Advanced Cloning

Retouching techniques give photographers more control than ever. Try a combination of tools for removing distracting elements from almost any scene.
This Article Features Photo Zoom


In Photoshop, the combination of several tools when applied correctly will do the most effective job. In this image taken at Yellowstone National Park, McNeal was unable to change his perspective to achieve the image he had in mind, so he chose to remove distracting elements in post to emphasize the contrast, color and local terrain.

Each year, the number of visitors to our national parks grows, looking to see and photograph their favorite icons. That means more human elements are put in place to accommodate the increase—more buildings, signs, roadways and people are the consequences. This ultimately affects the natural setting of a park's beauty, so as nature photographers, how are we able to photograph these iconic spots without the inclusion of people and the heavy impact they leave behind?

1 Increasing the canvas size provides more editing space.


2 Flipping the canvas horizontally with Edit > Free Transform removes the boardwalk.

This can be achieved in postprocessing, and with the recent advances made in Photoshop, the task of removing elements from an image has become simple, yet effective in its results. In Photoshop, there's no one tool that can do it all in image cleanup; rather it's the combination of several tools when applied correctly that do the best job. The key to removing elements is moderation, brushing in increments that get credible results.

The main process involved in image cleanup is cloning and healing with a variety of tools. Depending on what's being removed or edited, the size of your brush and its hardness are crucial. In most cases, you want the hardness of the brush to be soft when healing and harder when cloning. The brush size also must be in proper relation to the selection being removed.

3 Cloning removes telltale repeating patterns from the sky.

In this example, the sapphire thermal pool was surrounded by a boardwalk and fence. I want viewers to feel like they could place themselves within the image and imagine they're the only ones present, so I chose to remove the boardwalk that surrounded the pool.

Before I work on an image, I previsualize what I want the final image to look like, so I always follow a few important rules when I begin my editing. The first step is to create a new layer from the background layer; go to the Layer menu and choose Layer > New > Layer Via Copy. Next, label this layer something that makes sense to you, such as "Clone Outer Edge," for use when returning to reedit layers. Never edit on the background layer, as this is destructive to the image and degrades the final quality. By duplicating the background layer, you create a buffer to protect the background layer.

4 The Heal tool gives you All Layers and clone sources options.

Always start with the most pressing problem and work your way from there. The size and nature of the boardwalk was the first thing I wanted to clone out. In this case, when substantial elements are going to be removed, like a whole boardwalk, it's vital to increase the canvas size in order to make editing space for the cloning. Go to Image > Canvas Size and open this dialog box. You'll be presented with a few options; the ones to be concerned with are Width, Height and the Relative box. Make sure the Relative box is checked and insert new numbers into Width and Height, allowing the new changes in the Canvas Size box to reflect the size needed for removing the boardwalk. In my case, I added five inches to the left-hand side. You can determine where you'd like the changes to occur by clicking on the arrow box just below the Width and Height options. Click on the arrow in the direction you want the changes to happen. Now you're ready to start cloning.

This Article Features Photo Zoom
5 Spot cloning removes artifacts after flipping the canvas.

To get realistic results, I needed to clone the outer edges of the thermal pool on the right side of the image and then replace the boardwalk with these cloned edges. The problem is that once I cloned the outer edges of the thermal pool, I had to find a way to change the angle so the edges would be mirrored. This meant I had to flip the area that was cloned horizontally so I could connect the full inclusion of the geyser. I chose to clone the right-side edges using the Marquee tool (M) in the Tools menu.

Once you've selected the Marquee tool, make a selection of where you'd like to clone. Try to make the selection larger than the boardwalk. Once you're happy with the selection, feather the selection: Select > Modify > Feather. Feathering eases the transition so there's a smoother gradient between the selected portion and the rest of the image. It makes the changes less obvious. Remember to do editing on a separate layer, then the background layer. Once you've jumped this selection to a new layer and labeled it, you're ready to start replacing the boardwalk.

