There are few things more annoying than tourists ruining an otherwise great photo. You can painstakingly edit them out by hand but, with a bit of forethought, you can get Photoshop to do it automatically.
Here’s a before shot…
…and an after shot…
…of what we’ll be showing you how to do today.
How This Works
The secret to this trick is that you’re not just using one photo. The after shot above is a combination of 15 photos taken 30 seconds apart. I’ve used a Photoshop feature to find the median value for each pixel. If you’ve forgotten your high school math, the median value separates the higher and lower values. For example, if your set is 1, 2, 3, 7, and 9, the median is 3—it’s not the average but the midpoint of your number distribution.
Where our photos are concerned, this means that as long as each pixel is free of a person more than half the time, Photoshop uses the background value. For example, let’s say the pixel values in each of our photos are 133, 133, 133, 133, and 92, where 133 represents the background, and 92 is where a person has walked across the spot. The median value is 133, so that’s the value used in the composite image.
This might sound a bit complicated, but you don’t have to understand the math to put it to practice. All you need to remember is that this works best when the crowd is spread out and fast moving. You need the background to be visible just over half the time in each spot of the scene. If you have someone sitting in the same place on a bench in all your photos, Photoshop won’t be able to remove them.
In the GIF below, you can see it in action. Although there are people in each of the three photos, since they’re always in a different spot, the median value is the background.
Shooting the Pictures
How big the crowd is and how fast they’re moving determines how well this technique works, how many pictures you need, and how often you need to take those pictures. If there’s a very thin crowd of people walking quickly, shooting five photos three or four seconds apart will probably work. You could even do it handheld.
For thicker crowds, or when the people are moving slowly relative to your camera, you’ll need to take more photos, spaced further apart. I’ve found that around 20 photos taken 30 seconds apart works for most situations. If it doesn’t, the crowd is probably too thick or too slow moving for you ever to get good results with this technique.
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Once you’re ready, start shooting. It’s simplest to use a remote shutter release, but you can press the shutter button yourself.
When you’re finished, import all the images into a single folder on your computer.
Removing the People
Now that you’ve got the photos ready to go, it’s time to remove the people. Open Photoshop and go to File > Scripts > Statistics.
In the Image Statistics window, select “Median” from the Stack Mode drop-down menu.
Under the “Source Files” section, click the “Browse” button and select all your photos.
Make sure the “Attempt to Automatically Align Source Images” option is checked and then click the “OK” button.
Photoshop will run for a few minutes, and when it’s done, you should have a single composite image free of people.
Cleaning Everything Up
Although at first glance, the above image looks pretty good, there are one or two small things that are probably worth fixing. If we zoom in really close, you can see a couple of weird color blemishes from a slow-moving stand-up paddleboarder.
The good news is that these small issues are a lot simpler to fix than removing a whole crowd manually. Just grab your favorite healing tool and get to work. We’ve got detailed guides to both the clone stamp tool and the healing brush tool you can follow. It took me about 30 seconds to clean up this issue.
The only other weird thing is that the clouds look a little funny around the edges.
This is another thing that’s simple to fix, either with the healing tools or by masking in the sky from one of the original images. If you want, you can take the time to make a precise selection, but there’s no need. It took me about ten seconds to paint in the mask I used.
And there you have it, the final result. With almost no effort, I’ve managed to remove the 100 or so people who were walking by as I took the photo. I’d never have been able to get as good a shot as this by waiting for a gap in the crowd or editing people out individually.
The next time you’re shooting a busy landmark or any other scene where there are people walking through your shot, consider going with this method. It will really make your holiday photos stand out.