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A quick way to smooth out, clean up a studio backdrop in Photoshop

By Tom Tracy

Necessity is the mother of invention, or discovery, as they say.

Last week following a periodic studio portrait session with a ballroom dance company, I was resigned to the fact that the white paper backdrop was simply going to get dirty with six dance instructors stomping around.

Any post-production cleanup of that footprint-sodden backdrop was going to be “as needed” on select images only: slow and tedious, and certainly not on all 300 final images that I had for the dance studio client.

Normally I would use either the Photoshop “Clone Tool” as needed, or better yet, the Gaussian blur tool in order to whack out the entire picture in blur and then paint back the detail with the “History brush” (I really like the speedy History brush for quick & dirty work when you don’t need the fuss of creating adjustment layers).

Then a light bulb went off and I took a closer look at the other Photoshop tools, and I thought that “Surface Blur” sounded promising for my project. In fact, it is brilliant. I get the impression it’s a tool that been around for a while (and maybe even in Elements) but I hadn’t noticed.

Designed specifically to look for hard edges of people or objects, and exclude them from the effect, Surface Blur leaves your presumed subject matter mostly (but not completely) intact while smoothing out the ‘surface.’ It’s also used as a popular skin smoothing tool apparently.

I found some settings that perfectly removed the backdrop filth while causing minimum blur-inducing harm to the dancers — a blur “Radius” of about 60 and “Threshold” of about 10 seemed to do the trick on my portraits.

Still, I had follow that up with a quick swoosh of the History brush over the dancers to restore original sharpness there, especially on faces and hands.

To make the whole thing really move along, I eventually set up a Batch action in Photoshop to open every image, apply the correct Surface Blur recipe, and then leave it to me to come in for the History brush touch up before re-saving the images.

Yes, a little time consuming, but the result was an incredibly improved set of images.

Yet another set of repairs for just some of these images involved extending the area of the backdrop in instances where the backdrop was not large enough to contain the scene. And for that I like to reach for the Liquify tool — but that’s another story. Check YouTube to see how other people use the Surface Blur tool.

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