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Tutorial: Simple Portrait Retouching, Staying in the Realm of Reality

Mark Levesque, CPP, M. Photog, Cr.

If the goal of a professional portrait is to portray the subject in a realistic yet somewhat idealized manner, post-production provides the finishing touch to a properly lit portrait. This tutorial shows you just a few simple Photoshop steps that take a solid photograph and elevate it to a pleasing portrait. While I use particular plug-ins in my workflow, the general treatment can be accomplished in Photoshop itself.

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Subtle retouching enhances your client’s portrait without taking away character or completely shattering a semblance of reality. [Click for larger view.] ©Mark Levesque

My goal is always to accomplish as much as possible in camera, providing the best possible image to begin with. In this portrait I started processing with just a few minor adjustments to the white balance, vibrance, and saturation in Lightroom.

Next, open the portrait in Photoshop. In general, I try to work as non-destructively as possible. I've done this enough times that I'm comfortable working on the background layer with a copy of the original file safely stored away. Alternately, you can make a copy of your background layer (cmd/ctrl + J), turn off the background layer and begin your work on the copied layer. 

First I eliminate distractions such as stray hairs, dust specks, and blemishes. Set the spot removal brush to a size slightly larger than the spot you're modifying and apply. Try Content-Aware mode first, and if that introduces artifacts, try Proximity Match.  

Once the obvious distractions have been eliminated, I work around the eyes. Whether we are concerned with indications of aging or simply minimizing natural darkness under the eyes, the remedy is the same: Replace the affected areas with pixels from elsewhere on the face that do not have the issues. Depending on the image and what areas are available, I use either the Healing Brush or the Patch Tool. In either case, you'll want to reduce the effect by fading the result. Immediately after painting a stroke with the healing brush, press shift + cmd/ctrl + F to bring up the fade dialogue. Here I fade the result to 55%. This reduces creases in the skin without obliterating them completely, for a more natural look.

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Once the wrinkles have been reduced sufficiently we will examine the teeth. Many photographers like a slightly warm white balance to give a healthy color to the skin tones. Warming the skin tones may exacerbate the yellowing of teeth. To address this issue, use the lasso tool to make a selection around the teeth. It’s OK to go a little bit into the lips as they are rarely affected by the adjustment we are about to make. Create a new hue/saturation adjustment layer. Select yellows as the targeted color range and reduce the saturation. This will remove the yellow from the teeth, but they may simply look gray. To reduce the gray, increase the brightness of the yellows by moving the slider to the right.

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If the teeth were really yellow, you can simply stack on another adjustment layer by dragging the hue/saturation adjustment layer to the new layer icon. This doubles the strength of the adjustment. If this turns out to be too much, dial it back by reducing the opacity of the layer. When you are satisfied with the result, flatten the image. You now have your base layer.

The next step is to duplicate the background layer twice (cmd/ctrl + J). Double-click on the top layer and change the name to portraiture. Double click on the middle layer, and change it to sharpening. Turn off the visibility of the top layer, select the middle layer, and change the blending mode to luminosity. We will be sharpening this layer, and putting it in luminosity mode will prevent the sharpening process from introducing any color shifts. I use the Nik Sharpener Pro plug-in for this, but Filter > Sharpen > Smart Sharpen in Photoshop will provide a similar effect. The idea here is to sharpen the image to counteract the softening created when the light passed through the low-pass filter in the camera. Don’t overdo it.

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Now we will soften the skin. Turn the visibility of the top layer back on, and select it in the layers palette. I use the Imagenomic Portraiture 2 plug-in. It does a nice job of softening the skin while maintaining some of the skin’s texture. Portraiture allows you to indicate what the flesh tones are by sampling within the image, and will show you what tones will be targeted by the filter. The settings shown here will usually produce a little more softening than needed, but we’ll take care of that.

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Once the filter has run, I mask off the result by adding a layer mask and painting in with a soft edged black brush. Set the brush to 45 to 50% opacity so the masking effect is not overly harsh, and so that you can make subtle increases in the masking with multiple strokes. Mask off the portraiture layer over the eyes, brows, lips, hair, and anything else that you want to stay sharp. To complete the effect, dial down the opacity of the portraiture layer until the skin looks great, but real. You can expect to find the right balance in the 60 to 80% opacity range depending on the strength of the filter’s effects in any particular image and on your taste.

For the final touches I create two curves adjustment layers for non-destructive dodging and burning. First, create a new curves adjustment layer, and pull the curve down about 30 points. Label this layer Darken, and type cmd/ctrl + I to fill the layer mask with black, effectively hiding the effect of the adjustment. Now create another curves adjustment layer and pull the curve up about 30 points or so. Label this one Lighten, and fill its mask with black as well.

Now we can use a soft-edged brush to selectively lighten and darken specific areas of the portrait to subtly complete the enhancement. Set the brush opacity to 40 to 50%, and select white as the color to paint, then carefully paint a half moon shape in the irises of the eyes opposite from the catchlights. Your brush size should be smaller than the width of the iris. If there are any additional areas where you would like to lighten the image, paint with an appropriately sized brush. This is a pretty subtle change, and you may need to toggle the visibility of the adjustment layer to see if you are really doing anything. Once you've finished lightening, select the Darken layer and paint anywhere you would like to darken the image. For example, you might want to use a large brush and add a bit of vignette. Finally, save your master file.

With these techniques you should be able to provide your clients with the portraits that exceed their expectations.