The Heal brush and Clone brush are my two best friends when it comes to retouching in Photoshop. Not only can they diminish the amount of blemishes on the skin, but they can also clean up stray cross hair, unflattering folds on clothing, and so on.
One of the challenges with healing and cloning is that it can be easy to go overboard and over-retouch. This is especially true with the face, where over-retouching can result with too much loss of skin texture and that plasticky skin look.
Additionally, the way most people use either tools is “destructively,” meaning that, as you use the Heal and Clone tool, you are actually altering the pixels on that layer. By the time you realize that you have gone too far, the retouch work may have already altered your image to the point that a lot of Undo commands are required to go back to where you think the image should look. And when you are looking at 40-50 steps of Heal Brushes and/or Clone Brushes in your History panel, it can be hard to determine how far you should go back.
There is a way to use the Heal and Clone brush in a non-destructive manner. To show you how to achieve this, I’ll be using a studio image I shot recently during a fashion show.
- Camera: Panasonic GH3
- Lens: Panasonic 12-35mm f/2.8 (35mm equivalent 24-70mm)
- Focal length: 31mm (35mm equivalent 62mm)
- Aperture: f/9.0
- Shutter Speed: 1/160
- ISO: 200
Straight Out of the Camera 100% Crop
Straight out of the camera, the image looks pretty good, but when I zoom in at 100%, I can see that the face does require clean up. I circled the areas in red to highlight what I will retouch, which include blemishes, patchy skin colors, unwanted lines on the neck, oily skin, and stray hair on the face.
Retouching on a Duplicate Layer
The usual way that many people apply the Heal and Clone brush is to use them on a duplicate layer. While this works just fine, you do run into a couple of problems.
As I mentioned earlier, applying the Heal and Clone brush directly on the image layer is “destructive.” This means that if you go too far and want to correct your retouched areas, you may have to either erase or mask out the area that has been over-retouched. Then, you would have to start over with another duplicate layer for that affected area.
The second problem is that every time you create a duplicate layer, your PSD file size grows by quite a bit. You can actually test this out yourself. With just one layer, the PSD file for this image has a file size of 91.1 MB. Just by duplicating the original layer, the file size increases to a whopping 202 MB. Duplicate to 4 layers and now it’s at 313MB. Finally, with 10 duplicated layers, this one layer, 16-megapixel PSD file has ballooned into a 645 MB PSD file! Ouch!
But there is a better and more efficient way to retouch your images with the Heal and Clone Tool. By using the retouching approach below, my final 13-layer PSD file for the same image is only 423 MB. That is much more manageable.
Retouching on a New Layer with Heal Brush
The best way to use a retouch is to use the Heal and Clone brush on a New Layer. This method has been so effective for me that I do the brunt of my major skin cleanup with this method, and I only retouch with frequency separation on more specialized problem areas.
There are two ways to create a new layer. The first way is by clicking the New Layer icon at the bottom of the Layer Panel.
The second way is by using the shortcut keys CTRL+SHIFT+N on Windows or CMD+SHIFT+N on Mac. This brings up the New Layer dialog which allows you to change the layer name and add a layer color at the same time. Here, I changed the name of this layer to “Retouch Layer” and use Blue layer color.
Now the most important step when working with a Heal and Clone Brush on a blank layer is to change the Sample source. When you select either tool, there is a toolbar at the top of the Photoshop window. Over to the far right side, there is a drop down menu called, “Sample.” Sampling tells the tool which layer to sample texture and color. When set on Current Layer, the brush will sample at the current layer only. This is what you use when you are sampling from a duplicate layer.
When using a blank layer, what you want to do is change the sampling source to “Current & Below.” Now, the Clone and Heal brush will sample the colors and textures from the visible layer below the blank Retouch Layer.
Here are a couple of tips on using the Heal Brush. The first is to use a slanted elliptical brush. This makes the Heal result look a bit more organic and less “processed.” Right-click on any part of the image to bring up the brush dialog brush. Thin out the round brush and drag the direction either left or right, depending on the angle of your stroke.
The second is to sample close to the area often. This will help to ensure that the Heal will blend in to its surrounding area better.
Let’s take a look at what happens when I start to heal some of the skin on the model’s face.
At first glance, the result looks just like how it would if you were using the Heal brush on a regular image layer. But, when you hide all the layers except for the Retouch layer, you can see that only the retouched skin makes it to this layer. As a result, you have a Retouch layer that does not “destructively” alter the image layer below and only minimally increase the file size.
Additionally, if you make a retouching mistake, you can use the Erase brush to remove the retouched area from this layer and reapply the Heal brush. It’s that easy.
Finally, because each new blank layer barely increases your file size, you can create multiple blank Retouch layers without dramatically increasing your overall file size.
Cloning on a New Layer
The same New Layer method can be applied for the Clone Brush. In this example, I want to remove a bumpy fold on the sleeve. Unlike Heal, the Clone brush can be very hit and miss, so this New Layer method is especially useful. Once again, don’t forget to change the Sample method to “Current and Below.”
Here is how the image looks after I cloned out the fold.
As you can see, the Retouch layer only contains the actual cloned portion of the image and it can be easily erased at any given time if I’m not satisfied with the cloning work.
Comparison of Before and After
This is how the image of the model’s face at 100% crop looks before and after retouching. Notice that there is still texture in the skin even though all the blemishes have been removed using the Heal brush. Using the New Layer Retouching approach allows me to have better control of how far I want to take the clean up.
And here is the final image at its original crop.