How to use the Retouch tool in Photos for Mac

OS X's Photos app has a more powerful Retouch tool than the one in iPhoto.

photos icon

There’s nothing wrong with a little vanity. After all, sometimes a perfectly good portrait is marred by small yet annoying stuff like a zit, makeup smudge, or a stray hairs. Or maybe you captured an object in the frame you wish you hadn’t, or you scanned the image and introduced dust specks, or perhaps your camera’s sensor is a little dirty. Happily, the Retouch tool in Photos for OS X can come to your rescue (it’s not available in Photos for iOS). As you’re about to learn, Photos’ Retouch tool is more powerful than the one in iPhoto.

How to use the Retouch tool

The Retouch tool works by copying pixels from one area of your photo to another and then blending them (blurring, really) into the pixels you click or drag atop. To use it, select an image in Photos and then press Return to enter Edit mode, or press the Edit button in the upper-right of the toolbar. Use the Zoom slider at the upper-left to zoom into the image and, if necessary, drag while holding down the spacebar to reposition the image so you can see the thing you’re about to remove.

Activate the Retouch tool by clicking it or by pressing the R key on your keyboard. When you do, your cursor turns into a black circular outline rimmed with white, so you can always see the circle atop dark or light colors in your image. Adjust the brush cursor size so it’s slightly larger than the item you want to remove. Use the Size slider at right or your keyboard: tap [ (the left bracket key) to make the cursor smaller, or tap ] (the right bracket key) to make it bigger. Next, choose from one of the following two methods to send the offending item packin’.

Copy pixels from just outside the cursor’s edge

If you’ve got plenty of good, clean pixels around the thing you want to get rid of—say, flawless skin around a blemish or a cloudless sky around a sensor spot—then single click it. You briefly see a white overlay marking the area you clicked, and when you release your mouse button, Photos blends the copied pixels into the surrounding ones. If the item fits easily inside your cursor, a single click is all it takes to zap it.

retouch 1

To keep from picking up adjacent colors—like the lips or shadow beneath her nose, make your cursor only slightly larger than the item you want to remove.

If the item has plenty of free pixels around it, but it doesn’t fit within a round brush cursor—think stray hairs, power lines, a scar, and so on—click and drag with the tool instead. When you do, Photos shows your brushstroke as a white overlay. Release your mouse button, and Photos copies nearby pixels and blends them into the area you dragged over.

retouch 2

By dragging with a really small brush, you can give your subject an eyebrow trim, as illustrated in this before (top) and after (bottom) image. (Click this image to enlarge.)

Keep your eyes peeled for any smudging that occurs from the pixel blending Photos performs. If necessary, press Command-Z to undo the last brushstroke you made and have another go at it, perhaps with a smaller brush or by repositioning the item within the brush cursor or by clicking instead of dragging (or vice-versa). To undo all the changes you’ve made with the Retouch tool in the current editing session, click the Reset button at the lower-right.

retouch 3

Here’s the before (left) and after (right) version after zapping blemishes and trimming both eyebrows. (Click to enlarge.)

Copy pixels from elsewhere in the photo

If you don’t have good pixels (or enough of them) around the item you want to remove, you can copy pixels from elsewhere in the image by setting a sample point (iPhoto can’t do this). This maneuver is handy for removing stuff that’s close to items you want to keep. To do it, Option-click the area you want to copy the pixels from—your cursor turns into a plus sign like the one circled below. Next, release the Option key, and then click or drag over the area that needs fixing.

As you work, the plus sign marks the area Photos is copying pixels from, and you see a white overlay marking your brushstrokes. Depending on the size of the area you’re fixing, you may need to set several sample points to make color and texture match better. In this example, I set a sample point above the dog bowl and made two rows of brush strokes before releasing the mouse button. Then I set another sample point was set beneath the bowl, and made two more rows of brush strokes. Finally, I set a third sample point in the light-colored area at the upper-left and made a few brushstrokes across the area where the bowl used to be to lighten it.

retouch 4

Here’s the first sample point used to remove this bowl (circled; top). While the blurry background made this retouch easier than if it had details, the final result is still impressive (bottom).

Be aware that after setting a sample point, Photos will use that point for subsequent fixes you make with the Retouch tool in that editing session. To return to using pixels outside your brush cursor, toggle the Retouch tool off and on by tapping the R key on your keyboard twice (once to turn it off and again to turn it back on). Alternatively, click the tool’s icon once to deactivate it and then click the icon again to reactivate.

No matter which of the above methods you use, it’s important not to go overboard with the Retouch tool—if you use it extensively in an area with detail, the area blurs as if someone smeared Vaseline on it (heck, the same is true when using the Spot or Healing Brush in Photoshop and Photoshop Elements). Nevertheless, Photos’ Retouch tool is remarkably powerful, especially when removing small stuff. Until next time, may the creative force be with you all!

Photo credits: Image of girl is Fololia/Mat Hayward, and image of dog is Fotolia/mexitographer.

To comment on this article and other Macworld content, visit our Facebook page or our Twitter feed.
Shop Tech Products at Amazon
Notice to our Readers
We're now using social media to take your comments and feedback. Learn more about this here.