12 Tips for Mastering the Clone Stamp Tool in Photoshop
You will not often find the stairs of Opera Garnier in Paris free of people, so you will need to put the Clone Stamp tool to work to remove the people if you want a clean picture. This applies at many other tourist destinations as well.
There are a lot of good post-processing tools available for making minor edits to your photos. Within Photoshop, there are the Healing Brush and the Spot Healing Brush tools. Lightroom now has its own healing brush. Those are great for minor edits to your photos like removing spots or power lines. When it comes time for serious, intensive surgery on your photos, however, there is no substitute for the Clone Stamp tool. You will only find this in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements, there is no Lightroom substitute.
Getting started with the Clone Stamp tool is simple. You just have to tell Photoshop two things: (1) where you want to replace the pixels (target area), and (2) from where Photoshop should take the pixels to use as replacements (s0urce area). To use the Clone Stamp tool, just follow these steps:
- Select the Clone Stamp tool from the tool bar on the left side of your screen (you can also use the keyboard shortcut S). Once selected, set the brush size and hardness.
- Put your cursor in the area where you want to change the pixels.
- Select the source area: Press the Alt key (your cursor will now become a target) and move your cursor to the location where you want to take pixels from (source area). Click your mouse in that location.
- Paint in the target area: Release the Alt key and move your mouse back to the original location. Hold down the mouse button and paint in the pixels from the location you chose.
That is a simple process, but if you have used the Clone Stamp tool you realize that there is a lot more involved if you want to master it. This article will provide you with some tips to move you along the road towards conquering this important tool in Photoshop.
#1 – Work on a New Layer
First, always create a new layer before making changes with the Clone Stamp tool. Any changes you make should be made on the new layer. You can flatten the image when you’re done.
Why should you do this? There are many reasons. First of all, it is non-destructive – meaning you are not changing the underlying pixels of your image. In addition, when you use a layer, you can delete it if you don’t like where the changes are going. You can also create a mask if there are portions of the changes that you decide later you do not want. Finally, you can target adjustments to just the cloned areas if they are on a new layer (as will be shown below).
Creating a new layer is easy; simply press Ctrl+J (Cmd+J on Mac) to create a duplicate. You can also press Shift+Ctrl+N (Shift+Cmd+N on Mac) to create a new blank layer, but if you do so, make sure that you have “All Layers” selected as your source in the Clone Stamp Tool settings.
I prefer working on a new layer (as opposed to a duplicate layer) but either way will work.
#2 – Zoom in (way in)
When working with the Clone Stamp tool, zoom in on the area you are working on. In fact, zoom way in (to 100% even). That will help isolate the area you are working on, and importantly, it will also allow you to work at a much greater level of detail than you otherwise would. Make your changes look as good as you can at this higher level of detail, then when you zoom back out, the changes will be indistinguishable (which is what you want).
A shortcut for zooming quickly is to hold the Alt key with your left hand while using the scroll wheel on your mouse to zoom in and out (or use Cntrl/Cmd and the + or – key on the keyboard). That will allow you to move in and out quickly.
#3 – Set Your Brush Size Quickly
You will change your brush size often when working with the Clone Stamp tool. You should do this often to make sure that your brush size is tailored to the change you are making. Changing the size through the Brushes panel is cumbersome. Instead, use the keyboard shortcuts for changing brush size:
- Left bracket [ makes brush smaller
- Right bracket ] makes brush larger
Using these keys will allow you to rapidly tailor your brush to the specific circumstance.
#4 – Set the Proper Brush Hardness
The Clone Stamp brush’s edges can be set to whatever hardness you desire. Hardness determines the level to which the cloning will blend in with the surrounding pixels. If you set the hardness level more toward 100%, the edges will be hard and definite. If you set the hardness more toward 0%, the edge will blend in with the surroundings.
In general, keep the hardness level at 0%. That will help you seamlessly blend in the effect. There will be times, however, where you are working near a defined edge, in which case you should increase the hardness. Even then around 50% will usually do. Setting the hardness any higher creates harsh transitions that are dead giveaways to your use of the Clone Stamp tool.
#5 – Clone Without Adjustments
Do your cloning before making other adjustments to contrast, color and other changes often made via adjustment layers in Photoshop. If you use the Clone Stamp tool after creating those layers, you are baking the changes permanently into your picture when you clone.
However, in some cases you will have already made changes on an adjustment layer, and you need to decide whether your cloning should include those adjustments. Photoshop lets you decide whether to include those changes in your cloning. After you have selected the Clone Stamp tool, the top row of your screen will include a circle with a line through it (see graphic above). Photoshop defaults to applying the changes of any adjustment layers, but if you click on this icon, Photoshop will ignore any adjustment layers when cloning.
#6 – Grab the Low Hanging Fruit
Most of the time your pictures will have some easy items to clone out, as well as some harder things. Clone out the easy ones first. In addition to giving you confidence in the tool, this will also help you when the time comes to make the hard changes.
How will that help you? Remember that you need clear space from which to draw pixels when using the Clone Stamp tool. By making the easy changes first, you are doing just that so you can draw replacement pixels and will make your job easier when it comes time for the harder, more in-depth changes.
