Photoshop Tip: Non-Destructive Cloning

Cloning is often one of those tasks of necessity that we like to keep to a minimum. It's a technique that's hard to do well, and even harder to master. But this post isn't about how to use Photoshop's Clone tool — it's about how to use it non-destructively and in a manner that offers more control over your image.

What do I mean by “non-destructive” cloning? Well… cloning is destructive in nature, meaning that it changes pixels. When you change the pixels, you can't get the original ones back. Destructive editing is worth avoiding because it takes away your ability to change your mind or adjust the edit at a later date.

So open up Photoshop, pull in a photo that needs a little cloning, and follow along. By the way, when you see something in parentheses (like this), that means it's a Photoshop keyboard shortcut.


Cloning Layer

This is usually the first thing I do prior to any other post-processing — sometimes I need to use it, sometimes I don't. Insert a new empty layer (Ctrl+Alt+Shift+N) on top of the selected layer — this is where we'll put the cloning information so we can preserve the pixels in the original image below it.


THIS IS THE IMPORTANT PART!!! Select the cloning tool (S) and look at your Options Palette. You should see a drop down menu that says “Sample:” in front of it. This option tells Photoshop where to draw the target pixels from.

Clone Stamp Sampling Options

  • Current Layer only pulls the sample pixels from the selected layer in the layer palette — not matter what's below or above it. This is how you clone destructively.
  • Current & Below draws information from the selected layer and everything below it that is visible, while ignoring the stuff above.
  • All Layers samples pixels from everything on the selected layer, everything above, and everything below — ALL layers.

So which one do we use? For the method I'm outlining here, it's best to use “Current & Below”. If you use “Current Layer”, nothing will happen unless you sample from the base layer and stamp onto the empty layer above it. If you use “All Layers”, it will act the same as current and below as long as you don't have any other layers above your cloning layer.

Clone Stamp Palette

For other options such as brush shape/diameter/hardness, mode, opacity, and flow — just do what you would normally do or see my comments in the next step.


This part is up to you — it's a difficult skill to master, but I'll provide some guidance to get you started. Also, make sure your empty layer is selected in the layer palette before you start cloning.

  • Brush Settings: I typically use a round brush at various diameters depending on the situation. For spots, I'll use something slightly larger than the spot. For objects, it kind of depends on the object and its surroundings. One key to cloning out larger objects is to vary your brush size larger ([) and smaller (]) frequently. For brush hardness, I almost always use a value of zero so the cloned edges aren't noticeable.
  • Mode: I'll generally use a “Standard” blend mode because the idea of cloning is to make one area look like it's surroundings. But there's nothing against experimenting.
  • Opacity: I will use anything between 5% (05) and 100% (0) depending on the subject. I more frequently use 10% (1) to 20% (2) to prevent hard edges and funky transitions. Just like with the brush size, frequently altering your opacity can keep your cloning more natural looking.
  • Flow: I'm usually happy with 100% flow (Shift+0) because I use the opacity to control the intensity, but some people might like it the other way around with a fill around 10% (Shift+1), or even a mixture of the two. Fill and Opacity are similar, but function differently when you go back over the same spot on a single brush stroke. Go experiment with it, you'll see.
  • Clone Target: This is probably the hardest part of cloning and it requires a lot of practice. Try to keep it close to what you're working on, watch out for other unwanted objects, be mindful of tonal gradients, and most of all… move your target OFTEN. If you don't, you can end up with a really horrendous repeating pattern caused by cloning cloned pixels.
  • Other Stuff: Check your progress at different zooms, use a high opacity every once in a while to introduce sharper textures, do lots of clicking rather than dragging, and don't get carried away with it.

There's a whole lot more to cloning, but a lot of it is having a good eye and knowing your software well.


Cloning Example

The easiest way to check your work is to zoom in at 100% (Ctrl+Alt+0) and flick the clone layer on and off. If you can see signs of cloning, that means you're not done yet. One thing that helps me catch the out of place pixels is to pan around (Spacebar+Mouse) at 100% zoom. For some reason, you can catch things a lot easier if they're moving. This same technique also works well for catching minor dust spots on photos too.


Sometimes a clone can be cleaned up with some minor editing rather than going back and re-cloning (and probably making it worse). Since we have our clone data on a separate layer, we can adjust and modify those pixels to make them mesh more smoothly with the pixels on the original image.

Adding a Layer Mask

We can do things like adding blur (R), sharpening (Shift+R), smudging (Shift+R), dodging (O), burning (Shift+O), sponging (Shift+O), etc. If you want to reduce the effect around the edges of the clone, just add a layer mask and use a soft brush (B) to soften it up. You can also go back to the clone stamp (S) and introduce more pixels to the cloning layer. And if you still aren't happy with your work and you want to start over, just erase it.

That's the beauty of using a separate layer to non-destructively clone objects out of your photos — if you mess up, you can always erase it. Plus you have a finer control over your new pixels. So next time you go to clone out dust spots, power lines, or whatever, remember to do it non-destructively — give yourself the power to change your mind at a later date or make fine-tuned adjustments.