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How to Retouch Fly-Away Hair in Portrait Photos

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Read Time: 12 min
This post is part of a series called People and Portrait Retouching.
Photo Retouching in Adobe Photoshop with Content Aware in 60 Seconds

When portraiture is done well, it can be very satisfying and say a lot about the person in the photograph. However, there's often an element that causes problems for me: fly-away hair.

They're the strands of hair that stick out from the person's head and make your photo look messy. Particularly if you're photographing corporate or fashion images, they're unacceptable and need to go!

In this tutorial, you'll learn how to remove flyaways in Photoshop. Watch the video below from Abbey Esparza to learn how to put these techniques into action, or follow along with the text.

We demonstrate here using Adobe Photoshop, but the techniques are applicable in just about any image editor, so if you're using Affinity Photo, Lightroom, Camera Raw, Photopea, or whatever your favourite is, you should be able to follow along to fix hair in your photos.

What You'll Learn

  • How to find the balance when fixing flyaway hair in your photos
  • How to remove flyaway hair in Photoshop with the Clone Stamp Tool
  • How to use the Healing Brush Tool to remove flyaways in Photoshop
  • How to adjust your brush settings when retouching hair
  • How to use surface blur to remove flyaway hairs in pictures

How to Find a Balance When Fixing Flyaway Hair

There are three main techniques to tackle fly-aways while keeping the result looking natural. As with any retouching, it's a balancing act of taste against need. If you go too far, then you'll end up with "helmet hair", which often looks fake.

Retouching an image is supposed to be subtle enough that the viewer doesn't notice it. A lot of that comes from producing the shot properly in the first place, but the rest comes from good technique and application. That's why it's important to learn how to edit flyaway hairs well. 

Having your subject well-groomed or using a hair stylist can be really helpful in reducing the amount of time and effort needed later. For the rest, use these three techniques for using Photoshop to fix flyaway hairs in your photos.

How to Use the Clone Stamp Tool to Fix Hair in Your Photos

Clone Stamp is the obvious choice in Adobe Photoshop for removing flyaway hair. Sample the clean area and then brush the hair to blend it with the background.

If you've used this tool before, you'll notice that it has shortcomings. Its main strength is also a weakness; it copies exactly what you sample, which can be a problem with textured backgrounds or variations in color or luminosity. However, with evenly lit and evenly coloured backgrounds, the Clone Stamp is the perfect tool to Photoshop away flyaway hairs.

Nasty flyaway hairNasty flyaway hairNasty flyaway hair
Even though I used a very small brush size, resampled repeatedly and closely, and used the Lighten blend mode, the Clone Stamp Tool couldn't handle the gradient.

You can refine your cloning and reduce problematic variations by using different Blend Modes for the brush. I use three different modes:

  • Normal
  • Darken
  • Lighten

The Normal mode 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 hair-thin.

Blend edgesBlend edgesBlend edges

I use the Darken blend mode to retouch lighter hair against a darker background. I use the Lighten blend 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 of pixels wide, even if your brush size is many times larger.

How to Use the Healing Brush Tool

The Healing Brush is a more refined version of the Clone Stamp tool, so it must be considered when learning how to remove and edit flyaway hairs in pictures. It copies the color, luminosity, and texture from the sampled area over to the target area. It then applies some math and seamlessly blends the two into something that looks natural.

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

Use this tool for backgrounds that are a little more complex or textured. You can also use it to clean up mistakes that Clone Stamp has 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.

Again, you can use the Blend Modes to further refine your retouching.

Unfortunately, Healing Brush doesn't do well when the target area is too close to a hard line, like the edge of someone's head. You'll get a blurred bleed, and it looks messy. In this case, the Clone Stamp tool may be better suited; adjust the brush's hardness to match the transition.

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

How to Adjust Your Brush Settings

Now that I've been through two tools you can use to remove errant hair, we'll go through some common settings so you can learn how to remove flyaway hairs in your pictures better in Photoshop.

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

Clone Stamp

I usually keep the default shape settings, a circle, and use it at 100% Opacity. I vary the hardness of the brush, but rarely go over 80%. In fact, I use this brush at 0%, 20%, 50%, and 80% increments as I've found it covers most of my needs. 

There are times that I'll use a different hardness setting, but that is case by case, and with the pen tablet, I can vary that further with pen pressure.

As I mentioned earlier, I use different Blend Modes when I need to. Appropriately matching these different settings to your situation will result in very good cloning and a faster workflow.

Healing Brush

A lot of people would tell you to use this brush with a soft edge, but I'm going to tell you to do the opposite. Keep it at 100% Hardness all 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 parametersAdjusting brush parametersAdjusting brush parameters
You can change the angle to adapt to each situation.

