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As an architectural photographer and frequent traveler, I often come across scenes where I’d like the architecture or view to be the main focus of the image, free of people or cars in the shot. In busy tourist destinations or anywhere particularly interesting, this can be very difficult. There are some locations that are simply so popular that there is almost never a time where the scene has no people or distractions in it. Thankfully there is a relatively simple technique that will allow you to capture these scenes people-free. It only requires a tripod and your image editing software.
I’ll describe the basic shooting technique and principles of how to edit here, rather than getting into the technical details of any one specific image editing package, so that everyone can apply this to whichever software you use.
The basic method of shooting scenes with no people in the shot is based on the fact that people generally move throughout the scene over time. Because of this, you can capture a few photos of the scene as the people move about, and then easily combine them in software to remove the people. All you have to do is capture a few photos so that the view of any given part of the scene is unobstructed in at least one photo. Here is an illustration:
The photo below is from the viewing area on top of a skyscraper in New York City. I wanted to get a clean shot of the NYC skyline without any people in the foreground, but it is difficult as the area is often busy with groups enjoying the view. In this photo there is a person in the shot on the left of the frame, blocking the view:
A minute later the person was joined by his partner, but now they’re standing further to the right, so I took another shot. See below:
What if I could combine the two shots to take the clean right side of photo #1 and combine it with the clean left side of photo #2? That’s all you have to do to get a clean shot.
There are quite a few ways to do this. I’ll overview a few below and you can choose which works best for you with the editing software you use.
I use Corel Paint Shop Pro, so I just “copied and pasted” photo #1 on top of photo #2 which layered them on top of each other. Using the eraser brush, I simply erased over photo #1 where the person was standing, which revealed the clean “people-free” area in the layer below it. Here you can see how it looks after the first swipe with the eraser brush:
The final resulting photo is this:
If your editing software supports layers, you can use a mask layer. Just layer one photo on top of another and create a mask layer. Paint with a black brush over the people to reveal the clean layer below.
Another method that works, although a bit less precisely, is to use the clone brush. Clone the clean area of one photo onto the same area in the other photo where the people are located.
Photoshop Elements even includes a function called “Photomerge Scene Cleaner” to assist with the process.
During shooting, you may need to shoot more than just two photos to get clean areas, but the process is still the same. Repeat the editing process until you’ve cleaned all the areas of distractions.
Here is another example. The photo below is of Literary Walk in Central Park, NYC. I wanted to get a clean shot of the walkway without any people in the foreground, but it is difficult as the path is often busy with groups enjoying the park. In this photo there are a couple of people walking through the shot on the left.
A minute later the people on the left had moved on, so I took another shot. The area was still busy and someone walked through the shot, but this time on the right side of the frame. See below:
Here’s the shot after the first swipe with the eraser brush:
The final resulting photo is this:
Once you’ve mastered the technique, you’ll be able to quickly create distraction-free photos that really show off the beauty of the locations you’re photographing. Both the examples above took me less than a minute!
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January 4, 2013 04:15 am
Another creative technique, admittedly more labor intensive, was used by architectural photographers in the era of film. They would set up their cameras on tripods for very long exposures (several minutes). Because the people in the shot are moving, the long exposure made them disappear.
May 13, 2011 12:34 pm
Paul, this is really useful, neat and easy. I've never thought of this before. I've read some article suggesting ND filters and left me reluctant to try. Your way of doing is just great and easy. Thanks!
December 9, 2010 12:34 am
@Gary: what you did with layers could be done automatically by using exposure blending (check enfuse/tufuse/Photomatix) or HDR (check Photomatix).
October 7, 2010 02:35 am
Thanks all. Hi Gary, yes, that's a perfect example of another way to use this technique, and one of the most popular uses in architectural photography. Balancing the contrast in architectural photography can be very difficult, and using layers is a great way to address the issue. I use it all the time, for exterior shots as well. Often the exposure needed to properly expose an exterior winds up blowing out the sky. I take two shots, one exposed for the sky and one exposed for the exterior, and blend the same way using layers. You can use it for interior lamps or light fixtures that are too bright as well. Thanks for writing.
Joe, regarding your question about Corel Paint Shop pro tutorials, perhaps you'll find something useful here:
October 7, 2010 02:30 am
Wow! This is an amazing tip. I don't know how I let this slip by me.
Thanks for sharing!
October 5, 2010 01:17 pm
Great tip. I've been doing some photography of condo interiors for a friend. I've struggled with backlite rooms; especially with large windows or glass doors. If you expose so that you have detail through the window the room is black. If you expose for the room the window looks like a super nova exploded.
I decided to try to taking two shots from a tripod one exposed for the window and the other for the room. My plan was to cut and paste the window scene onto the overexposed window. Not good.
After reading this, I set the two pictures up as layers, erased the overexposed window to reveal the outside scene underneath and now I have a well exposed room and a window scene. Very cool. Thanks.
October 5, 2010 01:01 pm
I always look forward to receiving emails from DPS on a Friday - this tip is a great example of sharing knowledge for others to explore and expand on. Thank you, I just wish I had more time to read every tip/article provided.
