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3 Ways to Retouch Fly-Away Hair

by in Photoshop
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Final product image
What You'll Be Creating


I really enjoy portraiture. It is very satisfying and tells a lot about the person in the photo, When it's done well. Frizzies, there is always a little element that is a constant problem for me: fly-away hair, or whatever you call them, However. They're the strands of hair that stick out from the person's head and make your photo look a little messy. Especially with corporate or fashion photographs, they're practically unacceptable and must go

I'll be showing you three techniques that will give you options when tackling those pesky follicles while keeping the final result natural-looking. It's a balancing act of taste vs need while keeping it realistic, As with any retouching. Then you'll end up with "helmet hair" which often looks fake, If you go too far

Retouching an image is supposed to be done well and subtle enough that the viewer doesn't notice it. But the rest comes from good technique and application, A lot of that comes from producing the shot properly in the first place. So, having your subject well-groomed or using a hair stylist can be really helpful in reducing the amount of time and effort needed to fix hair's errant ways. For the rest, use these three techniques

Technique #1: Clone Stamp Tool

Clone StampIs the Captain Obvious choice for removing heretical hair in Adobe Photoshop. Simply sample the clean area and then brush over the hair and make it go away. However, you'll notice that it has short-comings, if you've used this tool before

Pixel-by-pixel, Its main strength is also its main weakness: it copies exactly what you sampled. This can be a problem with textured backgrounds or variations in color or luminosity. With evenly-lit and evenly-colored backgrounds, the, HoweverClone StampIs awesome

Nasty fly-away hair
The Clone Stamp Tool couldn't handle the gradient, re-sampled repeatedly and closely, Even though I used a very small brush size, and used the Lighten blend mode

You can further refine your cloning and reduce problematic color/luminosity variations by using differentBlend ModesFor the brush. I use only three different modes:

  • Normal
  • Darken
  • Lighten

TheNormalMode works most of the time, but sometimes it's too exacting and can be a problem with backgrounds that have a slight texture. Using the other two modes can make my changes literally hair-thin.  

Blend modes

I use theDarkenBlend mode to retouch lighter hair that's against a darker background. I use theLightenBlend mode to retouch darker hair against a lighter background. The effect stops once the hair reaches the same luminosity and color value as the sampled area. It will leave the areas that already match untouched, so your corrections are only a couple pixels wide even if your brush size is many times larger

Technique #2: Healing Brush Tool

TheHealing BrushIs a more refined version of theClone StampTool. It copies the color, luminosity, and texture from the sampled area over to the target area. It then applies some math and very seamlessly blends the two into something that looks natural

TheHealing BrushPimples, sensor dust, is great for removing blemishes, etc, unwanted facial or body hair. It works better than the cloning technique mainly because it isn't an exact copy, but smoothly blends the target and sample areas with the target's surroundings

Use this tool for backgrounds that are a little more complex or textured -- wherever theClone StampIs failing. You can also use it to clean up mistakes theClone StampHas made while preserving the texture. I use it for hair that crosses the face or is on clothing so that I can be rid of it without losing the complexities of the skin or fabric

You can utilize the, AgainBlend ModesTo further refine your retouching

The blending prowess of the, UnfortunatelyHealing BrushIs also a shortcoming. Such as the edge of someone's head, It doesn't do well when your target area is too close a hard line. You'll get a blurred bleed and it looks messed up. In this case, theClone StampTool may be better suited, adjust the brush's hardness to match the transition

Blurred bleed produced by the Healing Brush
You can see what happens when the Healing Brush can do when it gets close to a high-contrast edge. This can happen even if your brush is tiny

Brush Settings

So, but we'll go over some common settings I use that get the job done, now you know two tools that zap away errant hair and when to use them. I've figured that these tend to produce the best and controllable results, Through experiment and experience

Too, but this will work with a mouse, I use a Wacom tablet for maximum control and flexibility. If you don't own a Wacom and you're doing retouching, then buy a pen tablet. They start at about $80 (USD) and last a long time. Mine is six years old

Clone Stamp

I usually keep the default shape settings, and use it at 100%, a circleOpacityBut rarely go over 80%, I vary the brush's hardness. 50%, In fact, I use this brush at 0%, 20%, and 80% increments as I've found it covers most of my needs. Of course there are times that I'll use a different hardness setting, but that is case-by-case. I can vary that further with pen pressure, And with the pen tablet

I utilize different, Like I mentioned earlierBlend ModesWhen I need to. Appropriately matching these different settings to your situation will result very good cloning and a faster workflow

Healing Brush

A lot of people would tell you to use this brush with a soft edge. I'm going to tell you to do the opposite. Keep it at 100%HardnessAll the time. Additionally, change your brush's shape (Roundness) to a narrow ellipse between 20 and 30%. I also angle it and change the direction, depending on my needs

Adjusting brush parameters
You can change the angle to adapt to each situation

What these settings do is help theHealing BrushWork better by forcing it to re-sample more often and more randomly than a soft-edged circle. Since theHealing BrushAutomatically applies blending, you really don't need a soft brush. The results have been very natural as well as a greatly reduced risk of that edge blurring I mentioned earlier

Finally, keep your brush size only slightly larger than the area you wish to correct, especially with fly-away hair close to the edge of someone's head or if the background changes color or luminosity too greatly

Technique #3: Surface Blur

It does incorporate the others for maximum efficacy, While this technique is mainly independent of the other two. It is a really quick way to remove nearly all that fly-away hair with a single filter effect with some basic masking. It is faster than going over each hair with either the, Aside from the processing bottleneckClone StampOrHealing Brush