These settings help the Healing Brush work better by forcing it to resample more often and more randomly than a soft-edged circle. Since the Healing Brush automatically applies blending, you really don't need a soft brush. 

The results are very natural and have 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 when trying to fix a flyaway hair close to the edge of someone's head or if the background changes color or luminosity too much.

How to Use Surface Blur to Retouch Hair

While this technique is mainly independent of the other two, it does incorporate the others for maximum efficiency. It's a very quick method if you want to know how to remove nearly all flyaway hair in Photoshop with a single filter effect and some basic masking. 

Unlike Gaussian Blur or the other blurs, Surface Blur doesn't blend the edges beyond its threshold setting. Surface Blur considers something an "edge" when there is a significant change in color and/or contrast. Things like skin, clothing, and other fine details will be smoothed, but not the edge of someone's face—or the main mass of hair.

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

Surface Blur is a great way to clean up a hair edge when you have a gradient background where the Clone Stamp would struggle. It will do a nice job of 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 using Surface Blur to clean up hair in your images.

Back to the beginning againBack to the beginning againBack to the beginning again
Here is our sample head. Since there are lots of little stray hairs, the Surface Blur technique will do a lot of the work for us. (ISO 200, f/8, 1/160sec, flash comp +1.3)

Step 1: Create a New Layer

Drag the layer onto the Create New Layer icon (Command-J or Control-J) so that you can work non-destructively. You can convert this new layer to a Smart 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 a Smart Object is optional.

Step 2: Apply the Surface Blur

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

The Surface Blur filter has two sliders, Radius and Threshold. The Radius determines the amount or strength of blurring. The Threshold determines the tolerances of what the filter considers to be an "edge." 

Going too low with the Radius will give you a halo, and going too high with the Threshold will make you lose your edges. You'll need to adjust the sliders so that the fly-away hair disappears due to the blurring, but the main body of hair and the hard edges remain quite sharp. 

This will take some experimenting and will vary from image to image. However, I've found that a Radius of 40 pixels and Threshold of 20 pixels gives me great results.

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

Once you've got 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 BlurBefore and After Surface BlurBefore and After Surface Blur
After applying Surface Blur, the hairline has been cleaned up significantly. The stragglers can easily be handled with the Clone Stamp Tool. (230% zoom)

Step 3: Clone Stamp Cleanup

There are times when the Surface Blur gets the job done, but often you'll need to tackle the few that got away. With a soft-edge brush, Clone Stamp those 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 filterClean up with Clone Stamp after the Surface Blur filterClean up with Clone Stamp after the Surface Blur filter
Sampling very close to my target area, I got rid of whatever the initial Surface Blur missed. However, I made sure to try to keep it looking natural. (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 to fix the hair in your photo.

Step 4: Create a Layer Mask

Now it's time to apply the effect only to the outer hairline. Create a Layer Mask on your layer with the Surface Blur by clicking the Create Layer Mask icon. Invert the color of the mask from white (visible) to black (invisible) with Command-I (Mac) or Control-I (PC). This will hide the effect as we use Photoshop to edit those flyaway hairs.

Create Layer MaskCreate Layer MaskCreate Layer Mask
Create a Layer Mask and then invert it to hide the effect.

Now, with a hard-edged brush (about 80%), reveal the effect by painting on the mask with white over the areas you wish to remove. You don't need to be very precise because Surface Blur should maintain the edging of the main body of hair.

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

Step 5: Add Noise

Surface Blur usually 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 imageAdd noise to match retouched area to rest of imageAdd noise to match retouched area to rest of image
I zoomed in by 330% to show in more detail the differences between the retouched and untouched areas. This  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 on the image on the Surface Blur layer and not the mask by clicking on the thumbnail of the layer. Go to Filter > Noise > Add Noise.

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

In the Add Noise dialogue box, turn on the Gaussian and Monochrome settings. Adjust the slider until the noise pattern and density closely match the rest of the image. While not entirely necessary, this small detail does an excellent job of hiding the retouching you've done to the hair.

Turn on Gaussian and Monochrome settingsTurn on Gaussian and Monochrome settingsTurn 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.

You Now Know How to Remove Flyaway Hair in Photoshop

Here's how your photo looked before you learned how to remove flyaway hairs in pictures in Photoshop:

Lots of errant strands of hair before retouchingLots of errant strands of hair before retouchingLots of errant strands of hair before retouching
Before retouching the hair

And here's how it looks now that you know how to edit flyaway hair:

Final image nice clear hair without fly-awaysFinal image nice clear hair without fly-awaysFinal image nice clear hair without fly-aways
After retouching to fix flyaway hair

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

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

Explore More Tutorials and Resources

Learn how to edit and retouch more than just flyaway hair. We have many useful retouching tutorials from our Envato Tuts+ instructors that will help you improve your Photoshop skills.

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