As a kids and family photographer, I am not working with picture perfect models. I am photographing real people. People who blink from time to time. Who yawn in the middle of a shot. People who are just like me and my family.
And the more people I add to the frame? The more chances there are for at least one of them to be blinking/yawning/wiggling in any given photograph. If I had to scrap every photo where someone wasn’t perfect, I probably wouldn’t be able to deliver many to my clients!
That’s why mastering the Photoshop head swap has been so important. This allows me to take those photos where almost everyone looks perfect and make the changes to let everyone look their best.
The best part is that head swaps don’t have to be difficult. With the right preparation, you can make head swaps that look convincing and don’t make you want to scream. Follow the steps below and you’ll be well on your way to making everyone look great!
Start with the right photos
If you try to do a head swap with two photos from two different sessions, you are likely going to run into some issues. The white balance, the direction of the light, and the surroundings are all going to be different in those two photos. This makes it nearly impossible to put them together convincingly.
Therefore, you will want to start with two photos taken relatively close together. This will ensure that you have an easier time blending them together as the direction of the light and elements in the background will be mostly the same.
Do global edits before you start swapping
I make big global edits to white balance, clarity, and exposure in Adobe Camera Raw. When I am planning to do a head swap, I will bring both photos into ACR simultaneously so that I can ensure that these global edits are identical.
This ensures that when I do the head swap the clarity, exposure, and skin tones match. If you have a slightly cooler white balance in one photo and put a warmer toned face in that picture, it will be an instant giveaway that some Photoshop shenanigans were happening…and we don’t want that!
Select the face you want to swap…and a lot more
The biggest surprise for me when learning to do convincing head swaps was how little I would be working on the actual face. Instead, It’s much more about blending in the surrounding area. The goal is to incorporate the face seamlessly into the rest of the photo.
This means that when you are selecting the area of the “good face” that you want to copy onto the photo where everyone else looks good, you will need to select a much larger area than you might think you have to. The more surrounding area you give yourself to work with, the easier it will be to blend it in.
You can use the lasso tool or the rectangular marquis tool in Photoshop to select the area you want to copy. Once you have it selected, go to Edit > Copy and then head over to the final photo to paste it.
Layer masks are your friend
Layer masks are a large reason that I love Photoshop. They give me full control over how much and where any of my adjustments affect my final image. And layer masks are key to performing a convincing head swap.
Once you have copied and pasted your selection onto the final photo, you will see that you have created a new layer. Move that layer to the general location where you will want the new face to land. I reduce the opacity of the layer here to about 50%. This way I can see through it and place the new face directly on top of the original.
Here you will add a layer mask to your copied layer. You will see that the mask is completely white. This means that you can see all of what is on the layer. When the layer mask is black, you are hiding the layer.
To blend our new face onto the original photo, we are going to paint black onto that white layer mask. This means that we are going to hide the areas we copied that we don’t want to be in the final photo and we are going to leave the areas we want to have changed.
Work with the right brushes
As you paint black onto your layer mask, you will want to have the right tool. I use the paintbrush tool at 100% opacity and 0% hardness (to start). This means that you will have a super soft edge to the brush (great for blending things together). You will be painting pure black as you start to hide the areas of the layer you do not want to see.
Start by removing any harsh edges from your layer. Then work your way inward to blend the background. You will want to pay careful attention to patterns and textures as these can be tricky to blend.
As you start to work along edges, you might need to change the hardness of your brush. Having a slightly harder brush will allow you to paint an edge so that you get it to look natural in the new background you are adding for the head swap.
Take time to get it right
Zoom in and out. Toggle the eyeball on your layer to observe the changes. Move between the white and black brush to reveal and conceal the layer as necessary. Take a walk away from the computer from time to time to let your eyes rest.
You want to be certain that you have everything just right before you move onto your final creative edits in the photo. Taking the time to get it right now will ensure that you aren’t frustrated later.
See a head swap in action
Watch as I do the head swap in this photo live in the video below!
It’s as easy as that!
If you have any questions about anything here, don’t hesitate to let me know in the comments below. Happy swapping!