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Portrait Retouching: Enhancing Your Subjects in Post-Processing

Portrait retouching in Lightroom and Photoshop.

Portrait retouching is the bridge between the camera’s raw capture and the final vision we have for our subjects.

I wholeheartedly believe that editing portraits in Photoshop or Lightroom is just as essential as what happens in front of your camera. Imagine having the power to accentuate a model’s captivating eyes, illuminate their genuine smile, or showcase the elegance of their profile—all with a few taps and clicks.

With the right tools and techniques, you can enhance the natural beauty of your subjects and bring out their best features. 

So let me show you some of my top tips for effective portrait retouching.

Steps to Follow When Retouching Portraits

In order to make the best of your model’s features, you’d ideally have to follow these steps (and yes, in this order):

#1. Evaluate the Photo

Imagine you’re a detective examining a scene. Instead of rushing in, you’d first take a moment to understand the bigger picture. Similarly, evaluate the snapshot you want to enhance before diving into photo retouching. Do the subjects appear natural? Are there any unwelcome distractions in the backdrop?

Beginning your process this way helps you cultivate an eagle eye, allowing you to spot subtleties that might go unnoticed at a casual glance. You start seeing the photo not just as a moment captured but as a composition of various elements.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom showing two portrait photos side by side (before portrait retouching and after portrait retouching).

When refining, ask yourself which stories you want to highlight and which you might wish to fade softly.

Every element in your photo can enhance the story. Which does and which disrupt the rhythm? 

For example, a while ago, my wife Alina decided to get a tattoo on her hand that says “VOGUE”. But now she regrets this decision and always asks me to remove it from her portrait photos in post-production.

Screenshot from Adobe Lightroom showing two portrait photos of a woman with tattoo on her hand and without a tattoo on her hand. Photo retouching example

Bottom line:

As you sift through the elements, think of yourself as a curator, not just an editor. Some stories in the image may need to be brought to the foreground, while others best left in soft focus. Ponder on each element.

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#2. Eliminate and Perfect

After evaluating, now it’s time to embark on a clean-up mission. From the inconspicuous specks of dust and random blotches to the more visible marks like blemishes and food remnants, your objective is to clear your photo of any unwelcome element. Dive deep into the details by zooming into your image.

Here are some editing tools to arm yourself with:

  • Spot Healing Brush: Think of this as your magic eraser. It’s intuitive, understanding the surrounding area and helping you efface aberrations.
  • Healing Brush: Consider this as your blending brush in painting. It merges colors and textures from a source point to mend imperfections, ensuring the outcome looks organic and unaltered.
  • Clone Stamp: This is your “copy-paste” artisan tool. It reproduces the exact texture and color from a selected point, allowing you to patch over undesired spots. 
  • Patch Tool: Visualize this as your fabric grafting tool. You can select an area with an imperfection and replace it with a cleaner section, ensuring the transitions are smooth and inconspicuous.
  • Spot Tool: This is your precision targeting mechanism. It zeroes in on anomalies, especially against consistent backgrounds, making erasing elements like stray hairs a breeze.
Play Video about YouTube video thumbnail - How to remove distracting elements from a portrait photo in post production.

PRO TIP:

Using these tools judiciously ensures that the image retains its crispness and clarity. The adage “Less is more” holds true here. If you can remove a blemish in a single swipe, that’s your cue.

#3. Refine

After the cleansing phase, you can now transition to the refinement process. This involves subtly diminishing the everyday imperfections we often overlook but might not want to be immortalized in our photographs – adding the final touches to a masterpiece, ensuring it you can present it in its best light.

Notes on retouching portraits

It’s essential to remember that true beauty lies in the details that make us unmistakably human. The crinkles from years of laughter, the scars hinting at untold stories, the quirks in our smile – are the markers of a life lived. As a retoucher, you have to be mindful of this.

Consider these guiding principles:

  • Preserve Authenticity: While you can remove acne or stray hairs, inherent features like freckles, birthmarks, or defining scars should typically be preserved. 
  • Reflect on the purpose: If it’s a candid capture of a grandmother, her wrinkles are a testament to her wisdom. In contrast, a formal corporate shot might require a degree of smoothing, but always with subtlety.
  • Enhance, Don’t Erase: Intense lighting can sometimes emphasize a narrative. Yet, if it’s too much (like stark shadows accentuating wrinkles), it’s a cue to soften, not eliminate. The intent should always be an enhancement.

How to Enhance Your Subjects in Post-Processing

Based on the steps detailed above, here are all the types of editing you can perform on a portrait:

Exposure & Tonal Balance

This encompasses very basic Lightroom or Photoshop portrait retouching.

A photo’s exposure is about how lit up your image is, and greatly influences the image’s contrast. On the other hand, tonal balance revolves around the play between shadows and highlights. It can set the tone (pun intended) of your image, be it moody or lively. 

For those shooting in natural light, capturing the correct exposure is vital, and you can check out guides tailored to guide you through different times of the day.

Play Video about YouTube video tutorial cover on how to fix blown out highlights in a photo
Play Video about Perfect white balance in Lightroom classic

Color Fine-tuning

This is where you align the hues, vibrancy, and temperature of the shot, ensuring it mirrors reality or perhaps presents a stylized version. The tools at your disposal include histograms, white balance sliders, levels, curves, vibrance, and more.

Play Video about Understanding color temperature in photography
Play Video about The difference between curves and levels in photo editing

Sharpness & Texture

While achieving sharpness requires you to zero in on the edges and intricate details, clarity delves deeper into the image’s contrast and texture. 

