Healing brush tool

Photoshop CS4 Fundamentals: Image Cleanup with the Healing Brush and Patch Tool

By Tim Grey

After you know how to use the Clone Stamp tool effectively, you pretty much already know how to use the Healing Brush as well. In fact, the Healing Brush is even easier to use than the Clone Stamp because you don’t have to be as careful about the selection of a source area within the image. This is because the Healing Brush copies only texture, automatically adjusting the pixels you copy to a destination area so they match the overall tone and color of that area.

The Healing Brush tool is ideal for fixing many problems in your image because of the automatic blending it provides. For example, when cleaning dust spots in the sky, you don’t have to worry about selecting a source area that matches perfectly in terms of tone and color. Instead, you merely need to find an area with only an appropriate texture, and the Healing Brush will do the rest.

Note: The Healing Brush is an even better tool than the Clone Stamp for cleaning dust in areas with smooth texture, such as sky. It automatically blends pixels to produce a perfect match with minimal effort.

Getting Started

The first step is to configure the Healing Brush for proper use. The procedure I recommend is identical to that used for the Clone Stamp tool. Create a new layer on the Layers palette; give it a name such as Healing Brush so you’ll know what that layer is for; then select the Healing Brush tool from the Tools palette by clicking and holding the mouse (or right-clicking) on the Spot Healing Brush tool and selecting the Healing Brush tool from the flyout menu that appears (the shortcut key is J for the Spot Healing Brush, and then you can press Shift+J to cycle to the standard Healing Brush tool). With the tool active, you’re ready to adjust the settings on the Options bar.

The brush size, as with the Clone Stamp tool, should be adjusted with the square-bracket keys as you are preparing to paint with the tool. However, the Hardness setting should be set to 100% for a hard-edged brush (see below). Because the Healing Brush automatically blends the pixels you copy, using a soft-edged brush will only create more work for it (making it slower). Mode should be set to Normal to avoid unexpected results, and Source should be set to Sampled.

A hard-edged brush should be used for best results with the Healing Brush because it automatically blends copied pixels.

Note: If you change the blending mode for the Healing Brush tool to Replace, it will behave exactly like the Clone Stamp tool.

As with the Clone Stamp tool, the Sample dropdown should be set to All Layers and the option should be set to ignore adjustment layers while using the Healing Brush. However, you may not want to select the Aligned checkbox. Because the Healing Brush is used to repair problems by blending the source pixels into the destination, you don’t need to be as careful about the source selection or about trying to avoid creating repeating patterns. In fact, it is often helpful to leave the Aligned checkbox unselected so you can select a source with a texture that will work well for a variety of areas within the image you need to clean up. For example, when touching up a portrait, you could select a single area of smooth skin texture as your source, and use that source for a variety of areas on the face.

Note: Although it is possible to use the same new layer for both Clone Stamp and Healing Brush work, I recommend using separate layers for these tasks so you can handle them independently.

Healing Pixels

After you’ve configured the settings for the Healing Brush, you’re ready to start cleaning up your image. Again, this tool functions in exactly the same way as the Clone Stamp tool. Hold the Alt/Option key and click on a source area, selecting that source based on the area of the image that has the best texture for the area you wish to clean up. The pixels will automatically be adjusted to blend with the tone and color of that area. Then click and drag with small strokes (or even a single click) to clean up problem areas in the image (shown below).

When working with the Healing Brush, use small strokes for each area you are trying to correct (left), building up each small correction until you have touched up the complete image (right).

When you first start painting with the Healing Brush tool, you’ll notice that as you hold down the mouse button, the pixels you’re painting don’t match the destination area. However, as soon as you release the mouse, the pixels will be adjusted to blend in, producing an excellent match in most cases, provided you’ve selected a source with appropriate texture.

Note: I recommend making small brush strokes with the Healing Brush, rather than attempting to clean up large areas at once. This is because the Healing Brush can take time to blend, and a larger area will require considerably more time.

If you are using the Healing Brush near a high-contrast edge, you may get some “blooming,” in which the blend near that edge produces a mismatch of tone or color that bleeds into the area you’re correcting (see below). In that case, creating a selection around the area you want to clean up will constrain the blending so it won’t look beyond the selection for pixel values with which to blend.

When working with the Healing Brush near a high-contrast edge, “blooming” can result, causing areas of blended tone and color that are undesirable.

Note: As with the Clone Stamp, because you’re working on a separate layer for the Healing Brush tool, you can easily correct problems even if you don’t discover them until much later. Simply use the Eraser tool to erase any cleanup pixels that you’d like to remove from the Healing Brush layer.

Minimizing Healing

The Healing Brush does an excellent job of blending pixels in the area you are cleaning up, but sometimes the effect is too strong. When you’re trying to clean up dust spots in the sky, the blending works remarkably well, allowing you to perform the same basic task as you would with the Clone Stamp tool but without being as careful about the source of pixels. With the Healing Brush, you need to worry about only the texture of the source area.

One of the most common examples used for the Healing Brush is to remove wrinkles from a person’s face. However, if you completely remove those wrinkles, the person won’t look the same, and chances are they won’t like the difference. Although many people would like to take a few years off their face, the Healing Brush doesn’t provide a way to reduce the strength of the effect as you’re working. The blending it performs is done at full strength and will, therefore, completely replace the area you use it on.

