Saturday, February 4, 2012

Quick, Easy, and Effective Portrait Retouching in Photoshop

I shoot a *lot* of portraits -- it's the vast majority of my business. And since nearly all portrait clients want (or need!) their portraits retouched to remove or minimize blemishes, scars, rough skin, etc., finding ways to do good-looking retouching quickly and easily was something I invested a lot of time in when first starting out. Here's a very quick and easy 3-step method using Photoshop that will give you great results in a short time.

The image above is the "final" retouched version of this shot. Liz was one of my senior portrait clients this year, a very pretty girl who nonetheless has a few blemishes, some small scars, and some skin discoloration that needed to be dealt with to make a really great portrait of her. The original shot that I started from is below:

Note, this shot was taken with a Canon T2i camera at ISO 200, using a manual-focus 135mm f/2.8 lens at f/4, 1/125th sec. with fill flash on a stand camera left.

Before starting the Three Steps, I usually first do a loose lasso selection around the subject's teeth, and then make a new Hue-Saturation adjustment layer; I select only the "Yellows" channel, lower the saturation by -18, and increase the lightness by +18. This minimizes any yellowing on teeth (which even people with the whitest teeth often still have), and makes the smile "brighter." Now, on to the three steps...

Step 1:
Look at the close-up image of our example full shot above; the first thing to do is to deal with "big" blemishes, scars, etc. To get rid of them quickly, load your original image into Photoshop, and add a new layer by clicking on the "New Layer" icon in the layers palette. This will create a new blank layer on top of your existing image. Select the clone tool, set it for about 75% opacity and 75% flow (in the settings toolbar right under the main menu), and insure the "Sample" setting is "Current layer and below." Locate the blemish or scar you want to deal with, and look for an area of skin nearby that's roughly the same tone and brightness but is mostly smooth -- alt-click on that area to use it as the clone source, then click over the blemish or scar with the clone tool to clone over it from the source. Usually one click will do the job, sometimes two are necessary. The goal here isn't to get rid of every trace of every little defect, but rather to minimize them in preparation for the next step. Work around the subject's face this way, until most of the larger-sized and very visible blemishes, bumps, scars, etc. are minimized. The final result should look something like the image below:
Compare this to the un-changed closeup shot above to get an idea for how much you need to retouch this way. On most subjects, once you're used to doing this, it takes only about 2-3 minutes to deal with all of the "big" stuff that needs retouching. Note that I rarely use the healing brush tool to do this -- along edges with large bright/dark contrasts it messes up badly, and if you don't get enough coverage with one click on a spot, clicking again often introduces strange pixellated artifacts. Stick with the clone tool.

When you're done with step one, flatten the image.

Step 2:

With the image flattened, duplicate the background layer (right-click on the layer, select "Duplicate Layer" from the pop-up menu, and name it "Blur Layer" or something similar). Select the new layer (which should be on top), and apply a Gaussian Blur to the layer, with a radius between 8 and 14 pixels (how big a radius to use depends on the size of the image, how big the person's face is in the frame, etc. Too much is better than not enough, so err towards larger numbers).

Now give this blurred layer a layer mask that hides all of the blur, by going to the Photoshop menu and choosing Layer->Layer Mask->Hide All. Photoshop will make a fully black layer mask for your blur layer, and your layer palette will look like the screenshot above.
In the layer palette, click on the layer mask to make it the active surface to draw on, and select the brush tool; set the brush opacity and flow to 40%, and the color to white. Then choose a brush size fairly large, but small enough so you can paint into small areas, and make sure the brush "hardness" is set to zero. Start painting with the brush, and as you do so you'll see the blur layer be revealed slowly as your painting makes areas of the layer mask white. Paint only in areas of skin -- don't paint over the hair, eyes, teeth, or other things you want to keep sharp, just the skin. Usually between one and two passes with the brush will soften the area up, and hide fine wrinkles, lines, and blemishes -- but it's better to make things too blurred than not enough (we're going to deal with that in a minute!). You DO want to go "too far" at this stage, making it look more soft than it should. If you paint over any areas you didn't want to blur, just change the brush color to black, and paint over those same areas again. Don't forget to make a pass over arms (and legs, if they're visible) as well.
When you're done (which should take about 4-5 minutes with practice), it should look something like the image below:

Yes, that's too much, and it looks un-natural and a bit strange. Not to worry...go to the layer palette, make sure the blur layer is selected, and reduce the opacity and fill settings for the layer to between 80% and 90%. Look at the image while you're adjusting the opacity/fill, and set them where you get most of the fine lines and blemishes smoothed over, but it doesn't look fake or overly processed. I usually use about 80% opacity/fill for boys, and a bit higher (85% each) for girls. Once you've adjusted the opacity, the image should look about like the one below:

Step 3:
The portrait already looks a lot better than it did originally -- we fixed up the large blemishes, and softened the skin nicely. Just one more step, do deal with more large scale skin color/tone differences.
Notice in the image above that Liz has some areas of redness in her skin (under her right eye, for example), and some areas on her forehead where the skin tone changes look like somewhat hard "lines" -- this last step will minimize those with "digital makeup."
With the image from the last step, add a new blank layer on top of the two existing layers, and call it "makeup." Select the brush tool, set the opacity and flow at 24%, and use about the same size brush you did with Step #2 above -- keep the brush size fairly large. Set the brush hardness to 0. Put the brush over a skin tone that's similar to the area you want to retouch, and alt-click the brush -- this will load the color from that area into the brush. Then paint lightly over the area to be retouched, overlapping it A LOT with surrounding areas. Blend in the skin tones of discontinuous areas, re-sampling the brush color from time to time, so that you get a nice, smooth skin appearance. As before, going too far is just fine, and better than not going far enough. Think of this step as applying a "foundation" kind of makeup to your subject. If the areas under the eyes are a little dark, make a pass or two over them with the brush using a slightly lighter color. This takes a bit of practice, especially to pick the right tones to keep facial contours and curves looking right, so practice a bit until you can do this step without thinking about it too much. When you're done, it should look something like the image below:

As with the blur layer before, to go the layer palette and adjust the opacity and fill of this "makeup" layer so that it gives a subtle but noticeable effect -- I usually set both opacity/fill at around 75% for women, and 70% for men. Adjust yours to suit your own taste. Higher numbers for opacity/fill will be smoother and cover more up, but can start to look too "fake" if you go too high. The adjusted opacity/fill image is below:

That's it for the three steps, and retouching. If you've done your job well, the retouching will have taken you around 10 minutes or less (once you get the hang of the steps!), and will have greatly improved the image without making it look overly fake or manipulated. You should still be able to see skin texture, but it should be more subtle than you started with.

I usually do a few more quick steps, as I did with this image...
Adjust levels and curves, a tiny bit of color balance "warming" since the image was just a bit too blue from being in the shade, darkening the corners, and modifying the pupils with my "outdoor eyes" fixup (see my Outdoor Eyes article for details).
Here's the final image (on the right) side-by-side with the original (on the left):

Using the steps as I've outlined them is quick and easy, and lets you vary how much of your retouching comes through the final image simply by varying the opacity of the layers. This method doesn't require much artistic skill (most of what is required is in the third step, and you'll get good at it with practice!), and will produce results that will make your clients very happy. Give it a try!


  1. Wow, for a person like me who have interest in photography and after effects, this is perfect post. You did pretty good job by explaining all the steps, thanks for sharing it with us

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