It’s Time to Rethink How You Handle Cloning Out Distractions

It’s Time to Rethink How You Handle Cloning Out Distractions

Whether you’ve worked with Photoshop for years, or are new to the program and want an updated approach to cloning, healing, and editing out distractions and issues, there’s been a number of updates that have challenged the old paradigm of editing in these situations. Want to know the new approach you should be using?

When I got started with Photoshop, and had to deal with removing an element of an image, I’d reach for either the clone stamp or healing brush tool. Both were fine, but required a good sense of how to rebuild the areas, if you were removing a sizable chunk of the photo. For this next section, when I refer to cloning, you can consider healing and cloning to both run into the same issues, at least to some extent.

Beyond just size, there’s a number of complicating factors that can make these tools more difficult to use than necessary. Consider an object against a pattern background, where you’ll have to pay attention to matching the orientation and periodicity of the pattern itself, rather than just cloning over it with a random sample. Another example is when cloning up against the border of two different objects, especially where there’s a defined edge. Working near that edge with a healing brush can result in a blurry mess, instead of a clean replacement.

To work around these challenges, Photoshop has added a number of tools that I don’t think get enough attention for this part of the workflow. Furthermore, there are a number of optimizations to how you work with the existing tools that can help address these issues.

Try the Easy Stuff First

The first change I’d recommend making is altering how you approach editing out a distraction in the first place. Instead of reaching for a brush of any type or the patch tool, grab the lasso tool. Combined with content aware fill, I find it much easier to make selections quickly, hit my reassigned shortcut for fill (faster than Edit> Fill), and end up with a great looking result for basic adjustments.

In this before/after, you can see how even a complicated pattern was filled in with surprising accuracy from just Content Aware Fill.

I like this better than the brush approach because of how well it leads into making adjustments to the area being fixed. If I need to end up selecting more of a region, like if there’s a color cast spilling onto the background, it’s easy to add to the selection. If I’m removing too much, just by holding Alt, I can quickly remove something  from the selection. In the very rare cases where Photoshop isn’t automatically selecting a good patch to fill with, it’s easy to jump into the dedicated Content Aware Fill dialog, as your selection is already set up.

This approach isn’t just good for its versatility, but also because it is very low effort. Draw a sloppy circle around what you want gone and it vanishes. Content Aware Fill seems to do a remarkable job of leaving things alone that don’t need to be removed, even if it’s in the active selection, unlike when you draw outside the area with the spot healing brush.

Furthermore, Photoshop offers a ton of options for making an easy, effective selection, making this approach even easier. A great example of this is when working with a panorama. After stitching, you can end up with small gaps around the edges of the frame, where the stitch hasn’t resulted in a perfectly rectangular image. To fill these in with a brush-based approach would require a detailed examination of the edges of the frame and painstaking work to brush in only the necessary regions. Instead, by selecting all the content on the layer, inverting the selection, and expanding it by a few pixels, you can quickly fill all these gaps automatically. I’ve even loaded that process into an action, taking what would have been minutes of work into about 5 seconds and 2 clicks.

To sum it up, when working with an easy, or even intermediate issue, I’ve left the myriad healing and cloning brushes in the toolbar, instead relying on sloppy selections and Content Aware fill via both the fill menu and dedicated dialog. It’s saved a lot of effort, and can easily be “stepped up” to deal with more difficult cases.

Not Everything Can Be Automatic

Unfortunately, Content Aware’s AI isn’t at Skynet levels just yet, For some areas, it’s still necessary to go in and manually clone out the region. This is most noticeable in the cases I mentioned earlier in the article, with regular patterns and some literal edge cases. Here, however, I still don’t leave the selection tools behind.

Making a selection before working with cloning tools can be one of the best ways to refine your approach. One of the easiest examples of this is when working with something that comes up to an edge of another object. In these three shots, you can see the initial issue, the selection, and the finished product. By going in with just the regular clone stamp, you can build in some margin around that white pillar, while still keeping a very clean edge on the object. Once that’s done, you can then use any tool, like the healing brush, to go in and finish the job, as well as refine the transition. 

Trying to mirror that rounded edge with a single brush stroke is way more difficult than it needs to be. Setting up the selection ahead of time functions a bit like the bumper guards in bowling, where even a mistake doesn’t ruin your attempt.

Setting up this perimeter also leads into my next bit of advice, which is don’t be afraid of the clone stamp. While the initial strokes can look worse than using the healing brush or spot healing brush, I find that for larger areas, you can never get the healing brush to look just right without first removing the offending object via another method. Healing over a large area can just result in a smudgy mess, often with color artifacts from the removed object. Instead, give a couple swipes of the clone stamp to at least get the area into a more neutral starting position, then refine with the healing tools if necessary.

