Algorithms and machine learning models are ready to retouch your photos, but how well do they work?
March 6, 2023 at 6:00 p.m. EST
(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post)Comment on this story
In the photo Tim Coy shows me, his wife-to-be Veronica is looking away from the camera at the waters around Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Her back and the hair peeking out from under her hat are lit a late afternoon gold, and the warm light of the moment gave the sea an inviting, turquoise hue.
Of the many images that tell the story of their early relationship, the 49-year-old Bay Area photographer likes this one best, but he’s the first to admit it’s not ideal. For one thing, a backpack and a floral scarf spread haphazardly on a stone bench next to Veronica disrupted the shot. Also, to a lesser extent, a small boat that passed through the top right corner of the frame.
Coy is not alone here. I have more than a few photos that are almost great except for poorly timed passers-by or stray objects I didn’t see the first time. And since the day Coy snapped this photo in 2016, editing tools powered by algorithms and machine learning models have made removing these things from images almost frighteningly easy. In some cases, all it takes is a few touches on a screen, and at best, these tools produce images that look pretty real at the moment.
But here’s the catch: these tools don’t always produce picture-perfect results, so expect to see your fair share of blurry bits and surreal geometry.
There are a handful of options to get you started easily, each with their own quirks. We’ve compiled a list of a few that you might want to try for yourself, and to really get a feel for how well they work, I ran Coy’s photo of Veronica on the shore through each of them.
Here’s how these tools work and how much you have to pay if you want to algorithmically touch up your own near-perfect photos. But first:
You, me, or a computer can’t know exactly what the bench Veronica was sitting on would look like without a backpack on it. Instead, these apps and services rely on machine learning models that “look” at the area around your selected area and – like ChatGPT does with words – make an attempt to automatically fill in that area with what it thinks should be There.
Most of the time, these auto retouch tools are best for small edits that don’t need to take up a lot of space. The tiny boat in the background of the Veronica photo is a good example – every tool we tried scrubbed it out of existence convincingly.
It’s difficult to get convincing results when trying to clear larger things like the backpack and scarf. The more space these tools have to try to fill, the more likely they are to make the wrong assumption about what goes there.
Google Photos magic eraser
How much it costs: Free for Google Pixel owners, available as part of a Google One subscription for everyone else (minimum $9.99/month) Where can I use it? Android and iOS devices (with subscription)
Magic Eraser used to be a trademark of Google’s Pixel smartphones, but it’s now available to owners of other smartphones – and yes, that includes iPhones. The catch? If you don’t have a Pixel, this feature (which comes with the Google Photos app) requires a monthly subscription.
Getting started is easy: find the photo you want to retouch, click the “Edit” button, and under “Tools” look for the “Magic Eraser” option. The app sometimes offers suggestions for things you might want to delete that you can tap to delete – if not, you can draw a circle around what you want to get rid of. Unfortunately, even after a few tries, Magic Eraser didn’t do a good job of scrubbing the backpack; It left some oddly jagged edges that don’t match the shape of the bench.
Samsung’s Object Eraser
How much does it cost: FreeWhere can I use it? Latest Samsung Android phones
As it turns out, many Samsung smartphones have an Object Eraser tool – you can find it by viewing a photo in the Samsung Gallery app, tapping the pencil-shaped edit button and looking for the Object Eraser option. (If you don’t see it, make sure your phone is running the latest software update.)
To my surprise, it sometimes gave more lifelike results than Google’s Magic Eraser when removing larger elements in photos, like the backpack in this example and people in other photos I’ve tried it with. And if you’re one of millions of people who own a Samsung phone, it won’t cost you a dime to try it out.
How much does it cost: Free (or $9.99/month for premium features) Where can I use it? iOS devices, Android devices and the web
Since Apple’s iOS doesn’t come with built-in retouching tools, you’ll have to look elsewhere. PhotoRoom is one of the most popular choices for the platform, and for good reason: it’s done a great job of deleting that pesky backpack and keeping the bench’s straight lines. The feature seemed to work just as well on Android devices as it did on iPhones.
But there are a few caveats in mind. PhotoRoom has a version of its image removal feature on its website, but the edited images it spits out are lower resolution — so not as detailed — compared to the originals. And if you don’t want to pay a monthly (or yearly) fee to have some algorithms clean up your images in the mobile app, you’ll have to live with a PhotoRoom watermark like the one shown above.
How it costs: FreeWhere can I use it? Any web browser
I’ll be honest – some of my favorite results come from a website I’ve never heard of that was created by two people as a side project.
For Gino Chen, the 40-year-old co-founder of the service, creating a tool to clean up photos had less to do with getting life’s perfect photos and more to do with facilitating the sale of some of his old stuff.
Since this is a completely free service, there are some limitations. Like PhotoRoom, it produces images with a lower resolution than the original. In my opinion, they’re still sharp enough for a spot on my Instagram grid, but not everyone will agree.
It also doesn’t spit out results nearly as quickly as some of these other options. Despite this, the service does a surprisingly good job in less than a minute; When deleting large objects, CleanUpPhotos achieved some of the most natural results. And while Chen hopes to start a business with this tool, he says this free version is going nowhere.
However, if you need to touch up a particularly important photo, I wouldn’t rely on any of these tools just yet. I ended up asking Coy – an experienced photo editor – to try retouching the image and after a rocky start with Photoshop’s “context-sensitive” fill tool, he achieved the most convincing results by hand.