Once your photo is in the computer, you can up the exposure there, too. I love Lightroom for this very task. Simply slide the exposure slider in the Develop panel to +.5 or even +1 full stop, or anywhere in between, or more or less—whatever looks best. The point is, in Lightroom you can monitor this adjustment right before your eyes when working on a RAW file. The other thing you can do that you can’t quite accomplish in-camera is to take more fine control over the brightness by tweaking contrast, highlights and white tones as needed. This can be a great way to lighten and brighten skin without completely blowing out highlights. You may even find that opening up the shadows helps the overall high-key appearance, further increasing the likelihood of a real “beauty shot.”
Photoshop takes the customization of this overexposure to an even more refined level. I like to create an adjustment layer over the primary image background in order to keep from actually fiddling with the original pixels. Adjustment layers—like levels and curves—offer wonderful brightness and contrast control that can achieve the same brightening effect, but with the added ability to mask the layer and apply the brightness only where you need it—say, across cheeks, forehead and eyes—without applying it where you don’t. The mask is built in to the adjustment layer by default. Simply choose a paintbrush and a black foreground color to start painting away where you’d like to hide the layer’s adjustment. Alternately, invert the mask layer to hide it completely, then paint in with white where you want the effect to show through. Either way, click the layer mask thumbnail icon to be sure you’re painting on the mask and not the image’s actual pixels.
Photoshop layer masks are also a great way to utilize selective softening, which is the other thing a camera’s beauty shot mode employs to soften skin and make it more attractive. You can create a duplicate layer and simply apply various levels of blur to obliterate the ugly details and leave softened skin, then with the fine control of a layer mask you can paint away the areas you want to remain sharp (often eyes, lips, and hair) while blurring those pesky skin surface areas to hide pores, wrinkles and blemishes. If you find that you’ve blurred too much, you can take down the layer’s opacity to mitigate the over-blur. A subtle blur can be very effective without looking too artificial.
Also, experiment with different types of blur. Along with the Blur filter’s Gaussian setting, consider Smart Blur and its ability to set a threshold, which allows you to dial in the softening to smaller or larger edges—separating fine wrinkles from major image-forming details. The Median adjustment under the Noise filter is also a great way to apply a fairly strong blur that works well for eliminating ugly skin details. Again, though, a soft touch and layer masking are crucial to keep the effect from moving from pleasing to absurd.
Back in Lightroom, these same adjustments are fairly easy to make with Noise Reduction and Sharpening controls found in the Detail section of the Develop panel. Another personal favorite is Clarity, which makes a big change and is really ideal for creating a one-step soft portrait look. I tend to start every portrait I make with a default—20 Clarity setting, simply to soften some of the skin details without obliterating the overall look of the image. That, combined with further subtle selective blurring in Photoshop, is a recipe for certain beauty shot success.
In the camera, your blurring options are somewhat more limited. Ultimately, it comes down to depth of field, which can be immensely helpful. Shooting a close-up portrait with a long lens (say, 85 or 100mm or more) and a fairly wide aperture (like f/5.6 or f/4) can isolate the focus to a very shallow range—making eyes tack sharp, and letting cheeks, noses and foreheads fall mercifully into softness. The technique may be simple, but the effect is unmistakable.
Of course, perhaps the best way to beautify a subject is to actually fine-tune the portrait with skilled Photoshop retouching. That’s something no camera’s beauty mode can accomplish. I find that a simple once-over with a spotting brush (the spot healing brush, in fact) to remove blemishes, followed by a subtle painting with a very soft, very low density brush (20% opacity, 20% fill) is a great way to get even skin tones and minimize shine. Simply select the brush and adjust the opacity and fill settings, then right-click on a nearby skin tone you’d like to recreate, then paint that tone over the problem areas. It’s like applying makeup after the fact.
Finally, brightening the teeth with the desaturation brush followed by a bit of dodging (of mid-tones and highlights) can turn an unattractive yellow smile into something much more pleasingly bright. By combining the principles of the beauty shot mode with a few of these simple hand-applied Photoshop retouching techniques, you’re sure to deliver excellent beauty shots that no one-click camera setting could ever hope to achieve.