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Removing Unwanted Elements
with Photoshop's Rubber Stamp / Clone Tool

In the past, photographers had only a few painful and/or expensive options when it came to removing distractions from a photo after the film had been processed. If a tree branch, thumb, or stranger was unwittingly included in the image, the photographers' choices were limited to retouching the photo with paints, cropping out the unwanted part of the picture, or tossing the whole thing in the trash.

With an image editing program such as Adobe Photoshop or ImageReady, photographers are no longer as limited when it comes to removing extraneous elements. Such programs feature tools to help make winners out of these marginal shots. To learn how to use one of the most powerful of these tools - the Rubber Stamp Tool - let's improve a few mediocre images by replacing their more distracting elements with simple, plain background material. We'll do this by cloning other areas of the photo ('cloning' is simply another word for using the Rubber Stamp Tool) and covering the unwanted elements with the cloned pixels.

Digital Retouching Example - Before     Mont St Michelle - Before

Removing extra stems and leaves in the background of the flower photo will simplify it and help focus attention on the flower itself. Eliminating the pedestrian and red flower in the Mont St. Michelle photo will likewise make it a better picture.

To learn this technique, we will explore selecting the proper tools, zooming in on the area in question, taking samples of the photo, and, finally, covering our unwanted elements with the sampled pixels.

Tip: Before getting to work in Photoshop, change your Display & Cursors preferences so that the Painting Cursors are 'Brush Size' and the Other Cursors are 'Precise' rather than 'Standard.' This will allow you to easily see how large your brush is at any given time.

Step One: Choose the Tool & Zoom In
The first step with cloning - as with any other image manipulation - is to select the proper tool. Roll your mouse over to the tall, narrow toolbox and click once on a tool to select it. To get familiar with each tool, hover over each for a second and a label will appear with its name.

Digital Retouching Example - Zooming inBefore we get to retouching, we have to be able to see what we are working on. To enlarge the area you will be covering, select the magnifying Zoom Tool. Roll your cursor over to the magnifying glass on your toolbox and single-click it to make it the active tool. Then roll your cursor to the area in need of retouching and click a few times to enlarge it. Zoomed in, you will find it much easier to work on the photo.

To ensure that you have a "before" image to revert to - in case something goes wrong - it is helpful at this point to float the section of your image onto another layer or make a snapshot of the entire image. To float a section, simply select that area with the Lasso Tool and press Ctrl-J (Windows) or Apple-J (Mac).

Digital Retouching Example - Getting the Rubber Stamp ToolSelect the Rubber Stamp Tool in the same manner you used to select the Zoom Tool. Once it has become the active (highlighted) tool, you will be ready to sample an area of your photo.

Step Two: Grab a Sample
Digital Retouching Example - Grab a SampleTo tell Photoshop what you want to stamp with, move your cursor to an area of the photo while holding down your Alt key (Win) or Option key (Mac). You will notice, as you hold down this key, that the cursor changes to a circle with cross hairs. Once you have found a good area to copy, click once to sample it and then release the Alt (Win)/Option (Mac) key and the mouse button.

Choosing your material is one of the key talents of doing a convincing, subtle retouching job. Select areas that are similar in tone, color, texture and pattern to the area you will be covering. Regions that are slightly out of focus, without sharp lines or shapes, and free of attention-grabbing highlights are best to work with.

Where and what you grab is very important. You must match the background behind the spot you will be retouching. This means that if the unwanted element is on a gradient background, you will want to follow the same tonal gradations when selecting a sample. For example, look at the below photos:

Digital Retouching Example - Before
Digital Retouching Example - After

To remove the hose, we followed lines of gradation. Instead of selecting from the darker area above the hose or brighter area below the hose, we picked samples that were as close to the shade we wanted our hose area to become.

Digital Retouching Example - Grabbing a Sample      Digital Retouching Example - Stamping it in

Within a few clicks, we removed the distracting hose by covering it with the right colors and image samples.

Step Three: Stamp the Sample & Grab Again
Digital Retouching Example - Dropping a SampleDropping the sampled material is as easy as a mouse click. To stamp out your unwanted element, roll over it and click once.

Beginning rubber stampers often fall into the seductive trap of dragging the tool to cover up unwanted elements in one easy movement. We do not recommend this method; your work will quickly show the repetitive effects of cloning, as illustrated in this image:

Digital Retouching Example - The effects of cloning

The key to good rubber stamping is to click often. Click to grab, move your cursor, click to drop, click sample, move, click drop... again and again. As tempting as dragging may be, repeating the click and drop procedure will help add enough variety to your samples to create a natural look. The trick is to get clicking...

Digital Retouching Example - Grabbing Another Sample     Digital Retouching Example - Stamping Another Time

Repeat the stamping step as many times as is required to cover up your unwanted elements.

Mont St Michelle - After Mont St Michelle - Mid Way Mont St Michelle - After

To further vary the effect and thus create a softer, more subtle look, make your brush size smaller or bigger. Zoom in and out to examine your image at various magnifications to see how it looks. Be especially sure to closely examine it at 100% magnification so you know how it will be represented in print or on a display screen.

Finally, remember that you have other options if the rubberstamping would be too difficult. As we have done with the Mont St. Michelle photo, you can also crop out extraneous elements along the edges of your scene.

Digital Retouching Example - Before
Digital Retouching Example - After
Mont St Michelle - Before
Mont St Michelle - After

Following these simple steps, you will be able to remove distracting objects in any composition. You will know first-hand how to salvage pictures cluttered with unwanted elements and turn these throwaways into award-winning photos!

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