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The Cloning Tool

The Basics

Have you ever been out shooting and thought you snagged a capture worthy of the next Nobel Prize? Have you ever gone home, loaded that same photo, and noticed you missed an empty fast food cup that was sitting smack dab in the middle of your composition? You were so close to that perfect image, if only there was a way to remove that stinkin’ cup…

Ah, you’re in luck! Most imaging software includes a “Cloning tool” of some sort. Once you learn how to use it, you’ll discover this is one of the most important tools your imaging software offers.

First off, what it does. Although the name “cloning tool” implies it could be something out of a bad sci-fi flick, it’s not. This tool allows you to copy one area of your image to another area. So, you can replace the stuff you don’t want (like that cup) with the stuff you do.

For example, look at the photo below:

I liked the shot, but some of the snow got ruined before I got to it. Apparently, they didn’t get the memo that I wanted an unspoiled shot of this scene.

So, I did a little touch up. OK, it was a lot of touch-up, but it came out much better:

So, how does all this “cloning” work? Do you need a bioengineering degree? Is a working knowledge of sheep DNA mandatory? Am I getting carried away? Oops, sorry about that…

Back on topic—Cloning is not all that complicated, however, it’s one of those things that you can learn in a few minutes but will discover it takes a lifetime to master. You know the old saying, “Clone for a man and he’ll have a good image for a day, teach him to clone and he’ll sit with his nose three inches from the monitor for hours on end trying to remove a stupid cup.”

Anyway, in most programs, you just select the cloning tool from the “tools” bar. It usually looks like a rubber stamp.

Then you place your brush over the area you want to copy (we’ll call it the “good” area). Usually, you hold the ALT key and click your left mouse button to indicate that’s the area you want to clone from. Note that this procedure is to select the area you want to use as a replacement for the “bad” area, you’re not fixing the bad area just yet.

After you have the area you want to clone from figured out, just move your mouse over the area you want to fix. Hold down your left mouse button and drag the brush over. The cloning area will “move” along with your brush. You’ll see when you try it.

Sounds fairly simple, but it takes LOTS of practice to get any good at it. I’ve been doing it for years and still have a good ways to go.

Also note that most programs allow you to choose between “aligned” or “non-aligned” cloning.

With “aligned” cloning, your “good area (selected area)” will “move” relative to your mouse—even if you lift off the left mouse button. So, if you choose an area, say an inch directly above your cursor, that’s going to stay the “source” for your cloning. It doesn’t matter if you start on the left side of the image and you move over to the right, the area you’re cloning from will be an inch above the cursor. You can release the mouse button and move to a new location, but the source will continue to be one inch above your cursor. Of course, you can quickly change this by holding the ALT key and clicking a new location.

With non-aligned cloning, the cloning area always starts off in the spot you originally selected. The area will still “move” with your cursor, however, as soon as you release the mouse button, you’ll find the area you’re cloning from has returned to the original starting point.

Between the two, I find that I generally use aligned about 80% of the time. So, when you first start out, you may want to start with that option.

Now, let’s look at some easy tips to cut down the learning curve a bit.

Cloning Tips:

1. Save backup copies! If I have a lot of cloning to do in an image, I re-save the image under a different name (or several names even). That way, if I really mess up I can go back to the original. Then, as I fix areas of the photo, I save, save, save. That way, if I mess up the next portion, I don’t have to start from scratch.

2. Use the right brush size — Most programs let you use a variety of brushes to do your cloning. In general, use a brush just slightly bigger than the area you’re trying to fix. If that’s not practical, try fixing the bad area in “sections” using smaller brushes.

If your software allows, try adjusting the “hardness” of the brush as well. For some scenes, a hard brush seems to work well, for others, a softer one is the better choice. In general, the harder the edges of what you’re trying to clone, the harder the brush needs to be.

3. Zoom in, zoom out — Cloning tends to be a bit easier when you “zoom” in on the area you’re trying to fix. That way, you can see if everything seems to be matching or not. Also, be sure to zoom back out from time to time. This “coming up for air” helps you see if the cloned area still fits in with the rest of the photo. You’ll be surprised how often it looks great zoomed in, but the cloning becomes very obvious as you zoom out and take the whole image in.

Also, never save the image until you have zoomed out and confirmed that it looks right.

4. Make transitions smooth — Cloning out specks in the sky is a snap – but what really separates the men from the boys (or the women from the girls) is the ability to clone in a transition area—like where a shadow is going from light to dark.

The first thing I do in this situation is beat myself up for not taking a better photo :-) Next I try to find a similar shadow transition and clone from it. If you try just cloning a shadow and not blending that transition, it’s going to be as obvious as a plate of spaghetti dumped on a white shirt.

Also, when you’re cloning the transition, don’t just try to spot the area in, or go straight up / down. I get the best results when I actually follow the transition angle. This is one area where the best teachers are practice and patience.

5. – Avoid repeating patterns — Ah, here’s the #1 one cloning problem: repeated patterns. This happens when the selection area is right behind the cloning tool. You end up with something that looks like this:


After repeated pattern cloning (close up):

Try taking several different areas and use pieces of them to clone in the area you’re trying to fix. You might also want to try and find an area further away from the one you’re working on.

In the end, the best advice I have for you is to practice, practice, and then practice some more. This is definitely a skill that takes time to master, but once you do you’ll have an awesome weapon in your digital arsenal!

~ Steve