September 30, 2010 05:43 pm
such a good idea!!
September 27, 2010 08:48 am
Excellent job!, but I was wondering where can I find a Corel paint shop pro or Photoshop good tutorial?, I need to do an album with some vacation pictures, but I don't decide yet how to do it::: eather manually (printing pictures and cutting borders) or using some of those softwares...
September 26, 2010 11:53 pm
References to ND (Neutral Density) filters have been made several times in this discussion. However, these filters have very limited use and especially in countries where the weather is most of the time overcast and dull, they may not be of much use. Moreover, they come in various grades. So which one would you dump in your kit bag? And do you stand to lose that once in a life time photographic opportunity if you do not have a ND filter with you? Definitely not. Most of us are not aware that polarizing filters (which most of us do carry) can also come in handy as ND filters. Only trick is, do not use them at full strength if you wish to use them as just ND filters. Happy shooting.
September 26, 2010 11:12 pm
Hi Cristina, yes it is possible to do this in a fairly large crowd, though you'll likely need several photos and you'll need to ensure that the every part of the background is unobstructed in at least one photo. I've done it in pretty busy areas of NYC. As for using a dark ND filter, yes it does work to some degree, but you may occasionally get "ghosting" where you see a faint outline of the person as they move through the frame. You also run the risk of a blurry shot as the long shutter speeds required for that technique leave the camera vulnerable to vibrations over a longer period of time. Whenever possible, I'd recommend the technique in the article over using an ND, but the ND can certainly work in some circumstances.
You'll want a pretty dark ND, something more than the usual 3-stop that you see around. I use a filter from Singh-Ray called the Vari-ND Duo which is a combination of a strong ND filter that you can "dial-in" the # of stops it filters, and it's combined with a polarizer. I can block from about 3 all the way to 8 stops. Combined with a normal 3-stop ND filter, you can get 11-stops of ND with it. That's plenty for most circumstances. Used with a small aperture like F22, you can get very long shutter speeds. The shutter speed you need will vary depending on the lighting you're in. For the photo below, I was able to get an exposure of about 2 minutes during the day to completely remove all of the boats from the East River in this photo of the Brooklyn Bridge:
September 26, 2010 03:24 am
Great tutorial! Very useful indeed. I will try doing this on Photoshop cs5 on a few photographs of mine. Hopefully it will work and remove those 'annoying people'.
September 25, 2010 06:07 am
Hello and thank you for this useful technique! Do you think it is possible to use this technique even with crowd? Have you tried it? I have also another question. Once I have heard it is possible to take photos of a place full of people and keeping them out of the pic by using ND filters (very dark ones) on your camera standing on a tripod. Do you know if it is possible ? And what would the be the typical values of darkness of the ND filter, diaphragm and shutter speed?
September 25, 2010 04:13 am
Thanks for this...
Ive done it similarly but, I like your technique a little better...
ive cloned areas and done that way... i think your technique might be even easier though
September 25, 2010 12:17 am
Thanks very much everyone for all the kind feedback on the article. I'm glad you found the tip useful. It's something I use every day for my job, but is also really useful for travel photography or really any kind of photography where you'd like to remove moving objects. I thought I'd provide some additional tips based on some of your comments above:
* While the article focused on removing people, I also use it for cars and trucks just as frequently. I often photograph architecture from across the street or down the road with a telephoto lens. Cars and other traffic can sometimes detract from the shot. Using this technique, I can just take a few photos where the cars are mostly on the left side of the frame, and then another with them on the right, so the final photo will have a nice clean roadway.
* Thanks for the additional tips on post-processing techniques to accomplish this task. I agree, there are a wide variety of ways to layer and remove the moving objects. As long as you take the "raw material" shots while you're in the field, you can process the photos with your favorite methods.
* Regarding tripods, if there is any concern about blocking pedestrian traffic, one tip I suggest is to pull out the tripod only at the very last minute. When I shoot architecture, 99% of the set-up can be done without the tripod. I usually leave the tripod in its carry-bag, and with the camera hanging from my neck I find the appropriate angle to shoot from, I set the exposure (manually), the focus (manually), and any other camera settings like auto-bracketing. I get the shutter-release ready and I put on any filters like polarizers or ND filters as necessary. Then, only when I'm ready to take the final photo, do I take the tripod out of the bag, line up the shot, and take the photo. I'm usually done and packing up the tripod before anyone even takes notice. I also stand over the tripod straddling one of the legs so it doesn't block anyone's path.
* I completely agree that in certain photos people add to the shot. For shots like Grand Central Station in NYC, Wall Street, busy outdoor plazas in European cities, etc, they can add a dimension of motion. I usually use a shutter speed of around 1/4 second for moving people, which gives just the right amount of blur. The technique in this article is for those times when the people or cars detract from the shot rather than add to it, and in places where there is almost never a time where there are no people in the shot.
* Using a strong ND filter can be a good way to accomplish a similar result as in this article, especially with wider focal lengths. With longer focal lengths, it's important to check the shot for blur afterwards, as the long shutter speeds could result in serious blur due to wind or other vibrations.
