Six Fixes For Flyaway Hairs
How to minimize stray hairs while shooting and when retouching
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I shoot portraits for a living. That means part of my living is tied to my ability to make a portrait subject happy with their appearance. And that means I have to keep an eye on subtle details that can make or break a photograph. What's the number one detail that portrait subjects ask me to remove? Flyaway hairs. It's taken me several years to develop my preferred approach for retouching stray hairs, along with the lighting skills to minimize them while shooting. So here's what I've learned about fixing flyaways and keeping them hidden in the first place.
1. Hair Spray.
I know, it's an obvious one, but I'd be remiss if I didn't start with the possibility of using hair spray to tame the wildest hairs. It's a delicate balance, though, because if you don't know what you're doing you could really mess up someone's finely coiffed 'do. In reality, I don't often wield a can of Aquanet, but when I work with a stylist she sure does. A comb and a can of hair spray in trained hands will go a long way toward minimizing the flyaways that can occupy hours of your time in post.
Backlighting is one of my favorite lighting techniques to create definition and separation with any number of subjects. With portraits, a strong backlight (also known as a hairlight) does a great job of dividing subject from background, which often creates a more polished, three-dimensional effect. But backlighting also makes frizzy hair and flyaways glow. Backlight a flyway hair and it turns into a translucent stripe rather than a minimized little hair. So if you have a subject whose hair is wild an untamed, eliminate your backlight and stick with frontal illumination to minimize the distracting glow of flyaway hairs.
3. Healing Brush.
The healing brush is the tool that most photographers run to first in order to fix flyaway hairs. But it's not my favorite. I do advocate giving it a try on stubborn, large, finely-defined stray hairs, but not to expect great results. Sometimes the tool works, and for a newbie figuring out these fixes it can be a huge help. Beyond the "first try this" approach, I've had limited success with the spot healing brush. When you do try it, keep the brush size just barely larger than the hair to minimize smudging and keep the fix isolated to the area where it's needed.
4. Clone stamp.
For years I've used the clone stamp to fix flyaway hairs, and while it's always done a decent job it's only fairly recently that I've figured out how to make the tool shine. Instead of using it with a setting of 100% opacity, set the stamp much lower—like 50% or less. Then use multiple clicks to build up the type of change you might have been attempting with the brush at 100% opacity. The difference is subtlety; slowly building an edit with multiple clicks will make for a more seamless repair. If your correction looks worse than the problem did in the first place, you've hardly helped your cause. So set the opacity low and use many clicks to build up the edit, stopping once it looks perfect. This way you'll never worry again about going too far with a repair. Also, be sure to use a large, soft brush in order to create the most seamless blends you can. A too-small brush size will usually make the edits stick out more noticeably. The one exception being when working next to other hair, where a finer, harder brush can help retain edge definition in the hairs you'd like to keep.
One modification I frequently make to my preferred clone stamp approach is to try setting the mode to "darken only" or "lighten only," depending on the color of both the hair and the background. A blond hair highlighted against a dark background can be easily edited with the "darken only" mode on the clone stamp. You'll be amazed at how the tool only eliminates the flyaway hairs without tarnishing the surrounding area. One caveat, though, is that even though a hair may be bright white, it might have a small "halo" of darkness around it which won't be eliminated with this approach. For that you can always go back and clean up with the clone stamp set to its normal mode.
It may sound strange to consider using a paintbrush to paint away stray hairs, but in reality is the approach can be a powerful tool in the hands of a photographer striving for subtlety. I use this technique to remove shine from portrait subjects' skin too, so it's handy that it can also remove stray hairs. To use it, first choose the paintbrush with the opacity and flow set below 30%. Then control-click on the area around the stray hair to select an appropriate background color and use several clicks and short brushstrokes to paint the background color over the flyaway hair. You may find that occasionally re-clicking to select a new background color is a great way to blend the correction and hide it from view. As with the clone stamp approach, a larger, soft brush will usually minimize edges that might otherwise appear.