Even for a professional photographer it can often be challenging to get a great family portrait in which each person looks good. Perhaps one subject looks perfect in one frame but the other subject is scowling. Next frame brings the same problem but in reverse. The solution is to do a head swap! No, a head swap is not a medieval torture or a new yoga move, it is just an innocuous technique in Photoshop to save an almost great family photo.
My background is in photojournalism so at first this felt wrong to do this. A newspaper photographer would get fired for altering an image in this manner. But if the goal is to get an image that will be enlarged, framed and will become a part of your home, each and every family member needs to look their best.
In this example I was photographing two grandchildren for a client. The older child had not slept well the night before so smiles were rare. The baby was pretty jovial. I finally got a frame in which this gorgeous girl’s smile shone through. As luck would have it, the normally smiley baby was chewing on a toy in that frame. What to do? Head swap to the rescue!

The original images were shot with a Canon 7D at ISO 800 at f/3.5 and 1/125. I used a flash to fill in a bit. To do the swap you will need to have Adobe Photoshop. Let’s walk through the steps together. Open both files in Photoshop. I am using version 10 on a Mac.  Most any version of Photoshop will do!

First, I did auto levels on each image (Image < Adustments < Levels or the quick key is COMMAND + L.) Auto levels works great sometimes but quite often it makes an image look worse. In that case I open the Levels and Curves dialogue box and adjust the image manually. But that is another loooooong blog post. However, in the case of these photos, auto levels worked wonderfully.
I then use the zoom tool (looks like a magnifying glass or use COMMAND + plus key) to zoom on this darling baby.

Then select the LASSO tool. There are three options: regular, polygonal and magnetic. Let’s start with the magnetic one.

Start drawing around the baby while holding the SHIFT key the whole time! Take your time and be as exact as you can. When the magnetic lasso grabs onto the wrong area you can guide it by clicking on a point you want covered. It is ok if it is not perfect as we are going to use the regular lasso tool to fine tune the image later. In the image below the baby is selected. Now to fix some problem areas by his foot.


Select the regular lasso tool. To add pixels from a selected area press SHIFT. To take away pixels to the selection press the ALT OPTION key. You will most likely have to use the zoom tool to get in close to see what you are doing. You can see below I needed to fix the area by his foot as the selection includes part of the carpet. So I pressed ALT OPTION (you can see the subtraction symbol indicating that part of the selection will be deselected) and used the lasso to trace out the area I did not want included.

Once you have your selection as you want it press COMMAND + C or copy. Now your selection is on the clipboard.

Click on the other photo. Under the LAYERS tab create a new layer or use the quick key SHIFT + COMMAND + N.  I named the layer BABY and then pressed OK. Select that layer then paste the baby from the clipboard (COMMAND + V).

As you can see above, when I place the baby, he appears in the middle of the image. Use the move tool (the top tool) to put him where you want him. He does not quite line up as he was leaning a bit in the original image. We can rotate him slightly to line up a bit better. To do this go to EDIT < TRANSFORM < ROTATE. When you have him where you want him click on the MOVE tool again. You will be asked if you want to apply the tranformation. Press APPLY. To finish cleaning up the image we will use the CLONE tool. (This tool looks like the handset for the Atari I played growing up.) Go ahead and flatten the image first so we have just one layer. You can do this under the LAYERS tab or use the quick key COMMAND + SHIFT + E.

The clone tool is just wonderful! Basically it allows you to sample a part of your image and clone those pixels over another part of your image. For instance where the babies head does not quite match up I will clone the blue couch over the unwanted part of the image. Change the brush diameter as needed. Opacity and Flow should be at 100%

To select the part I want to clone I press ALT OPTION and click. As you then clone by clicking and dragging you will see a plus sign indicating the sample being taken. Just keep working with the clone tool until you get the image as you want it. If you ever make a move you don’t like just hit COMMAND + Z (undo) or step backward under your history tab. I usually end up zooming in and out and using smaller and larger diameter clone tools throughout this process. When I am done, this is the final product, see below!

So this is how you can save an almost perfect family photo using Photoshop. I realize that this is a fairly complicated blog post so please do not hesitate to ask questions if anything is not clear! I am very open to suggestions for photo stories, or photo geek questions. You can reach me, Kristin, at kpophoto@chapelboro.com. Thanks for reading!!! Feel free to leave comments below.