6 Repeating patterns in the foreground of the pool are removed.

Hold the Command button (Mac) or Control button (Windows) and drag the selected layer over the boardwalk. Now that the layer is on top of the boardwalk, flip the layer horizontally. There are a few ways to do this, but the easiest and most flexible way is to go to Edit > Free Transform. This brings up a selection bar with anchors located at the corners and the side. This tool allows you to transform the image by changing its shape and size. To get the image flipped horizontally, grab the right- or left-side anchor in the middle and pull it over, overlapping the opposite middle anchor so that you're left with the selection flipped. At this stage, I fine-tune the anchors so the edges of the thermal pool line up.

7 Hue/Saturation matches colors and tonalities.

We've cloned out the boardwalk at this point, but we've mirrored the outer edges of the thermal pool, thus repeating patterns in the image—an obvious sign of a clone edit. The next step is to clone in new patterns and textures to avoid the repeating patterns along the pool's edge. Three primary tools can be used for cloning. Which ones you should choose depends on the properties of the areas that need the cloning. The first is the Healing Brush (J) in the Tools menu. (Make sure All Layers is chosen in the Options bar and that you're working on a blank new layer properly labeled as something to do with the process of healing.)

8 Unnatural elements are removed from the background.

The key to the Healing Brush is to use several clone sources when sampling. The more areas you sample, the better. To sample or clone an area, hold the Option (Mac) or Alt (Windows) key and click on a source point; the size and hardness of the brush depends on what's being cloned. (You can quickly change the size of the brush by clicking on the left and right Bracket keys on the keyboard; the left key makes it go smaller and the right, larger.) For healing to be effective, alignment and angle are important. Another consideration is to avoid areas of high contrast or uneven areas of luminance. Sampling of these areas can cause bleeding and obvious signs of editing. If you must do cloning in these areas, be sure to adjust color and tonality afterward so that the sampled areas match their new surroundings.

Once you're finished with the healing, zoom in to the image at 100% to get a better look at your editing; make sure to pan around the image for smooth transitions between the edits by holding the Space bar down and dragging around the image. Lastly, zoom out and take another look for the consistency of the image between edits. In areas where healing must be done on high-contrast edges, simply follow the edge by repositioning the content so that everything lines up.

This Article Features Photo Zoom
9 Final adjustments include midtone and contrast.

The Patch tool can be a great tool to start off with, as it can get a lot done in a short period of time, leaving only small edits to be done later. With the Patch tool, the areas to watch for are repeating patterns within the clone, so after using the Patch tool, grab a smaller brush and clone in other areas of detail to remove duplicate patterns. I used the Patch tool to remove large uniform sections in dirt that were repeating from the image being flipped horizontally. I sampled from other parts of the image to avoid obvious repetition of patterns found within the landscape.

Next, I used the Content Aware Scale tool, which is new in CS5. Its results are mixed, but when it works, it does a great job. Again, this tool is most effective when dealing with larger areas that have to be removed. The Content Aware Scale tool analyzes surrounding areas outside of the selection, and based on that, fills in the selection with what was surrounding the selection. The key to this tool is that if it doesn't get you the results you're looking for the first time, try again, but make smaller selections until you get results you're happy with.

10 A summary of the Layers used to finalize the image.

To get started, repeat the procedures to create a new layer, naming it and choosing All Layers. Use the Marquee or Lasso tool (L), and make a rough selection around the area you want removed. Remember to be generous in your selection and leave ample room around the area you want removed. Once you've made your selection, go to Edit > Fill. This brings up the Content Aware dialog box. Make sure to choose Content Aware within the Options box. Like the other image cleanup tools, this one is most effective when used in combination with other tools.

Once this is done, I do my final checks zoomed in to the image to look for dust spots using the Spot Healing brush, which excels with small blemishes and dust bunnies. The tool is quick and reliable as long as you follow the rules of editing on a new layer and labeling it. Check carefully to make sure the samples are clean and blend in without any noticeable changes to the image. I found several dust bunnies in the sky where most are easily seen. Removing the dust bunnies on a separate layer, I can return later to edit any mistakes the Spot Healing brush may have made due to high-contrast areas.

