Photoshop tutorial: Multiple headswaps in a family portrait

Any photographer who creates family portraits, for family sessions or wedding family formals or any other group setting, knows it can be nearly impossible to get everyone looking at you and looking pleasant in a single shot.  Sometimes you get magically cooperative subjects who are all perfectly cooperative at the exact same moment -- but more often than not, it's very useful to know how to do head and body swaps in Photoshop!

This tutorial will take you step by step through my process for swapping in post, with this as our goal:

Headswap tutorial for family portraits | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

I have three beautiful children, who are actually pretty cooperative for being photographer's kids.  :)  But I've definitely had years of practice perfecting my Photoshop swapping skills!  I'm going to use our most recent family portrait as my example in this tutorial.  I really didn't set myself up well for success here -- we had just moved, and I couldn't find my remote trigger or tripod anywhere.  So I put my camera on a tilty lawn chair, used the 10-second timer on the shutter, and sprinted into place while holding my then-9-month-old baby to get us in place in time for the shot.  I did this about 5 or 6 times, my older kids laughing at me the whole time, and then prayed that I'd gotten enough usable shots of each of us to piece something together!


Headswaps only really work if you're working with photos that were taken in the same light and with your subjects standing at the same angle relative to the camera.  Get the right source photos, and the headswap work will be a cinch!

Back at my computer, I decided that three of the photos I'd managed to get were promising candidates for swaps.  Here are my three source photos after basic raw processing in Lightroom (remember to process all of your images such that they match!):

Photoshop headswap source photos for family portrait | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

I liked myself in #1, my son's face and my baby daughter's face in #2, and my husband and my older daughter in #3.  So I decided to use #3 as my base photo, since I could use most of the bodies (my husband, my son, and my older daughter) and just layer in smaller areas to swap out.


I brought #3 into Photoshop from Lightroom (by right-clicking on the photo and choosing Edit in > Photoshop; remember to have your external editing preferences set correctly so you're always working in the correct color space!).  The first thing I did was correct the crazy tilt caused by my ad hoc lawn chair tripod.  :)  I wanted to keep all of my pixels (especially since I was hoping to print a large canvas of this image) -- so I always use this method to straighten images.

Photoshop headswap tutorial for family portrait | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

Then I went ahead and copied and cloned and blended to cover over the resulting white edges, giving me a good clean base for all my headswap work:

Photoshop headswap base photo with cloned edges | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

My husband wears transition glasses, which we forgot to swap with his non-transition lenses.  (See what I mean about not setting myself up for success here?)  So I took a minute at this point to recover the data from his eye area, using a duplicate layer on Screen blend mode and masking it onto his lenses.  It's not perfect (to get it perfect, I probably could spend more time with a Color blend mode layer and some careful low-opacity cloning/healing), but this was good enough for this photo:


Then it was time to start layering in the other photos and swapping out heads and bodies!  I went back to Lightroom and dragged and dropped photo #2 onto my base image in Photoshop (by clicking on the photo in the filmstrip along the bottom of the screen in Develop mode, and dragging the photo directly on top of the open file in Photoshop).  Dropping the photo in directly from Lightroom like this brings it in as a new layer, and, very importantly, as a smart object.  Which means you can resize and transform this layer without worrying about damaging the quality.

A small practical tip: I also immediately renamed this new layer "J head," so I knew at a glance what purpose this layer was serving.  I knew I'd have lots of layers going on here, so it's good to rename them as you're adding to keep them all straight!

I lowered the opacity of this new image layer so I could see my base layer through it, and then rotated and resized the image until my son's face lined up perfectly.  Then I brought the layer opacity back up to 100%.  You can see the edges of the new photo at the top and bottom here:

Layered photo for headswap | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

Then I added a mask to this new layer, and inverted the mask so it was all filled with black.  And then I took a white brush and masked my son's head back on.  I zoomed into 100% and used a soft brush (0% hardness) to make sure the background and the lines of his shirt blended in well.  Here's how it looked with his head swapped in:

Headswapped family portrait | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

And just for kicks, here's a little animated GIF showing the before and after at this stage!

Animated GIF of headswap in family portrait | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

Then I did the same for me and my baby girl, as a single chunk, being brought in from photo #1.  Here's how it looked after I'd finished my masking on that layer:

Body and head swaps for family portrait | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

And just to make it clearer what exactly was swapped in, here's what my mask looks like on that layer:

Mask overlay in headswap for family portrait | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

Then one final layer for my baby daughter's head.  I brought in photo #2 again as a new layer, and resized and rotated it until her head looked good on the base photo.  Because her head is turned significantly here, simply masking it in wasn't going to be enough -- as you'll see, there are bits of her original face still showing, and her neckline needed to be fixed as well:

Headswap in progress for family portrait | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

So I added a new blank layer immediately on top of this layer, and started careful cloning.  I reconstructed my husband's shirt to cover the leftover bits of my daughter's face, and cloned bits of my shirt to cover the original back of her neck:

Headswaps for family portrait | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

And then all my swapping work was done!  At this point, this is what my layers palette looked like (and you'll see an extra blank layer on top of my base photo to clean up some long stems of grass in front of my older daughter's leg, as well as a levels layer to darken the bit of background that had been swapped in along my shoulder and back):

Photoshop layers palette for headswap | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

I like grouping my layers to keep them more organized, so I put all of my swapping and cloning layers together in the "Swaps and glasses" group.

Then I finished the edit with levels layers to make it pop and enhance the autumn colors.  (For more on how amazingly powerful levels layers are, I highly recommend Damien Symonds' Levels Class!)  And here was my final result:

Family portrait after headswaps | Christina Keddie Photography | Photoshop tutorials

It actually took significantly longer to write this all out than it did to do the edit itself.  :)  (Next time, I'll have to post a video of me doing one of these instead!)

Feel free to reach out to me if you have any questions!  Happy swapping!

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