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Photoshop CS5 Content-Aware Fill is Magic

If you've ever watched a magician performing a trick, you know it's not really magic, but it sure can look that way. The same is true of the new Content-Aware Fill feature in Photoshop CS5. I mentioned this feature back in May when did my first hands on write-up on the new features of Adobe's latest creation but I've gotten several questions about it since then and wanted to take this opportunity to cover it more fully.

At the time I first mentioned Content-Aware Fill back in May I mentioned how fun it was but also alluded to having somewhat mixed feelings about its awesome capabilities. It makes it almost too easy clone out unwanted elements in an image. But it can be used for good as well as evil.

The most obvious use of Content-Aware Fill is to get rid of dust spots, lens flare or other unwanted distractions from an image. This is basically the sort of thing previously done with the clone stamp, patch tool or spot healing brush. Content-Aware Fill can do a much better job than either of these in most cases, and it can do so more easily.

Content-Aware Fill dialog in Photoshop CS5To use Content-Aware Fill, you first need to select the area you want to work on. Use the Lasso or whatever your favorite selection tool is to draw around the object you want to make go away. Make sure it's completely within the selection boundary. You can be afford to be a bit sloppy if you want in terms of including background and other objects beyond the area to be patched, but make sure you don't leave out part of what you want Photoshop to work on. When you have a selection you think will do the job, it's time to fill it. Go to Edit >> Fill. In the resulting dialog, select Content-Aware from the Content dropdown box and click "OK." Photoshop will think about things for a bit and then redraw your image with the selected area replaced and amazingly well blended into the rest of the image. That's it. Conent-Aware Fill is so good it can remove huge chunks of an image if you so desire, resulting in what could pass for a normal image unless you examine it quite closely.

If you only have a small area to patch such as a dust spot, you should also be aware that Adobe has also added this new "content aware" capability to the Spot Healing Brush. In fact, as of Photoshop CS5, the default mode of the Spot Healing Brush is indeed Content-Aware. Just pick a brush size and click on the spot in question. Presto, the spot is gone.

Now for a couple of not so obvious uses of Content-Aware Fill.

If you're into panoramic photography but never cared much for tripods, you probably find yourself with uneven final edges when stitching together series of shots to form your panorama. Perhaps you held the camera crooked, or slightly higher for some shots than for others. When you paste them all together you end up with a composite image that has correspondingly uneven edges. Even if this doesn't describe you, you may know someone who shoots this way. Or at least I do. With older versions of Photoshop, you were generally forced to crop to the lowest common denominator, creating a rectangular frame that fit without the bounds of all your images and resulting in some cases in having to cut off significant portions in some areas. Content-Aware Fill can work wonders to fill in those missing areas rather than having to cut them off.

Or perhaps you've got an image that suffers from significant barrel distortion or other optical lens problems. Photoshop and countless third party filters can let you correct such problems but can leave you with an image that is no longer rectangular. As with the plight of the haphazard panoramic shooter above, you would previously have had to crop the image, cutting off the edges to get back to a normally shaped image. Photoshop CS5 Content-Aware Fill can give you an alternative by fill in the missing areas around the edges rather than cutting off the parts that are not missing.

When using Content-Aware Fill, you may not always end up with exactly what you were hoping for, but fear not. You can always use the history panel of Control-Z Undo to go back and try again. Even slight changes in the selection used can end up with different results. Or, if you like most but not all of what you end up with, you can select that smaller area and apply Content-Aware Fill a second time. There does seem to be some tendency to end up with a jumbled hodgepodge if you do this over and over though. At some point, Photoshop will simply be filling in made-up content from previous applications of Content-Aware Fill. It seems to be far better in this regard than the patch tool is though, so don't automatically assume you need to undo everything and start over. Two or even three applications seem able to give good results in many cases.

I still do have mixed feelings about Content-Aware Fill. As digital photography tools get increasingly powerful it gets easier and easier to fake an image rather than actual shoot it. It's not like talented darkroom technicians weren't trying to do some of these same sorts of manipulations long before Ansel Adams, but now tools like Content-Aware Fill are making this downright easy for all of us.

To quote Stan Lee of Spider-Man fame, with great power comes great responsibility....

Some extreme examples of Content-Aware Fill. Hover your mose over each to see before and after versions. Each of these was done with a just a quick selection and Content-Aware Fill.

Date posted: July 18, 2010


Copyright © 2010 Bob Johnson, Earthbound Light - all rights reserved.
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Getting Rid of Dust Spots
Camera Raw Dust Spot Removal
Photoshop CS5 Hand On Preview for Photographers
The 2010 Earthbound Light Top Ten List

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