How to Improve Group Photos With One Photoshop Trick

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Portrait photography can be tough. You want to capture a person at their best, in both an interesting and technically flawless way. But group portraits are even more difficult. Every person you add to a group portrait compounds the difficulties because it makes the image that much more likely to have someone blinking, making an odd face or looking away.

comparison of two photographs with head swapping in Photoshop

Learn how to easily swap heads from one photo to another in Photoshop.

Photos via Boost Your Photography

But don’t worry! One simple trick can help you create perfect portraits even with larger groups. In this Fix-It Friday, we’ll walk step by step through the process for combining parts of several shots to create one perfect image.

Shooting tips for successful head swapping

Head swapping is the process of combining two or more photographs to capture exactly the right look, expressions and faces that you want in a group portrait. To make the most of this post-processing technique, however, it is important to get things right while you are shooting.

Successful head swapping involves multiple photographs shot with the same settings, in the same location, from the same angle. Professional portrait and wedding photographers know the drill. If you are shooting a group of people, taking multiple versions of the same shot increases your chances of success. People may blink for the opening shot but then have wonderfully open eyes in the next set.

contact sheet of photographs to choose for head swapping

Follow their lead. When shooting larger groups, take a series of shots, not just one and done. This does not mean that you need to rapid-fire a series of 20 shots within one second. Rather, take the time to compose and set up your shot, then take a few different versions. Don’t be afraid to give your subjects some direction in between shots to help with posing and expressions or just to lighten the mood.

Easy head swapping in Photoshop

Once you have downloaded the photographs onto your computer, you may find that you have some candidates for head swapping. Common reasons to use head swapping include small mistakes like closed eyes, an unflattering expression, one person looking in a different direction or someone talking.

For the greatest chance of success, try to limit your head swapping efforts to two or three images to combine. Any more than that and you risk your final image looking like a cut-up ransom note composed of a variety of letters from different sources.

two photographs used to swap heads from one to another in Adobe Photoshop

In this example, the parents wanted a shot where they were both looking at the camera. In the top image, Mom and baby look great, but Dad is looking down. In the bottom image, Dad looks great, but Mom has several stray hairs blowing on her face from the wind, and the baby’s expression is a little different. The goal for this head swap will be to swap Dad’s head from the bottom image into the top one.

Process the RAW files identically

If you were shooting in RAW (which you should be, for many reasons), process the RAW files identically. This is the time to nail the white balance, adjust contrast, vibrance, saturation, etc. Choose your main photograph and decide on the perfect settings. Then, apply those same settings to the image that you will be using to swap in the new head.

Photoshop how-to for head swapping

Open Adobe Photoshop. Copy and paste both photographs into one file, keeping your main image as the bottom layer. Then select both layers and choose Edit > Auto Align Layers. This makes sure both images line up as closely as possible. Turn the top layer off and on again to check the alignment.

Click on the head swap layer and choose Layer > Layer Mask > Reveal All. This creates a layer mask that will allow you to select just part of that layer to be visible. (For more details, check out “How to Use Layer Masks.”)

Alternate photograph in Photoshop with head selected for swapping

Use the Magic Wand selection tool to trace around the head that you want swap into the other image. Hold down Shift to add on to the selection or hold down Alt (for PC) or Option (for Mac) to take away from the selection. This does not have to be perfect, as you will fine-tune the selection as you go.

With the head selected, click on the white box that represents the layer mask. Choose Select > Inverse. Now you have everything but the head selected. Click the paint bucket, select black paint; then, paint the selection black. Now you should see just the selected head with the rest of your main image visible underneath.

In the image below, I turned the transparency of the head down to 50 percent so you can see how the new head is on top of the original.

head swapping in process in Adobe Photoshop showing both heads at once

The final step is making the swapped head indistinguishable from the rest of the original image. The benefit of using a layer mask is that you can adjust the visibility of the layer. Painting over it with white makes more of the head swap layer visible, and painting it black makes more of the original layer visible.

To hide the edges of your selection, change the opacity for your brush to around 50 percent when painting to help blend the two. It helps to zoom in 100 percent or closer, but be sure to also zoom out to an actual print size to check the overall look.

Finished version of a head-swapped photograph done in Photoshop
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