How to Remove Backscatter in Lightroom

Every underwater photographer will need to remove backscatter particles from their photos at some point. Lucky for us, Adobe Lightroom features powerful tools to help us quickly remove backscatter while editing.

The Spot Removal tool is the best way to remove backscatter when editing underwater photos. This is because you can remove the individual spots without creating larger layer masks that may degrade other areas of the image.

This video tutorial and article will share step by step instructions for using the Spot Removal tool, along with some great tips and tricks specific to underwater photos.

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How to Remove Backscatter in Adobe Lightroom

What is Backscatter?

Backscatter are particles in the water that reflect light into the camera, creating white spots in the image. These particles can be sand, plankton, or any other particulate floating in the water.

What Causes Backscatter Underwater?

Backscatter is most often created when a photographer’s strobe or video light is pointed directly at a subject. Some of the light traveling to the subject hits the particles in the water column and bounces back to the camera as bright pixels. These areas create all the white spots we notice in front of the subject.

Naturally, areas with lower visibility (e.g. more particulate in the water) will create more backscatter. If a diver kicks sand up around a subject, you’re guaranteed to have more backscatter.

How can you Prevent Backscatter?

There are three tips to prevent backscatter in your underwater photos, which I detail carefully in the article linked below.

How to Minimize Backscatter in Underwater Photos

how to minimize backscatter thumb

Removing Backscatter in Lightroom

Sometimes we can’t help but have some backscatter in our photos, and that’s when we need to do some removal using the Spot Healing Brush tool in Lightroom.

I like to remove backscatter as a final editing step in my workflow, once I’m looking at the nearly-finished image. The reason for this is that I do my large global edits first, slowly working on edits on local areas of the frame. Backscatter particles are the smallest edit, so they default to last in my workflow.

There’s no right or wrong though!

Steps to Removing Backscatter

First, make sure you’re in the Develop module of Lightroom with your photo opened.

Click the Spot Removal tool (Q is the keyboard shortcut).

Once you have the Spot Removal tool activated you can move your mouse over a piece of backscatter and then click. Voila! Your piece of backscatter will be removed, sampled from pixels that Lightroom’s Sensei algorithm has determined will best replace the area you’ve selected.

Tips and Advanced Features:

Zoom In: Removing backscatter will be much easier if you zoom in to the scene.

Adjust Tool Size: I like to make the brush just larger than the piece of backscatter being removed. This is so that I don’t adjust pixels unnecessarily. And (whether true or not) I feel you’ll get faster performance removing backscatter on your computer if you’re manipulating less pixels.

Adjust the tool size by using the Size slider that opened up when you clicked on the tool. Or use the scroll wheel on your mouse. Or use the bracket keys on your keyboard. So many choices!

Heal vs. Clone Brush: I usually use the heal brush for removing backscatter because it fills in the selected space using an area of the image that Lightroom has determined will look best. The Clone brush will simply replace the selected space with another spot of the same size.

Learn more about the heal brush and when to use the clone brush in the tutorial video above. The video also covers moving the sample area that Lightroom otherwise picks automatically.

Visualize Spots: This is a great feature for helping to remove backscatter particles since it turns the image black and emphasizes the backscatter in white. Simply click Visualize Spots on the bottom toolbar that appears once you’ve activated the Spot Removal tool.

Be careful though! Many of the spots you’ll see with Visualize Spots active won’t actually be visible in your image (at least for practical purposes).

Left: Unedited image shot in mediocre visibility.
Right: Same image with Visualize Spots enabled.

Photoshop Dust & Scratches Filter

The Dust and Scratches filter in Photoshop can be used to remove many backscatter pieces at once. The caveat here is that this filter will dramatically alter any details in your image.

So how do we use the Dust and Scratches filter to remove backscatter?

The best method is to create a layer mask over your image and then remove the areas from the mask where you do not want to apply the filter. This is usually everything with detail, leaving pure blue, green or black water backgrounds around your subject.

Because you’re now only applying the filter on a single color or color gradient, there’s no real detail to be lost. The result is that you remove all the backscatter in this open water without affecting the areas of the image containing your subject and other details.

Want to learn more about this specific technique? Contact me to set up a Virtual Lesson on video chat!

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Brent Durand

Professional writer and underwater photo instructor. Brent is an avid diver and surfer, and has led many intensive photo workshops around the world.