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Lighting with Retouching in Mind

A pro retoucher on how lighting choices affect portrait retouching

Have you ever wondered how the choices you make when it comes to lighting a portrait will come back to haunt you (or potentially help you) when you get the image into the computer for retouching after capture? Thankfully our friends at strobe-maker Elinchrom asked professional retoucher Pratik Naik for his take on hard and soft light sources and how they impact our ability to effectively retouch portraits. 

It’s an Elinchrom-sponsored video but it’s not a commercial for their products. It’s full of useful information, demonstrated well, to show how lighting choices affect a photographer’s ability to successfully retouch a portrait. 

Understanding how lighting affects retouching, and what can be done in retouching a given particular style of lighting, allows us to make better choices during the shoot to achieve the impact we’re hoping for when all is said and done. 

“For example, how do you know whether you want to use a soft light or a hard light?” Naik says. “And what differences does that make when you bring it to post production. And, specifically for me, whenever I take an image and start retouching I notice a couple of things. Number one, hard light images always have a lot more detail. Why is that? Why do soft light images always look softer when it comes to detail? It can be lens choices, but lighting has a huge role to play in that.”

The photographer and retoucher goes on to explain lighting modifiers and how they impact lighting decisions. He uses one of my favorite modifiers for portraits—a 41-inch deep white umbrella. The other modifier he uses in his examples is a standard parabolic reflector that produces specular (hard) light. The video serves as a great illustration of the differences between specular and diffuse light sources. That alone is worth the price of admission. 


If we think of the soft light source as the default for a pleasing portrait, seeing how hard light impacts the face and hair is impressive. The shape of the face, for instance, changes with the type and position of the light source. A hard light positioned carefully can provide a slimming effect for a round face and enhance the shine of hair. The overall contrast and shadow transitions are also different between the two types of lights. With a hard source the falloff from highlight to shadow is quick and dramatic, with harder edges and deeper shadows. But how does this change what a professional retoucher can do with the image? 

For Naik, one of the biggest retouching differences between a hard and soft light source is a function of their different contrast profiles. The stronger contrast in hard light makes pulling out shadow detail more difficult. In a soft light portrait, dragging up the shadow slider produces a stronger overall lightening effect because the image is lower in contrast. This reinforces the idea that for photographers who want drama, it’s not only easier to achieve but practically required when lighting with hard light. And for those looking for softness and low contrast, even in their retouching, the soft light source is hard to beat. 

Naik also points out how color changes between the two different types of light sources. Split toning an image in grading—applying, say, a warm yellow tone to highlights and a deep blue to the shadows—will end up having a notably different impact because of the change in light sources. On the flatter, soft-light image, the transitions between colors are more gradual, but also which colors affect different parts of the image. Namely, the warmer highlight tones show in the hair of the soft-light shot, but it’s the cool tones from the shadows that prevail in the hair of the hard-light shot. Again, it’s largely a function of contrast, but it has meaningful changes that apply across everything from shadow detail to color. 


Finally, because of the sharper highlights and faster transition to shadow, the hard light source produces images with enhanced appearance of depth and texture. Of course this is dependent largely on the position of that light source, but placed at a pleasing angle the hard light is going to amplify shape and texture, which is going to make an image more dynamic and interesting, but can pose challenges when it comes to retouching particularly problem areas in skin. 


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