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If you make portraits—whether strangers or friends, for fun or profit—it won't be long before you realize there are a few key fixes that almost everyone appreciates. So if you want to give the gift of a beautiful portrait, here are six techniques you can use to ensure that your portrait subject will be happy with your work.
1. Retouch away blemishes, wrinkles and spots. Want to guarantee that your portrait subjects like their pictures? Remove their wrinkles, zits and other skin blemishes. The latter are easy enough to fix, typically accomplished by wielding a spot-healing brush (with a brush size larger than the spot to be repaired, with a soft edge) and a couple of quick clicks. But for wrinkles, you've got to do a bit more work. I like to use the clone stamp with as large a soft brush as you can comfortably wield, set on a low opacity of approximately 25%. Then use several large brush strokes and multiple clicks to slowly build up a repair to hide wrinkles—most frequently around eyes and the mouth. For the finishing touch on a wrinkle removal, use the same type of technique as outlined to eliminate shiny skin (below).
2. Remove excessive shine. Shiny skin can be very distracting, and it's easily fixed with a little bit of powder prior to shooting time. But if you can't repair it prior to clicking the shutter, fix it easily afterward by using a plain old paintbrush. To minimize the shine that's most often evident on foreheads, cheeks, chins and noses, first choose a paintbrush set to a size approximately as big as the subject's eye. Make sure the brush hardness is set to 0%, and the opacity and flow are each set below 30%. This will make the painting effect very subtle, which is a great way to make it look more natural. Next CTRL-click on an area near the shine that reflects the natural skin tone you'd like to use to eliminate the shine. Then simply start the painting process by clicking and brushing until the shine is eliminated—or at least minimized, which will look more natural.
3. Make them look thinner. This is perhaps the most common request I receive, and I always do my best to oblige the subject. Nobody enjoys confronting their face when they're a few pounds heavier than they would like to be. So to give them just a touch of help, consider stretching them out. I know, it sounds silly. And if you overdo it, it will look silly too. But a subtle stretch in the vertical dimension will keep a larger face from appearing too round. I like to duplicate the portrait onto a new layer, then use the Transform tool to adjust the Scale. Adjust the vertical axis to be 101%, or maybe 102% or even 103% larger than the horizontal dimension, and that subtle stretch will make their face appear less rotund than they're used to seeing—and this will make them happy. For a more refined repair that is sure to make a subject appear thinner, and feel happier about their appearance, concentrate on the neck. That "double chin" that so many of us sport is often the biggest facial sign of extra weight, and eliminating it is the best way to make us look thinner. The Liquify tool in Photoshop's Filter menu comes in very handy here; suffice it to say that a lot of experimentation is needed to master this technique, but starting with the forward warp tool (which looks like a finger) you'll find that a light touch and subtle movements can make for quite a change. It doesn't take much to remedy a double chin, because even a small improvement will be greeted with enthusiasm.
4. Eliminate flyaway hairs and minimize baldness. How can you minimize baldness, you might ask? Make sure that you're not using any camera-facing lights from behind the subject. This "hair light" is a great way to create separation between a full head of hair and a background. But on a balding pate, it creates bright, distracting highlights that scream "no hair here!" Eliminating the backlight is also great for minimizing flyaway hairs, especially if the hair is lighter in color (blond, gray or white). But if you still see stray hairs, cleaning them up in post is sure to make your subject happy. Start with a clone stamp and set the brush fairly larger than the diameter of the hair, but not so big that the brush obliterates everything around. Set the brush to a soft edge and an opacity of 50% or less, then start stamping away the stray hair by blending it slowly—with multiple clicks—into the background. With patterned or textured backgrounds, a higher opacity may be helpful, whereas solid backgrounds can be more subtly blended with lower opacities and more clicks.
5. Whiten their teeth. Nobody's teeth look as white in pictures as they do in real life. Perhaps a better way to say that is that we notice yellow teeth less in real life than we do in pictures. Either way, paying attention to this detail is immensely appreciated by anyone who smiles in pictures. There are lots of ways to approach this, but my favorite is to use a simple two-step process, entirely based on the same tool. First I select the desaturation sponge (hidden under the dodging/burning tool) and with a fairly weak setting I make a few passes over the teeth to eliminate the yellow stain, trying to avoid lips and gums—which don't look good gray. Neither do teeth, in fact, so the second step is crucial: turn those now-gray teeth bright white with the dodging tool. A couple of quick passes (again at a fairly low intensity) will take the grayest teeth to a much more pleasing shade of white with detail. Note that I said "with detail," because you don't want to blow out teeth and make them glow like they're radioactive. Remember that you just want them to look better, not pure white. A little desaturation and a little dodging do just that.
6. Add a few finishing touches. Almost everybody benefits from looking a little warmer in terms of skin tone, and a little softer when it comes to detail. The latter is a function of detail equating to blemishes and flaws and pores in our skin. So finish every portrait by making it slightly less sharp than it was to begin with. I actually accomplish this with the Clarity slider in Lightroom, but sometimes I fine tune the effect with the Gaussian blur filter in Photoshop's Blur menu. You don't want to obliterate all detail, so you can either apply this blur very subtly over the whole image, or use a layer mask to make the blur selective and isolated primarily to the skin. Alternatively, you can blur the whole image and mask in sharp areas on the eyes especially, though you can also add subtle sharpness to nose, mouth and eyebrows as well, if you see fit. As for the warmth, Photoshop's adjustment layers come in handy here. I choose a Photo Filter adjustment layer, and use the default warming filter (85) to warm up the image. I usually dial it in anywhere from 3 to 25 percent density, depending on how warm I want the image to appear. Even in tiny little doses it helps most people look just a little more warm and vibrant—and that's almost always a good thing.