In the world of landscape photography it is best practice to compose your shots as cleanly as possible. Sometimes it is simply impossible to remove all distractions from a scene though. Distractions can be stationary things such as twigs or they could be moving such as a clumsy tourist or worse yet, a group of clumsy tourists armed with selfie sticks. In this article I will show you how to remove tourists from your photos in Photoshop. You’ll also be able to remove ugly branches, vehicles, dust spots, acne and your deepest darkest thoughts. Well…. Actually, you might be out of luck with that last one. Photoshop's good, but it's not that good.
Removing objects in Photoshop is fairly simple but sometimes confusing. It can be very helpful to watch someone demonstrate object removal techniques before trying them on your own. I have included a clear and easy to follow video below that demonstrates six ways to remove moving and stationary objects in Photoshop. Say goodbye to those pesky tourists forever!
How to remove moving objects from a photograph in camera.
We’ve all seen it before. You’ve found the perfect composition and everything is good in the world... Except for the endless stream of tourists walking into your scene that is. There are a couple of solutions that could work to deal with this problem. The first solution is yell "GET OUT OF MY SHOT!" at the top of your lungs. This method usually causes a few looks though. The next solution is to tackle the problem in-camera. Wait... what?!? That’s right, you can sometimes address the problem in-camera by taking a very long exposure. As long as the objects are moving enough, you can eliminate them completely by using a very dense neutral density filter. 10 and 15 stop ND filters work great to drastically slow down your shutter speed. You can read my neutral density article to learn everything that you need to know about ND filters and how to calculate exposure time.
One problem that can arise from the ND filter solution is the fact that you will have a very long exposure time that can also cause blur on objects that are supposed to be stationary such as tree branches and other foliage. Another thing to consider when using this method is that you need to make sure that the moving objects have completely disappeared instead of just becoming ghosts.
The shutter speed that you need is relative to how fast the object is moving. A walking tourist moves much slower than a car down the highway. If you have people walking into your shot, somewhere between a one and four minute exposure should do the trick. The longer the exposure the more likely that the people walking into your shot will disappear completely. Additionally, it is beneficial if the people are moving across the shot rather than towards or away from the camera since they may cover the same part of a scene for a greater period of time when moving in line with the camera.
How to shoot for moving object removal in post.
Ok, admittedly that first technique only works in certain situations, but it’s a great trick to know about and there’s nothing more satisfying than removing a pesky tourist in camera. Moving on, I’ll discuss a few techniques for removing moving objects in Photoshop.
First you’ll want to make sure that your camera is securely fastened to a tripod. Once you have your composition set up, take your first shot. Then wait for the moving object to move to another part of the frame and take another shot with the exact same camera settings. It’s important to pay attention to the specific parts of the frame that have been blocked by a moving object. If the tourist is moving towards or from the camera they may very well be blocking the same part of the background that they were in the first shot. When photographing in areas that have large crowds, you may have to take many shots to ensure that you will have a clean frame.
Removing tourist with layer masks in Photoshop
If you’ve followed the directions above, you’re ready to combine your photos and remove those pesky moving objects that are more than likely people. The key phrase here is “moving objects”. If the objects did not move then this technique will be useless to you. I’ll cover how to remove stationary objects later on in his article.
Step 1: In Lightroom, apply basic adjustments to the first photo in the sequence. These adjustments can include lens corrections, chromatic aberration removal, white balance, exposure and more. Next, shift click on the last photo in your sequence to select all of the photos. While in the Develop Module click the sync button in the lower right corner of the screen and select Check All and hit Synchronize. This will sync the edits from the first photo that you edited with the rest of the photos that you have selected.
Step 2: Open up your images in photoshop. If you followed the directions in step one your photos will already be selected. Then Control Click (MAC) / Right Click (PC) on any one of the selected thumbnails. Choose Edit In > Open As Layers in Photoshop.
Step 3: Once all of the layers have opened in Photoshop, toggle the eyeball icons off one by one to find the frame that has the least amount of distractions in it. Then drag that layer to the top of the stack. (Remember to turn the rest of the layers back on by clicking the eye icons) It will be helpful to rename the layer that you just dragged to the top of the stack to something like “base layer” so it’s easily identifiable.
Step 4: Now drag the layer directly below the base layer so that it is above the “base layer”. Toggle the new top layer on and off by clicking the eye icon. Do you notice that the moving object is in a different location? If it is, then you’re in good shape.
Step 5: Now we need to create a layer mask on the top layer. To do so, make sure the top layer is selected in the layers window and simply click the layer mask icon at the bottom of the window. (It’s the rectangle with a circle in the middle) You will then see a white rectangle appear on the top layer. That rectangle is your layer mask. Since it is white that means every part of that layer is visible so no layers below can be seen. We need to invert the layer mask to black so no parts of the top layer can be seen. To invert the layer mask, make sure it's selected and hit Command I (MAC) / Control I (PC). alternatively you could navigate to the menu bar and choose Image > Adjustments > Invert.
