I’m a Lightroom guy. I like to use Lightroom because it’s simple and helps my photographs look the way I imagined when I clicked the shutter. However, sometimes I just need the powers of Photoshop to make the best picture possible for my clients, and the number one way I use it is to swap heads in a group photograph. Let me show you how to do it in four simple steps.
Oh, and this technique will work in any version of photoshop back to at least CS3.
1. Open As Layers in Photoshop
Here’s a good example of two pictures that would be better if I combined them into one. I made these indoors and I needed to balance the light from my off camera flash with the light from the window, which required a shutter speed of just 1/20th of a second. That’s slow enough that as the grandfather moved a little bit, his head blurred in the picture. In the other picture, grandfather looks great but everyone else is looking elsewhere. Let’s combine these together for one good picture.
From Lightroom, just select both pictures, then right click on them and choose Edit In>Open as Layers in Photoshop.
2. Organize and Align
It’s best to arrange the layers so that the best picture is on the bottom. I often combine more than two pictures for the best faces, so it’s essential to keep things organized. Rename the layers so that you know which layer you’re working on–just double click on the layer name to change it.
As I said above, I used a very slow shutter speed to make these pictures, so a tripod was essential to make a sharp picture. Regardless of shutter speed, I recommend that you use a tripod for portraits–you’ll get better results every time, and it makes it simple to do the head swapping. Since the camera didn’t move between pictures, these two layers are already aligned. If you didn’t use a tripod, moved the camera slightly, or zoomed the lens, however, you’ll need to align the layers before you combine them. Just select the layers that need aligning and got to Edit>Auto Align Layers and Photoshop will make the pictures line up and be the right size to be combined together. If I had to try to twist them together, it’d be a disaster and I’d be at all day before giving up in frustration. Photoshop does it flawlessly.
3. “White Reveals, Black Conceals”
The simplest way to combine these two together is hide the top layer and paint back in the parts we need to see–which is just grandpa’s head in this case, but this method works even if you have lots of layers and faces to work on (my maximum so far is 82 people in 7 layers).
The Layer Mask lets us reveal and conceal a layer without erasing any of the picture permanently. It’s tricky to explain, but do this with me and you’ll see how simple it is. Select the layer you want to reveal on top of the other; in this case, I selected the Grandpa layer. At the bottom of the layer palette, you’ll find this little circle inside a rectangle icon. Press and hold the alt/option key and click the icon.
Now there’s a black layer mask added to the layer. Press B to get the Brush tool, and press D to set the brush colors to the default (black and white). Lastly, press X to switch to painting with white. Now you’re ready to reveal the top layer.
Just paint where you want the top layer to show. In this example below, you can see that I’ve painted with a hard edged brush with the flow set pretty low and have revealed the smiling Grandpa face in the right place, but I’ve been too sloppy: there are two of the boy’s head and the blue dress doesn’t line up properly.
I’d recommend using 100% flow, and adjusting the hardness of the brush as you paint. press the X to switch back to painting with black and you’ll hide the top layer (the saying goes, “white reveals and black conceals”). So I adjust the size and hardness and flip between white and black (just press the X key) and I paint around and over and do it again and again until I get it looking just right. If I have multiple faces from several layers, I just do the same process for each layer–that’s why it’s important to rename the layers so you can keep track of which faces are on which layers. It takes some finessing the first few times, but pretty soon you’ll earn an intuitive stroke with the Brush tool.
4. Touchup and Save
After I got Grandpa’s face in the right place, the blue dress still didn’t match up quite right, and there was a funny shadow on his collar. Make a new blank layer, and use this to do touch ups on. I used a combination of the clone stamp tool and the healing brush, again mixing the hardness of the brushes and pressing cmd/ctrl Z to undo plenty of times. It’s best to do this stuff on a new layer so that you can erase mistakes and alter opacity without affecting your other layers.
Lastly, Lightroom and Photoshop are really good neighbors, so when you go to the File menu and choose Save, your new picture automatically imports into Lightroom right next to the original picture files you combined. It’s a really seamless workflow–the new file even keeps the same star rating as the originals.
The number one reason I leave Lightroom for Photoshop is to do the kind of layer mask work I’ve demonstrated above. It’s the perfect way to combine multiple pictures for the best expressions. Once you start using this method, I think you’ll find lots of other ways to use this technique for combing images, too. Think about combing landscapes for the perfect position of clouds and flowers on a windy day, or to make a better grouping of wildlife from multiple pictures. It works easiest if you use a tripod, but the Auto Align feature works wonders, too. Give it a shot, and I think you’ll find yourself confidently heading to Photoshop to unleash your creativity–especially to make the perfect family picture.
Consider this a primer for the wonderful skills you’ll learn at Photoshop World; I hope to see you there!