How Can We Remove People with Photoshop?

by on Jan 14, 2013 in Tips' n Tricks | 12 Comments

Darwin and Sam keep encouraging me to write more but my resistance holds strong not knowing where to start. Some may be familiar with me because my name occasionally appears here and there but for the most part, I quietly work behind the scenes from PEI as oopoomoo’s ebook designer and website support.

I have been thinking about the recent post by Sam when she mentioned ruthless editing and just how poor I am at that. And then a couple days later, Darwin hit it home with another post about how he kept 20 images from a set of 500. It’s just too easy for me to keep everything and ignore the rest. This situation includes my large collection of images from Iceland – many of which have other photographers standing in the frame.

In the spring of 2012, the oopoomoo team along with several others headed off to Iceland with dreams, hopes and expectations for possibly the photographic adventure of the year. Traveling with groups introduces the challenges of framing an image around those that choose to stand in front of you. The same applies to many popular tourist destinations. So while I could be cursing under my breath and wanting to tell everyone to go back to the van, each of us had the added task of working around where others decided to stand. Some made it easy and took a nap.

This next image is a crop of the before image clearly showing a group of photographers standing in the way. Not a big deal and only takes a few seconds to clean up.


If you are using Photoshop CS5 or later, there is a technical term called the content aware fill tool. But in this case, we will refer to it as the people remover.


  1. With the Lasso tool, start by making a tight selection around what you wish to remove.
  2. From the top menu, your next step is Edit > Fill. The quick keyboard shortcut for this is Shift+Del.
  3. We must now tell Photoshop how to handle the contents within the selection. For this, we want to make sure Content Use is set to Content Aware.
  4. Click Ok and see the results. It’s not always perfect and will sometimes require additional clean up with the clone tool but it’s usually a great starting point.

The final image.

Snæfellsnes Iceland

If you do not have content-aware available, this also could have been accomplished with the clone tool, the healing brush, or possibly even the spot removal tool in Lightroom. You will just need to be much more careful and take a few extra minutes to reach the same results.

Another Example

For a much more complicated example, consider the next image I made of Buckingham Palace. You can be sure that at any point during the day, crowds are high. The approach above might work again here but it will surely be complicated, frustrating and time consuming. A task most would never attempt.

In this situation, where the sun is not quickly setting and crowds are always moving, you can setup to capture multiple photos, while taking notice on where people are moving to and from. Eventually, you’ll have a clean frame for each section of the image. In a perfect world, you’ll do this on a tripod but you could be unprepared like I was and handhold the sequence of shots.

In Photoshop, you will want to load all the frames into layers. If you have Photoshop CS3 Extended or later, you can simply use image stacks and automate the process but for the rest of us, we can easily do this manually.


  1. Start by selecting Edit > Auto Align Layers. If you’re on a tripod, this step could be skipped, but if not, this process can be magical at times.
  2. With all the images as individual layers, we want to add a layer mask for each. One way to add the mask is Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All.
  3. A layer mask is used to hide or show content without actually deleting with the eraser tool. The key concept to understanding how masks work is to remember, black hides and white reveals. If you’re still not familiar with how this works, watch this brief video from Chris Orwig.
  4. So knowing how that works, we want to paint black in the layer masks over each person to hide them. Once completed for each layer, you will have hidden all the people that walked into your frame over the dozen shots.
  5. Add some final touches and clean up with the cloning tool and we’re done.


So putting the moral debate of image manipulation aside for a different day, these are two possibilities for removing unwanted content from your images. It is however, very important to know your audience, and know how the image will be used. Not everyone will tolerate this type of editing. Something Harry Fisch found out the hard way.

About the Author

I am a designer, artist and photographer living in PEI and the co-creator of the Photographer's Guide to Prince Edward Island. I have helped design this website and the many oopoomoo ebooks. Stop by and say hi on Facebook.


  1. Ron
    January 14, 2013

    Thank you very much for taking the time to put this post together.

    I have had some success with Content Aware but now will try you second method. Your clear explanation should make my life just a bit easier.


    • Stephen DesRoches
      January 14, 2013

      Perfect. It typically works better when not trying to match patterns. Report back on the results.

  2. Jay Gould
    January 14, 2013

    Thanks for this!!

    Ron, why not, on a single image, just lasso each of persons and do a content aware fill for each selection?

    Thanks, Jay

    • Stephen DesRoches
      January 14, 2013

      That is definitely the easiest of the two. A little tricky at times when trying to align patterns like bricks or fences. The size of the selection will also impact the performance.

      The second method is mostly beneficial for perspective and when large portions of the image must be removed. Such as people walking in front of a billboard of text where content aware would not be able to fill in the missing letters.

  3. Les Howard
    January 14, 2013

    Another method that works in some situations is to use a very long exposure. In your second example, you could try adding neutral density to give you a one minute or longer exposure and the people will mostly have moved around enough so they ‘disappear’. You need to examine the image closely to be sure there’s no ghosting where somebody stood in the same place for too long. You would likely get ghosting if you tried this technique on your first example. I’ve used this technique quite successfully to lightpaint a scene at night by walking through the picture aiming a flashlight at specific things but being careful to shield the flashlight with my body.

    • Stephen DesRoches
      January 15, 2013

      Yes. Absolutely. If we use my example above, the biggest difference would be the sky and much much softer sky due to cloud blur.

  4. Jane Chesebrough
    January 14, 2013

    Never knew these methods other than spot removal or cloning. Ha was going to ask how you “added” the sun in the third photo. (there’s probably a way to do that..)

  5. Branimir
    January 15, 2013

    Darwin will probably blame me for ruining this picture as well (the Iceland landscape). I was miles away that evening…. Photographing waves on the beach.
    The curse of using a 17 mm lens.

    • Stephen DesRoches
      January 15, 2013

      He could probably see your red jacked through the mountain, around the turn and over the hill.

    • Branimir
      January 15, 2013

      I thought models are supposed to wear colourful clothes.

    • Samantha
      January 15, 2013

      Me too!

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