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Healing Brush Settings

The Healing Brush tool has a variety of settings to help you become more successful in dealing with specific issues.

Basic Options

When the Healing Brush is selected, the Options bar at the top of the screen allows you to alter the way the tool works (see Figure 5). These options both alter the way you use the tool, and help you to address specific needs more effectively.

Figure 05Figure 5 Options bar with callouts.

The following table describes the options.



Tool Presets Picker

This little gem is another great reason to upgrade Photoshop. Once you've set any tool the way you like it, you can save the settings as a named tool preset, and then reuse those settings with a click of the mouse. (It really beats trying to remember a group of options that you liked.) To use a tool preset, simply set the options on the Options bar the way you like, open the Tool Presets panel, and click the New Tool Preset button. Provide a name, and you've created a preset that you can use anytime you work in Photoshop. Neat.


When you paint with any tool in Photoshop, you need to choose a brush. Click the brush option to select a brush size, shape, and hardness for the tool. (In a bit, I'll cover the settings you should use for specific problems.)


The mode determines how the pixels you paint with interact with the pixels you paint over. Any time you mix pixels, you can set the mode. We'll revisit the mode settings later, as a way to deal with some specific problems.


Although you'll most often paint with pixels you've sampled, you can also paint with a pattern you've created. This can be useful in cases where you don't have an area to sample in the existing image; sometimes you can create a pattern that matches the area you need to repair. Then select the pattern from the pop-up menu of saved patterns.


This is an on/off switch to determine the starting position of the sample point. With this option selected, the sample point stays the same relative distance from the area you're painting—no matter where you paint. With Aligned turned off, the sample always starts at the place where you pressed Option or Alt and clicked. We'll come back to this later as a strategy for dealing with specific problems.

Remember, as you set up the tool to help you deal with specific problems, save it with the Tool Presets Picker and name it. If you do any amount of retouching work at all, you'll end up with a few of these presets.

Now that you have a sense of what the options are, let's consider which ones to choose (and why).

Choosing a Brush

Choosing a brush for healing starts with the size of the brush. Generally, you should choose a brush that's about twice the size of the blemish at its widest point. Most scratches are pretty thin; if you make the brush too wide, you'll have a hard time keeping the sample area from drifting onto pixels that don't match the area you're trying to fix. (This will be an easy problem to spot, as shown in Figure 6.)

Figure 6Figure 6 Bad example. Notice that I sampled outside the feathers, and created an obvious problem with the repair.

Another brush setting to consider is the hardness of the brush (see Figure 7). When painting with any tool, you'll normally use a soft-edged brush to create a smooth transition at the edges of the painted area. The Healing Brush generally works the same way; a softer edge can hide the effect of the brush.

Figure 7Figure 7 Setting brush hardness.

To set the hardness of a brush, follow these steps:

  1. On the Options bar, click the Brush button.

  2. Drag the hardness slider to the left, setting it to something less than 100%.

The amount of hardness depends on the level of detail in the image.

Using Replace Mode

Sometimes the smoothing effect of the Healing Brush creates an unnaturally smooth line around the painted swath. To avoid this problem, use the Replace mode from the Options bar. This turns off the smoothing effect normally employed by the Healing Brush tool. This is especially useful for areas with a lot of fine, random detail such as a sandy beach or a photograph with visible film grain.

Using Other Modes

For more subtle corrections, such as age lines or watermarks, try the other modes. These modes use various mathematical formulas to combine the pixels you're painting with the pixels you're covering. The effect will be a more blended correction that will keep the detail from the original. However, my testing of the other modes has produced little in the way of effective flaw correction; you probably can stick with Normal and Replace modes for most of your work.


So why are the other modes there, if they're not very useful? Adobe likes to promote creativity, and by providing functions in tools that may not seem immediately appropriate, they help people to come up with all manner of techniques that no one envisioned when creating a given tool.

Using a Non-Aligned Sample Area

In some cases, you may only have a small area to use for the sample. This will require you to click and drag in several small corrections instead of one long painting motion. By deselecting the Aligned option, you can paint with the same small sample area, because each time you click the mouse to paint, the starting point of the sample will return to the place where you initially clicked with Option or Alt. Just keep an eye out for any repetitive patterns created by overuse of this technique.

Using Another Photo or Image

Sometimes you just can't find a good sample source in an image. All is not lost. In these cases, you can open a second image and sample it. Here's how:

  1. Open the two images in Photoshop.

  2. Select the Healing Brush tool.

  3. Click the image you want to sample to bring it forward, hold down Option (Mac) or Alt (Windows), and click to sample an area.

  4. Click the image needing repair to bring it to the front.

  5. Click and drag to paint as you normally would.

There are a couple of things to note. First, both documents must be set to the same color mode. If not, Photoshop will complain and refuse to allow you to paint. Also, it's a very good idea to set the windows apart so that you can see both documents as you paint. If you don't, you might drift into sample areas that don't match the area of the flaw.

Using a Pattern

Some images have a large area of essentially random-looking detail. A sandstone wall, for example, has a sea of little specks. If you need to touch up a lot of specks or scratches in such an image, you can save some time by using a pattern.

  1. Use the Rectangular Marquee tool (hint: press m) and select an area of detail with no flaws in it.

  2. Constrain the rectangle to a square by holding the Shift key while you drag with the Marquee tool.

  3. Choose Edit, Define Pattern to create a pattern from the selection. Give it a descriptive name.

  4. Select the Healing Brush tool and set the source to Pattern on the Options bar.

  5. Choose the new pattern from the Pattern pull-down menu.

  6. Paint over the flaws. Figure 8 shows an example.

Figure 8Figure 8 Before and after with swatch used.

One thing to watch for is the tiling effect you can see if you paint over large areas with a pattern. To avoid this error, turned off the Aligned option and paint with small clicks to "dab" paint instead of producing large swaths (see Figure 9).

Figure 9Figure 9 Aligned on and off.

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