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How To Use Photoshop's Healing Tools

Robin Whalley shows us how to use Healing Tools in Photoshop.

|  Adobe Photoshop
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Words and images by Robin Whalley -

If there is one aspect of Photoshop that is essential but often misunderstood, it’s the healing tools. It doesn’t matter if you are a digital photographer of use a hybrid approach scanning film, you simply can't get by without the healing tools. Despite this I have seen many people struggle to use these tools and even ruin their images. Shortly I will explain the basics of how to use two of these tools, the healing brush and spot healing brush and avoid some of the common problems.

Before we start to, let’s take a look at the image to be worked on and evaluate some of the problems we face. Here is the starting image which was shot on an XPan using Kodak TMAX400 (hence the grain in the illustrations) and then scanned using a Minolta 5400. As TMAX400 is black and white film it’s not possible to use the digital ICE function in the scanner to remove dust and scratches so we must do this by hand using the two tools above.

Starting Image - dust and scratches need removing

Immediately on viewing the image I can see there is a hair in the top left area of the sky. Zooming in to 100% and moving around the image I can see plenty of small dust spots that need to be removed from the sky. I can also see a number of other hairs and dust spots that need to be removed from the buildings.

The basic steps in using the Spot Healing Brush are as follows:

  1. Zoom in to 100% on your image so that you can easily find the problem areas to be repaired
  2. Select the Spot Healing Brush from the tools pallet as shown in the Fig 02 below
  3. Hold down your left mouse button whilst painting over the area to be repaired as shown in Fig 03 below. Once the mouse button is released Photoshop will make the repair.
Selecting the Spot Healing Brush
Fig 02 - Selecting the Spot Healing Brush.

Painting over the area to be repaired with the Spot Healing Brush
Fig 03 - Painting over the area to be repaired with the Spot Healing Brush.

The Healing Brush

As you can see above the Spot Healing Brush is very easy to use. The Healing Brush however is a little more complex and involves a two step process where you first select an area of the image to be sampled (copied from) before painting it onto the area to be repaired. Here are the steps in more detail:
  1. Zoom in to 100% to find the area to be repaired
  2. Select the Healing Brush from the Tools pallet
  3. Move your cursor to a nearby area that you want to sample from
  4. Hold down the Alt key on your keyboard and you will see the cursor change as shown in Fig 04 below. When you see this click the left mouse button once. This fixes the area to be samples when making the repair.
  5. Now position the cursor over the start of the area to be repaired and hold down the left mouse button whilst painting over the repair. When you release the mouse button and the repair will be completed.
Setting the area to be sampled
         Fig 04 – Setting the area to be sampled using the Alt key and Mouse.

The drawback with these tools is that they are not quite as easy and foolproof as they seem at first pass. What follows is a series of tips to help you better understand the behaviour of the tools in order to make seamless repairs under most conditions.

Tip 1 – Use a new Layer for the repair

You should never carry out repairs on the original image, especially when Photoshop provides us with a great alternative with Layers. If you make a mistake on a layer that you can’t recover you simply delete the layer and start again. The first step then is to add a new empty layer by selecting "Layer | New | Layer..." from the menu.

This first step often causes people problems and they tend to give up on trying to make repairs on to a layer. You might even have experienced strange results yourself and found the repair doesn’t blend properly. This is most likely due to the option "Sample all Layers" not being selected in the Photoshop Toolbar. Look back to Fig 02 and you will see in the toolbar just below the menu this option is displayed on the right. If you don’t have this option checked when using the Spot Healing Brush it simply won’t work its magic.

The Healing Brush is also similar and needs to have the "Sample all Layers" option selected from the drop down list as shown in Fig 05 below. If you are using Photoshop Elements "Sample all Layers" is shown as a tick box for both tools (although this might change depending on your version).

Sample from “All Layers” with the Healing Brush Tool
Fig 05 – Selecting to Sample from “All Layers” with the Healing Brush Tool.

Tip 2 – Use the right Cursor

Photoshop allows you to select different cursors for painting to the standard cursor you might be used to. This is a good thing as the standard painting cursor is really poor for doing the sort of repair work we are carrying out here. You can change the cursor by selecting "Edit>Preferences>Cursors..." from the menu.

