While much of a portrait’s success relies on the lighting, composition and other technical choices made before the shutter is released, one of the most essential elements of portraiture happens well after capture. It’s retouching, and it’s so essential for good portraits that there are entire books and courses dedicated to mastering it.
Portrait retouching surely is a big topic. I’ve been a portrait photographer for more than 20 years and I’m still learning new portrait retouching techniques on a regular basis. And while not everyone may have the time and temperament to dedicate their every waking minute to mastering the art of digital portrait retouching, many things can be done quickly and easily and have a major positive impact on a portrait. I think of these three tools and techniques as my portrait retouching shortcuts. If you learn nothing else about portrait retouching, these simple techniques are easy to master and incredibly effective.
Portrait Retouching — Skin
If there’s one thing portrait subjects request above all else is making their skin look better. This often includes the elimination of wrinkles and blemishes but also includes minimizing shine and evening out skin tones. My shortcut for eliminating wrinkles and blemishes involves two tools—the clone stamp and the spot healing brush. I start with the spot healing brush to eliminate blemishes, bumps and spots of any kind and then progress to the clone stamp for eliminating lines, creases and wrinkles, where its ability to duplicate existing pixels works better for linear fixes like these. One of my favorite ways to use the spot healing brush is to minimize bags under the eyes by copying from clearer skin on the cheeks and then dialing the effect back with the Fade tool to anywhere between 40 percent and 80 percent. (If you leave it at 100 percent opacity, it too often looks artificial and unrealistic. And if there’s anything I hate more than wrinkles and blemishes, it’s fake-looking overdone retouching.)
While these tools are essential for efficiently and effectively eliminating blemishes of all sorts, there’s another tool that I think is most useful for the wholesale improvement of skin tone. Believe it or not, it’s the paintbrush. I use the paintbrush to smooth out overall skin tones, or set to Darken mode, I use it to bring down too-bright highlights on shiny skin. To use it, set the brush size to approximately the size of the subject’s eye and dial down the opacity and flow to about 20 percent each. This makes the paint flow slowly and subtly. You’ll next control-click on an attractive skin tone to select it and then click to paint it onto the subject’s forehead, cheeks, nose and chin. You don’t have to stick with one tone, of course, so you can control-click and re-click to select appropriate tones for each area of the face. You can also switch the brush to color mode in order to eliminate redness and other discolorations, which I often use on red noses and cheeks. The paintbrush is also handy for enhancing or lightening shadows and for overall evenness of the skin.
Portrait Retouching — Teeth
Skin gets the most attention, and deservedly so, but I find that many people also ask about a couple of other fixes—whitening their teeth and fixing their hair. For tooth whitening, I know there are many more technical and precise approaches, but there’s an effective shortcut that I use on a regular basis. It’s two simple steps—first using the desaturation sponge to slightly take down the saturation of discolored teeth, followed by the dodging tool to whiten them. I set the desaturation tool to roughly 50 percent and then inevitably use the fade tool to dial back the effect.
Applied with a heavy hand, the desaturation tool can make teeth look unnatural and almost gray. Just taking the edge off of the saturation is often enough to minimize the appearance of discolored teeth, particularly when followed by the dodging tool, which I set at a very low power (roughly 10 percent) to affect midtones rather than highlights or shadows. Applied subtly, you can turn dingy teeth bright and white without making them appear unrealistic.
Portrait Retouching — Hair
Hair fixes typically come in two varieties—filling in empty patches and trimming flyaway hairs. The empty patches are easy to fix with a clone stamp tool set to Darken or Lighten mode and a full 100 percent opacity. Alt-click to select a nearby area of hair to copy it into the open area where it will only be copied where the hair is darker (or lighter) than the surrounding area. That means for light-skinned people with dark hair, darken mode will work best. For dark-skinned people with light hair, lighten mode should fit the bill.
For flyaway hairs, I most often rely on a quick pass with the spot healing brush. It works wonders whether there’s a complex, busy background around the subject’s head, as well as when the background is a solid tone and seamless. For tricky situations in which the spot healing brush doesn’t provide a sufficient fix, or when there are so many flyaways that a one-by-one approach won’t suffice, I turn to a clone stamp with a high opacity (75 to 100 percent) and a hard edge (80 percent or so). With a soft-edged brush. the flyaways can turn into a fuzzy halo, whereas the hard-edged stamper has a more natural effect that’s closer to a haircut than retouching magic. If you want to get really precise, consider choosing a brush with jagged edges in order to avoid the smooth line that often results when using a round brush to remove flyaway hairs.