How to Cut Out Hair in Photoshop
Making a selection of a subject with an undefined outline is regarded by many Photoshop users as an incredibly frustrating process. Whilst the program offers a wide range of selection tools, designed to make things simple, using them to cut out a complex shape can make the process the opposite.
One of the most common scenarios in which you could be forced to make a difficult selection is when cutting out a subject with hair that gives the shape an unclear outline. Matters can be complicated even further when the subject is in front of a background composed of lots of colours, in particular when the colours surrounding the subject are similar to those that make up the hair.
So in this tutorial we will discuss how to cut out hair in Photoshop, allowing you to gain the skills to make these more complex subject selections with no problem at all! So let’s get started.
Step 2: Completing the Selection
Once you have your image open in the program, you will be able to select the subject through one of the two processes that follow.
At this stage, the tutorial will split into two sections, one explaining a simple selection technique, suitable for images which have a simple background, and the other following a more complex selection technique, which must be used for images which have a complicated background.
It’s probably best that you now check your image to see which process is the most suitable in your case.
Option 1: Simple Background
Step 3: Using the Quick Selection Tool
With your image open in Photoshop (see Step One) you will want to begin by choosing the Quick Selection Tool from the toolbar down the left side of your screen. Just as it’s named, the tool is perfect for making quick selections of less complex outlines.
Using this tool, click and drag to make a selection around the subject. It doesn’t have to be too precise but try to make it follow the main outline as closely as possible.
When using the Quick Selection Tool, you can alter the selection by doing the following:
Hold down the Shift key to add to the selection.
Hold down the Alt/Option key to remove from the selection.
Step 4: Refining the Edges
Once you are happy with the basic selection that you have created, refine it by right clicking on the selected area, and clicking on Select and Mask from the menu that appears as a result.
Selecting this will open up a window, within which we’ll choose the Refine Edge Brush (located on the left side of the screen). You may wish to resize this as required.
Now, use the brush to run over the edges of your selection to automatically refine the outline and improve the quality of your cut-out. Doing this causes Photoshop to read the relevant pixels and hence attempt to clean up the edges appropriately.
Step 5: Adjusting the Sliders
Also, in the Select and Mask window should appear two sliders, labelled Feather and Contrast. The values of these variables can be adjusted to make subtle changes to further improve the quality of your cut-out.
So let’s continue by heading to the Feather Slider and increasing the value of it very slightly- the suitable amount will vary between images, so just play around until you’re happy with the effect.
After this, increase the value on the Contrast Slider to around 20%.
Step 6: Further Refinement
If, at this point, there are still edges that you wish to refine even further, you can do so using the Brush Tool. Use a black brush to make areas invisible (in other words remove them from the selection), and a white brush to add areas back to the selection.
Step 7: Output the Selection to a Layer Mask
Underneath Output Settings, which is located on the right side of the window that should still be open (the Select and Mask window), you’ll now want to complete the process by selecting Output to a Layer Mask, then clicking OK.
The subject should now be cut out using a layer mask, and should appear as a subject on a transparent background (represented by a grey and white checked pattern).
If you want to check the quality of your selection, simply add in a background image or another layer beneath the one containing the subject to see how the edges look over another image.
Unless you want to go back in at this point and redo the process to further refine any edges, the process should be pretty much completed!
Option 2: Complex Background
Step 3: Duplicating a Channel
For this method, we’ll mainly be utilising the Channels Tool. So let’s begin by heading to the Channels Panel. If this isn’t already open, then you can open it from the toolbar along the top of the screen, by selecting Window > Channels.
Once you’re in the Channels Panel, find the channel with the most contrast, for instance where the hair is darkest.
Once you’ve determined which one this is, you’ll need to duplicate the channel (right click > duplicate layer). This can also be done by clicking and dragging the layer onto the ‘New’ icon, located second from the right at the bottom of the window.
Step 4: Adjusting the Shadows and Setting a White Point
The next thing we’re going to want to do is set the background as the white point in the image. To do this, let’s head to Image > Adjustments. From this menu, select either the Levels or Curves tool. Experiment with the shapes of the curve until the background is established as a white color.
You could also adjust the shadows to darken the hair, but don’t take this too far.
Step 5: Creating a Silhouette
Now the aim of this method is to ultimately create a silhouette, which can act as a mask. For it to make a full selection, we have to therefore, effectively, fill in the subject with black, and the background with white (we completed the latter in the previous step).
So you’ll now need to work on making the subject darker. Select the Burn Tool from the side toolbar. This will normally show up down the side as the Dodge Tool, so to access the burn tool, right click on the dodge tool icon and select it from the menu that appears.
In the top toolbar, you will see that there are now options that let you edit the tool. Simply set the Range to Shadows. This will only make the dark areas darker, meaning that it won’t affect the whites and highlights (in other words, it won’t harm the white background).
Click and drag around the edges of the subject’s face and body until you have sufficiently darkened the outline.
Now that we’ve darkened the outline, we can go ahead and turn the rest of the subject into a silhouette by painting over it quickly with a black brush. The Brush Tool can be selected from the toolbar down the left side of the screen and is displayed by a paintbrush icon.
Also paint over any dark areas in the background that you don’t want to be included in the final selection with a white brush.
Step 6: Completing the Selection
Once you’re happy with your silhouette, we can apply it as a selection and finalise the outcome.
To do this, hold Ctrl [Win] / Cmd [Mac] whilst clicking on the thumbnail of the new channel, in order to load its selection.
Now right click on the selected area and click Select Inverse.
With the opposite area selected, now head to the top of the screen and click Select and Mask.
Go to the output settings at the bottom of the window (bottom right of the screen). Here, change the Output To option to New Layer with Layer Mask.
Once this new layer has been created, select its layer mask by clicking on its thumbnail, and head to Image > Adjustments > Invert. This will invert the blacks and the whites in the layer mask.
This should create an outcome that looks something like the one below:
And now you should be finished! You’ve now got a clean selection of a subject, despite the difficulties raised by the hair in the photograph, and even more importantly you have the skills to allow you to create a similarly great outcome again and again.
Do you want to find out more about how to cut out hair in Photoshop? Check out the videos below, which cover two methods which will each vary in relevance depending on the style of your photo.
This video by PiXimperfect on how to cut out hair from a photo containing an extremely busy background. This will work for photos that are more complex, requiring even more precision than the techniques above offer.
Or this video by Dansky which offers a method that is suitable for much simpler photos.