Cloning is an important tool for nature photographers. Here are some tips for using it.
By Rob Sheppard
This past summer, I saw the late-afternoon landscape reproduced here. I loved the light, the contrast of the river and its green trees with the dry landscape around it. Unfortunately, no matter what I did, I couldn't get rid of some spots of flare that appeared when I used a graduated filter (split ND). Without the filter, no spots. With the filter, spots.
I know you've run into similar problems. No matter what you do, something appears in the photograph that's neither part of the subject nor true to the scene. Still, I took the picture because I knew I could deal with it in Photoshop by cloning out the flare spots.
Cloning is an important tool for the photographer (Adobe calls it the Clone Stamp tool) for fixing problems in an image. Cloning allows the nature photographer to remove dust and dirt from an image, fix flare problems, remove trash from a photo (such as a soda can), get rid of unseen and unwanted elements (such as a dark line from a branch going through a corner of the frame) and so on.
Cloning wasn't always seen that way, however. When digital image-processing software first came out, marketing people loved to demo their programs by showing off the Cloning tool by duplicating all sorts of things. I've seen third eyes in the center of a person's forehead, twin hot-air balloons floating in the sky, or even worse, twins of unsuspecting, innocent only children!
Thankfully, that sort of thing seems to be long gone or relegated to the back rooms of geeky folks more interested in technology than photography.
Well-done cloning is a tricky thing, however—it's often done badly, though not from lack of effort. Sometimes trying too hard actually makes things worse.
It helps to understand what cloning really is—the copying of one part of a photograph that's then pasted to a new location. You set a cloning point (a source, where the copy is made) and then clone to the new location (or destination, which pastes a copy of whatever was back at the cloning point). So you have to think a bit about what you want to copy and carefully evaluate how it looks in its new place.
In this column, I offer some ideas on how you might best use cloning to deal with problems in your images. These are ideas that I know work from my experience with photographers in classes and workshops, as well as my work on my own photographs. Keep in mind, though, that cloning is definitely a learned skill, a craft. It takes practice, evaluation of your results, and doing it again and again to master it.