Attempting to get a decent image with streams of human traffic between you and your subject can be challenging.
Sometimes it becomes annoying, especially in tourist hotspots.
How many times have you tried taking an image in a busy area, waiting for a window period for the path to be cleared?
You don’t always get a chance.
The temptation of asking the crowd to stop through a loudspeaker builds up.
Remove People From You Image
It seems like a lot of effort to get rid of all the human beings in your image.
But why should you even remove people from your image?
The truth is:
You don’t always have to, but..
Getting a cleaner image without the distraction of passerby makes your image stands out more. Not just another picture of that famous landmark.
Remove People From Your Image May Not Always Be Ideal
Some images benefit from having people in it.
It shows scale, and the dynamic interaction between the still and its surrounding.
Street photography is a good example where you should include people in your image.
How To Remove People From Your Image
There’s more than one way to skin a cat!
I used to remove people from my image during post-processing in Photoshop. It was time-consuming and the result didn’t always look natural.
With experience, I realised that there are other ways to remove people, or even the crowd in a cleaner and more efficient way.
In general, you can do this during shooting or post-processing.
Some methods are better than others in certain situations. I’ll go through all and you can pick the one that works best for you.
1. Neutral Density (ND) Filter
It’s essentially a glass (or resin) filter you place in front of your camera lens. It stops down the shutter speed by restricting the light entering the lens.
Just so you don’t get confused:
An ND filter is not the same as a graduated ND filter.
A graduated ND filter is typically rectangular in shape. It’s darker on one end, gradually becomes lighter to the other end.
An ND filter is uniformly dark and it’s usually square in shape. Different grades have a different level of transparency (e.g. ND 10 is darker than ND 4).
Moving Objects Become Blurry And Disappear
It doesn’t remove people per se, but it makes them disappear.
Because an ND filter restricts the amount of light entering the camera, you’ll need a much longer shutter speed to achieve the correct exposure.
When the shutter speed is longer, moving objects (or in this case, people) become blurry or even invisible. This is because moving objects move away before the light reflected off them is enough to form an image.
This is the same method used in long exposure photography to create silky smooth water flow or clouds in the sky.
Getting It Right And Save Time In Post-Processing
I find this method particularly effective when “crowd control” is needed.
Yes, setting up the filter and taking the long exposure does take time. Sometimes you might even take a few shots to make sure you get it right.
But once you got the image you need, you won’t have to spend as much time in post-processing.
Cleaning Up In Photoshop
Occasionally, you see ghosting (trails of shadow) because people remained static during the long exposure.
It’s really a judgment call if you like to remove these to get a completely clean image.
If you do, you can use a combination of the clone stamp tool, the spot healing brush tool, the brush tool or the content aware fill in Photoshop to remove these completely.
The before and after image below shows how the image looks when ghosting is removed.
Choosing An ND Filter
I know what you’re thinking:
Which ND filter should you use to achieve this effect?
It depends on what time of the day and the intensity of the light.
During Bright Day Light
You need a higher ND filter when the light is very bright.
I have used ND 10 in the past but it can only slow the shutter speed down to 3 to 5 seconds (at ISO 100 with the ideal aperture of f/8 – f/11). This is often not long enough to achieve a good long exposure effect to make the people blurry.
If the weather is gloomy and overcast, you might get a reasonable result with ND 10.
But if the sun is bright, you’ll need an even higher ND filter.
The Firecrest 16 by Formatt Hitech (ND 16) is an ideal ND filter to use in this situation. At the given ISO and aperture above, I can slow the shutter speed down to 3 or 4 minutes.
During Sunrise or Sunset
If you are shooting at dawn or dusk, you can use a lower ND filter (e.g. ND 4). This is because the light is less intense and gentler during the golden hour.
2. Stack Mode In Photoshop
If you don’t have an ND filter or it’s not within your budget, you can simulate the effect in Adobe Photoshop.
But you need to shoot multiple images of the same frame.
After that, there are 2 ways you can process them in Photoshop. Both achieve a similar result.