Thanks again for the kind feedback and for the additional tips.
September 24, 2010 07:10 pm
For this kind of shot, tripod is a must and you need to have the series of shots in your head so you exactly know how to process/clean them out.
Mirko: That's a good technique as well! Thanks for sharing!
September 24, 2010 05:33 pm
Interesting! I'll try this next time. Haha. People getting in the scene is really a problem. The least you can do is to ask the people to move a while. Clone is difficult. Precision on where to start the cloned image is difficult. Nicey nicey
September 24, 2010 04:28 pm
Those are some cool tips.....I have been to some crowded places and found it very difficult to shoot avoiding people.....while post processing is really an option, I prefer some other means to maintain originality....choosing a better time may help you avoid the crowd...or sometimes, you may not want to avoid the crowd at all since the crowd may add to your photographic value....the tourist place will become vibrant with crowds in some cases....you just need to take care of the better composition.. :)
September 24, 2010 12:07 pm
I've always just used the clone tool in lightroom (or aperture) to rush through my workflow but it's not always the best nor most precise way to do things. I've always had a full version of Photoshop on my computer but almost never use it. I've frequently got hundreds or thousands of images to work with at a time and the prospect of spending more than a minute on each just doesn't appeal to me. Sure I could flag the best 5% and focus on bringing out the best in those but it's still all about time I'd rather be doing something else.
September 24, 2010 10:59 am
There are better ways to accomplish this ... at least in PS.
- take at least 3 pictures (depending on the amount of people you may need more)
- load the files into a stack (File>Scripting>Load files into stack)
- check "autoalign" if you didn`t use a tripod
- mark all layers and convert them into one single smart object
- layers>smart object>stack mode>median
- magic ;)
this technique also removes noise ...
Maybe someone can put this together into an article, I don't have the time ...
September 24, 2010 08:24 am
omg, this is easy. how come it never crossed my mind. thanks Paul. you're awesome.
September 24, 2010 07:54 am
Great tip. I was thinking about this subject while attempting to take a shot of an area at Monterey's Fisherman's Wharf, but finally gave up after 10 minutes of non-stop foot traffic.
September 24, 2010 06:19 am
Amazing tip! Thanks.
September 24, 2010 06:11 am
Great ideas, I use some of that with HDR but you've laid it in simple practical terms.
One thing I did to minimize tourists on one of my photos was to desaturate them completely. So while they are still there, at least the yellow backpacks and pink t-shirts aren't taking away all the attention from the photo. See my photo here.
September 24, 2010 04:40 am
Absolutely great.... This will save about ten wedding photo's I did. Now am just playing with this and it's a great idea, quick and easy for PE 8. While PE8 will do the same thing this is quicker.
September 24, 2010 04:24 am
Great tip!! I would assume that, with some care and a bit of extra editing, you could use this same technique shooting handheld. Totally going to try this!
September 24, 2010 03:23 am
i was in the czech republic once, and i have a picture (film) of the charles bridge there with no one on it (which is insane). i did it by getting up early and taking a picture at like 5:30am. sun was up already.
not really a trick, but it's one way. i showed that picture to some czech friends i met a few years later, and they could not recognize the bridge for a few minutes, they were shocked.
September 24, 2010 03:18 am
I have waited many minutes for scenes to clear before I took a shot. Thanks, as this tip will save me many future moments, or at least fill up the time spent waiting with actual shooting. On the other hand, I have found that the inclusion of "ghost" people in a frame or two has actually created a more interesting shot.
September 24, 2010 03:01 am
In case you use the Adobe PhotoShop it does all that for you automatically since CS3 I guess. You need no manual erasing.
September 24, 2010 02:04 am
Unfortunately, the same places where it's impossible to get an unobstructed shot often don't allow tripods because of the crowds.
September 24, 2010 01:37 am
Amazingly fantastic technique. The beauty is, it is so simple no one will believe that it will work till you actually try it out. Keep such fabulos tips coming.
September 24, 2010 01:32 am
So simple and yet, I have never thought of it. Thanks for the tip!
September 24, 2010 01:22 am
Simple and effective method. Just carrying a tripod everywhere might be a little uncomfortable sometimes.
September 24, 2010 01:20 am
Great tip! I'll try this out on my upcoming travels. Thanks! :D
September 23, 2010 11:33 pm
I use Anthony's 'second' method - a B+W 10-stop ND filter - and it works quite well for architecture. Not so well for landscapes where a breeze is moving foliage - but that would present a problem for the method in the article as well.
September 23, 2010 11:13 pm
Tripod or fast enough shooting.
Will try it, thx! ;)
September 23, 2010 11:03 pm
Can't believe I haven't thought it yet! Nice tip, also if you have to use a tripod to do it.
September 23, 2010 10:47 pm
Nice tutorial. This method works well, but I'm surprised a second popular one wasn't mentioned; a solid tripod, very long exposure (10-15+ s) and a good strong 10-stop ND filter. With that you may only need shot if you are lucky.
September 23, 2010 10:34 pm
Nice tip, and one I intend using. I assume you'd need to lock the camera into full manual, to make sure the focus and exposure settings don't change though.
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