Spot Be Gone

Cloning is an important tool for nature photographers. Here are some tips for using it.

After CloningThis 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!

Before Cloning 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.

These guidelines will help you practice better cloning so you can master its application more quickly:
1 Enlarge your image to better see your cloning area
2 Use a soft-edged brush that’s sized for the specific problem
3 Clone a small area at a time; don’t “paint” continuously
4 Change your cloning point as you go
5 Change your brush size as you go
6 Be quick to Undo
7 Use a Clone layer

Let’s look at each one of these to see how to use the guidelines well.

Cloning ArtifactsEnlarge. You want to clone only the area with the problem. Any cloning over parts of a photo that don’t need fixing, even if right next to the bad spot, can potentially cause you new problems. By enlarging the photo, you ensure that you’re working with only the key things that need to be fixed. This also allows you to better choose your clone point.

Use an appropriately sized soft-edged brush. The Clone tool is a Brush tool, which means you can set both its size and how hard or soft you want the edge to be. I like to work with the brush showing its actual size as a circle (you can set this in Preferences in Photoshop and most other programs). A soft edge allows you to blend your cloning into the work area much easier than if you were using a hard edge. Hard edges really show up because they’re so uncommon in nature photography.

Tip: If you need to clone to an edge, don’t change the Clone tool to a hard edge. Instead, create a selection along that edge and give the selection a slight feather (Select > Feather). Then you can clone right up to the edge with any brush and not a bit beyond because the edge of the selection limits the cloning.

You want to size a brush so that it’s close to the size of a small defect in the photo, but smaller than a larger defect. This is subjective and depends a lot on where the problem is in a photograph. A lot of detail and texture around the item you’re fixing will typically require a smaller brush. A large area of similar tone, such as out-of-focus water, might more easily be worked with a larger brush. The only way to know, in many cases, is to try. If it doesn’t look right, undo the clone and change the brush size.

Clone a small area at a time. Many photographers start using a Cloning tool as if it were a real brush and simply “brush” on the adjustment continuously. Sometimes this will work, but it’s a bad habit to get into. You’re much better off cloning in small steps: click, click, click, etc., rather than click and drag. The reason for this is that these small steps start to blend into each other along the edges (this comes from the soft-edged brush) and therefore help the overall cloned area blend better.

Change the cloning point as you go. One of the big problems that comes from poorly done cloning is something called a cloning artifact. This is a picture element in your image that doesn’t exist in real life and only appears because of cloning. The most common visible sign of this is a chattery, duplicated pattern in the cloned area. This is another reason, by the way, for enlarging your image to this area, so you can better see this problem.

That duplicated pattern occurs less often and can be removed when it does occur if you change your cloning point as you go. Sometimes you have to constantly change that point to get the cloning to match up with its surroundings and avoid odd detail duplication. There are also times when you have to try multiple cloning points in a row, undoing each change, until you get one that looks right. Pay attention to subtle differences between your source and destination points.

Change your brush size as you go. Another helpful technique to help you better blend your cloning work into the image is to change your brush size as you go. You may need a smaller brush size at one end of the problem you’re fixing, then a larger one elsewhere. You may also find that changing brush sizes, then cloning into the cloned area, can help get rid of annoying repetitive details of a cloning artifact.

Be quick to Undo. I’ve already mentioned a couple of places where the Undo command can be used. As you clone, be ready with the Ctrl/Command Z keystrokes for Undo. As soon as the cloning starts to look bad, stop! Immediately back up with an Undo. If you need to go back further, use the History palette and go back as far as you need to (or can).

Spot Be GoneUse a Clone layer. I know some photographers still struggle with Layers, so I didn’t include this first, though it’s the first thing I add to a photograph before starting to clone. A Clone layer makes it so much easier to fix things in your photograph because you’re cloning to a position over your original image and not into it. This way, you can always revise your cloning efforts with zero impact on the original image, as pixels in the original image haven’t been touched. You can erase problems, clone over them or even use a layer mask to control the cloning better.

If you don’t know Layers, this is an easy way to get started. Add an empty layer to your photo (Layer > New > Layer), be sure your Clone tool is set to “Sample all layers” keep the new layer active and just clone as you usually do. This places all of the cloned copies onto a space that sits above and is separate from the lower layer. Because the cloning is separate, you can go in and modify it as much as you want without hurting the underlying image.

Now, promise me no third eyes in the head of a bear (unless, of course, you’re trying to make a satirical point about protecting our environment). Try out these ideas, but most of all, practice, practice, practice, and you’ll find your cloning efforts will steadily improve.

OP editor Rob Sheppard’s latest book is The Magic of Digital Nature Photography. Visit his website at