Hair is notoriously difficult to cut out when photo editing. Including all those fine strands was once a job best left to the patient professional; pro Photoshop users generally made use of a complex method using Channels or third-party knockout plug-ins like Extensis Mask Pro. Everyone else had put up with something that looked like it’d been chopped out of Cosmo with a pair of garden shears!
That was until the arrival of Photoshop CS5, which made the whole hair-masking process a doddle with the addition of the Refine Radius tool. It’s part of the Refine Edge/Refine Mask command, and it enables you to make a rough selection around hair edges and then brush out the background automatically, leaving you with nothing but the hair and its fine strands.
It works exceptionally well when there’s decent contrast between the hair strands and the background, often producing flawless results. To get the most out of this tool it’s a good idea to plan your composite images, shooting subjects against backgrounds with good tonal separation from the hair; in this case the white backdrop works well with the reddy-brown hair. You’re then guaranteed a spot-on cut out in seconds, ready for any exotic backdrop to slide perfectly into place.
Photo Editing: how to cut out hair in Photoshop CS5
Step 1: Open your image
Here we have a portrait shot against a white, cloudy sky, which has been overexposed almost to nothingness. We want to give the portrait a little more context, so we’re going to mask the background and drop in a new location.
We’ve opened this second image, a seascape, which will be our new location.
Step 2: Make a rough selection
Press W for the Quick Selection tool and click-and-drag inside the subject to try and select him. It should work fine until you try to drag to include hair strands – then the background will likely be selected too. Hold down Alt and click-and-drag around the white background to remove it from the areas outside of the stray hairs.
Step 3: Use the Refine Radius tool
Now go to Select>RefineEdge. Change the View Mode to On Black, so we can get a better sense of what is going on, and click the Smart Radius checkbox. Adjust the Brush Size with [ and ] and brush out the white around the hair edges, working repeatedly as needed. Check the Decontaminate Colours box (50% setting is fine) and set Output To to New Layer With Layer Mask. Click OK.
Step 4: Drop in the new background
Navigate to the seascape image. Hold Shift and drag the ‘Background’ layer to the portrait image. Reposition this layer between the ‘Background copy’ and ‘Background’ layers, then hit Ctrl+T for a Free Transform. Hold Shift and drag the corner handles to make the background fit. The shoreline is a bit high, so extend the background to drop it down a bit.
Step 5: Match the background
Our backdrop looks darker than the subject, so add a Curves Adjustment Layer above ‘Layer 1’ and push up with a single point. The sky goes too light, so hit G for the Gradient tool and drag from the top of the image to the shoreline. Now select ‘Layer 1’ and run Filter>Blur>LensBlur, with the maximum Radius settings, to match the subject’s depth of field.
Step 6: Tweak the hair edges
The hair edges still look a little too light, so add a Curves Adjustment Layer and create a clipping mask by Alt-clicking between the two layers so the ‘Background layer’ is untouched. Drag down from the top point on the Curve to knock back highlights, invert the mask with Ctrl+I and paint into the hair with white at 100%. You can also add a little to the shoulders, neck and face edges at 30% to finish.
Once the Gradient tool has been selected, ensure the first of five icons (Linear Gradient) is highlighted in the Options bar before clicking the drop-down menu to access the Gradient Editor. Choose the first swatch (foreground-to-background) and click OK. Press D to reset the colour palette to white and black, and begin drawing as described in Step 5. Everything before the start point will be revealed, everything after the release point concealed, and everything between fades from one to the other.