Spot and Clone

Restoration of a badly damaged image with the Spot and Clone brushes can produce amazing results with some care and some time.

The Spot Healing Brush set to Content Aware is one of the new additions to Photoshop Elements 9 and it really is effective.  What the Content Aware setting does is examine the pixels around the brush stroke and fill in the area under the brush.

This creates a nice seamless transition (most of the time) that needs to be seen to be believed.

The Clone Tool also acts differently.  After a Source is selected you'll see a preview of what will be cloned moving around the screen.  

These two tools in combination with a Wacom Bamboo or Wacom Intuos will pretty much handle any damaged photograph.

In addition to the tools in Elements and the Wacom tablet you will probably find it useful to try and visualize the final product especially when parts of the shot are missing.

The Damaged Photograph

Take a look at this picture - apparently it's a school photo that was lost (but has since found a home).

I was walking out to my car one snowy, slushy winter day and something on the ground caught my eye.  At first I figured it was a discarded trading card but on closer inspection I realized it was a badly damaged and abused photograph.

The photo was covered in slush and dirt and, as you can see, it was driven over and probably dragged along the ground.

I grabbed the photo, figuring it would be a really great restoration example.  After a good bath the photo was ready to go - this was an absolute treasure for a restoration project! 

I scanned the image on January 19, and spent the next 8 evenings (about one hour per session) working on the picture.

The final image has 16 layers (each of them is named) and the only technique I used, other than the Spot Healing Brush set to Content Aware and the Clone Tool was one selection.

Click here to see the final version of this picture ...

Spot and Clone Challenges

This badly mangled photograph has a variety of different challenges so let's take a look at them.


This is the area on the right side of his head.

The hair has been pretty much scraped and scratched away over a rather large area which necessitated some hair re-building.

Right Shoulder

This is probably the area with the greatest damage.

Large parts of the right shoulder are missing as well as the boundary between his neck and his school shirt. In addition, there is some shading on the right shoulder (the light was coming from his left).

There is also a large scratch which ends up buried in the right shoulder.


That nasty scratch starting on the top right and stretching down and to the left is a problem.

It starts in the background, crosses his ear, cheek, the left side of his mouth and lower lip.

The scratch finally comes to rest in the badly damaged area on the right shoulder.

The scratch crossing the corner of the mouth and the lower lip was particularly troublesome.

The Background

The background was much easier to repair.

The challenge in the background is where the subject meets the background and scratch crosses the boundary.

The image has a slight amount of ghosting, especially next to the white shirt and when a scratch was removed it messed up the ghosting (which is probably what the photographer wanted).

Using The Spot and Clone Tools

Now that the worst areas have been identified it's time to go to work.

Select an area that will be easy to work on just so you can do some practicing with the Spot Healing Brush and the Clone Tool. 

You're going to need layers - lots of layers.  If a project is started on the background with a photo like this and you get a few hours in and make a mistake - well - starting over is the only option.

Add a new layer above the Background, zoom in tight and start working with one of the tools - the Spot Healing Brush set to Content Aware is a good starting point.  The Spot Healing brush size should be just a bit larger than the area you are repairing.  If it's too big then you may have pixels included in the repair that shouldn't be there.

This is the tool I used most often.

This project started on the top of the photo working on the dark blue/black background.  This is a good starting point because it provides good practice using the tools.

The first section was done completely with the Spot Healing Brush set to Content Aware.  This created a nice blending of the photographers drop cloth.

The Layers

The sixteen layers addressed different parts of the photograph.  In order the layers are, from bottom to top ...


  1. Selection
  2. Top
  3. Forehead and Hair
  4. Eyes
  5. Hair Right (Clone)
  6. Hair Left
  7. Face (Big Scratch)
  8. Left Shoulder
  9. Left Arm Background (Clone)
  10. Right Shoulder (Clone)
  11. Right Shoulder 1 (Clone)
  12. Neck
  13. Right Sleeve
  14. Right Collar (Clone)
  15. Shirt

The layer by layer progression with comments can be found here ...

Difficult Areas

The difficult areas need the application of both the Spot Healing Brush and the Clone Tool.


There is a big area that needed help on the right side of his head.  The Spot Healing Brush just wasn't up to the job in the large areas so the Cone Tool was pressed into service.