Step 6: Select the Brush Tool. (B key) I like to set the brush hardness to 0. This can be done in the brush settings at the top of the photoshop window. Also make sure that the brush opacity is set to 100%. To do this simply hit the 0 key with the brush selected.
Step 7: Make sure that the brush color is set to white
Step 8: With the black layer mask selected paint directly over the problem area of the base layer image that is directly below it.
Congratulations, you just performed magic! If you have a scene that has multiple problem areas, you can simply continue to drag additional shots to the top of the stack and repeat steps five through eight until all of the moving objects have been erased. Once you are done go to File > Save. If you opened up your images from Lightroom and did not close the program, the new saved file that you just created will populate in your library automatically. Cool huh?
Removing Moving Objects in Photoshop Using Smart Objects
The first method I covered in this article requires a neutral density filter. That’s all well and good, but what if you don't have a dense ND filter? Introducing object removal by way of Smart Objects. Smart Objects are objects with special properties in Photoshop. It’s not important to get into the nitty gritty of Smart Objects in this article, just know that we’ll be using them for this method and I’ll explain everything that you need to know. We’re essentially going to be simulating long exposures by using software instead of ND filters. I wrote a great article on simulating long exposures here.
Shooting for long exposure simulation
Setup your tripod for the composition of your liking. If there are moving clouds, water or other objects that might be affected by a long exposure it is best practice to take all of your shots in succession to one another. The easiest way to do this is to use a cable release and lock the shutter button on it.
Before you rack off a billion high speed shots, it might be a good idea to lower your ISO to its lowest native setting (usually 100) and close down the aperture to something like f/16 or smaller if needed. If you have a polarizer filter, that will also help cut a little bit of light. Once you have your settings dialed in, just lock up that shutter button and rack off as many shots as you need. In the case of removing objects you basically just need to make sure that the object is not in any one location for a long period of time. The blend that you’re going to perform is based on averages, so as long as the object moves and is not in any one location for more than half of the time that you're shooting, you will effectively be able to remove the object all together.
Processing Smart Objects for object removal
For this exercise, you’ll want to follow steps 1 and 2 from the Removing moving objects in Photoshop section above. (Perform RAW edit on 1st image, sync edit on the rest of the images, open as layers in Photoshop)
NOTE: It may take a while to open all of the layers in Photoshop if you have a large set of images that you’re trying to open.
Step 3: Once all of the layers open up in Photoshop, Select the top layer in the Layers Window then shift click on the bottom layer in the same window.
Step 4: Control Click (MAC) or Right Click (PC) on any one of the selected layers. Choose Create Smart Object.
Step 5: Navigate to the menu bar and choose Layer > Smart Objects > Stack Mode > Median
That's it! You just simulated a long exposure and got rid of any people who might have walked into your shot.
How to remove stationary objects in Photoshop
While Lightroom has the capability to remove objects, Photoshop is much better suited for the task. In this section I will discuss various tools that can be used to remove an object that wasn’t moving in your frame.
Content Aware Fill
First, I’ll discuss Content Aware Fill. (I’ll refer to this as CAF for the rest of the article) CAF analyzes the selected pixels then uses a complex algorithm to replace those pixels with colors, tones, and textures that Photoshop thinks would fit into that specific location. Sometimes CAF does a really good job. Other times it is far from perfect. There are a variety of ways to apply CAF to a particular part of the scene which I will explain below.
Spot Healing Brush
The easiest way to apply CAF is to use the Spot Healing Brush. To select the spot healing brush hit the J Key. The spot healing brush is sometimes hidden by other healing tools. If you do not see the spot healing icon in the Photoshop toolbar, hold the Shift key and press the J Key until you see it appear. You can change the brush size by hitting the left and right bracket keys. ( ] [ )
It is best practice to use the spot healing brush on a new blank layer so your edits are not destructive. To create a new layer click the New Layer Icon in the bottom of the layers window and make sure the new layer is on top.
With the Spot Healing Brush selected, navigate to the tool menu at the top of the Photoshop window and make sure that Sample All Layers is checked. Otherwise nothing will happen when you paint on the new layer. In the same menu bar, you’ll want to make sure that Type is set to Content Aware.
With the new layer selected, use the spot healing brush to paint over any object that you want to remove. It usually does a good job in small doses. On larger objects CAF often looks good at first glance but when you zoom in, you will often see blurry defects near the area where you used the spot healing brush. These areas can sometimes be cleaned up by doing another pass over the affected area but you will often have to use another tool such as the healing brush or clone stamp tool in order to make the area blend in seamlessly. The good news is that your edits will be non destructive when using the method outlined above. That means you can always turn off the Spot Healing Layer at any point.
