One of the daily struggles of anyone trying to take pictures of busy touristic sights is the people. They are usually everywhere, always in the frame of the perfect picture, ruining a nice composition or just getting in your way. Well, there are ways around this problem, and I’m not talking about waiting for hours. In order to remove them you only need Photoshop (or something equivalent) and ideally a tripod. That’s it!
The first thing we need to know is that this system works for places that are not crowded. Removing one or two random persons is easy, getting rid of a group of fifty tourists it’s almost impossible. With this in mind find a good place to take a picture, with not many people around. Ideally you should set up your tripod there, but if you have a steady hand and don’t move you can also try it without one. Take your first picture, wait until the people in the frame move a bit and then take another one. Repeat until you have a good amount of pictures, the more the better. What’s really important here is to have pictures with no people from everything you want to photograph. The objective here is being able to crop the people and swap it for the same section from another photo Be really careful with the shadows! You will also need to remove them.
Once we have enough pictures we should go to Photoshop. Sometimes you will need a lot of different photos, sometimes with two is enough, specially when there is not a lot of people, or if you just want to remove an specific person. In this example I’m going to choose two photos I took from a Chinese street. I want to use them to prove that you don’t need a tripod. In this case they also have different zoom levels, but we can get around that as well. Keep in mind that this is not ideal, we ideally want two photos with exactly the same settings. In this case the photo would probably not be perfect for a professional environment, but for a personal photo book it’s more than enough!
First of all, we click on File->Scripts->Load Files into Stack. This will open a dialog window where we can select the photos we want to use. Click on Browse, select the ones we took earlier and click on OK. This will create a new file, with all our photos in different layers.
If we use a tripod they should be perfectly aligned, but sometimes that’s not the case. Of course if we didn’t use one we have to align them anyway. To do that Photoshop provides an excellent tool. First select all the layers you want to align pressing Ctrl+click or Shift+click on the layer menu, on the right of the screen. Once we have them selected click on Edit->Auto Align Layers. This will prompt a window with different options. Make sure you have Auto selected and click OK.
Now all the pictures should be perfectly aligned. You can double check it by making the layers visible and invisible clicking on the small eye icon next to them, on the layer menu. Another option is change the blend mode. Use the small drop down menu on top of the layer menu with a layer selected to select different blend modes. The overlay one, for instance, shows that my two pictures are aligned, and since they have different zoom levels one is now bigger than the other one.
Now we have to focus on what we want to remove. I like my picture, but I don’t like two people on it. One of the is the one walking on the back, with his head cut by the purple umbrella. The other one is the while man walking, which is present in both photos. I do like the rest of them, but the motorbike would be nicer in the middle of the picture, and not in the back. With than in mind I can proceed to the next step: masking out elements from the picture.
First switch back the blend mode to normal to all layers. Now we have to use a mask. A mask is a very useful tool that allows us to make visible just specific parts of a picture, and blend it with the other one. The way it works in Photoshop is creating a canvas with the same size as the picture, where we can paint white or black. Black means that are will be left out, and only white areas will be present in the final image. By painting that canvas with a brush and softening the change between white and black we can blend this changes pretty well. To do that first we have to select the layer we want to mask and click on the add layer mask icon in the bottom of the layers menu, the one that looks like a rectangle with a circle inside. That should create a white mask that we can see next to the layer. As I explained, white means everything from that layer will be on the final picture. We will have to mask out (paint in black) the elements we want to remove.
To mask out people out of the picture we need to select the brush tool. The brush is on the left side of the screen, and it looks like a brush. Make sure we have the color black selected, a 100% opacity and the type of brush and size are good for what we want to remove. The default brush should be enough, we might need to change the size, but that’s probably it.
Now we have to start removing elements. To do that we just have to select in the layer menu the mask we want to change and start painting on the screen. In my case I want to remove the white man and the man on the back, so I start painting there with black, which should take them out of the picture. Since I also want the motorbike on the middle of the frame I also paint over it, an I paint where the bike from the original picture is, to make it visible. While doing it I painted too much and had some ghosting, meaning that removing one of the bikes I revealed part of the body of the white man from the original photo. To fix that just change the brush color to white and paint over it. Make sure you don’t leave any ghosts in your picture! Again, be careful with the shadows. I also forgot to make visible part of the shadow of the bike!
As you paint you should also see how your mask changes on the layer menu. If you want to see it full screen just use Alt+click. This way you can see what are you exactly masking out, and make sure you don’t hide something you want in the picture. You can also use Shift+click to disable the mask, and see how it looked originally. Use this to compare both pictures and see if you masked out elements you didn’t want to.
Finally, I have a picture exactly how I want it, with some people out of it and the bike in the middle of the frame.
This method is really useful to control the elements you want in your photos, and get rid of the annoying people of a famous tourist attraction. Of course is not only limited to people, you can use it to remove anything that moves or changed between two of your photos. If you really want to get creative this method can be used to combine pictures from different times of the day or even seasons, to create an artistic photo. For instance, when I traveled to Cambodia I took two pictures of the sunrise of Angkor Wat in two different days. I combined them to create a nice effect, where the sky is one color and the reflection in the pond a different one.
And that’s it! Make me now if this quick guide was useful, and show me the cool pictures you get with it!