Five Common Portrait Retouching Mistakes to Avoid

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When it comes to retouching portraits there are a number of mistakes that I see photographers make over and over. Part of the problem is that there are too many poorly made skin smoothing plugins. Another is that Photoshop gives you too many options for portrait retouching. There is a simple solution for this which I’ll mention at the end of the article.

In the meantime, let’s look at the most common portrait retouching mistakes photographers make so you can avoid them. Don’t feel too bad if you are making any of these errors. Consider it part of the learning process. You’ll learn to avoid these mistakes as your retouching skills improve.

Portrait retouching mistakes

1. Applying too much skin smoothing

This is a problem you see in commercial photography as well as in the work of hobbyist photographers. If you look closely at a typical cinema photo or a perfume advertisement you’ll see that the models and actors are often retouched to the point they are nearly unrecognizable. They certainly don’t look real or authentic. When this happens in the commercial world it’s little wonder that other photographers imitate what they see and make the same mistakes.

My advice is to consider whether skin smoothing is required in the first place and if it is to apply it with the lightest possible touch. Most photos of men don’t require skin smoothing. It’s conventional to apply some skin smoothing with most portraits of women, but it’s also important to retain skin texture to avoid the plastic skin look.

Portrait retouching mistakes

Two versions of the same portrait. The one on the left has had too much skin smoothing applied. The one on the right has less skin smoothing. You can still see skin texture and the result looks more natural.

The best way to apply skin smoothing that I know of is to use the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom with the Soften Skin preset (this preset comes with Lightroom and affects the Clarity and Sharpness sliders).

Portrait retouching mistakes

When you first apply the preset you’ll see that it’s very strong and as a result the effect is overdone. But you can get around that easily by clicking the black triangle above the Adjustment Brush sliders (below).

Portrait retouching mistakes

When you do so the sliders disappear and are replaced by a single Amount slider. You can set it anywhere from 100 (full effect) to zero (no effect). This lets you apply the skin smoothing effect with a light touch that retains skin texture.

Portrait retouching mistakes

2. Making the model’s eyes bigger

Amongst some photographers, it has become trendy to use Photoshop’s Liquify tool to make the model’s eyes bigger. The idea behind it is simple – large eyes are considered appealing, and enlarging a model’s eyes makes her more attractive.

Where this theory falls down is that most people are smart enough to recognize when this has been done, especially if they know the model personally. It results in an unnatural looking portrait that has lost any authenticity.

Portrait retouching mistakes

3. Making the model’s eyes too bright or too sharp

One of biggest advantages that software like Lightroom and Photoshop has given photographers is the ability to make highly accurate local adjustments. But it’s so easy to make the model’s eyes whiter, brighter or sharper that many photographers do so without thinking about whether or not it looks natural.

A better approach is to apply the effect subtly and zoom into 100% to check that it looks realistic. Go too far and you end up with a portrait where the model’s eyes attract attention for the wrong reason – they are over-processed rather than being the windows into the person’s soul.

portait retouching mistakes

4. Applying too much Clarity

Even professional photographers make this mistake. Recently I saw a friend’s wedding photos and my first thought was that the photographer had applied way too much Clarity, making her look older than she really is. Of course, I didn’t say anything as I didn’t want to spoil her enjoyment of her big day or the wedding photos. But if the photographer had photographed my wedding I would have been very disappointed with the results.

Adding Clarity emphasizes skin texture, blemishes, and wrinkles. For this reason, it’s usually a bad idea to apply it to portraits of women. Normally you do the opposite and apply skin smoothing (which is a negative Clarity adjustment in Lightroom).

With men it’s different. You may want to apply Clarity in order to emphasize skin texture and make the model’s face appear more rugged. You have to judge it on a case by case basis as every portrait is different.

The key, once again, is to apply it subtly rather than with a heavy hand. Your processing technique shouldn’t draw attention to itself.

5. Over-sharpening

This is another big mistake that I see photographers make. Over sharpening can come from several sources. For example, if you use the JPEG format rather than Raw then remember that your camera sharpens the photo for you. Any sharpening you apply in post-processing is applied on top of an already sharpened photo.

If you use Raw there is very little need to set Sharpening to anything other than the default settings in your Raw converter. It’s rare that any additional sharpening is required on top of that. Remember that the effect of Sharpening is heightened if used in conjunction with applying Clarity.

