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3 Steps to Photoshop Retouching for Natural Looking Portraits

In the world of photography, editing and retouching are just as important as the imagery itself. Every image that you see published has been through its fair share of post-processing before it is seen by the public. If photographers didn’t retouch their images, it would be like a painter presenting his sketches instead of the finished painting.

portrait retouching techniques

With the fast moving technology of today, extraordinary images are everywhere, every day. Even with perfect lighting, and preparation work, a final image always receives some post-production attention. The trick to post-processing is to make it look as if it hasn’t been retouched at all, or as I call it, “refreshed”.

With the endless possibilities of Photoshop retouching techniques available, how do you know what tools to use when, and why? In this article, you will learn professional photoshop tricks that work for any portrait, any time. This is a simple recipe to give your subjects a naturally refreshed look, letting their genuine beauty shine, while keeping the integrity of their expressions, their features, and the clarity of the digital image itself.

Key Steps in the Refreshing Process

  1. Evaluate
  2. Eliminate
  3. Reduce
  4. Repeat

The specific tools and techniques discussed here are tried and tested with over 10 years of retouching experience. It is best to experiment with these concepts, and with practice, develop your own style of retouching.

This process has been designed as a routine that will eventually create habits in your mind, train your eyes to see the details more clearly, and create an overall efficient and effective retouching process. The goal is to spend less time in front of the computer and more time behind the lens (where the real magic takes place).

Let’s look at each one of these steps in order. We will use a studio image of a musician as the example throughout this article.

A great tip to keep in mind during this entire process is that with each new step, or even sub-steps, it is best to duplicate your layer before beginning to use the next tool. This way you are creating a back-up of each step for you to return to, if you notice that you are retouching too much on any particular step. It also allows you to see the progression of your workflow in Photoshop.

portrait retouching techniques

Step One: Evaluate

Immediately analyze the image you are about to retouch. How is the lighting? How do the subjects look? What is going on in the background?

When you see the areas of the image that will need your attention ahead of time, you can quickly assess what you will want to accomplish with the retouching process. This is the beginning of training your eye to seek out the details, and look at your image differently, than when you first took the shot.

Look at your image as if it’s not a photograph of a person, but instead consider that it is just shapes, colors, and light. Identify where the light is coming from and how it is affecting the subject.

In this example, the direction of the light is causing more definition, creating harsh shadows across the subject. This was done intentionally to give a more characterized, artistic portrait for this musician.

However, its effect can be overpowering at times and cause distraction to the viewer. This is noticeable in the darker shadows around his right eye, and the highlights shining across the left side of his face.

portrait retouching techniques
Here are some additional elements to be aware of.

  • Different textures: The subject is an older man wearing a suit and playing an instrument. All of these textures are different and will require various tools and techniques when the retouching process happens in those areas.
  • Zoom in close: As with any image, zooming in close will allow us to see any skin imperfections, dirt, dust, or scratches that you will want to eliminate all together.
  • Make judgements on distracting elements: There are some parts of the image that could stay or be eliminated, it becomes your choice as the retoucher. What is a distraction? What is a part of the purpose of the image? For instance, the scratches on the trumpet and the left side pocket sticking out could potentially be distractions, but maybe this client would like them to stay.

Once you identify the elements that need attention, decide if each will be removed altogether, or if it needs to be reduced. For instance, the stray hair and the dust on his jacket need to be removed, but the redness and wrinkles are only to be reduced, not eliminated completely. This difference is important for the next steps in the process. So ask yourself, will it be eliminated or reduced?

Step Two: Eliminate

Once you have made your initial evaluation of the image, you can begin the elimination process. This includes but is not limited to: dust, dirt, scratches, pimples, food in teeth, and anything else that doesn’t belong. Zoom in and examine your image up close. Think of each area as shapes and color, allowing yourself to be as accurate as possible when removing these details.

For this first elimination step, it is best to use the spot healing brush, the healing brush tool, the spot tool, the patch tool, and/or any other tool that completely removes things. Don’t rely on just one. Learning how each tool works different will help you use a combination of these removal tools effectively, and efficiently.

For instance, the clone stamp tool copies exactly what you click. The healing brush blends the color and texture of what you click on, with the area you want to fix. The spot healing brush is a genius tool. It has its own way of deciding if you want to blend the area you click on, or remove the unusual pixels within that area (like a stray hair against a solid background).

portrait retouching techniques

The more you make effects to a digital image, the more destructive you can be to the clarity of the final file. Using these tools is crucial to the integrity of the image. If you can click it away in less than a few clicks, then this is the time to do it.

