In this article, I share some techniques I used to edit my most popular photo here on Fstoppers. With 4.36 points out of 95 votes, it won over many of you. But apart from the big subject with Mohamed and his dromedaries and the beautiful golden evening light, the final image required some work to achieve this immaculate look.
When I take photos in the desert, I try to find areas that are free of footprints. But even in remote places like Erg Chigaga in Morocco, this is no easy undertaking. I had to walk very deep in the desert, away from the camps, to find a stretch of clean sand. And then there’s the weather in the desert. Often I encounter a clear sky, which I then try to exclude from my photos. But depending on the subject, this is not always possible.
With some nifty photo editing techniques, I can solve both problems.
Advanced cloning technique
Let’s talk about footprints first. With the Healing Brush tool, you can sample a patch of sand near any area you want to clone by holding Alt and left-clicking. After grabbing your sample like this, release the Alt key and draw over the footprints.
In the screenshot below you see the structures in the sand. These small ripples are typical and require special attention. After sampling an area, try aligning the ripples while drawing over the indentations to create a convincing result. Also, choose from different areas to create a random pattern so a viewer won’t notice the retouch.
Although the Healing Brush is more advanced than the Clone Stamp Tool for creating consistent tones and colors, it does have its limitations. After cloning, a residue of the old tones may be visible. Notice how nice the structures in the sand look in the following screenshot; the healing brush did a good job for those. But the sand looks very stained. The goal is to clean up any remaining stains while maintaining the waves. You can consider ripples as high frequency elements while spots have lower frequency. With a technique called frequency separation, you can divide them into different layers:
Create a merged copy of the current edit by holding down Ctrl/Cmd + Alt + Shift + E and rename it to “weak”. This will later be the low frequency layer.
Copy this layer and rename the copy to “high”. It will later contain the fine details.
Select the bottom layer and go to Filter – Blur – Gaussian Blur… Dial in a ray, which blurs only the details you want to separate. For sand, use something between 5 and 15 pixels. With this, you should still see the imperfections in the sand.
Select the top layer and go to Image – Apply Image and dial in the exact settings I show in the following screenshot. Note that the bottom layer is the source. These settings only work for 16-bit images. If you’re working on 8-bit hardware, you’ll need different adjustments: uncheck the Invert checkbox, set Blend to Subtract rather than Add, and insert an Offset of 128 instead of 0. Scale stays at 2.
Finally, set the top layer’s blending mode to Linear Light.
After performing these steps, the photo should look exactly like before. The beauty of this technique is that you can now clean and clone separately on the low and high layers.
To remove the stains from the sand, create another copy of the bottom layer and blur it until the stains are no longer visible. With a black mask, you can hide the effect and paint it selectively with a soft, white brush.
For more info, follow me as I clean up my desert pic in the preview video.
Selective image transformations
The before and after comparison at the beginning of this article shows a white sky in the original image. It distracts the viewer’s attention from the main subject. Because I couldn’t get rid of the sky by changing the aspect ratio to 16:9 or 2:1, I used selective image transformations.
Why selective? Stretching the entire photo to exclude the sky would noticeably distort the trailer. Restricting transformations to areas that do not contain reference elements makes the result much more realistic. I can get away with stronger transformations. In the screenshot below you can see how I selected only the top part of the image above the caravan. I stretched it to remove a lot of the white sky.
If you plan to do such transformations in your own photos, don’t stretch the pixels too much. You’ll lose sharpness and introduce artifacts if you go too far. Selective image transformations work best for the sky and for areas of your photo that don’t contain too much detail and are free of elements where distortion might be noticed.
In the following video, I show other ways to use selective image transformations. Let’s say you took a photo in which the horizon is right in the center. For some images this may work. For others, you may want it positioned a bit higher in the frame. You can stretch the landscape and compress the sky to achieve this. Another use case is centering an element. In the video I show how to do it with an example from New Zealand.
Creative perspective fixes
Perspective corrections are generally used to remove distortions from an image. Especially for architectural photos that have keystone distortion, they are important. But they can also be used creatively, which works even better for images, which don’t contain reference elements that will give the edit.
Take my desert photo as an example. In the original photo, the ridge on which Mohamed walks is horizontal. In the final image, he walks slightly upwards. Turning this horizontal into a diagonal made the image much more dynamic.
To make such adjustments, you can either work on a flattened copy of your image or create a Smart Object from all the layers in the layer stack. Then press Ctrl/Cmd + T to bring up the free transform tool. By holding down the Ctrl/Cmd key, you can click on the corners of the transformation rectangle and move them independently. In the presentation video I show how I transformed my photo of the caravan in this way.
The techniques I share above are not for purists. But if you don’t go overboard with these changes, you’ll still be able to keep the result true to the scene you’ve photographed. Removing footprints from a photo might be the least significant change in the realistic depiction of a landscape.
Stretching parts of an image and changing perspective goes beyond basic editing. When I make such changes, I ask myself: would a viewer of my photo who has been in this landscape notice the changes? For photos taken in a desert, that’s usually not the case, and I have more leeway because they don’t contain distinctive landmarks. You should be more careful with mountain landscapes because people will know if you stretch them too far.