Before and After: Retouching a Portrait Shoot

In today’s blog post, I wanted to show you a little of how I work behind the scenes. Portrait retouching is very objective and can be done in a number of ways. I wanted to show you my way.

Most of what I know was learned through two things. Firstly, experience, and making mistakes. Secondly, the book Skin by Lee Varis. I seriously recommend picking up a copy if you are interested in retouching. It will give you everything that you need to know about working with skin. Some of the techniques here were learned from that book. I will explain step by step as we go through the process. I’m using Photoshop CS5 here.

We’ll start off with the original image, as it appeared straight from camera.

This image isn’t great, in terms of the lighting especially. I actually shot this image while I was at university. I wasn’t as skilled at  lighting as I am now. I do still tend to underexpose my images, because I like a lot of contrast. This means I can pump up the brightness without losing any detail. The first step for any shoot is to adjust the curves. I add in as much brightness as I can before highlights start to blow out. Then the bottom of the graph is pinned back to where it should have been. This maintains the depth of shadows too. Normally I end up with an “S” style shape. You can see how much difference this makes right away!

Unfortunately, brightening the image also draws attention to any imperfections. These include shadows or dust spots on the lens. Blemishes or dark spots on the model’s skin will show up too. Even though my model is a young woman, lines also show up because of the strong lighting. This casts shadows in areas such as the neck and eyes where lines may have formed. Her skin looks much more shiny, too. To correct this, I use the patch tool. It’s a very clever tool, but you have to be clever while using it too. If you bring it too close to a contrasting area it will introduce tones and colours which should not be there. If you look closely, you will see that I have introduced a small dark area underneath the chin shadow in this stage. That’s from the use of the patch tool. Used carefully, however, it’s very effective. I can smooth skin without losing the texture. The neck lines are gone, as are any blemishes or moles. I’ve also toned down the shine very slightly by painting over it at a low opacity. I want to keep that healthy glow, but stop it looking oily.

The next step is to take things a little further. We want to look at the image as a whole and identify areas which need work. Right away, the hair at the top of her forehead stands out to me. It looks messy, and that is in contrast to the elegant look of the image. I take it away using the patch tool on a larger scale. Others might do this differently. To smooth over the area, I run over it with a low opacity brush set to her skin tone. I also do this for the rest of the skin, picking a slightly brighter tone in order to lighten the image as a whole. I particularly focus on the nose, which has some redness to it in the original.

You probably won’t even notice, but I also lowered the saturation slightly on the whites of the eyes and the teeth. On this model there is hardly any problem to correct, but for finished images, this is a must. Any yellowness is taken care of that way. You could also use the method of pushing levels to the right place to get rid of the tone. At the same time, I brighten the irises to bring the eyes out more. I also caught any remaining blemishes, including the dark spot I introduced last time. I carried out a small amount of smoothing on the white top left hand corner, but not so much as to make it completely flat. The last step here was to smooth out the eyelids. I used Lee Varis’ method for reducing wrinkles, but not taking them away, Without any lines at all she would look unnatural. I just don’t want there to be any deep shadows distracting from the overall image.

Now it’s time to unify the image a little more. The make-up is quite close to the colour of the petals - my MUA did a great job. However, it’s just a little step away from perfect. To bring it together, I create a layer mask which will be toned more correctly. I actually use Summerana actions for this because they’re really easy to put into practice. They have a “lip gloss” action which I employed to change both the eyes and the lips. Using the colour from one of the petals, I paint over the lipstick and eyeshadow. It just brings it up to the same colour as the petals more accurately. 

My final step is more of a personal touch for me. I colour tone many of my images, as this is one of the little touches that I feel finishes an image off. I have a range of actions set up with different tones to use whenever I need them. This time, a pink tone was the obvious choice. I simply add in the toned layer, then lower the opacity so that it doesn’t change the image too much. Around 20 to 50% opacity is my normal accepted range.

That gives us the finished image. It’s available on my PicFair account right now in this exact form. Comparing the two side by side, you can really see the difference. This is what separates amateur photographers from professionals. Post production is key, even if all you do is the first curves step. Without it, images can appear flat and lifeless. It’s not your fault, necessarily - it’s just that our eyes capture something very different to what our camera does. 

I’m sure that photographers who work in advertising or beauty editorial would take this image yet further. Smoothing the skin further, correcting the rest of the hair, and going over every single petal would certainly be in order. For my purposes, this level is far enough. I maintain the natural beauty of the model (and the make up) whilst enhancing it as far as possible. That’s my style of post production. If you want to go through in more detail, we can arrange a one on one tutorial very easily. Contact me at for more information. On the other hand, you can always book in a shoot with me to get this treatment yourself.

If you have any questions about my methods, feel free to ask below.  If this guide has inspired you to go over one of your own image, let’s see the results too! I’m very interested to see what other post-producers can come up with.

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