open spaces of a bright blue sky. For simple spots in the middle of a sky, a quick click with the spot healing brush (appropriate name, huh?) is a great way to get rid of them. Just make sure you set the brush to the size of the spot, and not too much larger. A soft brush, I find, helps blend the repair seamlessly into the background without creating the defined edge of a hard brush.

- Sometimes, though, a spot in the sky may be found adjacent to details—a tree, for instance, or a building. Or, heaven forbid, the spots themselves might be found in the middle of these places. Yes, you're welcome to try the spot healing brush again, but I like to switch to the clone stamp for spotting in texture-filled or detail-rich areas. If there's not much pattern or texture, consider a stamp set to less than 100% opacity—say 50% or so—which builds up a repair in many mouse clicks rather than trying to do too much with a single click. It's important that the area is pattern-free, because a 50% opacity will tend to smudge the scene, creating a foggy spot that visually breaks the pattern in the picture. In these instances, set the brush to 100% opacity and be very precise with the placement of your clicks.

- Sometimes spots are practically an epidemic. Let's hope that in these instances it's not because you've been taking shoddy care of your own camera sensor, but perhaps you borrowed a camera or were provided with an image file that you need to clean up. When the spots cover the frame like the squares on a checkerboard you don't want to have to repair them all one by one with the approaches outlined above. (Though it works, it's just terribly time-consuming.) Instead it's time to bring out the big guns of automation. The Filters>Noise>Dust and Scratches noise repair filter goes a long way to smoothing over blemishes. The problem is that it's way too easy to go way too far and obliterate the detail from a scene. Scale up the radius to increase the spot removal power, but you'll notice this also generally blurs the overall image. Increase the threshold to maintain edge definition and detail. The preview window helps you determine the appropriate balance for each image file. Don't forget that you can make a selection to only a dust-filled area of the image (say a bright blue sky) before applying the Dust and Scratches filter. This will help ensure you don't obliterate detail throughout the scene just to eliminate dirty details in the sky.

- Speaking of automation, here's one more spotting tip that will help you fix a whole lot of spots in a fraction of the time of a manual approach. If you're retouching several images shot with the same camera and you're finding the same spots in the same places, you can record an action for the retouching that you do, and then play it back on subsequent images. You can even run a batch process to remove the spots from a folder full of images while you're off somewhere having fun. As another automation option, Lightroom users can copy the stamped spot removal areas from one image to others using the "copy develop setting" function. Either way, the key with batch processing is to ensure that the spotting is occurring in fairly detail free areas—like open skies. There's not too much detail for the action to automatically mess up, so you can feel safe that you won't actually create a random third eye or clone out someone's head. In those cases a hands-on, image-by-image approach with the clone stamp is always best. Tedious, sure. But very effective.


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