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Retouching Basics: The Clone Stamp And Spot Healing Brush

New to Photoshop? Start here for your quick fix of digital magic.
Photoshop retouching

Portrait after retouching in Photoshop

If you’re a new Photoshop user and you want to know what tools you should try first, keep reading. In my opinion, the most magical, and simultaneously most useful, Photoshop tools are the Spot Healing Brush and the Clone Stamp. The former is a one-click fix for spots, repairing and replacing them seamlessly with surrounding contents, while the latter is the tool for copying one part of the scene to another part.

Want to give your sister a third eye? The Clone Stamp tool is perfect. Simply Alt-click to establish a point from which to copy (the center of the eye, for instance) and then use a regular left-mouse click to paint a duplicate of that point onto a new portion of the frame (like the middle of the forehead). Voilà: Your sister now has a third eye.

Photoshop retouching
Portrait before retouching in Photoshop

Let’s consider a more practical use of the Clone Stamp tool. Let’s say you love your sister and that portrait of her features not a third eye but a blemish on her forehead. You can Alt-click an adjacent area of clear skin, then mouse-click on the blemish to paint it away with clean skin. Just like that, you’re retouching.

Photoshop retouching
Clone Stamp Tool

If you’re new to Photoshop, you may not be working with layers yet, but when you are, you’ll want to pay attention to the Sample All Layers checkbox. Checked, it will make the tool perform just the same way as you see the image; it treats all the layers as a single, stampable layer. But with the box empty, the Clone Stamp tool will only work on the currently selected layer. In some cases, this is a benefit; in others it can be a challenge, i.e., “Why is this thing not working right!” Check the checkbox and you’ll get it going again. Oh, and the Spot Healing Brush also features a Sample All Layers option as well.

The Spot Healing Brush is another great tool for seemingly magically removing spots, blemishes and wrinkles. You don’t need to set a point from which to clone. Instead, you simply click on the spot you want to repair/remove, and Photoshop will automatically examine the surrounding pixels and fill in the spot with what it thinks should most likely go there. On a blemish in the middle of a forehead, that fill will likely be clear skin. And just like that you’re amazed at Photoshop.

Photoshop retouching
Spot Healing Brush

There are lots of controls for each of those tools. The primary control is the brush size, which can be adjusted larger or smaller, with an edge that’s hard and well defined or soft and blurred. Some instances call for the former, but in most cases of skin retouching I prefer the latter.

You can also adjust the opacity of each tool. At 50%, the Clone Stamp will only partially cover an area with clicks cloning from another area. This approach, in fact, is typically preferred by experienced retouchers who tend to believe that a change made with multiple clicks, i.e., slowly building a change, will look more seamless and realistic than a one-click heavy-handed approach.

The more subtle controls of the Clone Stamp include defining what will be copied from point A to point B. By default, everything is copied at 100% opacity. But you can change the mode to simply copy, say, the color from A to B. Or the luminosity. Or maybe you only want to copy pixels that darken the painted area, or just pixels that will lighten it. These controls make the Clone Stamp capable of some pretty advanced, very subtle and very effective adjustments. Don’t hesitate to explore Stamp modes once you’re comfortable with the way the tool works.

The Spot Healing Brush has a couple of mode options as well. Proximity Match will choose the most appropriate pixels to replace the pixels you’re painting over by examining the area nearest to the pixels you’re altering. This mode is good for one-click blemish repair, but it’s also useful when you’re painting away a large picture element—the kind of thing that a one-click repair won’t nearly cover, for instance. When used this way, it’s best to start from the area you want to create more of while painting toward the area you want to remove. (To erase a bird from the sky, for instance, you would start the paint motion in the blue sky and paint toward the center of the bird.)

Create Texture is the next mode, and honestly, I don’t use it very often. It will analyze the nearby data and create a texture based on what it finds. On smooth areas, or gradients, it can be difficult to use. But if you’re repairing a textured area it can work well.

Lastly is the Content-Aware Fill mode. This is my favorite Spot Healing Brush mode because it takes into account the larger context surrounding the spot you’re trying to heal. Wrinkled skin will be replaced by clean pores, traffic lights will be replaced by clear blue sky, a person standing in front of a red painted wall will be, surprisingly, replaced by red wall. Content-Aware Fill is one of those “magic” Photoshop tools that gives the application such a good name among laypeople who think you just click and the program automatically fixes your pictures. With Content-Aware Fill on the Spot Healing Brush, it often works that way, too.

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