Every image is unique and there’s no single retouching rule that will work for all photographs. I have found, however, that having a routine in place really helps me work quickly and efficiently. Here are the main steps of my usual retouching process, from exporting images from a RAW Converter to polishing them up before publishing.
I shoot in Raw format, so I always start my retouching by correcting exposure and colors in a RAW Converter (I use Lightroom and Camera Raw) and export a few PSD files, exposing for the skin, darkest and brightest areas of the image to make sure I get the best out of my RAW file.
If the image is lit nicely and there’s no dramatic difference between the darkest and the brightest areas, I sometimes use Lightroom and Camera Raw Adjustment brushes to perform some local corrections instead of exporting a few versions of the image.
2. Creating the base image for retouching in Photoshop
When I do export a few versions of the photo I then use File > Scripts > Load Files Into Stacks in Photoshop to open all conversions in one PSD file. I place the layer exposed for the largest area of the image (the medium exposure out of all exported versions) at the bottom of the layer stack – it will be my base layer.
Cover the rest of the layers with black Layer Masks, and then paint with a white soft brush (10-30% Opacity) over the well exposed areas to reveal them on each of the top layers. When all such areas are unmasked, I flatten the image – it is now my background layer, the starting point for my Photoshop retouching.
3. Working on skin
I always constantly zoom in and out and work with very small brushes when correcting the skin. I start with the Spot healing brush and remove the tiniest dots, blemishes, fine lines that sit right in the middle of the skin. When I need to remove something that is close to the area with a completely different color or a well defined line, I use either the Healing Brush or Clone Stamp tool, which allow me to control the color I am sampling from.
I use the Patch Tool to clean up larger areas of skin and usually not on the face (neck, shoulders, body), because I am not as concerned with losing a little bit of skin texture there. I also often use the simple Brush tool to paint in details or correct colors that are surrounded by other colors and details, but I wouldn’t recommend doing that if you don’t have any digital painting experience.
After the most obvious blemishes are removed I use the Frequency Separation technique and/or Dodge & Burn to even out the skin. My choice of the technique will depend on how good the condition of the model’s skin is to start with.
If it’s pretty smooth and doesn’t require a lot of doctoring, I usually do a quick round of local Dodging & Burning, zooming in and out, so I can see the big picture and not spend too much time on pixel level Dodging & Burning.
When the model’s skin is bumpy and shows signs of current and past skin problems such as acne, scars, aging, etc. I first use the Frequency Separation technique to even out the tones of the skin, and then if I am still not happy with the result I even out the rest of the bumpiness with Dodge & Burn. I use a temporary B&W layer that helps me to see skin colors’ values and makes the entire process of evening out the skin easier.
Normally, you wouldn’t select a model with skin problems for your personal work, but when you are shooting for a client you often may not have a say in selecting the model, or sometimes such models are THE client, so being able to treat their skin in Photoshop is always a great advantage for a photographer.
4. Sculpting & Shaping
Liquify Filter is an amazing tool that allows you to virtually re-shape your models’ bodies and faces. We must be very careful with this tool and apply very subtle adjustments to avoid breaking natural proportions and stretching pixels. Make sure that after Liquifying you compare your current image to the underlying layers by toggling the top layer‘s visibility – it’s very easy to unintentionally change one’s appearance and ruin an image with significant or sloppy Liquify Tool manipulations.
5. Face & Makeup
After the skin is cleaned off of blemishes and the outlines of the face and neck are slightly perfected, I work on the makeup and facial feature further:
- Add life to the eyes: I paint with a white semi-hard brush on a new Overlay layer over the bottom half of the iris. Remove blood vessels from the whites of the eyes with the Healing Brush or Clone Stamp Tool, while painting on a new layer set to Lighten Blending Mode.
- Clean up and enhance eye makeup: darken eye shadows above upper eyelids on a new Multiply layer to visually enlarge the eyes. Shape up the eyebrows with the help of the Liquify Filter, darken and fill them in if needed. Paint in or add digital eyelashes.
- Clean up the lips outline with the Clone Stamp Tool. Enhance highlights on the lips and the tip of the nose by painting with a white brush on a new Overlay Layer. Remember to always adjust the Opacity of the working layer if the applied changes look a little intense.
6. Digital Hair styling
Any seasoned Beauty and Fashion photographer or retoucher will tell you how important it is to calm the model’s frizzy hair and make it look right in the pre-production stage, but if it just so happened that you didn’t catch those flyaway hairs, here’s what you can do in post-production:
- Use a soft Healing Brush to attack the flyaways that are visible against the background or cross the model’s face. Switch to the Clone Stamp Tool when you get closer to the areas of contrast colors or lines and facial features. Lower the Opacity of the tool to build up colors with a few brush strokes for precise application.
- Use the Clone Stamp Tool on 100% Opacity to remove the hairs that cross over other hair strands and breaking up the overall flow of the hair. Zoom in to 100-200% (this will depend on the size of the head in the image you’re retouching) and work with very small brushes. Corrections you make on such a scale won’t be visible in the final image.
- Add some extra shine to the locks by painting over the existing highlights with a large soft white brush on a new layer set to Overlay Blending Mode. Adjust the Opacity of either your brush or the Overlay layer to lower the intensity of the manipulation.
7. Before I save and publish my image
I use a temporary Curves Adjustment layer (Solar Curve) to make sure I did not miss any spots, sensor dust or stray hairs on the background before I finalize, submit or print my retouched images (especially photographed in studio). I’ve created and always use a custom Action for this step (see Julia’s custom Actions below), but here’s how it’s done manually:
- To create a Solar Curve add a few Curve points, drag them in the opposite directions, and watch for the specs to show up.
- After the stubborn artifacts are located, add a new layer underneath the Curve and pick up a soft Healing Brush.
- Make sure it’s set to sampling from Current & Below layers. The size of your tool should be just a little bigger than the spots you’re targeting.
- Sample right near them and work on your new layer under the temporary Curves Adjustment Layer.
- Delete the temporary Curve layer after the background is spotless.
- Save your master file in PSD format. Flatten layers and save a couple of files in high and low resolution in JPEG or TIFF formats (my personal choice: 300dpi JPEG or TIFF for print, and 1ppi JPEG for web – yes, image resolution does not affect your on-screen images).
- Sharpen the parts of the image that contain a lot of details: eyes, lips, hair highlights, accessories and garments. Sharpen each file (print and web versions) separately before saving, as different sizes require different amount of sharpening.
Before & After Rollover – Use your mouse to roll over the image to see the original image
Did you find this article informative? Then checkout Julia’s retouching ebooks with videos & bonus actions!