How to Remove Distractions from the Background of a Photo with Photoshop

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Anyone who has shot group photos outdoors knows that determining the best camera location can be a difficult task.  On bright, sunny days you can’t have the group facing directly into the sun or the entire team will be squinting.  This may leave you no option but to shoot in an area with some distractions in the background of your shot.  The beauty of digital photography is the ability to fix it after the fact.  In this tutorial, I will show you how to remove distractions from the background of a youth football team photo–a common problem with youth sports picture days, but anyone who takes group photos outdoors will eventually need this in their bag of tricks.

Whether you are dealing with a large building or something as small as power lines, removing distractions from the background of your photos is easy to do using multiple tools available in Photoshop CS6.  Let’s take a look at some of these tools and look at examples of their use. In Figure 1  you can see that the background is full of light poles which are very distracting and take away from the quality of the photo.  We are going to use a combination of three main tools, the Spot Healing Brush, the Patch Tool, and the Clone Stamp tool.  We are using Photoshop CS6 in this tutorial, but most of the features are available in earlier versions of Photoshop.  Let’s get started.

Original Image

Fig. 1 – Original Image

A Few Pointers

One of the best time saving tools in Photoshop is the use of keyboard shortcuts.  You can find a full list of the keyboard shortcuts available in Photoshop or use the keyboard shortcut “Alt+Shift+Ctrl+k” in Photoshop.  It is important to note that all of the keyboard shortcuts I reference here are for PC.  Rather than give you 2 options for every keyboard shortcut I mention here just follow this rule.  If you are using a Mac, just swap “Control” for “Command” and “Alt” for “Option”.  I also recommend saving your work often.  I have a habit of saving after almost every change I make.  It’s simple to just press “Control+S” and it saves your image for you.  In CS6, you can actually keep working while your image is saving, but either way it takes a few seconds and saves you a lot of heartache if you forget to save hours of work and your system crashes.  If you really want to save time you can get a mouse with programmable buttons.  My personal favorite is the Logitech G700 Gaming Mouse.  It has 13 programmable buttons that I map to keyboard shortcuts.  I have a button right behind my scroll wheel that I press to save my work easily.  I can also do things like cut, copy and paste, zoom in/out, undo/redo and adjust brush sizes, all without removing my hand from the mouse.  It’s a huge time saver.

Duplicate the Layer

Before you make any changes to the background of an image you want to make a copy of the layer by using the keyboard shortcut “Control+J”.  The reason to make a copy is so that you are not editing the original image and so you can easily preview your changes.

Clone Stamp – Keyboard Shortcut (S)

The Clone Stamp tool is the most common tool that photographers use to fix many common problems with images.  While the clone stamp is a great tool, it isn’t always the best choice depending on the situation.   The Clone Stamp tool copies the source exactly as is, so patterns can be repeated causing an unnatural look.  In the Figure 2 below, the Clone Stamp tool was still detectable because you can see the different colors from the sky and it looks unnatural.  We will still use the Clone Stamp to clean up some of the final touches that need editing in tight spots after we have used the other tools.

Problems with the Clone Stamp Tool

Fig 2. – Problems with the Clone Stamp Tool

The Healing Brush Tools – Keyboard Shortcut (J)

Spot Healing Brush

The Spot Healing Brush in Photoshop CS6 is absolutely amazing.  It works great for removing smaller objects from images especially if they are not right next to other items you plan to remove.  In the sample image, the Spot Healing Brush was used to remove a majority of light poles with 1 simple click.  About 50% of this image can be fixed using the Spot Healing Brush.  Simply select the Spot Healing Brush tool from the tool bar and adjust the size to the proper diameter, typically slightly larger than the width of the item you are trying to remove.  Once we have the size adjusted we just click at the beginning of the pole and drag down to the end of it and, voilà, just like magic, it’s fixed!  Figure 3 shows an example of using the Spot Healing Brush.

Using the Spot Healing Brush

Fig. 3 – Using the Spot Healing Brush

Some of the poles in our image are really close to one another as in Figure 4.  In this case, using the Spot Healing Brush doesn’t work, as you can see in Figure 5.  For these items we want to use the next tool in our arsenal, the Patch Tool.

Poles Close Together

Fig. 4 – Poles Close Together

Fig. 5 - Problems with the Spot Healing Brush

Fig. 5 – Problems with the Spot Healing Brush

The Patch Tool

The Patch tool is used for making big modifications very quickly.  The Patch tool is found in the healing brush menu in the toolbar.  You need to click the Healing Brush tool and hold for a second to expand the menu and select the Patch Tool, which looks like a little patch.

Selecting the Patch Tool

Fig. 6 – Selecting the Patch Tool

You can use any selection tool to make the selection; you don’t have to use the Patch tool.  I like to use the Patch tool because it works just like the lasso tool.  If you Alt-Click you can create simple straight polygonal lines around the object.  In this case, we just made a simple outline around the two light poles.

Once you have your selection you simply drag it to the area you want to use as the source, basically what you want to replace the object you are “patching”.  In our sample in Figure 7, we drag the selection to the open area to the left and it works perfectly.

Using the Patch Tool

Fig. 7 – Using the Patch Tool

Finishing Touches

The Spot Healing Brush and the Patch tool have worked great to remove the light poles that are in an open area.  We now need to clean up the poles that are behind the team (Figure 8), which requires the flexibility of Clone Stamp tool.  As you can see in the image, we zoomed in closely and adjusted the size of the Clone Stamp (Figure 9) so we can clean up the areas close to the team.  You need to select the source as closely as possible to the pole so the background colors are the same.  Once we have cleaned up the area around the team we are almost done.

Using the Clone Stamp to Touch Up Details

Fig. 8 –  Using the Clone Stamp to Touch Up Details

Adjusting the Clone Stamp Size

Fig. 9 – Adjusting the Clone Stamp Size

Our image is looking great; the only thing I don’t like here is the small bushes sticking up from the grass to the right of the team (Figure 10).  This is where the Clone Stamp really shines.  In Photoshop CS5 and CS6 the Clone Stamp tool provides you a preview of the source area you have selected.  This is perfect for times when you need to keep a straight line, like our image, where the grass meets the sky.  In this case, we select the source where half is grass and half is sky and clone from right to left to remove the bush while keeping the grass line straight.  This is much more difficult in versions prior to CS5 because you don’t have the preview capability.

Cleaning Up the Grass Line with the Clone Stamp

Fig. 10 – Cleaning Up the Grass Line with the Clone Stamp

The first thing we did when we started editing this image was to duplicate the layer.  Now you can turn off the top layer that we have edited to see the before and after as in Figure 11.

Turning Off the Edited Layer to Preview Results

Fig. 11 – Turning Off the Edited Layer to Preview Results

You can see the finished image in Figure 12, below.  With the latest tools available in Photoshop CS6, removing distractions from the background of your images is easier than ever.  This whole process from start to finish took less than five minutes.  If you spend a little time working with these tools you will find they can save you countless hours of editing and provide a lot more flexibility in your choice of shooting locations.

Finished Product

Fig. 12 – Finished Product

About the Author:
Andy Stockglausner is the owner of MVP Studios, a studio in San Diego offering a whole host of innovative photography services including youth sports photography, school photography, event photography, wedding photography and senior portraits. They also offer a special Marine Corps Ball photography program designed by a former Marine.

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One Comment

  1. PHugger says:

    I was surprised you didn’t mention the newish Context Sensitive Fill method.
    For me it works great on this type of clutter removal (sky as background).

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