Step By Step
Why We Do Portrait Retouching
As photographers why should we do portrait retouching? We strive to get everything right in camera. So why should we do anything else?
Basically portrait retouching brings out the best in an individual portrait. Everyone we photograph will have some sort of skin tone imperfections that can be improved with retouching.
This is, in my humble opinion, what separates a professional photographer from the people out there snapping pictures and then just handing over the memory card to a customer. Although the customer thinks they are getting a good deal, they aren’t getting the full service of a professional photographer.
This is not to say that some people are perfectly fine with that type of shoot. If that is you, and you are happy that is all that matters. But if you want to look your absolute best in your photos, and you plan to print them for your home, you should consider hiring a pro photographer to do your shoot.
Behind The Scenes Portrait Retouching
What follows is a behind the scenes look at how to do basic portrait retouching. I do this with every photo that is chosen from a shoot.
The First Step- Shoot In RAW
The first step in the portrait process is to shoot in RAW. Shooting in RAW allows you to capture all the image data in the photo so you can tease out fine details. It also makes it easier to adjust when you pull the image into your photo editing software. JPEG is a lossy compression method of storing photos. This means that you lose some image quality in the compression process. You may be able to store more images, but you make a trade off that may not allow you to recover some detail should you not get perfect exposure, etc.
Step 2- Open The Image In Your Software
If you are using Adobe Photoshop as your editing software you can follow along with this. It can be used as a tutorial on portrait retouching. If you are just interested in the process you’ll see how I make your portraits look their absolute best. Throughout the post you can click on the images to see a larger view.
Since I use Adobe Photoshop I choose the RAW image and open it in Adobe Camera RAW.
Once the image is open in Camera RAW you can make a ton of adjustments to get just the look you want. It is way beyond the scope of this post to get into everything you can do in Camera RAW before you open your image in Photoshop. Suffice it to say you can do most of your editing in Camera RAW before you open the image in Photoshop.
As you can see above I have cropped the image and adjusted the light, shadows, skin tone, etc. Now I pull the image into Photoshop to do the fine retouching.
Step 3- Open The Image In Photoshop
Now that I have the image open in Photoshop I create two duplicate layers. The keyboard shortcut is CTL-J on a PC. Then I rename one of the duplicate layers blur and one texture as in the photo above.
Next, I turn off the texture layer by clicking the little eyeball next to the layer. Since this layer is sitting on top of the blur layer you need to turn it off so you can see the changes to the layer underneath.
Step 4- Apply Gaussian Blur
Now I apply a Gaussian blur to the blur layer. You want to apply just enough blur to blur out any surface imperfections. I assigned this a keyboard shortcut of F12 to make it go faster when applying. I usually end up with a blur radius around 4.7 – 5 on this layer. As shown below, for this image I settled on a blur radius of 4.2 pixels.
Step 5- Work On Texture Layer
This is where it gets a little complicated but stay with me because this is where the magic happens. If we were to just blur the image then none of the skin texture would be there and it would just be blurry. To keep the skin texture looking natural we use the texture layer to keep all that information. This is a technique known as frequency separation, and it is pretty cool.
Make sure you have chosen the texture layer in the layers palette on the right of the screen. Now go to Image- Apply Image as shown above.
In the Apply Image popup box, we need to choose the blur layer from the drop-down list and choose Subtract as the Blend Mode. This is shown in the image below.
You should see the texture layer looks like this if you did it right. Now we are going to go back to the layer palette on the right side and from the Blend Mode drop-down menu we are going to choose linear light as shown below. Now your image looks like it did before.
Now we can start blending the uneven tones to make the face look great. Use the lasso tool to make an outline of small areas of the skin as below. make sure and choose small areas with the same lighting and tone.
Now that you have the area you want to work on chosen with the Lasso tool you want to choose Filter-Blur-Gaussian Blur and set the blur amount. You want to vary the blur amount for each areas as you work around the face. Choose each area and the choose the blur amount by using the slider to get the look you want. I have found that blur amounts between 15 and 35 pixels are usually what I like.
You will notice that as you work around the face the skin tone will smooth and the image will look much better. Below is the side by side of the original image and the cropped and retouched finished image.
A Few Tips
- Set up a keyboard shortcut for Gaussian blur. You will be using this a lot so having to go through the menu each time you use the blur on a section of the face takes a ton of time.
- A tablet is highly recommended. I have a Wacom tablet with a stylus for editing. It is so much more accurate and easy when doing fine retouching than trying to use a mouse.
- You can use the same technique to smooth a background. Notice in the original image on the left that the backdrop was not completely stretched tight and so it was fairly wrinkled. A few swipes of the stylus and I was able to make the backdrop a lot smoother.
- You want to fix any imperfections in the image prior to starting this technique. If you have blemishes that need to be removed you should use the Healing Brush tool or others to remove those prior to doing this technique.
- When you are ready to export your photo you will need to merge the layers first. Do this by choosing the top layer in the layer palette. Now you the keyboard shortcut CTL-ALT-Shift-E. This will add a merged layer to the top of the layer stack. This layer is now ready to export for sending to your customer or sending to the printer.
I hope this behind the scenes look at portrait retouching has given you an insight into what happens after your photo shoot. Many people think that all you do is go out and shoot pictures and then charge a lot of money. But a professional photographer does a lot of work in the edit bay behind the scenes that you never see. That’s why we need to charge the amounts we charge. For each shoot I do there can be anywhere from 3-8 hours of editing that goes into the shoot that the customer never sees.
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