At this point, I've done everything in terms of image cleanup to remove any distractions, checked for mistakes in editing, and checked a "before" and "after" to see the changes. I also zoomed in and out of the image to check for consistency and seamless edits. I want to make sure that when I look at the image, nothing seems out of place. Spend extra time to double-check and make sure there are no repeating patterns, soft selections or inconsistencies in luminance and color. As my last step, I take some time away from the image and then return to take a fresh look for any mistakes.

See more of landscape photographer Kevin McNeal's work at and read his blog at

The Ethics Of Retouching

Sometimes we come across a scene that's just too stunning not to photograph, even when that scene is plagued by distracting elements that diminish the aesthetics of the overall image. It often seems that the world of nature photography is divided on the issue of whether it's right or wrong to remove elements from an image digitally or otherwise. The answer may not be revealed in absolutes, but in the realization that the gray area is larger than one would at first expect.

Of course, as an historical document, an image should be as truthful as possible, but not every image is intended to be a natural history illustration. In many cases, we're trying to capture something of beauty for its aesthetic qualities and because the photograph is emotionally moving. In these cases, retouching distracting elements like a boardwalk is appropriate.

In the final analysis, as much as we wish it were otherwise, honesty isn't inherent in any medium, and photography is no exception. Honesty is inherent in a person. In your photography, if you strive to create an honest representation of what you're seeing and honestly convey the emotion of that moment, you're going to be on the right track.

So the question that we should be asking is, how much is too much? If it's subjective art, then the answer lies within the values of that photographer and, ultimately, photography is a unique vision relative to each photographer. That vision is what makes a photographer special and different from other photographers.

Thus, the answer is a personal choice that must be respected by all other photographers and the audience alike.


    Why would you do that to a great looking photo?!?!?! The AFTER image looks artificial to say the least…I like the original better. The fence is now a part of the landscape as I see it, if you have to do corrections do minor ones that add to the photo not remake half of the photo…if you don’t like the scene find anotherone 😉 …but then again that is just my temporary point of view..
    Great photo otherwise (the before version I mean…)

    I gotta agree with Saso. Whether we like it or not, that boardwalk is a part of that landscape. Getting rid of the boardwalk (and the trees and view of Yellowstone Lake and mountains behind) destroys the photo for me. The original for me is the better photo, but that’s just my opinion.

    I am afraid that for me the end result looks unbalanced, as there is a “weight” to the trees on the right-hands side that is not matched by the emptiness of the left-hand side.

    However, having said this, this is a criticism of the photograph and not the technique, which may be very useful on another less iconic image.

    i took a shot years ago with film, all you need is a slightly different angle to frame the shot of that pool, and you eliminate the boardwalk altogether, without spend excess time in photoshop

    In reviewing the tutorial it is rather difficult to transpose this to the image you wish to alter. If we had the same image as the author it might be easier to follow. I personally have been cloning since 1992 and would say all in all Kevin did a good job of exploiting some of the features in photoshop. However I too believe all the cloning and altering in this particular image takes away from what was truly there. I’d prefer to swap out a lens, change positions, kneel, climb, whatever to explore all other possibilities vs. altering an image to this extent. It’s too unnatural. PS the CAPTCHA security on this site needs revamping.

    Removing elements from a scene is fine if the finished product is no longer called a thermal pool at Yellowstone. No where in the universe can the final image be seen in nature. Sure clone out a tin can you missed picking up – no problem. But a boardwalk meant to be there? Sorry, but the final image is pure fantasy and more a painting than a photograph. If we allow people to remove structures from a scene, why not allow them to elements? What would be OUTDOOR PHOTOGRAPHER’s view if this scene had a moose, wolf, bear, eagle, and a cluster of Aspen trees added? The motto “Take nothing but pictures, leave nothing but footprints” should also apply to the photo editing: Take nothing out of the scene, leave nothing in the scene.