The best approach to Sharpening is to use your software’s default settings and to never apply any additional Sharpening on top of that. If you do apply extra Sharpening, you need to zoom into your portrait to check the effect on the eyes and eyelashes, as this is where artifacts caused by over-sharpening are most likely to appear.

Note: Remember to use the mask feature of the sharpening tools in LR and ACR. That will help keep the sharpening to only edges and not smooth areas like skin or sky. 

Conclusion

Another aspect we haven’t discussed yet is to think about exactly what you want to achieve with your portrait processing. For example, you have probably guessed by now that I favor a natural, authentic approach to portraiture. That means using natural light, prime lenses, wide apertures and minimal processing. These techniques help me achieve the look I’m after.

Other photographers may be more commercially minded. If this is you, then a slightly more heavy-handed approach may be required. Even so, it’s wise to apply skin smoothing and other portrait retouching techniques subtly, rather than over-process your portraits.

At the beginning of the article, I mentioned a simple solution to the problem of over-processing portraits. The solution is this – use Lightroom. Don’t use Photoshop and don’t use a portrait retouching plugin.

There is no Liquify tool in Lightroom so you won’t be tempted to change the shape of a model’s eyes or face. There’s only one skin smoothing preset, so you should be able to avoid the temptation to over smooth the model’s skin. There is no high pass filter or other fancy sharpening techniques, so this should prevent you from over sharpening your portraits (be careful with the Clarity slider though!).

What are the most common portrait retouching mistakes you’ve seen or made yourself? Let us know what you think in the comments below.


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. He's written over 25 popular photography ebooks (use the code DPS20 for a 20% discount on your first order). Download his Composition PhotoTips Cards now for free!

  • Royi

    Lovely!

    Nino Batista has a video just about that (Top 10 Amateur Portrait Retouching Mistakes | Nino Batista):

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ayVIb7HgRM8

    He also has great tools (Plug In’s) for Photo Retouching.

  • Michael

    This is very useful suggesting on post-processing Andrew. With time and experience I became a little bit careful on editing my images to avoid over processing. However, with the due respect i still believe that the model’s eyes must be sharp and somewhat bright. No wonder the pros always say “focus on the eyes” as I do any time when shooting people. I use Clarity for most images especially for architecture objects and landscapes just around 30 in LIghtroom basic panel, however, not for ladies.
    This is my chosen type to take photos that have contrast and 3 dimensional properties, I just don’t like flat and soft blurry images.

  • Ana Zivick

    Thank you Andrew for this article. I was surprirsed you didn’t mention frequency separation as a way of preserving the original textures of the skin. Wondering what’s your opinion on this method.

  • William Murray

    Most of what you are calling “mistakes” is a matter of tastes. I do prefer a light touch on skin smoothing, sharpening of eyes, etc. but that is my preference.

    What I do, to control the amount of retouching that shows, is by using layers in Photoshop. I will do the retouching on a duplicate layer, then by changing the “Opacity” of the layer I’ve retouched, I can increase/decrease the effect of the retouching. Of course this only works if I haven’t change the shape of something e.g. widened eyes.

  • Douglas Dean

    I have never got the hang of frequency separation. I don’t like the results I get. I am softening skin in photoshop by creating a camera RAW filter layer, lowering the clarity way down, and painting it over the skin with a brush around 40%. If that is too strong I lower the opacity of the layer. I also stopped brightening the eyes. All I do is get rid of any red in the whites of the eye so the white of the eye is white. I think this gives me a more natural look. I really don’t want to turn my models into “sims”.

  • Hi Ana, I don’t use it as it’s not available in Lightroom.

  • Mark Stanley-Adams

    Thanks for the great article. These mistakes are indeed ubiquitous, resulting in way too many images which look faked and over-processed. I agree with everything with just one exception, and that’s the caution against using Photoshop plug-ins. I’ve been using the Nik Collection for a while now to apply skin softening, and if used discreetly, I find it produces a good balance between achieving smoothness and retaining texture.

  • Christopher Hall

    Great article. I agree with the fact that you can retouch far to much. However in the right area and done in the correct way it brings some great results.

    Generally I only soften the skin on women on babies, even then it will only be by the slightest amount.

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