One last thing to remember is the clone source panel. If you’re working with an offset pattern, or don’t have a great 1:1 match for cloning, you can use the clone source panel to expand your options. In the panel, you can adjust the rotation of your clone source to better match your subject, increase or decrease the scaling ratio, or even mirror it. By playing around with these settings, you can get a far more convincing blend or even create a usable source out of an otherwise dissimilar area.


None of these features are that new, with content aware fill being around for years already, for example. Instead, the iterative improvements of content aware fill, combined with some new techniques I’ve integrated into my workflow, have led me to realize that I hardly even touch the old standards of cloning work anymore. As content aware fill continues to improve, I’ve had to do less and less manual refinement. I’d suggest you see how it fits into your workflow, as well as understand the cases where it isn’t going to be useful, and how to compensate — it might just save you quite a bit of time in your next edit!

Alex Coleman's picture

Alex Coleman is a travel and landscape photographer. He teaches workshops in the American Southwest, with an emphasis on blending the artistic and technical sides of photography.

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These are simple and plenty of options...Wildlife is the real challenge IMHO...

My experience is different. For me, capturing the wildlife, and getting close enough for frame-filling results, is the easy part. Doing the photoshop work afterwards is an absolute nightmare - far more difficult and perplexing than getting the photos of the wild animals and birds in the first place.

I totally agree with you in the sense of how and where we shoot. I would appreciate if you could share your photos someplace so I could learn more from that...Learning is a never-ending process.

Okay, for me...Not all I have, but, you can view my shots on Flickr with full EXIF...

Very nice images!

Thanks for responding, Nitin.

I have images online at many places. If you google my name and then click on the "IMAGES" tab at the top, this is what you get:

But perhaps the easiest way to see some of my more recent work is to just go right to my website:

Lovely collection! :)


I have Photoshop Elements - the 2016 version. I have not the means of updating to a more recent version.

So, using the 2016 Elements program, what are your suggestions for the best way to clone out distractions - small distractions, as well as those huge distractions that intersect with the subject matter at many points?

I have had a lot of trouble using the cloning tool, because of the difficulty in re-creating what the distraction had been covering up. Which of the tools available in my 2016 version of Elements would be the best for these complex re-creations of obstructed detail?

Looks like you should have content aware fill, at least according to this Adobe article. I don't have Elements, so I can't verify it myself.

Without CA Fill, not much is different for small distractions - the spot healing brush is probably what I'd try first, and I'd supplement with the clone stamp and a selection if it wasn't working well.

For larger areas, you'll probably want to use the healing brush and work on your skills in making smart choices of the clone source - this is really an area where CA fill makes a difference. Good luck!

Thanks so much for that ... much appreciated.

I have only been aware of the clone stamp tool thus far. I will look for what to click on to get this spot healing brush to pop up for me, and then I will start to experiment with that and see how it varies from the clone tool.

The Content Aware Fill seems like it is something on a whole other level. I will try to figure out if my Elements has that, and then I will try to figure out what to click on to get it to come up. All of this is such a challenge to figure out, but it seems that the effort will eventually pay off once I can figure out where the different little thingies are that need to be clicked on.

Thanks so much!

Happy to help. You may have to switch to Element's expert mode/workspace to see all these options.

The biggest thing to keep in mind with clone stamp vs the healing tools is that clone stamp exactly duplicates the source of the cloning in the new position, while the healing tools try to blend in the surrounding area into the retouched portion.

Thanks for the tip about the expert mode/workspace ...... I had no idea that such a thing even existed.

I know exactly what you mean about the clone stamp precisely duplicating the source material (the exception would be when opacity is set to less than 100%). I have struggled with the clone stamp because of this.

Often, I have had to build things up, literally pixel by pixel, and it takes an insane amount of time to create things that were in the original image when doing it this way ..... and even when all of those hours and hours are spent meticulously building something one pixel at a time, the result still isn't that great, because it it often looks awkward when blending things that are in focus with things that are slightly out of focus.

I think that the healing tool that you told me about may remedy this problem and save me at least 10 hours a week. Thanks so much for that!

I would recommend you check out ON1 Photo Raw 2020. Despite the fact that no bugs have been addressed in the 2020.5 version, it might be worth the effort given the features it offers and the price.

If you've already gotten comfortable with Photoshop's paradigm and are looking to upgrade, I think the CC Photography plan is still a better option. Lightroom/Photoshop is hard to beat unless you have a specific need.

I have that and Luminar and ON1 and Affinity and ... :)

But, for most of my wildlife shots, actually all so far, the day ON1 fixes some bugs, I would not require LR or PS. ON1 is a curious mix of both and I am able to clean up images there almost like PS where it cannot be done in LR as also layers for composites. It also supports stacking and that works fine for macros.

It's just that their support seems pretty bad with no timelines and a community which has no communication with the company, a project for suggestions which has not been looked into for years, which makes it dicey to figure out if they would actually listen to customers or just continue on their own...