Because you’re working with the Healing Brush on a separate layer, however, you are able to control the strength of the

adjustment. By reducing the Opacity setting for the layer you’re putting the Healing Brush pixels onto, you can reduce the impact of the adjustment. At the default Opacity setting of 100%, the Healing Brush pixels will completely cover up the underlying pixels. As you reduce this setting, the underlying pixels will be able to show through to some extent, minimizing the effect of the Healing Brush.

By reducing the Opacity setting for the layer, you can produce a more realistic correction for your image (see below). Instead of completely removing a person’s wrinkles, for example, you can tone them down so they won’t be as obvious. Instead of making the person look like they had extensive plastic surgery, you can make them look like they were photographed under more flattering lighting. Each situation will call for a different Opacity setting for the Healing Brush, but in general I recommend starting at a value of about 50% and fine-tuning from there.

When you want to reduce laugh lines or wrinkles in an image (left) but using the Healing Brush causes an unnatural look (center), you can reduce the Opacity value of the Healing Brush layer on the Layers palette. This produces a more realistic correction, creating the effect of flattering light while maintaining the character of the subject (right).

Spot Healing Brush

The Spot Healing Brush provides the same blending corrections as the Healing Brush, but without the need to select a source area from within the image. As with the Healing Brush, you should create a new layer to paint on when working with the Spot Healing Brush. Then select the Spot Healing Brush from the Tools palette. If you still have the Healing Brush active, click and hold (or right-click/Control-click) that button and select the Spot Healing Brush from the flyout menu that appears.

Despite not allowing you to choose a source area in your image, the Spot Healing Brush works well when the area you need to clean up is surrounded by pixels that represent an appropriate match. Any time you have a blemish surrounded by an appropriate texture for repair, the Spot Healing Brush is an excellent tool for the correction. The Options bar for the Spot Healing Brush includes very few controls. The first setting you’ll need to consider is the Type option. The Proximity match is the option I recommend, which looks to the pixels surrounding the area you’ve painted over to find textures that should be blended during the repair. However, in some situations this won’t provide a good match, such as when contrasting tones or colors are near the area to be repaired. In that case, try using the Create Texture option. This will cause the Spot Healing Brush to look within the area you painted over and attempt to produce an appropriate texture based on the pixel values surrounding that area.

The other setting to check on the Options bar is the Sample All Layers checkbox. You must select this checkbox in order to be able to work with the Spot Healing Brush on a separate layer.

Once you’ve established the settings, using the Spot Healing Brush is remarkably easy. Adjust the brush size based on the area you need to fix, using the left and right square-bracket keys ([ and ]). Then paint over the blemishes you’d like to repair, as shown below. Initially the area you paint over will be covered with a dark overlay, showing you the area that will be affected by the Spot Healing Brush. When you release the mouse, the area you painted over will be adjusted automatically.

With the Spot Healing Brush, all you need to do is paint over the area you want to correct (middle), and Photoshop will do the rest (bottom).

Although the Spot Healing Brush isn’t a perfect solution for all situations, it does provide a simple way to work when you’re just cleaning basic blemishes within your image.

Note: A common misconception about the Spot Healing Brush is that it is “inventing” pixels in areas you paint based on surrounding areas. In fact, it evaluates the overall image and chooses an appropriate source area, behaving as an automated Healing Brush tool.

Patch Tool

I think of the Patch tool as being exactly the same as the Healing Brush, except for the way you utilize it. It offers the same blending capability, ensuring that pixels will match the area to which they are copied. Instead of functioning as a brush tool, however, it allows you to create a selection to use as the basis of a patch to correct problem areas of your image (see below). This tool is particularly effective when you have large areas you need to repair, or when the area that requires repair has a unique shape that would be difficult to repair with brush strokes.

The Patch tool does not allow you to work on a new empty layer, so before you use it you’ll need to create a duplicate working copy of your Background image layer. To do so, click and drag the thumbnail for the Background image layer on the Layers palette to the Create a New Layer button at the bottom of the Layers palette (or by holding Ctrl/Command and pressing J). Make sure this duplicate layer is active (highlighted) when you’re working with the Patch tool.

The Patch tool allows you to quickly repair sections of your image, such as this blemish on a pepper.

Note: Because the Patch tool can’t be used on a separate empty layer, I consider it a tool of “last resort” compared to the other tools for cleaning up an image.

You’ll find the Patch tool under the Spot Healing Brush on the Tools palette. To select it, click and hold your mouse on the button for the Spot Healing Brush, and select the Patch tool from the flyout menu that will appear. You’ll then need to create a selection that defines either the area you want to repair or the area from which you want to copy pixels. I recommend always selecting the area that needs repair, so you are defining the shape of the patch required to apply the appropriate repair.

To create that selection, click and drag to draw the shape directly on the image. Hold the mouse button down until you close the shape back where you started. When you release the mouse, the shape will automatically be closed. If you have created a selection that defines the area to be repaired, be sure that the Patch option on the Options bar is set to Source. Then place your mouse pointer inside the selection and click and drag it toward an area that appears to be a good candidate for replacing the selected area. As you drag the mouse, the original selection will be filled with the pixel values from the floating selection, providing a helpful preview of the results before blending is applied.

When the Source option is set on the Options bar and you drag a selection, a preview shows you the pixels that will replace the target area when you release the mouse.

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