Content Aware Fill and Lasso Tool
Another way to apply Content Aware Fill is to use the Lasso Tool. (L Key) Simply draw a circle around the area that you want to apply content aware fill to. Then navigate to the menu bar and choose Edit > Content-Aware Fill. This will open the CAF dialog box. On the right side of the screen you will see a few options. You should get decent results by leaving most of these options alone. There are a few things that you will want to pay attention to though. Make sure that Output Settings is set to a New Layer to ensure that your edit is non destructive.
Next you’ll notice a green selection on the image. This green selection represents the part of the image that Photoshop will be sampling from. If you notice that there are some parts of the image that should not be sampled or some other part of the image that should be sampled from, you can modify the selection by clicking the paintbrush icon in the upper left corner of the CAF window. You can tell the brush to add or subtract by switching between the plus and minus brush icons in the menu bar at the top of the window. Once you have your selection honed in, simply click the OK button in the lower right corner of the window.
One thing that is nice about the CAF Window is that it shows you the CAF edits in real time while allowing you to fine tune the settings on the right hand side of the window if needed.
Removing Objects With the Healing Brush
The healing brush is a great tool for fixing small areas. It operates much like the Spot Healing Brush except that you have to tell the tool where to sample from. You can select the Healing Brush Tool by holding the Shift Key and tapping the J Key until you see the Healing Brush Icon appear in the toolbar.
To use the Healing Brush create a new layer by hitting the New Layer Icon in the bottom of the Layers Window. The Shortcut for creating a new layer is Shift-Ctrl-N (MAC) or Shift+Ctrl+N (PC)
Drag the new layer to the top of the stack if it is not already there. With the Healing Brush selected, look at the Healing Brush menu at the top of the Photoshop window and make sure that Mode is set to Normal and that Sample is set to All Layers. This will ensure that your edits are non destructive.
To use the Healing Brush, Option Click (MAC) / Alt Click (PC) on the part of the image that you want to sample from. Then click and drag the cursor over the area that you want to sample to. It is helpful to sample textures that are similar to the area you are working in. For example, if you’re trying to remove a branch in some grass, it's a good idea to sample from an area in the image that contains grass.
While this tool is very useful it can also be problematic since it blends pixels which can result in blurring on the edge of your work area. The tool is especially problematic when working on the edges of objects. Selections can be used to help restrain the blending of pixels and make the tool a little more targeted.
Using the Clone Stamp Tool to Remove Objects in Photoshop.
The Clone Stamp Tool works much like the Healing Brush and Spot Healing Brush except it is a direct clone of pixels from one part of the image to another with no automatic blending. The benefit of using the clone stamp tool is that it does not create artifacts like the other removal methods can. The downside is that it can produce hard edges and too much repetition.
Click the top layer in Layers Window, then click the New Layer Icon in the bottom the Layers Window. A new layer will appear at the top of your layers stack.
To select the Clone Stamp Tool, Hold the Shift Key and press the S Key until you see the Clone Stamp Icon appear in the toolbar. Make sure that the Mode is set to Normal and that Sample is set to All Layers. Unlike the other healing tools, there are a few other options that you need to pay attention to when using the Clone Stamp Tool. The first is opacity. Opacity tells Photoshop how transparent the pixels you clone are. When you want to clone a direct copy of pixels from one area of an image to another you’ll usually want this set to 100%. This prevents the clone from getting blurry. There are times where a lower opacity works well though. Lower opacity can help feather the edge of an area that you're working on.
The other option you need to pay attention to in the Clone Stamp Menu Bar is the Brush Hardness. Just like the regular brush in Photoshop, you can also change how hard or soft the edge of the brush is. It may take a little experimenting to find out what hardness is right for the particular clone at task. In most cases I will start with the brush hardness set to 0 but there will be times where a hard brush works best because it will prevent blurring. This brush setting is useful when you have very defined lines and you need to be precise.
The Clone Stamp Brush is a very powerful tool but just like all of the other healing tools, it can take some practice to get good results. Oftentimes, a good healing job will require a combination of the tools and methods mentioned above. Perhaps the best advice I can give is to pay attention to the lines and textures that already exist in your photograph. If there is a hard line such as the edge of a tree trunk, you’re going to get the best results if you can sample from a different part of the tree trunk such as above or below the problem area. As you brush with the Clone Stamp or Healing Brush you’ll see your cursor as well as a crosshair move away from the area that you sampled in. This is useful so you know exactly where you're sampling from. The crosshair can give you a clue as when to stop brushing. For example if you see that the crosshair is moving toward the problem area that you’re trying to cover up, it doesn’t make sense to keep brushing since you’ll just be painting the problem back into the scene.
The methods discussed above are just a few ways of removing objects in Photoshop. Each method has its pros and cons and almost all of them will take a little practice to get good results. While this article is great for being used as a reference, you’ll get the most out of these techniques by watching the video that is posted at the top of this page. In the video, I go through each technique step by step and give a detailed explanation of what I’m doing.