Want your photos to have depth? Familiarize yourself with tools like sharpen, clarity, dehaze, and noise reduction.

Play Video about How to sharpen photos in Adobe Lightroom
Play Video about Adobe Lightroom denoise with AI function

Basic Retouch & Clean-up

This step involves ridding the photo of any blemishes, photobombers, or stray objects. With tools like the healing brush or the clone stamp, your aim is to let your primary subject command all the attention.

Play Video about Natural skin editing for portraits

Artistic Photo Enhancement Techniques

One quick way to sprinkle that magic is to use presets and filters. These give a photo a fresh twist, be it an old-school vibe, a cinematic aura, or even a sepia undertone. Lightroom now also has some amazing adaptive intelligent presets:

Play Video about Adaptive presets in Lightroom

You can also pick up advanced presets from online libraries or whip them up yourself. 

Examples of styles:

Monochrome – you can dive into the world of black-and-white imagery, playing around with settings that adjust hues and shades – such as the monochrome mixer or the tonal contrast settings.

Play Video about Advanced black and white photo editing

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Crafting Your Unique Photographic Style

Editing style is a reflection of your personality, flair, and vision. I’ve talked about creating your personal photography style before, but let’s do a quick recap:

  • Explore: Before you discover your signature style, you have to explore a vast array of editing techniques and dive into the world of filters, presets, and tools. The more you play around, the more assured you’ll be about what resonates with your vision.
  • Seek Inspiration but Don’t Mimic: The world is teeming with brilliant photographers who have carved a niche with their distinctive styles. Dive into their world, study their techniques, and soak up as much as possible. But remember: the goal isn’t to replicate their style pixel for pixel but to let their work inspire you and then layer it with your unique touch.
  • Evolution Over Time: It’s essential to understand that discovering your editing style isn’t a one-time affair. It will evolve over time as you grow as a photographer.
  • Consistency is Crucial: Once you start recognizing elements of your signature style, strive for consistency. That doesn’t mean every photo should look the same, but there should be a harmonious thread running through your portfolio that screams ‘you’. 

Editing styles:

Play Video about Muted green photo editing in Lightroom
Play Video about Editing photos in Wes Anderson style
Play Video about How to edit in moody photo style in Adobe Lightroom video

Professional Portrait Photo Editing Techniques

Think of portrait retouching in Photoshop or Lightroom as the makeup artistry of photography. It’s not about changing the essence but enhancing the inherent beauty. 

Whether it’s polishing skin textures in portraits, brightening eyes, or refining the curve of lips, tools like the liquefy tool, dodge and burn, and healing brushes are your best allies. When done right, your subject remains authentic but radiates with a polished glow.

Portrait Retouching Skin Techniques

Play Video about Portrait retouching skin techniques
Play Video about Skin retouching in Lightroom

Image Manipulation

This is where you let your creativity soar. You’re not just capturing reality; you’re reconstructing it. Want a whale floating in the sky or a city floating on a leaf? 

With image manipulation, the sky’s the limit. Techniques involve merging multiple images, adding or removing elements, and transforming the backdrop. 

Essential tools in your arsenal include the transform, warp, and puppet warp functions.

Play Video about Image manipulation in Lightroom

Blending Modes & Masks

Imagine painting with layers where each layer interacts differently with the one beneath. Blending modes let you do just that, dictating how layers communicate with each other. 

Whether you’re aiming to create a dramatic light flare, an ethereal gradient, or a moody contrast, you can achieve mesmerizing effects by blending modes paired with masks. 

Delve into tools like blending options, layer masks, and clipping masks to orchestrate these effects.

Play Video about Blending modes in Photoshop

FAQ

Portrait retouching aims to enhance a subject’s natural beauty and features in photographs. While the objective is not to change the individual, it seeks to highlight their best features, correct temporary imperfections, and present them in the best possible light.

No, they are distinct techniques. Retouching portraits focuses on enhancing and refining the subject’s features in an image, while photo manipulation involves changing or reconstructing the reality of an image. The latter can include combining multiple images, adding or removing elements, or drastically altering the scene’s context.

Popular tools for portrait retouching include the Spot Healing Brush, Healing Brush, Clone Stamp, Patch Tool, and Spot Tool. Each of these tools has a specific function, from erasing blemishes to blending textures and reproducing exact colors and patterns.

The key is subtlety. Always work with the principle of enhancing rather than completely altering. Preserve inherent features like birthmarks or freckles. Use tools judiciously, ensuring the image retains its authenticity. Remember, the goal is to bring out the best in your subject without making them appear artificial.

Conclusion

“A portrait is not made in the camera but on either side of it.” – Edward Steichen

Portrait retouching is a journey. With each image, you’ll learn something new. But the most important thing to remember is that the goal is to enhance, not change. The essence of the subject should always shine through. 

For further reading, you might be interested in other Ohmycamera photography articles. And remember, keep practicing your editing skills, not just your abilities out there in the wild!

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Aleksandrs Karevs

Aleksandrs Karevs

Hi, my name is Aleksandrs and I am a full-stack digital marketer passionate about digital photography. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V. Read full story here.

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Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Aleksandrs Karevs OHMYCAMERA Founder & Author

ARTICLE BY

Hi, my name is Aleksandr and I am a full-stack digital marketer from Riga, Latvia. In 2018 I became obsessed with photography and decided to create this blog to share my knowledge about both photography and marketing. In my free time, I enjoy taking photos with my everyday companion – FUJIFILM X100V.

Discover Why 2,367 Photographers Love This Free eBook!

Simply enter your email below to receive a FREE eBook filled with actionable tips for immediate photography improvements. 

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