The problem is this - it's difficult to find a good, clean Source point that will match the area to be cloned.

The solution is to remove the little specks and lines that are not part of the big scratch with the Spot Healing Brush before Cloning.  This provides some nice clean areas to be the Source points of the Clone tool.

After cleaning up the little specks and scratches that were isolated from the large damaged area the cloning job became much easier.

I started with a new layer, selected a large brush that was set to change opacity with pressure on my Wacom pen, selected a Source point above the big mark and lightly started cloning out the damage.

The Source was changed often and the brush size was decreased as the damage went away.  It is a good idea to keep checking to make sure the shading and texture you are cloning in fits seamlessly.

If you have a large enough monitor then go to Window > New Window For (your filename). This creates a second photo and you can zoom way in on one of them to do the work and watch the results on the other one that's at full view - this is a really handy command.

Right Shoulder

The right shoulder was quite a challenge.  The problem is this - there are three distinct areas all meeting where the major damage is located.

  • white shirt
  • blue/black drop cloth background
  • neck

Fixing the area took four layers, a lot of cloning with my Wacom pen and an artistic eye (which is a challenge for me).

A good start to working this area.

Notice the out of focus ghosting on the shirt - that must have been an effect chosen by the photographer.

In the course of working this area the out of focus area became much sharper.

This created other problems with the boundary between the shirt and the background - the blur was eventually eliminated at the boundary.

Well at least the damaged area is pretty much gone but - there is something wrong where his neck meets the collar of his shirt.

It just doesn't look right at all.

A close inspection of the original provided a hint as to how the area should look.

A few more passes with the Clone Tool and now the neck/collar area looks natural. 

Every damaged photo will be different.  This is meant as a guideline as a starting point about how to think about difficult areas of an image.

The Big Scratch

For the most part the big scratch was not particularly difficult to remove.  The Spot Healing Brush set to Content Aware pretty much took care of the scratch against the background although it may take a few passes to get it right.

The most challenging areas are ...

  • where the scratch crosses the ear, and
  • where the scratch crosses through the lips

The Ear

The area where the scratch crosses the ear just needed some tight zooming and some careful cloning.  The Spot Healing Brush doesn't work well in areas where there are two different colors meeting - like the background and the ear.

This happens because the Content Aware generally brings in areas that are close to the brush and it often grabs some of the color that is not wanted.  That's why it is best to clone in areas where two different colors meet.

As it was with the neck and collar, it's best to do some preparation work with the Spot Healing brush to clean up the area.

The Lips

This was much more difficult.  Spot Healing and Cloning cleaned up the scratch where it crossed the lips the the corner of the mouth just didn't look right.

No amount of messing around with Spot Healing and Cloning helped - there was just too much damage.

The solution was to rebuild the left side of his mouth using the right side of his mouth - in other words - we're going to make a lip patch.  A selection was made on the background image like this 

The selection was promoted to it's own layer (Ctrl-J/Cmd-J).  

This is where the rulers come in handy.

To maintain the correct size of the selection the Rulers were activated (View > Rulers).  I also went to the Preferences and changed the units to pixels.  This made it much easier to maintain the size when the selection is transformed.

The new layer was activated and then Image > Transform > Free Transform.  

I made note of the width of the selection by changing the zero points, added a couple of Guides, grabbed the left middle handle and dragged it to the right.  It became smaller and smaller and eventually crossed over  the right edge of the selection.  I kept going until the selection and stopped when the size of the selection was correct.

When the size was right I accepted the transformation by clicking the green check mark and then moved the selection into the right place with the Move tool.

It looked kind of weird but a few easy adjustments (changing the opacity of the new layer and using the eraser with my Wacom pen set to change opacity with pressure) blended in the lip patch.

One Last Thing

After it appeared that everything was perfect I figured a last check would be useful.

What I did was activate the top layer in the stack and did an Unsharp Mask set to the Maximum settings (Enhance > Unsharp Mask ...) with the Preview checked.

What the Unsharp Mask did was reveal places that were missed with the spot and heal procedure.  Before doing this I figured the project was finished but just didn't feel right about it.

This seems to prove that while the eyes see one thing the brain sees something else entirely and that's probably why I had that sense of unease and did this step.

A new layer was added and the rogue damage areas were fixed.

Here it is - the masterpiece after a lot of enjoyable spot and clone work ...

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