Once the “spots” are removed, you can focus your attention on reducing or “refreshing” the imperfections we all know we have, but don’t want to notice in the permanence of a photograph.

Step Three: Reduce

This is where your artistic eye, and attention to detail come into play. Pimples go away, dust and dirt are just distractions, but our wrinkles, smile lines, scars and facial expressions are the details that make each of us unique. Those are the things you will focus on in this stage of the “refreshing” process.

Every subject you see in an image has great qualities that they might not be confident about accentuating. It is your job as the retoucher to keep not just the integrity of the digital image, but the integrity of the special moment and the emotional expressions that have been captured in that image.

For this reason, this second step is crucial. Train yourself to pay attention to the details, the purpose of the image, and the personality of your subject. If you are retouching a very smiley bride who laughed a lot, you don’t want to remove her laugh lines, but you do want to reduce the shadows and shine as her makeup wears off and the night wears on.

In this specific example of the musician, the character lighting has created great contrast that add to the personality of the subject. But in some areas it over accentuates his wrinkles by creating deep shadows and harsh highlights of overexposure.

The Best Trick in Portrait Retouching

portrait retouching techniques

Duplicate your layer after completing step one. With this new top layer highlighted, select from the main photoshop menu: Filter > Noise > Dust & Scratches. A window will pop-up with settings options, and you will notice the image behind that window now shows a preview of this filter effect.

In the Dust & Scratches window, change your Radius to 40px and Threshold to 1. Experiment with these settings and see what works best for your images.

Once you have applied the Dust & Scratches filter (on the top, duplicated layer), you will notice how it blurs the image. But, this is not like using the blur tool. The method that this filter uses specifically identifies differences between pixels and their surrounding area. The Radius is what removes the “dust” and the Threshold is what brings back the details. Dissimilar pixels are modified to achieve a balance between sharpening and hiding defects.

The Dust & Scratches filter provides a more powerful way to remove noise from an image than any other noise removal tool. This is key to keeping the integrity of the textures, color, and overall feel of the digital image as you see it in print or on a screen.

Now that you have a layer with the right effect applied, you are going to add a layer mask to this newly altered layer, and invert the mask. Do this by clicking the icon “Add layer mask” at the bottom of your layers panel. Notice the layer mask shows up as a white box next to your highlighted top layer. Now invert this layer mask by holding the command button and clicking the letter, “i”. This will now change the layer mask to black and bring the original image come back into view.

portrait retouching techniques

Step 1: duplicate the layer
Step 2: add a layer mask
Step 3: invert the mask so it is black

You can see how the image looks unaffected by the Dust & Scratches filter. Really, it is just hidden under the layer mask. Now you can paint back into the areas where you want to reveal the Dust & Scratches filter. The trick is to do this precisely, and not too much.

Select your brush tool (keyboard shortcut is B). Making sure the layer mask is selected (not the layer – square brackets will show around the mask when it is selected like shown above), noticing its color is black, paint with the color white to bring back the Dust & Scratches filter effect.

The key to using the brush tool on an inverted layer mask is to experiment with the brush opacity strength. When focusing on the skin areas, start by brushing back at only 30% opacity. Remember, you can always brush back over an area again more or less by toggling back and forth between painting with black or white. Painting with white will reveal the effect, while painting with black with hide it.

Steer clear of teeth, lips, eyes, nostrils, ear folds, and edges like the jaw line and hair lines during this time. These areas have specific edges and textures that are important to the overall image.

Once you have completed the skin areas, you can smooth the background. Change the opacity to 100% to completely smooth out this solid color background. This only works on solid backgrounds that are seamless. Using the brush at 100% will remove any dust spots that show up from the camera lens, or dirt that is actually on the studio backdrop.

