Photoshop’s Top Tools For Image Repairs

top tool for image repairs

New photographers may think that Photoshop works magic all by itself, particularly when they see it completely eliminate distracting elements from a photograph with just a few clicks of the mouse. It’s not magic, of course, and a lot depends on knowing how to use the powerful tools this software puts at our fingertips. That said, Photoshop really is capable of making some jaw-droppingly impressive fixes quite easily, especially for a user who may not consider herself an expert. Here’s a look at Photoshop’s top tools for image repairs: the Spot Healing Brush, the Patch tool and the Clone Stamp.

Spot Healing Brush

One of the simplest cleanup tools in the Photoshop arsenal is the Spot Healing Brush. It’s so easy to use. Just place the cursor over something you want to eliminate and click. Voila, it’s gone. Or at least mostly gone; sometimes it needs a bit of modification for a perfect fix. As the name implies, the Spot Healing Brush is ideal for eliminating spots—things like dust or other isolated objects in the image. If you have sensor dust that’s making spots at the edge of the frame particularly visible against a clear blue sky, the Spot Healing Brush is a great way to quickly click them away.

spot healing brush

To use it, simply select the Spot Healing Brush from the toolbar (or click the J key to select the tool), then adjust the brush size to be slightly larger than the spot you’re working on. The brush size can be modified via the options menu at the top of the window or by control-clicking anywhere in the image to bring up a palette for adjusting brush size, hardness and spacing. The size is obvious enough and is evidenced by a changing circle-shaped cursor. Hardness affects the edge of the brush—making it a sharp, well-defined circle or a softer, feathered edge. I find for most general purposes the softer brush works better as it blends more seamlessly without creating hard edges. Spacing affects how close together the brush’s working area will be when clicking and dragging a fix. For the most part, the lower the spacing the smoother and more accurate the repairs will be. This is particularly important with a harder-edged brush, as a higher spacing will make smooth edges more difficult to achieve.

On larger image elements, or for more complex fixes where fine control is essential, sometimes this tool can fall short. In those cases, try the Clone Stamp or the Patch tool.

Patch Tool

I like to think of the Patch tool as a hybrid between the Spot Healing Brush and the Clone Stamp. It’s used to first select part of the scene, which can then be dragged to another area within the frame that will be healed inside the selected area. To use it, simply select the tool by clicking and holding the Spot Healing Brush in the toolbar and waiting for the menu to appear, then choose the Patch tool (which is the third item on the menu).

With the Patch tool active, click and draw a selection around an image element you’d like to remove. In the example here with the buildings, I used the Patch tool to select the tree branches in the foreground and eliminate them from the sky. (Alternatively, you can use other selection tools for this step before switching to the Patch tool and proceeding as follows.)

The patch tool at work

before and after

Next, click and drag the selected area to another part of the frame. It won’t make a pixel-for-pixel change but instead will examine the pixels inside the selection and by default apply a “healing” change based primarily on texture rather than color. For instance, if you wanted to remove a button from a sweater you could select around the button, then click and drag to another area of the sweater before releasing. Even if that other area is a different color, Photoshop will use content-aware functionality to match the original color of the pixels around the selection while transferring much of the texture—such as the knit pattern from the sweater.

patch tool

There are two primary settings for the Patch tool, and my preference is definitely the Content-Aware setting, which produces more accurate repairs in most circumstances. You can switch from Normal to Content Aware in the Options toolbar atop the window. There, with Content Aware selected, you can also adjust the Structure (which more specifically transfers textures to the selection) and Color, which when dialed up will also bring along color from another portion of the frame. I find Content Aware generally much more useful, but you can also work in the Normal setting and adjust other options for pattern and diffusion in the Options toolbar to experiment with what works best for a given fix.

The major downfall of the Patch tool is when an element I want to remove is immediately adjacent to the edge of an element I’d like to preserve. Any time one color and texture butts up against a different color and texture, the Patch tool gets it mostly right with an unsightly commingling of the colors at the edges. At these transition areas, the tool tends to blend differences together, which ends up creating an unappealing blurry spot.

The good news, however, is you can always redraw a new selection and continue using the Patch tool until a more accurate repair is achieved. And near these transition areas and edges, or any time the repairs simply need to be much more precise, consider changing to the Clone Stamp tool for total manual control.

Clone Stamp

The original tool in the Photoshop “magic fixes” arsenal is the Clone Stamp. It’s fundamentally different than a healing tool because it doesn’t examine existing pixels and apply a modified change. Instead, it looks at one area of the image and copies a pixel-for-pixel recreation directly to another. Want to put a third eye on a subject’s forehead? Cloning will do that with precision. Clone stamping is perfect for when you want to copy one specific color, texture or pattern from one part of an image to another. For instance, if a photograph of a stand of trees contained thin areas where sky showed through, you could use the Clone Stamp to copy trees from another part of the image and cover that patchy gap. A healing tool would likely create a blurred edge that makes that sort of repair more difficult, but cloning makes an exact copy of the pixels that sometimes blends in much better.

clone stamp

To use it, simply choose the Clone Stamp from the toolbar (or hit the S key to quickly switch to the tool), then define the area you’d like to replicate, or clone from, by holding the Alt (or Option) key and clicking the mouse. This tells Photoshop to use this exact pixel as the center point of the area you’d like to copy. Then release the Alt (or Option) key and click where you’d like to cover up existing pixels. You can also uncheck the Aligned checkbox in the options bar atop the window in order to reset the selection point every time the mouse-click is released. In this way, you can copy the same pixels over and over in different areas of the frame. By default, the Aligned checkbox is selected so that after the first stamp is applied, wherever you move the cursor the area being sampled will move in concert with it.

Brush size is important here, as you’ll want a small diameter for fine, detailed work where accuracy matters, and a larger, softer brush when trying to make sweeping changes that blend into their surroundings. If the edges of your adjustment are important, or if you’re making a detailed change near an object you want to preserve (such as modifying a background at the edge of a person’s face, for instance) you’ll want to use a very hard-edged brush.

clone stamp brush menu

Regardless, adjust the diameter, hardness and even the shape of the brush in the Options toolbar or by control-clicking anywhere in the frame. You can also adjust the brush’s opacity and flow for subtler adjustments and set the mode to something like Color, Darken or Lighten to gain more control over exactly which pixels are reproduced and which aren’t.

The Clone Stamp a very powerful tool that delivers manual control that can accomplish most of the things the Spot Healing Brush and the Patch tool can for those who want to be hands on with every pixel. The Clone Stamp is also an ideal tool to clean up small issues or idiosyncrasies left over after using the Spot Healing Brush and the Patch tool.

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