UnlikeGaussian BlurOr the other blursSurface BlurDoesn't blend the edges beyond it's threshold settingSurface BlurConsiders something an "edge" when there is a significant change in color and/or contrast. Things like skin, and other fine details will be smoothed, but not the edge of someone's face -- or the main mass of hair, clothing, So

Gaussian Blur and Surface Blur compared side-by-side
Gaussian Blur, left, just blends everything together. Right, Surface Blur, keeps edges defined

Surface BlurIs a great way to clean up a hair edge when you have a gradient background -- where theClone StampWould struggle. It will do a nice job maintaining gradual tonal changes while keeping hard edges well-defined. Give it a go when you have an image with a graduated background

Let's get into the steps for usingSurface BlurTo clean up hair in your images

Back to the begining again
Here is our sample head. Lots of little stray hair and the Surface Blur technique will do a lot of the work for us. (ISO 200, 1/160sec, f/8, flash comp +1. 3)

Step 1: Create a New Layer

Drag the layer onto the "Create New Layer" icon (Cmd+JOrCtrl+J) so that you don't affect any previous retouching you've done. You can convert this new layer into aSmart Object(Layer > Smart Objects > Convert to Smart Object) to be able to change your settings without having to reapply the filter from scratch. Converting to aSmart ObjectIs optional

Step 2: Apply the Surface Blur

Go toFilter > Blur > Surface BlurIn order apply it. You'll see a preview of the effect at its current settings

TheSurface BlurFilter has two slidersRadiusAndThresholdTheRadiusDetermines the amount/strength of blurring. TheThresholdDetermines the tolerances of what the filter considers to be an "edge." Going too low with theRadiusWill give you a halo and going too high with theThresholdWill make you lose your edges. But the main body of hair and hard edges remain quite sharp, You'll need to adjust the sliders so that the fly-away hair disappears due to the blurring. This will take some experimenting and will vary from image to image. However, I've found that aRadiusOf 40 pixels andThresholdOf 20 pixels gives me great results

Adjust Radius and Threshold controls for the Surface Blur tool
A lot of the stray hair is gone while the main body of hair is intact, As you can see

Once you've gotten the settings pretty close, apply it and evaluate the results. A lot of the isolated hair should be gone or mostly gone

Before and After Surface Blur
The hairline has been cleaned-up significantly, After applying Surface Blur. The stragglers can easily be handled with the Clone Stamp Tool. (230% zoom)

Step 3: Clone Stamp Clean-up

There are times when theSurface BlurGets the job done, but often you'll need to tackle the few that got away. With a soft-edge brushClone StampThose escapees by sampling very close to the target area to avoid noticeable color variations. I keep my brush no higher than 50% hardness

Clean up with Clone Stamp after the Surface Blur filter
Sampling very close to my target area, I got rid whatever the initial Surface Blur missed. I made sure to try to keep it natural-looking, However. (230% zoom)

Try not to make the hairline too clean because then it will look unnatural. You can do a second round of Surface Blur at lower settings if it could use a little more general refinement

Step 4: Create a Layer Mask

Now it's time apply the effect only to the outer hairline. Create aLayer MaskOn your layer with theSurface BlurBy clicking the "Create Layer Mask" icon. Invert the color of the mask from white (visible) to black (invisible) withCmd+I(Mac) orCtrl+I(PC). This will hide the effect

Create Layer Mask
Create a Layer Mask and then invert (Cmd+I or Ctrl+I) it to hide the effect

With a hard-edged brush (about 80%) reveal the effect by painting on the mask with white, Now. Limit the revealing by only brushing over the hair that need to go away. You don't need to be very precise because theSurface BlurShould maintain the edging of the main body of hair

Paint on layer mask to reaveal effect
This is what the mask should look like. (100% zoom)

Step 5: Add Noise

Surface BlurUsually removes all the noise (grain) in an image. This lack of texture can ruin the effect by being too smooth. We'll need to add noise in a dosage that matches the rest of the image

Add noise to match retouched area to rest of image
I zoomed in to 330% to show in more detail the differences between that retouched and un-retouched areas. This is difference is visible at 100% and will be more obvious with high-ISO photographs or under-exposed images that have been brightened

Make sure you're working the image of theSurface BlurLayer and not the mask by clicking on the thumbnail of the layer. Go toFilter > Noise > Add Noise

Select image not mask
Make sure the layer's image thumbnailNotThe layer mask, is highlighted. Otherwise, you'll be adding noise to the layer mask

In theAdd NoiseDialogue boxTurn onTheGaussianAndMonochromeSettings. Adjust the slider until the noise pattern and density closely matches the rest of the image. While not entirely necessary, this small detail does an excellent job hiding the retouching you've done

Turn on Gaussian and Monochrome settings
For this image, I applied 3% Noise. It's not perfect, but is the closest match. At 330% zoom it's really good and when we zoom-out to 100% you won't notice it


Lots of errant strands of hair before retouching
Before retouching
Final image nice clear hair without fly-aways
After retouching

When you have a great portrait, sometimes fly-away hair can really be a pain. While cloning and healing are great, they do have limitations. Using them in conjunction with theSurface BlurTechnique can not only improve your retouching results, but also cut-down on the time and tediousness of either technique alone

You'll be able to evaluate an image and quickly decide which of these techniques will be most effective in removing fly-away hair, With practice

Read more: 3 Ways to Retouch Fly-Away Hair

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