portrait retouching techniques

Tips to Keep in Mind During This Step

  1. In general, keep your brush below 50% when painting the effect on skin. This allows more than 50% of the original textures and features to still be noticeable. If you paint more than 50% in these areas, you will see a putty-like effect starting to take over, causing your image to be more retouched than refreshed.
  2. Using the bracket keys on the keyboard [ and ], frequently change the size of your brush as you paint. Keep your brush hardness at 0 unless absolutely necessary. This allows you to move in and around smaller and larger areas of the skin and background with more efficiency and accuracy.
  3. The zoom tool is your best friend during this part of the refreshing process. Remember, instead of thinking of this image as a portrait, consider that you are just seeing shapes, color, and light. Zoom in close and pay attention to the changes you are creating. Force yourself to go too far with some brush strokes so that you know the limit. When you have gone too far, just toggle back to painting with black (set your opacity to 100%) and remove that last brush stroke all the way before beginning again (or use Command+Z to undo the last step).
  4. Be careful around fingers and edges of arms and legs where there are small curved areas. If you paint near these edges the Dust & Scratches will run over the edge and remove the curved areas all together, altering the look of elbows, fingers, shoulders, ankles and knees.
  5. Men can have beards and tend to have rougher looking skin than women. Be careful not to soften too much on a man’s skin. The same goes for grandparents.
  6. With babies and children, who have much smaller features, it is important to be aware of the shadow areas that you paint over. If you change the shape of their skin too much, it will no longer look like them. This is particularly important around the nose, eyes and mouth – their tiniest features.

Here is the before and after of the Dust & Scratches filter effect on the musician’s face:

portrait retouching techniques

Notice the softening of the skin and reduction of the shadows in the wrinkles, yet he still looks untouched with most of the original texture still visible.

Now that you have completed the most important task of this post processing technique, it is time to repeat the steps from the beginning. Start again by evaluating the image as a whole. Notice any other areas that need attention. Remember to duplicate the top layer once you have completed any step in the process. Allow yourself to duplicate your layers as many times as you want. It’s always a safe bet.

Next, eliminate. This is your chance to eliminate any larger parts of the image that take more time. Elements to consider removing are:

  • Some (not all) of the scratches across the trumpet.
  • His left-side jacket pocket.

After eliminating for the final time, move on to step three again. In this case, instead of using Dust & Scratches as your reduction tool, you can use other popular items in the toolbox. Tools to consider using are the Healing and Spot Brushes, Dodge and Burn, and Sharpen and Saturate/Desaturate.

photoshop brushes for portrait retouching

Eliminate then Reduce – Repeat.

First, don’t forget to duplicate your layer before starting this step! If you don’t duplicate, this step will not work.

To lighten the shadowed area of the musician’s right eye, the Dodge Tool used at 50% on shadows would look too overly processed. But by allowing it to be over done on this newly duplicated top layer, you can then reduce the opacity of the layer to bring back the layer underneath at 50% or more. Now the over processed shadows look naturally lighter than the original.

This technique is great for all the tools mentioned above. The Sharpen tool can be used on eyes and jewelry. The Healing and Spot tools can be used for under eyes, and shadows that need a bit more attention. Desaturate and Dodge tools can be combined to whiten teeth. Anytime you want to reduce using these tools, just remember to duplicate the layer; make your changes, then reduce the opacity of that newly affected layer until the effect looks natural.

At this point in the retouching process, you have walked through each step of the process twice. It is time evaluate your finished image. This is where all those duplicated layers comes in handy. Keeping the top most layer turned on and the bottom original layer on, turn off every layer in between. Then zoom-in to 100% (accurate view of pixels), and click on and off of your top layer to see all the changes you have made.

If necessary make any other slight adjustments, like cropping to the correct size, then save your image. It’s best to always save the Photoshop layered copy (save as a PSD file) as well as a flattened JPG file, in the quality size you want.

We all know photoshop is full of endless possibilities, and we all love to learn. If you have other techniques that are great for “refreshing” your portraits, please share.

As with all things in life, this process takes practice to perfect. With practice you will gain accuracy, efficiency and train your eyes to see your images (before and after post-processing) in a whole new light, giving you better control over the look and feel of your retouched portraits.

portrait retouching techniques

Remember, as you learn and grow as a photographer, the goal is to always create your best images in the camera, and not just assume that you can just fix it in post. Keep this in mind, and with every click of the shutter you will become a better photographer, and spend less time in front of the computer.

Of course, you will always edit and retouch your very best images. When you do sit down to do so, now you will have a whole new range of techniques you can apply.

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Danielle Werner
Danielle Werner

is a free-spirited photographer, designer and retoucher, on an endless journey around the world. She is also a passionate writer and educator who teaches photography workshops wherever she goes. Read Danielle’s inspirational travel stories at LiveWonderful.com, and check out more of her adventure and lifestyle photography at DEW Imagery & Design.

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