3 (and a Half) Uses for Content Aware in Adobe Photoshop

Since Adobe Photoshop CS5, we've had a tool called Content-Aware. It's been described as magical and a life-saver but what exactly is it and how can we best use it? In this tutorial I'll take you through three and a half of the most advantageous uses of this revolutionary tool.
We'll start with the easiest use of Content-Aware. If you ever have dirt on your lens, want to remove small imperfections from portraits or even zap a distracting bird from a sky then this is the tool for you. It will, in most cases, remove unwanted aspects from a photo quickly and smoothly.

dirt spots on photo
Dirt spots circled on photo

You can see several spots of dirt here. Select the Spot Healing Brush Tool:

spot healing brush tool
Select the spot healing brush tool

Make sure Content-Aware is selected and then take a brush slightly larger than your speck of dirt and click over it. The tool will assess the small area around the imperfection to fill over your speck seamlessly. Told you it was easy!
This has a variety of uses in itself but they all have the same premise so when I go through this example with you here, you can apply it to your own particular needs. This is a common one though, wonky horizon lines.

horizon line
A horizon line you could roll a ball down

Sadly, I didn't tilt the horizon here for the purposes of example: I actually took the picture like this. If you're like me and this kind of shot creeps in now and again then this tool will be particularly useful for you. First, use the Ruler tool to draw a horizontal line along something you know should be straight, so in my case, the sea.

ruler tool
Use the Ruler tool to draw a line along something that should be straight

Go to Image > Image Rotation > Arbitrary

image rotation
Image > Rotation > Arbitrary

It will automatically fill in the angle based on the line you drew before. Hit OK.

angle of rotation
It will automatically fill in the angle of rotation based on your line

You'll be left with a straight picture and some excess white bits left over from your rotation. Select those using the Magic Wand tool and with Add to Selection clicked, select the white parts like so: 

select the white parts
Select the white parts using the Magic Wand

You're going to want a slight overlap when this fills so that your edges aren't obvious, so the next step is to go to Select > Modify > Expand

Select > Modify > Expand

It will then ask you to select how many pixels by. This depends on how large your photo is (I went for 20px) so try a number, see how it looks and if the overlap looks too great or too small, just repeat the last step until it looks right.
Now go to Edit > Fill

use content aware fill
Use Content-Aware to fill the white space

Have Content-Aware in 'use' and hit OK.
Content-Aware will do its thing and fill in your gaps with pixels based on the rest of your photo. Now this process is great but like all things, it's not perfect.

anomalies in the photo
You will spot some anomalies in your picture

I deliberately chose a picture that would have some easy to fill bits (the sky – it's relatively plain) and some harder parts (the rocks – where we have more detail). You can see where I've highlighted above, that there are a few anomalies. 
They aren't easily visible at a small resolution but you can see them if you zoom in as I have on the examples. These things are very easily fixed with the Clone Stamp tool and even the Spot-Healing Brush as mentioned above. It's just to make you aware that there may be some tidying up or blending to do once you've used 'fill'.
This is our 'half' in case you were wondering. The Patch Tool (see below)  works on the same premise as the fill technique but with a slightly different method, so I'll go over that briefly.

patch tool
Patch Tool

Select Patch Tool and use it to draw around something you want rid of. Then drag it to a section of pixels that you'd like it to use to base its 'fill' on. So here I have a pesky puffin bottom in my shot

patch tool selection
My selection using the Patch Tool

I selected the tool as described above and drew around the puffin I'd like to remove. Clicking somewhere inside the marching-ant lines, hold your left mouse button and drag the selection to somewhere you'd like it to 'fill' from – so in my case, the plain sky.

after patch tool
The Patch Tool has removed the other puffin and filled in some of the rock and sky to replace it

You can see that it hasn't just replaced it with the grey of the sky, it's also created a reasonable edge of the rock that doesn't look out of place. Again, this tool may require some blending depending how 'busy' the area you're using it is.
This tool lets you select part of your image and move it elsewhere, whilst automatically filling in the background for you so you're not left with a 'hole'.
Use the Lasso to select the person or thing you want to move; be quite rough with this, don't crop in too tightly:

make a selection with lasso
Make a selection with Lasso

Now choose the Content-Aware Move Tool:

content aware move tool
Select the Content-Aware Move Tool

At the top you have Mode which can be set to Move or Extend. Extend will do what it says and extend your subject. This is useful for repeating patterns like grass or a wall for example but not what we want to use here. So make sure Move is selected and choose your adaptation. This is how your selection will adapt to its new background.Very Loose/Loose would distort my subject terribly here but Very Strict will mean the lines on the grass will be pronounced. For that reason I'm going to go for Medium.
Left click and hold on your subject and move them to where you want them to be. Note you can change the adaptation after your move, to see how it differs.
If you find you lose any details then you may have cropped a little tight, just go back to your selection and use shift to drag your line further away from the parts of your subject that you're losing.

anomalies after move
Circled anomalies after the move

I've moved my subject left and you can see where I've circled that there are some anomalies but on the whole, it looks pretty good. I can tidy up those bits using the spot healing tool, clone-stamp tool and even the content-aware fill

before and after the move
Before and after the move with Content-Aware

I've done a very quick tidy-up job here just to show you but the tool is quite remarkable in its blending.
Content-Aware has, in my opinion anyway, changed the way we do a lot of our editing. Where before we might have spent hours labouring with the various cloning and blending tools, now there is almost a 'one-click' fix. It may need a little tidying up afterwards but it's pretty amazing in its analysis of the image and its blending from that interpretation. It may not be magic, but the bods at Adobe clearly have access to a little fairy dust, and you'll find it sprinkled liberally over the Content-Aware features of Photoshop.


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