    Was reading the magazine article on this and HAD TO come and make a comment regarding. To say in the article that you are removing elements “in moderation” from iconic scenes, is to destroy the iconic to make into the fantastic. Unfortunately, the examples from before to after show the fantastic ruined into a mundane image, that is no longer recognizable because of the changes to the right hand side of the pool, the removal of the fence line, removal of trees, removal of an entire shoreline, and the changing of the water of the pool itself.

    Really??!? And, in the article you even state “to get realistic results”. It may be realistic, but it sure isn’t realism. Sometimes the most important decision in regards to retouching an image, is whether or not to retouch at all. With this example, the obvious answer was NO.

    If the purpose of your photograph is documentary, nothing should be removed or added.

    If the purpose is artistic, there are no restrictions.
    An artist has a vision, paint and brushes. An art photographer has a vision, camera and post-processing software.

    Simple…isn’t it?

    This has got to be the worst article I’ve seen in 13 years of reading OP. I won’t even address the issues of whether of not this level of cloning has resulted in “computer generated art” or not. It’s just that the result here is so badly done. There has been a slope created on the left side of the pool that’s geologically impossible. Water flows out of these pools, not into them and the bacterial mats thrive only in the hot outflows, thus the color. And the light? What’s the source of all that brightness on the “slope”? Where the lake used to be, there’s now just some indeterminate stuff. To transition from the made up stuff, there’s just some steam with no source, drawn in. And the obvious repeats in shapes … I could go on. Are we just supposed to pretend we can’t see this kind of detail? I expect much more from OP and from a great photographer like Kevin McNeal.

    Worst part of this photo is that the same photo ran in the June 2011 edition of Backpacker magazine with the caption: “Yellowstone: Is it real? We forgive you for being skeptical about the neon-blue Abyss Pool, but it’s no Photoshop trick.”

    Galen Rowell is puking up bile in his grave right now, to see this magazine, to which he was a contributor for many years, give advice on how to fake scenes like this. From what I’ve read, he considered documenting the world *as it is* to be of prime importance in his work. Surely this kind of alteration wouldn’t pass muster. We threaten the power of photos (their veracity) when we casually make them unreal.

    Given the article was on ‘Advanced Cloning’ and not ‘How to make Yellowstone look better’ I think the writer made some good point in example on HOW to clone. Now the results may not be quite as described, but the tutorial itsself on how to use cloning tools was pretty spot on. I myself took something away from it, such as, AH! Thats how that works.

    We must remember that not everyone who visits this site are pros who know all the tricks of the trade, some of us are here to learn.

    We want to be like you when we grow up.

    Laura in Florida, who desperately wants to be considered as a great photographer some day.

    I must add that I myself, given tools in this digital age, try to stick to cropping as my way of editing my personal shots to better center, or contrast the images I like to shoot. BUT, I feel tools like this only help if you have an image you want to fix for the sake of surrealism, if that is even a word. Say for the sake of Dahli type art. Nature is Nature, but what is srong to make it into something that one might only see in a dream for arts sake?

    I would have cropped into this image to focus on the innards of the poole and contrasting colors surrounding it.

    Laura in Florida

    I used to be Heavily against using Photoshop…like a purist…still am to some degree but this is HIS picture..and remember…he HAS THE ORIGINAL! This is a LESSON on advanced cloning, not a consensus session of whether you like the photo before or after.

    Lighten up people. Maybe you’ll learn something You’ll need some day.


    “Previsualize” is a pretentious and redundant term term that means “visualize,” except that the user usually wants us to believe that he’s doing something deeper, more mysterious, or intellectually challenging than just plain old visualizing. Oh, I’m feeling a previsualization coming on right now. In my mind’s eye, I see an image of myself. It’s tomorrow morning and I’m seated at the kitchen table eating breakfast. Wait, I think it’s oatmeal. No, it’s raisin bran. Whoa! That was deep. I wonder if anyone else possesses this remarkable power.

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