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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!