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  • Ryan Mero

Photoshop Skills - Masking Hair

It often happens. A client will ask for something specific, and then after the shoot realise they would like something different. Luckily with Photoshop anything is possible!

This happened recently to a photography friend when a client asked for the individual shots that were taken to be combined. No problem. A bit of masking is easy for photoshop these days. The Select Subject button is powerful indeed, but sadly still has it's limits. In this case, the limits were that the image was shot from across the room as a full length portrait. It was shot on medium format and the image size and quality were crazy good, but the fine parts of the hair were too small and blended in to the background too much for photoshop to be able to distinguish between the fine hair and the background when zoomed in. This meant that simply using the select subject could only take us so far.

This is the original image and as you can see there is a strand of hair looping out from the subject. Whilst it would be fine to not include this, it's a part of the picture, and all in all adds to the realism when sticking it on another background layer. So we want to keep it.

Hitting the Select Subject button gives us a really good starting point for a mask, and then using the Select and Mask button we can fine tune the results by using the global controls such as smooth, feather, contrast and shift edge. Now let's say we have a headshot shot on medium format on a white background. Photoshop will do a great job at selecting the right things and you will probably be able to get a perfect enough mask just using the global tools and the refine edge brush tool. But for this image, the brush just isn't picking up the really wispy bits. This is the result of fine tuning and using the brush tool in the select and mask tools.

Like I said. Really not bad at all. It has picked up some whips of hair, but ultimately we're still missing some bits.

It took a lot of trial and error to try and get something that looked realistic. One of the problems I came across was getting artefacts around the image when using the refine edge brush tool:

This leads to some ghosting around the mask and doesn't look great when added to another background. You could paint around the hairs, but who's got time for that?!

In this instance the only thing I could think to do, other than painting the hairs on (which I tried and wasn't convincing at all!) was to make a paint brush of the hair. I started by desaturating the image and adjusting the levels to get a good black and white contrast, then using the paint brush, dodge and burn tools was able to get a good mask. This then allows you to make a brush from your image under Edit - Define brush preset.

Once the brush is set, I simply added a layer above the original image, used the eyedropper to select the colour of her hair, and painted the loop back in , adjusting the transparency and hardness of the brush to blend it to the other whisps of hair.

This was ultimately the best way to do this that I could find. It worked really well and we were super happy I was able to keep all the detail of the original shot.

The great thing about photoshop is that there are so many ways to do something. Do you have another/better way? Leave a comment :)

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