Bear in mind that I use Photoshop on a Mac, so the menu may look slightly different on a PC.
You can read the official document from Adobe if you like to know the technicality of how this works.
Shooting Multiple Frames
To make sure all the frames are consistent in your composition, you’ll have to use a tripod, a bean bag or something to keep your camera still.
The trick here is to shoot multiple images with a few seconds apart, not in burst mode.
You want people to move away from the same spot before you take another shot.
How many images should you take?
It depends on how busy the crowd is.
General speaking, the more the better but you should take around 10-20 images for the best result.
First Method: File > Scripts > Statistics
Once you’ve loaded the images to your computer, open up Adobe Photoshop.
Go to File > Scripts > Statistics.
Click “Browse” and select all the images of the same frame. Then, select “Median” from the drop down menu on top and click “Ok”.
Photoshop combines the images in stack and produce a composite image that removes unwanted content.
This method is only available in Photoshop CC.
Second Method: Smart Objects
This requires all the images to be stacked in layers in Photoshop first.
Select all the images in the Layers Panel, right-click on your mouse and select “Convert to smart object”. It takes a while for Photoshop to process this depending on how many layers you have.
Then, go to Layers > Smart Objects > Stack Mode > Median.
This method is available in Photoshop CC and most older version.
Comparing The Two
The before-image was created using the first method and the after image was the second method.
As you can see, the difference is minor.
Similar to using an ND filter, you may see ghosting because people may not have moved. You can remove these in Photoshop with the clone stamp tool, the spot healing brush tool, the brush tool, the content aware fill or a combination of it.
This method only works well if there are very few people in your image.
Similar to using the stack mode in Photoshop, you have to take multiple images of the same frame.
But the good news is:
You only need to take a few.
Also, you need a tripod or something to keep your camera still. Make sure people have moved before you take another shot.
To blend the images, you should already know how layer masks work.
Or, if you like to know more about digital blending, check out The Ultimate Guide To Digital Exposure Blending.
Once the images are loaded in Photoshop, stack them together in the Layers Panel.
Create a layer mask on the top layer and fill it with black.
Select the brush tool, change the foreground color to white and paint over the people or objects you want to remove. This reveals the layer on top that is being masked.
The image below shows how the layer mask looks in this example.
Sometimes you get ghosting effect. This is because both layers have people on the same spot.
These can often be easily clean up with the stamp clone tool or the Photoshop tool of your choice.
Merge all visible layers by using the keyboard shortcut (Mac: Cmd + Opt + Shift + E; PC: Ctrl + Alt + Shift + E).
In this case, I used the clone stamp tool to clean up the image.
And here’s the result.
4. Photoshop Tools
This is the method I used when I first started.
It works well if you only intend to remove one or two people, or people appears to be very small in your image. Anything more than that, it starts becoming tedious and time-consuming.
The tool I find to be most useful is the clone stamp tool.
Over the years, I’ve also discovered you can use the brush tool, a selection tool followed by content aware fill and the spot healing brush tool.
Adobe has improved the algorithm for spot healing brush tool in Photoshop CC. It works amazingly good now and I would recommend you to give it a try!
5. Shoot At Off-Peak Times
This is a common sense.
If you want to avoid the crowd, shoot really early or late. This is especially true in popular tourist hotspots.
The additional benefit of shooting early or late is you get the soft light and the beautiful color during the golden hour.
You might still get a few people in your image even at off-peak times. But knowing the other 4 methods above, I’m sure you know what to do! 🙂
Remove people or crowd from your image helps your viewers to focus on what you want them to see.
It also makes your image stands out from the rest for not being “just another picture of the most photographed landmark”.
You can remove people while you’re shooting with an ND filter, or you can shoot multiple frames and stack or blend in Adobe Photoshop.
In my opinion, it’s a personal preference as to which methods you choose to use. Each has its own pros and cons.
If you share the same issue of having a clean image without people, leave a comment on how you remove them or share this tutorial to help other photographers who are struggling with this problem!