John Suler's Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche

Head Transplants in Photography

In digital photography, transplanting a head from an individual onto the body of another human (or animal) can lead to fun, fascinating, and sometimes quite powerful results. Of course such digital operations move us beyond realistic photography and into the realm of fiction and fantasy.

For Humor

Why would someone want to do such a transplant? In many cases it’s a visual joke to play on a friend or a famous person. Like putting the head of your buddy or the president onto Arnold Schwarzenegger’s body. In other cases, as in contrived political images, a serious visual statement is being made, even if the image is humorous.

As a comment on personality

That visual statement is usually about the character of the person whose head is being transplanted. You might use the new body as a way to amplify and exaggerate some aspect of the individual’s personality, as in placing a patriotic person’s head onto Uncle Sam. Or, in a perhaps playful, ironic, or sarcastic fashion, you propose a reversal of some aspect of the individual’s personality by joining the head to someone who seems to be the exact opposite, like attaching grandma’s face onto a skate-boarder flying high above the pavement, or placing a conservative celebrity onto a hippie.

Some psychological theories state that the human psyche embodies polarities. Beneath personality traits that appear on the surface, you’ll find underlying, perhaps unconscious traits that are the exact opposite. A very passive person, for example, might harbor hidden aggression. For this reason, the new body might be a way to point out some latent, undeveloped, idealized, or wished-for characteristic of the person. The new body alone might express these intentions, or in some cases it’s the environment around the new body that conveys the message.

Deliberate Deception

Unfortunately, head transplants could be used for the purpose of deliberate deception – as an attempt to alter a person’s public image or reputation by placing that person's head on a particular body or in a particular situation. Celebrities could be given more lovely figures. Careers could be wrecked by putting people in a context that ruins their social standing. By developing a trained eye for some of the visual cues that I’ll mention in a moment, such fakes can be detected.

Practical Applications

I should also mention that head transplants might be used to solve some practical problems in photography, without any intention to deceive, generate humor, or comment on someone’s personality. For example, you might have two shots of a person: one in which the composition is perfect but the subject’s facial expression isn’t optimal, and a second in which the composition is flawed but the facial expression is perfect. So why not transplant the “good” head into the shot with the good composition? Or, if you have several shots of a group of people, but there’s no one shot where all the facial expressions look right, take the shot with the most number of good heads, and transplant into it the optimal heads from the other shots. As I'll explain in a minute, these kinds of transplants, using photos of the same scene, are usually easier to pull off.


A few tips on how to do it...

Here in Photographic Psychology I don’t delve deeply into the specifics of image processing techniques. However, here I can offer a few basic suggestions. Head transplants do entail some skill in pulling the effect off successfully so that it looks realistic, rather than like an obvious mismatched combination – although botched transplants can be very comical, if that’s the intended effect.

Creating a realistic transplant involves two sets of skills: a trained eye that can detect why the head and body don’t seem to go together, and some image processing techniques to correct the discrepancies.

Choosing the images: If the head and body come from the same image or similar shots of the same scene, the task will be easier than if the components come from different images or scenes. That's because the lighting on both head and body is probably the same. When using different images, pick ones that are as compatible as possible in terms of shadows, contrast, sharpness, and color. If the components are mismatched on those dimensions, you can use an image editing program to make their visual qualities more compatible. You can try matching colors when the images are still separate (as in using the Photoshop “match color” feature), but often it’s best to transplant the head first, and then adjust it to match the body. Sometimes you might adjust both the head and the body to bring them closer together in their visual qualities.

Color: Photoshop and other image editing programs are quite good at altering color, so that part of the process of matching head to body will be a bit easier. In Photohop, try using combinations of the features for color balance, hue/saturation, levels, and curves. If you know how to work with layers and empty adjustment layers, that will come in very handy to fine-tune your work.

Tonality: Matching tonality (i.e., the range and contrast of brightness levels) will be more tricky. This is why it’s best to start with two images that are as similar as possible concerning the direction of the light, how diffuse or contrasty it is, and the pattern of shadows and highlights it creates. Big mismatches between the head and body image may be impossible to correct. The techniques are subtle, but try adjusting brightness/contrast, levels, curves, and the high pass filter to make the head match the body, the body match the head, or a combination of both. Even if the colors of the head and body blend perfectly, a viewer will sense that something is wrong, often without being able to verbalize why, when the shadows and highlights of the head aren’t consistent with the body. It just doesn't look natural.

Sharpness: Image sharpness is another tricky issue. Again, if the head and body are very different, you’ll find it difficult to make them match. Usually we want to maintain as much sharpness as possible, but a last resort measure might mean making either the head or body MORE blurry to match its partner.

Selecting the head: If you noticed, I skipped an important step in these very basic guidelines. What’s the best way to get the head into the image containing the body? Well, that means making a selection of the head and copying it into the body image. There are a variety of ways to make a good, clean selection. In Photoshop, investigate the techniques for using the various selection tools (e.g., the lasso) - or, if you want to get more sophisticated, look into paths, color range, and techniques for making selections using contrast channels.

If you’re the patient type, it often works well to simply make a loose selection of the head, copy and position it onto the body image, and then use the eraser or a layer mask along with the brush tool to remove the unwanted pixels around the head. Adjust the hardnesss and diameter of the eraser or brush to create an edge that is consistent with the body outline in terms of its sharpness.

Head position: If you want a realistic transplant rather than a zany caricature, pick a head you want to transplant that is similar to the real head in its orientation. For example, if you try to transplant a head that is looking down and/or to the left onto the body of a person who is looking up and/or straight ahead, you’ll have problems because the body postures are inconsistent. Also make sure that the camera angles between the two shots are similar. You’ll have a hard time creating a realistic transplant when one shot is from a high angle and the other is from a low angle.

Big Heads: When placing the head onto the body, you’ll probably have to resize it up or down. Sizing up usually creates more problems than sizing down, especially if the change is big, because the clarity of the image will be affected. Although some people have big heads (we won’t say who!), there’s a tendency to make the head too big for the body during the transplantation. That’s probably a perceptual error. We humans focus on faces and heads. Psychologically, they are important and therefore BIG to us. But in reality, in proportion to the body, they are not as big as we might believe. If you think the transplanted head needs to be smaller than the actual head that’s already on the body, you might try using a cloning tool to cover up the actual head with the background of the image. Also check a shot of the real person to see how the head compares in size to the body. Use that as a guide in constructing the head-transplanted person. Some people have small heads, others have big ones.

Texture: Differences in textures between the head and body images can be yet another tricky obstacle. Noise (grain) can be removed to make one image compatible with the other, but at the sacrifice of image sharpness. Noise can be added to make the body and head images more similar, as long as a grainy effect works with the image.

Transplant Rejects

Despite your best efforts, some head transplants will be rejected by the body. You just won't be able to make the illusion look realistic. But the good news is that every time you try this technique, you will sharpen your skills in noticing and working with tones, colors, and textures.

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If you liked this article, I'd recommend these other ones in Photographic Psychology:

The Id
Interpreting People Pics
Symbolism: What does it mean?

Photographic Psychology: Image and Psyche