How AI tools can help remove people and objects from your pictures

Algorithms and machine learning models are ready to retouch your photos, but how well do they work?

People take a selfie and crop out a photobomber.
(Illustration by Elena Lacey/The Washington Post)


In the photo Tim Coy shows me, his future wife Veronica is facing away from the camera, gazing out at the waters around Puerto Vallarta, Mexico. Her back, and the hair peeking out from under her hat, are lit in late afternoon gold, and the warm light of the moment gave the sea a welcoming, turquoise cast.

Of the many pictures that tell the story of their early relationship, the 49-year-old Bay Area photographer is especially fond of this one, but he’s the first to admit it isn’t ideal. For one, a backpack and floral scarf splayed haphazardly on a stone bench next to Veronica, was cluttering up the shot. To a lesser extent, so was a small boat passing through the top right corner of the frame.

Coy isn’t alone here. I have more than a few photos that are very nearly great, apart from poorly timed passersby or stray objects I didn’t see the first time. And since the day Coy took that photo in 2016, editing tools powered by algorithms and machine learning models have made scrubbing these things out of pictures almost shockingly easy. In some cases, all it takes is a few taps on a screen, and at their best, these tools produce images that look pretty true to 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 you could easily get started with, each with their own quirks. We’ve put together a list of a few you may want to try for yourself, and to really get a sense of 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 can expect to pay if you want to algorithmically touch up your own, almost-perfect photos. But first:

There’s no way for you, me or a computer to know exactly what the bench Veronica was sitting on would look like without a backpack on it. Instead, these apps and services lean on machine learning models that “look” at the area around the space you’ve selected and — like ChatGPT does with words — take a stab at auto-filling that space with what they think is supposed to be there.

For the most part, these auto-retouching tools work best for small changes where they don’t have to fill much 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 hard to get convincing results when you try to erase bigger things, like the backpack and scarf. The more space these tools have to try to fill, the more likely they are to make a mistaken assumption about what should go 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 ($9.99/month minimum)
  • Where can I use it? Android and iOS devices (with subscription)

Magic Eraser used to be a hallmark 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 lives inside the Google Photos app) requires a monthly subscription.

Getting started is easy enough: find the photo you want to retouch, hit the “edit” button, and search for the Magic Eraser option under “Tools.” The app will sometimes offer suggestions of things you may want to erase, which you can tap on to delete — if not, you can draw a circle around what you want to get rid of. Unfortunately, even after trying a few times, Magic Eraser didn’t do a great job scrubbing out the backpack; it left behind some strangely jagged edges that don’t match up with the shape of the bench.

Samsung’s Object Eraser

  • How much it costs: Free
  • Where can I use it? Most recent Samsung Android phones

As it turns out, many Samsung’s smartphones have an Object Eraser tool — you can find it by viewing a photo in Samsung’s Gallery app, tapping the pencil-shaped edit button and looking for the Object Eraser option. (If you don’t see it, try making sure your phone is running the latest software update.)

To my surprise, it sometimes produced more lifelike results than Google’s Magic Eraser when scrubbing out larger elements in photos, like the backpack in this example and people in other photos I tried it with. And if you’re one of the millions of people with a Samsung phone, it won’t cost you a cent to try it out.

  • How much it costs: 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 any built-in retouching tools, you’ll have to turn elsewhere. PhotoRoom is one of the more popular options available for the platform, and with good reason: It did a great job erasing that pesky backpack and maintaining the bench’s straight lines. The feature seemed to work just as well on Android devices as it does on iPhones, too.

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 of a lower resolution — so they’re not as detailed — compared to the originals. And if you don’t want to pay a monthly (or annual) fee to let some algorithms clean up your images in the mobile app, you’ll have to live with a PhotoRoom watermark like the one you see above.

  • How it costs: Free
  • Where can I use it? Any web browser

I’ll be honest — some of my favorite results came from a website I’ve never heard of, built by two people as a side project.

For Gino Chen, the service’s 40-year-old co-founder, building a tool to clean up photos had less to do with preserving life’s picture-perfect photos than making it easier to sell some of his old stuff.

Since it’s a completely free service, it comes with some limitations. Like PhotoRoom, it produces images that are of a lower resolution than the original. To my eye, they’re still sharp enough for a spot on my Instagram grid, but not everyone may agree.

It doesn’t spit out results nearly as quickly as some of these other options, either. Even so, the service does a surprisingly good job in under a minute; when it came to erasing large objects, CleanUpPhotos produced some of the most natural-looking results. And while Chen hopes to build a business around this tool, he says this free version isn’t going anywhere.

If you’re looking to touch up an especially important photo, though, I wouldn’t rely on any of these tools on their own just yet. In the end, I asked Coy — an experienced photo editor — to try retouching the image, and after a rough start with Photoshop’s “context-aware” fill tool, he produced the most convincing results by hand.

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