Quick Portrait Retouch Part One

The challenge in portrait retouching has two parts: first, make the subject look good, second, leave no digital “footprints”…. and of course get it done without spending a ridiculous amount of time, too!

Lady in Red

Lady in Red

A very popular wedding photographer I know makes it a rule that he spends no more than 5-15 minutes on an important image – and the quality he produces is top-notch. Of course, he works hard to get it right in the camera, but he’s also practiced at finding ways to edit the image efficiently and effectively.

Here’s a few tips and techniques along these lines. We will focus here first on retouching lines and things like crows’ feet, and then on smaller bumps and texture problems. I’ll make future posts on additional tips and techniques.

I’m going to assume that your image is color-corrected initially as needed, and that you’re ready to begin the retouching process. The article is fairly detailed, but once you have a bit of practice on-screen, you’ll find things go quickly in your work.

1. You can start and finish in Photoshop, or do your basic color edits in a program like Lightroom, and then switch to Photoshop for the retouching phase. Why use Photoshop? In a word, Layers!

2. In my view, the key to success in retouching is to work on a layer. Layers make it far easier to adjust your work on the fly, or go back to an image and retouch or adjust. Think of a layer as a “sandwich” or composite of a duplicate of your image – each layer on top of the other.

3. Here’s an image of two layers created for an image in Photoshop. Menu selection for creating a layer is Layer>New>Layer Via Copy. The keystroke command is command/control-J (Command on the Mac, Control on PC).

Create A New Layer

Create A New Layer

Note: You can edit out hair “flyaways” and such at the beginning or end of this process – doesn’t really matter, unless you are going to change the background too. But in many ways this is a separate topic.

4. Next, we are going to work with the patch tool, or spot healing brush, or healing brush on this new layer. In this discussion, we’ll work with the patch tool. If you wish, you can zoom in a bit.

5. Use the patch tool, as illustrated, and encircle the area you want to change. Once the circle is completed, left click and drag the circle to an area nearby – one which is fairly close in tone, color, and texture to the target. You’ll see the target area change when you release the left mouse button.

Example, Use of the Patch Tool

Example, Use of the Patch Tool

Examples of areas you want to target are shown in the next image – under the eyes, corners of the mouth, the small line from the edge of the nose to the corner of the mouth, crows-feet, and the like. Focus on the larger imperfections revealed by the camera; we will address the smaller retouch spots in the second half of this article.

patch five b

Examples of Target Areas

…and, DON’T worry about making this step perfect, just get each retouch approximately correct and move on – because next you’re going to see a great, quick technique for refining all of your spot retouches.

6. Once you have taken care of all the significant target areas, you’ll see that the patch tool (spot tool, or spot healing brush) areas all look a bit unfinished. It is tempting to go back and try to correct each one – but wait, there’s more!!

Just adjust the opacity of your new, top layer to blend in the retouch spots. You can dial it down to 70% for a highly polished look, or to 50% for let some of the character and personality peek through. I prefer the second choice, because it looks more natural – and whatever your choice, the super-smooth “Photoshop” look is usually reserved for the big magazine covers, anyway!

7. So here’s the result at 50% retouch layer opacity. You’ll see that the changes are noticeable, but not obvious (this model, obviously, doesn’t need a lot of help). Again, adjust to your personal preference, or that of your customer.

patch final c

Example At 50% Layer Opacity

8. When you are finished with this step, save your file. I use Photoshop (PSD) format for layered files, so I can tell files that are “work in progress” apart from finished files, which I save in TIFF format.

9. Next, you can flatten the image to simplify your workflow. The easiest way to do this is go Layer>Flatten Image. Then save the image with a new name, and add a revision number to the file name, such as portrait123_Rev_2.psd.

10. Now, we’re going to address the very small imperfections, bumps, and textures to smooth out the skin.

Some people use a blur method, or something similar to do this. I find that in many cases this can be overdone, and flattens out skin texture and looks unnatural.

11. Create another new layer, as described earlier.

12. Use the Spot Healing Brush. (by the way, I recommend a pen tablet, such as the Wacom device, or a track ball for this. Working with a normal mouse is a bit like drawing with a brick.)

Now, find a target area and zoom into 200-400%. This is a large amount of zoom; any time you want to adjust the area you are viewing or working on, press the space bar and hold – you’ll temporarily see the hand tool – left click and drag to move the target area up/down, left right, and release the mouse button.

Also, I’ve made an outline around a target area, just for demo purposes.

Detailed Skin Retouching, Sample Target Area

Detailed Skin Retouching, Sample Target Area

Adjust the brush size so it is just slightly larger than the size of the bits you want to smooth out. This will usually be a very small brush.

Working left – to – right, or the opposite, hover over each target spot and left click once. Keep going – go after the most obvious places, and a few of the secondary ones, but there’s no need to cover every tiny thing. Remember, you’re at super-zoom anyway.

(and… here’s a cool tip to help you perform this step quickly, and make sure you hit all the areas needed:

Go Command/Control-R, or View>Rulers. Go up to the Ruler, hover over it with the mouse pointer, and left click and drag down – you’ll see a line follow your cursor. This is a guideline – keep holding the mouse button down, and drag it down. Make several of these – they are the tracks you’ll use to continue your work.

Note: any time you want to hide the guidelines, press Command/Control-H. To reveal again, repeat the keystroke command.)

Zoom into 400%, Make Guidelines. Brush is red.

Zoom into 400%, Make Guidelines. Brush is red.

Go along, left-click-click-click. If you see one that looks a bit funny, this almost always due to a brush that is too large, or an adjacent area of color that does not match. Undo, adjust the brush size smaller, and repeat. Experimentation and practice are important here, as each person will want to see slightly different results.

13. Work each row until complete. Now, zoom out to one-half the resolution you are working in, and inspect. If you see problem areas, zoom back in and fix them. If not, zoom out to 100% and inspect.

When you first start out with this technique, I suggest that you work for a minute or two, and do the inspection. That way you’ll have a pretty good idea of what your final result will look like – that will save time, of course.

14. Continue section by section until you’re satisfied that you have a good looking client that still has natural-looking skin textures and appearance. Again, you may choose to adjust layer opacity to suit desired appearance.

Example, results.

Example, results.

There’s more to portrait retouching, of course – making eyes sparkle, increasing lip contours, improving dimensionality, the 3-D look of the face, and more. Look for these in subsequent posts!



all images © D Saffir, all rights reserved.

6 thoughts on “Quick Portrait Retouch Part One

  1. Pingback: David Saffir :: Portrait Retouch Pt 1 at Imaging Insider

  2. Pingback: Portrait Retouch Part One | Adobe Tutorials

  3. Pingback: Photo News Today » Blog Archive » Portrait Retouch Part One - David Saffir

  4. Pingback: Tutorial/Tips/Photographers Watch (July 7, 2009) at Imaging Insider

  5. Nice tutorial David!
    Since I shoot RAW, much of the process you describe can be done in the Adobe RAW processor, which has the advantages of being totally non-destructive should one need to go back and change something, and not requiring a multitude of layers, coupled with making the image a smart object so that one can go back and forth between the RAW processor and PS makes the job even easier.

    • Jeff – Thanks for the kind words. I agree with your comment about Adobe RAW, but only up to a point. It is less time and work using “traditional” layers, to change the opacity, or overall effect, of a retouch or adjustment layer in Photoshop. Editing images in LIghtroom or Camera RAW does not really give one the use of this tool in real time – at best, one has to jump back and forth. Photoshop Layers provides instant feedback on adjustment effects and speeds workflow.


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