Selecting a better Painting Cursor
Fig 06 – Selecting a better Painting Cursor.

I like to use a cursor which shows me the size of the brush tip I am painting with so I can judge the area being affected. Photoshop offers two options for this as shown in the screen shot above. As you may be aware you can soften the edge of a brush to help blend the changes you are applying to an image. The softer you make the brush tip edges the wider the brush effect extends around the tip. The "Normal Brush Tip" option shows the actual brush size whilst the “Full Size Brush Tip” shows the extent of the soft edge also.

The final essential change you should make is to check the "Show Crosshair in Brush Tip" option. This is essential to help you align changes you will make as you will see shortly.

Tip 3 – Stay Away from Edges

If you catch an area with detail it can cause a smudging effect as Photoshop tries to blend your sample with the original image. An example of this is shown in Fig 07 below.

Healing tool damage
    Fig 07 – Before and after shot where the image on the right shows the damage done by using
    the Healing Tool too near to the edge of the wall.

Later I will explain how you can avoid this problem but generally be careful around edges.

Tip 4 – The Spot Healing Tool is fast but not for Detail

When you read my description of the two brushes at the start of this article you might have wondered why someone would chose to use the Healing Brush when the Spot Healing Brush is simpler because you don’t need to choose the sampling location. Well it is much quicker but only on areas without any detail such as the sky. Use it where there is detail and you will see results like that shown below in Fig 08. Where I have used the brush on the wall to the right of the window you can see parts of the window have been blended onto the wall. Look at where I have used the brush on the window and you can see part of the wall appears. This is the limitation with the Spot Healing Brush.

The Spot Healing Brush can make a real mess of areas with detail
Fig 08 - The Spot Healing Brush can make a real mess of areas with detail.

Tip 5 – Work on areas of detail with the Healing Brush

For areas of detail its best to use the Healing Brush. To illustrate I will remove the hair from the window shown in Fig 09 below.

A typical problem in an area of detail
                   Fig 09 – A typical problem in an area of detail.

  1. For areas such as this you need to choose the area to be used in the repair so that it blends well in the repair.
  2. It’s important to select a location that matches the area to be fixed. In Fig 10 below you can see that I am copying from an area just to the right of when the hair crosses the window.

  3. Selecting a suitable area to use in the repair
                  Fig 10 – Selecting a suitable area to use in the repair.
  4. It’s also important that you line up the area you have sampled from with the area that you are repairing. Notice in Fig 10 above that I have aligned the centre of the area I am copying from with the top of the window and then I have used the top of the window again as a guide to copy to. This is why having the cross hair in the centre of the cursor is so important. It helps you line up areas to repair.
  5. If you are familiar with the Clone tool, the Healing Brush works in a very similar way but it also blends the repair. This is something a lot of people don’t appreciate and as a result become frustrated by not being able to create a clean repair.
  6. Work slowly to make the repair in small sections. Don’t try to complete a complex repair in one go.
  7. Continue to select new samples as you repair each section. In Fig 11 below you can see how I have progressed with the repair.

  8. Repair in progress
                  Fig 11 – The repair in progress.
  9. You can also see in Fig 11 above that I have reduced the size of my brush to help me deal more accurately with the repair. It’s important that in areas of high detail you use a suitably small brush. Use the [ key on your keyboard to reduce the brush size and the ] to increase it. Each time you press one of these keys you will adjust the brush. This is much faster and easier than using the menu.
  10. Fig 12 below shows the completed repair. To remove a hair like this I might make 10-20 separate strokes and it might take me a minute or two of time.
The finished repair
                   Fig 12 – The finished repair is virtually perfect.

While the finished repair in Fig 12 is good it isn’t perfect. I can see that there is a small dip in the window frame where I didn’t quite line it up accurately. I am however willing to accept this as the image is just short of 3 feet wide and this view is at 100% so I am confident no one will notice.

Good repairs are all about knowing the limitations of your tools, how to use them and taking your time. After that, it’s just down to practice.

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JackAllTog Plus
11 6.1k 58 United Kingdom
22 Feb 2012 5:41PM
Nicely talked through - i've always wondered how to stop blow out at the edges.

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