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3 Essential Photoshop Tools for New Portrait Photographers

Opening Photoshop for the first time is kind of like going on your first date; your hands sweat, your eyes glaze over, you completely lose all sense of direction and time. At least that was the scenario for me.


Photoshop is an incredibly complex program that can be used as an artistic tool for positive enhancement, or gross distortion when it comes to portraiture. It’s all too easy to over-edit, get carried away with the sheer number of the tools at your fingertips, or attempt elaborate cover-up schemes for poorly shot images when first starting out. There are certain tools I grasped at the beginning of my learning curve, however, that were essential for editing clean and simple portrait images. Three years after my initial dumb-struck encounter, and countless hours of reading and practicing later, there are three tools that I still use in almost every photo I push through Photoshop. I’ve since discovered that users at every stage continually apply these tools to their photography workflow, as well.

Everyone has to start somewhere, so if you know nothing else about it yet, start by familiarizing yourself with these three Photoshop tools and you’ll build a solid foundation for taking your portrait photography editing to the next level.

1. Curves

The “S-curve” is one of the most common techniques in editing that packs an instant punch. I guarantee that a large majority of photographers working on everything from landscapes, to boudoir images, use this tool at some step in their Photoshop workflow. There are many different effects that you can achieve using the Curves tool, so the trick is to just play around with it a little to see what works best per image; there’s no specific settings within the tool that will always achieve great results. Much of it is about preference. You can achieve bold, colorful, contrast or a soft matte finish, simply by just readjusting the points on the curve. Extreme curves will give some strange discolorations, though, so for clean portrait editing, stick to small adjustments.



2. Clone (stamp) Tool


This is especially helpful for fixing blemishes or small imperfections on skin, but has countless other applications as well. To use, just hover your mouse over the area you want to copy, press the Option key for Mac (Alt for Windows) and click. This “clones” the area you want to replicate. Release the option/alt key, navigate your cursor over the area you wish to fix, then click again. This will replace the “bad” area with the “good” area.

Lesson learned: don’t try to do all your skin smoothing with the clone tool. It will look way over-done and it’s far too time-consuming to match up every pixel. This was clearly not my smartest idea, I admit. Save yourself the trouble—there are better ways!

As I got better with my precision of this tool, I was able to use it for things like removing stray hairs, filling in patches of sand or grass, and other little pesky details as well. It really is a crucial tool to master.

Before after clone

3. Dodge and Burn

Dodge and burn

Dodge and Burn are technically two different tools but are often used in conjunction with each other. They are a power duo with subtle but impressive impact. I use it most commonly on eyes to give them that extra sparkle. To understand the function of each, think of it this way: when you “dodge,” you’re dodging the shadows in order to brighten your highlights and when you “burn,” you’re burning in the shadows and making them darker.

Befor eafter dodge burn

When I use these tools for eyes, I decrease the opacity to about 30% and “dodge” the iris, then I “burn” the shadows in the ring around it as well as the eyelashes. Again, make sure you don’t go overboard and give your client ghostly bright eyes, but a little adjustment goes a long way in those close-up shots! You can also use these tools to add color and contrast to skies, or add interesting light to specific areas of your image.

As with all the Photoshop tools, the successful edit hinges on the user knowing what to use when, and how to use in moderation. If you are a beginner, I hope this helps give you some direction about where to begin and rid you of the deer-in-the-headlights look for good!

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Leah O'Connell
Leah O'Connell

is a professional photographer, specializing in playful, natural light portraiture of children and families through her experience-based business, Firefly Photography. She and her husband recently relocated to Charlottesville, VA where she dreams of building a boutique photography studio and community hub for creative kids events. Visit her website to see her work, and follow along with her comical daily musings on her blog and social media.

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