#7 – Watch for Patterns
Sometimes you want to include patterns in your cloning. In that case, when selecting pixels from which to draw, try to find patterns in your picture that match the area you are replacing. For example, if the background is a building, look for a similar building. Then make them match (which will be the subject of the next tip).
Here is a different example to show the Clone Stamp tool in another context. The right side of this image was filled with distractions, but the Clone Stamp tool eliminates them. Be careful that you do not create patterns by using pixels immediately adjacent, or it will give away your use of the Clone Stamp tool
But many times you will not want there to be any discernible patterns in your cloning. Usually a pattern is a dead giveaway to your having cloned something out. In that case, the way to ensure that there will be no patterns is to keep resetting your source point. Sample from one area and clone one part, then sample from another area – repeat frequently. Keep doing that to blend everything together without repeating a pattern.
#8 – Follow the Lines
A key to successful use of the Clone Stamp tool is making all the lines in your picture match. Even slight deviations look fake and destroy the effect you are trying to achieve. For example, in a landscape setting make the edges of tree branches match up. In an urban context, follow lines in buildings such as roof lines, doorways, and patterns on the ground.
When you are using the Clone Stamp tool, start with the lines and then let the rest of the pixels fall where they may. After that, if you need to go back over other areas, you can do so.
Here I’ve zoomed in on a portion of another shot of the Opera Garnier. Use the patterns on the floor and door to recreate the space where you clone over the people.
#9 – Avoid Selecting from Adjacent Areas
As previously mentioned, a dead giveaway of Clone Stamp tool usage is repetition. The Clone Stamp tool is all about repetition – you just need to do it in such a way that the viewer doesn’t notice it. If you draw pixels from an immediately adjacent area, you are risking the viewer noticing the repetition. Take the pixels from somewhere else in the picture instead.
Inadvertently creating a pattern is an easy trap to fall into because the immediately adjacent areas usually are the closest in color and tone to the area you want to replace. As you move further away, tones and colors change so that the pixels get harder to match. Working hard to find a way to use pixels from somewhere else in your picture will pay dividends because the viewer won’t see the repetition.
#10 – Muddle Through (accept the messiness)
By now you have fixed all the easy areas in your picture and you’re ready to tackle a bigger problem. It might be a crowd of people or a car that entered your frame, but it is a large area of your picture. This is the scary part of using the Clone Stamp tool.
The key is to just dive in. Don’t try to figure it all out beforehand (you never will). You can do this in a couple of different ways:
- Go big first: Set your brush a little larger than you might otherwise use and just replace the entire area in one fell swoop (and then clean up with a smaller brush), or
- Go small and steady: Stick with the smaller brush and paint in gradually, but the key is to keep going. Remember that you can go over it again. Whatever you are doing, while it is probably not perfect, will undoubtedly look better than what you started with.
The key thing is just to do it. There is a tendency to freeze up and plot the entire change before doing anything, which causes you to stare at the computer screen for long periods of time.
Remember, you can always undo what you’ve done (Ctrl/Cmd+Z). In addition, because you followed tip #1 above and are working on a new layer, you can always mask this area off or delete it if it isn’t heading in the direction you want.
#11 – Use the Mirror Function
You can affect a lot of settings involving the Clone Stamp tool in the Clone Source panel (to see it, go to Window and then click on Clone Source). For instance, you can change the shape of the brush or the angle of the replacement pixels.
One of the most useful features in the Cone Source panel is the flip-horizontal option in the middle of the panel. If you click on it, the pixels will be replaced in the opposite horizontal direction as the source. This can be extremely useful in many instances since often you will be dealing with a symmetrical subject where you can now draw from the other side.
A typical example where you might want to use the flip horizontal option is where something covers one side of a doorway or window that you want to remove. By clicking on flip-horizontal, you can use the other side of the doorway or window as your source. Take another look at the Opera Garnier examples above and you will see how the flip horizontal tool would be used quite frequently whenever your picture contains any symmetry (I used this feature in those pictures quite a bit).
#12 – Change the Cloned Areas with Adjustment Layers
Sometimes your cloned areas just won’t look exactly like the surrounding areas. Perhaps it is too bright or too dark, or perhaps the colors are just off a little bit. You can fix it without affecting the surrounding pixels.
One of the great benefits of working on layers is that you can create adjustment layers that affect only the areas you just cloned. Simply create a new adjustment layer (levels, curves, or hue/saturation), which will appear above your cloning layer. Then hold down the Alt key and click at the bottom of the adjustment layer (you will see your cursor change). Doing so will apply the changes of the adjustment layer only to the layer below it.
Remember that using the Clone Stamp tool can be a messy process. Don’t worry if you find yourself having to redo changes or make things up as you go. There is no magical “clean” process. One of the fun parts about the cloning process is the problem-solving that goes into it. Take your time and just keep moving. You can always redo your changes or, if you are working in layers, get rid of them without losing the rest of your work.
The Clone Stamp tool will save more pictures than almost any other tool in your post-processing. If you master it, you can remove almost anything in your pictures that you do not want.
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