Removing Unwanted Subjects from Your Photo

By Roger (18 December 2016)

Sometimes you find things in your photo that you really wish weren't there. Ideally, you should have adjusted your camera to a position where the unwanted objects (or people) weren't there in the first place, but you can't always meet this ideal. Then, there are times you can't avoid the obstructions – like people around an attraction. Here are some post-processing ways to deal with them, from easy to a little more complicated.

Use cropping as the quickest way to get rid of something extraneous along the edges. This jockey is carrying her tack as she's walking back to the jockey room, after a pretty muddy run. Her trainer is walking into the frame. Cropping is the best solution here. I wanted her to fill the frame more, anyway, so I cropped in. Easy. Whenever you can get away with just a simple crop to remove the distraction, take the option.

A simple crop can solve some problems

A simple crop can solve some problems

When cropping won't remove an object, your next step is cloning in Photoshop or some other pixel bender. There is a clone/heal tool inside the Lightroom Develop module, but it doesn't work as well as Photoshop on the more detailed changes. Use the Lightroom tool for something small, like a blurred bird in the sky of your seascape or spots from dirt on your lens or sensor.

This steam locomotive came into the Manassas train station, back in June. I love the way the smoke and steam blend into the cloudy sky. The power lines and signs, on the left of the photo bothered me, but there was no place I could move to remove them from the scene and cropping would wasn't an option. The clone tool allows me to get in close to the trees to remove the power lines and blend the signs into the trees near the tracks.

Cloning is the best technique here

Cloning is the best technique here

There is an in-camera solution that works in certain conditions. If you use long exposures, and people are moving through the scene, they will blur enough to disappear (or nearly disappear). The longer the exposure, the better this technique works. Of course, you'll need a tripod for this work.

I tried this technique, in Montreal, in my cathedral photo. You can still see some blurred people in these two photos, highlighted in the red polygons. The short answer on these photos is my shutter speed wasn't slow enough or those wouldn't be there.

I put red boxes around the still visible blurred people

I put red boxes around the still visible blurred people

I used an even longer exposure on my third attempt. It was almost blur free. The first time you try this, you should take several exposures – trying to see these small blurs on your camera's LCD can be difficult. I also try to let a little time lapse between exposures, to let the objects move to another part of the frame. I fixed the perspective errors and did some minor cleanup and got one of my favorite photos of 2016.

montreal cathedral RD46366

If you still have some motion showing in each of your photo, you can open your photos (I had four total) as layers in Photoshop. Eventhough your camera was on a tripod, remember to align your layers (Edit>Auto-Align Layers). You can start on the top most layer and mask any blurs. Add a mask to each additional layer, until you've covered all indications of movement.

When you have a very busy scene, there is another post-processing technique to try. You can create multiple photos while objects move throughout and create a stack of images. I used this technique to make a photo of the Oliver cabin, at Cades Cove, in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. John and Lucretia Oliver built their home by 1820 and some of their descendants lived there until the 1930s. I wanted to make a photo of their cabin with no tourists visible.

Since I was there in mid-morning, there was too much light for a really long exposure. Yes, I could have used the neutral density filter that Mark discussed two blogs ago, but I decided to try stacking, instead.

Once again your tripod is the best method here to keep your multiple photos aligned. I took 10 photos of the cabin as people moved around the cabin, spacing the intervals to ensure the people were in different positions around the cabin in each photo. Here are three of the shots.


When I got home, I opened the 10 photos in their own layers in a single Photoshop document. Again, align all layers, just to be sure. With all the layers selected, create a smart object. (Layer>Smart Objects>Convert to Smart Object). This may take a few seconds to complete. Now just choose the mean between the images. (Layer>Smart Objects>Stack Mode>Mean)

If you've chosen your photos correctly, all the people disappear, like the photo below.

Cleared of people

Cleared of people

I also tried this along the road in the Smokies. I wanted to see how hard it would be to use this technique, without a tripod. The road had an seemingly endless stream of traffic. I made more than 30 photos, trying to be very careful with my framing. We were at this location for more than 15 minutes, taking many photos to make sure I could make this work.

But, just before we left, the traffic cleared, and all of that care was rendered unnecessary because I got a clear photo, without the effort. It goes to show you that sometimes the technique you should use is patience. That can be one of the most difficult methods for some of us.

Other than showing the technique, I'm not sure why you'd want a photo like this one.....  ;-)

road RD43896

Unless you have adopted the ethics of a photo-journalist, there really is no reason to have any unwanted objects in your photographs. There are many variations and combinations on these methods to remove distractions. The more complicated methods take a little practice, but that's no different from any other techniques. Give these a try to improve your photographs. Have fun with it.