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The Content-Aware patch, fill and move tools in Photoshop
Elaine Ashburn on Sat, February 11th 0 comments
Photoshop has some tools that are almost indistinguishable from magic. Elaine Ashburn explains how the content-aware tools can hep you make otherwise impossible tasks a reality.

If you’re like me, you probably tried using a content aware feature when it was first offered in Photoshop CS5. And if you were like me, you found it lacking and figured out another way to either patch up or extend your photo. I recently decided to try it again and I have to say that the algorithm that figures this all out has significantly improved and has a lot more options for Structure and Color to choose from.

There are actually 3 tools that utilize the content aware technology: The Content-Aware Patch Tool, the Content-Aware Move Tool and a Content-Aware fill. Today we’ll look at all three of them and discuss the pros and cons of each.

The Content-Aware Fill

Let’s start with the simplest first: The Content-Aware fill. The Content-Aware fill is good for small areas. For instance, in this image there is a fence in front of a work train. I used my lasso tool to highlight a small piece of the fence, then went to Edit > Fill and used the pull-down menu to highlight Content-Aware. (Images 1 & 2) I then said ok and Content-Aware filled the highlighted area with pixels it pulled from the surrounding area - and in this case with graffiti that almost matched the graffiti behind the fence perfectly. (Image 3)


Unfortunately, this does not work very well with large areas. Here I’ve highlighted a larger area of fence and tried to fill that using Content-Aware fill. Although once again it pulled from the pixels around it, you can see that it filled the area with content that made the image look smudgy and not very professional. (Images 4 & 5) But if you have the patience to work in small increments, you can get good results using this fill.

The Content-Aware Patch Tool

Now let’s move on to something that offers a few more levels of finesse to it. The Content-Aware Patch Tool. Here I’ve brought in another image, one that I took of my house while it was undergoing window renovations. To get an idea of what it will look like when complete, I’ve highlighted an area that I’d like to fill with shingle. (Image 6) Under your Spot Healing Brush Tool in your left-hand tool palette is the Patch Tool. (Image 7) Click on it and you’ll see that above the image you are given some choices for both Structure and Color. The Structure pull down has levels from 1-7 (this matches texture and quality) and the Color from 1-10 (to match the surrounding color and tone). This tool works pretty well in the mid-range arena, but I went to the max on both here. (Image 8)

If you click on the area you’ve highlighted with the Patch Tool selected you’ll notice that the area within the selection changes to match the area where you’ve moved your mouse or stylus to. For instance, to fill the Mylar area that’s selected with shingle, I moved below the image to find an area of similar shingle. (Image 9) Because I had the color set to 10, the tool knew to lighten the darker shingle to fill in the area seamlessly. (Image 10)

You are only limited by the amount of image you have to use as fill. For something like the entire side of this house, it would be better to do smaller areas at a time or I would be picking up other windows, shutters and bushes – and that was not my intent.

This tool also works surprisingly well on vegetation. Here is a picture of my neighbor’s cat who was following me around intently one day. I wanted to add more background to this image to demonstrate how well, so I went to Image > Canvas Size and increased my image to 70”. (Image 11) Using the patch tool again, I copied the grass and the cement from the left. And while it looks good, you can vaguely see where it has been patched. (Image 12) I’ve noticed that this happens when I use a high number on Structure. To alleviate this problem, I backed off to 5 on the Structure slider and tried again. This time I got good results. (Image 13) I used the patch tool again to fill in the rest of the grass and concrete. And as you can see the photograph looks pretty natural. (Image 14)

The Content-Aware Move Tool

I’m going to use this image again to demonstrate the Content-Aware Move Tool. This tool is located right under the Patch Tool beneath your Spot Healing Brush Tool. (Image 15) To use it, simply marquee the area that you want to move using your lasso tool (I find that giving it a lot of space around the image works best). If your image has drop shadows you’ll want to include them in your marquee. With your Content-Aware Move Tool highlighted, reposition your image where you want it on the page. Once you are happy, double click on the image to start the calculations. (Image 16).

Give the algorithm a chance to make all the necessary adjustments (it does take about 20 seconds) and then you’ll see that your image has moved and the area where it used to be is now filled in with an almost perfect background. (Image 17) Unfortunately, this doesn’t always work on the first try, you can see that my cat is now missing his back paw and has a white halo around him in the foreground area. Just go back and try again as Photoshop will pick a different area to use as the algorithm each time. Here, I positioned him forward a little bit and used the Patch Tool to fill in areas of his tail that were missing. I also went back and fixed the area of grass next to his face using Content-Aware Fill, but now I think he looks pretty good. (Image 18) 

Although still not perfect, these tools have come a long way and will only get better with each new edition of Photoshop. 

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