How To Retouch Photographs

by Joe Farace

Before you think about retouching any digital image file there are a few simple and basic steps you should consider before you snap the shutter that will minimize the amount of retouching your portraits might need. Good make-up artists are worth whatever they cost and make a big difference in the final portrait. With the right make-up artist and subject you may not need any retouching! Another way to minimize retouching is to slightly overexpose the portrait, making it just a little lighter and brighter than what your meter or camera says is “correct.” This will add a little radiant glow and minimize any minor facial imperfections.

Retouching Tools

Anthropics Technology’s ( Portrait Professional software uses an approach different from all of the other products in this section and lets you define the retouchable areas of a person’s face before it fixes blemishes, reduces wrinkles and removes red-eye. Portrait Professional Portrait also removes shiny highlights, whitens teeth and eyes, and softens lighting to make the portrait flattering. What’s more, it subtly reshapes the face to make it more attractive, smoothing it in a manner that’s similar to what I’ve always done (it’s one of my retouching secrets) using Photoshop’s Liquify tool. The current Windows-only program lets you interactively define the facial parameters such as the shape of the eye, mouth and nose, which is not only easy to do but fun. Then the program does the rest. When it’s finished you can use the software’s sliders to tweak the retouching, but I seldom ever do.

If you’re looking for more dramatic retouching software that can reproduce everything from subtle to glamour photography effects, take a look at Imagenomic’s ( Portraiture. It’s a Photoshop-compatible plug-in that removes skin imperfections while preserving skin texture and delicate details such as the subject’s hair, eyebrows and eyelashes. You can use the one-click preset found in a pop-up menu in the upper left-hand corner of the dialog box or push and pull its many sliders to achieve the overall look you want, and then you can save them as custom presets to use later as part of your portraiture workflow.

Alien Skin Software’s ( Image Doctor 2 is the latest version of its easy-to-use Photoshop-compatible plug-in for photo restoration, retouching and image repair. The five filters found in Image Doctor 2 include Dust and Scratch Remover, JPEG Repair, Blemish Concealer, Skin Softener, and Smart Fill to let you restore rips, scratches, and dust in scans of old photos, repair overcompressed and blocky JPEG images, and retouch and soften skin areas by removing moles, birthmarks, scars, wrinkles, tattoos, pimples, and oily or splotchy skin patches.

Nik Software’s ( Dynamic Skin Softener filter is part of the Color Efex 3.0 Complete Edition. You can select a specific skin color within a portrait using the built-in color picker, so the softening effect is only applied to skin areas while preserving other details such as hair. The dialog box’s Color Reach slider lets you expand the range of colors affected by the filter in addition to the initial color selected by the color picker. The higher the value of this slider, the more colors similar to the selected color are affected. A Soften Strength slider controls the amount of overall softening that’s applied to the colors set by your choices.

Tips, Tricks & Techniques

One of the classic ways to soften and retouch portraits is by using the Diffuse Glow filter (Filter > Distort > Diffuse Glow) filter that renders an image as though it were viewed through an on-camera soft focus filter. The filter that’s built-into Adobe Photoshop, and its less expensive sibling Photoshop Elements, adds see-through white noise with the glow fading from the center of a selection. At moderate slide settings of Graininess 5, Glow Amount 10, Clear Amount 10, the Diffuse Glow filter adds a layer of grain that spread the highlights and creates a soft focus look.

Depending on the image and the style you are trying to achieve any one of these filters and plug-ins work well for skin smoothing, but sometimes additional retouching is required, and more often than not it’s in the area under a subject’s eyes that needs the extra attention. That’s why before applying any of these filters I start retouching with the subject’s eyes using Photoshop’s Clone Stamp. Start by selecting a lighter area to clone that’s just outside the person’s eyes, then use a soft-edged brush and set the tool’s Opacity level to 20 percent (or thereabouts) in the Option Bar so any retouching does not overpower the skin tone and texture that’s already there. Less is more and don’t be afraid to use the History palette to undo what you’ve done and go back and do it over again until it looks natural.

One of my favorite ways to avoid producing an over-retouched look uses a two-step approach: The first step is applying a skin smoothing filter to a Duplicate Layer of the original photograph (Layer > Duplicate Layer). I usually apply the filter at maximum strength because afterwards I’ll select that layer using the Layers palette (by clicking on it) and lower the Opacity percentage until areas of the skin I don’t want to see start to peek through from the background layer. Then I raise the layer’s Opacity just a percentage or two above that minimum level. But I’m not done yet.

Because the skin smoothing filter is applied to everything on the duplicate layer, my second step is to use the Eraser tool to remove part of the duplicate layer allowing portions of the sharper background layer to show through the “holes” in the duplicate layer. This is especially important for those parts of the final image that I want to remain crisp, such as the eyes, lips, and sometimes the hairline. Before or after erasing I use Photoshop’s Clone Stamp or Healing Brush to retouch tiny skin imperfections on the duplicate layer which has the skin soft focus filter applied to it.

Tip: Once you start retouching, especially at higher magnifications, you’ll start to see little details that you may want to improve, but sooner or later you have to quit. If the finished photograph isn’t the way I want it to look after 20 minutes, it’s never going to satisfy me so I start again using another version of that portrait.


One Response to “How To Retouch Photographs”

  1. Thank you for this very unique blog of yours. I can not begin to think your sources for these ideas, but this has made a good impression on me. Hopefully there is more to come.

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