Professional Digital Photo Retouching

Introduction: Professional Digital Photo Retouching

About: Geeky artist. MUST. MAKE. STUFF. More stuff at:

I've been a graphic designer since the IIci, so when I saw the mind for design challenge, my mind started spin with possibilities. While I utilize many cool techniques in my work, one of the most useful and asked for is digital retouching. Especially of photos. Especially of faces.

I take pride in never hitting any auto adjust buttons. And I bet if you learn a few basic retouching steps and see how much better your images look, you'll never reach for those auto corrections either. So break out your favorite imaging software and give digital retouching a try!

Step 1: Choose Your Software

My favorite retouching software is Photoshop, though most image manipulation programs work pretty much the same way. You can use whatever software you have to start, though you may have to look around for the comparable menus and filters sometimes. Or you can download a trial version of one of the Photoshop variants. You usually get a month to play before you have to buy.

Step 2: Choose Your Image

Choose a photo of a face that's in focus, or at least has the eyes in focus. If an entire image is blurry, you can run filters on it to make it better, but it will never be perfect. On the other hand, if you've got a crisp image, at least around the eyes, just about everything else can be fixed.

At first glance, the photo I chose doesn't look too bad. But notice that the sun is coming from behind the head, making the face too dark and slightly off color. I especially want to brighten up those eyes and give the boy back his rosy complexion.

A few things to remember when you start making your adjustments:

Make sure you have your previews on. Use the sliders to see how different settings and combinations change your image.

Make small adjustments! You can always do more as you go along.

The goal is to end with a great, natural looking photo that does not look photoshopped.

Step 3: Adjust the Exposure

There are many ways to fix an over or under exposed photo.

The main adjustments I use are:




These are all different tools that give you the basically the same results. What varies is the amount of control you get in changing the exposure. Curves gives the most control, but is often overkill for simple retouching. The same is true of Exposure, except when your photo is severely over- or under-exposed. I'm talking about when the image is so dark or bright you can barely see it. Or when you need just a tiny bit of fine tuning. For most applications, Brightness/Contrast is just right. In Photoshop, go to Image--> Adjustments--> Brightness/Contrast. Check the box for preview so you can see what you're doing and move the sliders a little at a time to see the effect they have on your photo. It's better to do less than more - you can always go back after you've made other corrections.

The left side of the above image was corrected with Brightness/Contrast. Brightness was set at 15 and contrast was 9.

Step 4: Adjust the Color

As with the exposure, there are many ways to adjust the color balance. This is especially important for skin tones. Don't worry about any other colors in your image at this point - you can mask off other areas and change the colors later if you need to. In Photoshop, go to Image--> Adjustments--> Color Balance.

When you open the dialog box you will have a number of combinations to choose from for making adjustments. You can adjust the photo highlights, mid tones and shadows separately. Each of these options allows you to adjust the color in three ways. If you're not familiar with working with a cyan, magenta, yellow and blue color palette, have fun trying out the sliders. See what different combinations do for your photo. Though in general, if your image is too red take out some magenta. If the skin tones are too cold, take out some blue, and so forth.

The left side of the above image was corrected with Color Balance. I made no adjustment on the shadows. For the mid tones, I gave the cyan a +3 and the yellow a -3. For the highlights, the yellow was -1.

Step 5: Readjust As Necessary

I liked the color, but the image still looked a bit dark. I went back to Brightness/Contrast and set the brightness to 9. I didn't think more contrast would look natural, so I left it alone.

Step 6: Try Other Things

Don't be afraid to try other tools if you're not getting exactly the result you want. In this case I still wanted more brightness, but didn't want the photo to get blown out. I tried a few different tools (use that back button!!) until I settled on a small adjustment in Exposure.Image--> Adjustments--> Exposure. I set the exposure to 14.

Step 7: Correct Smaller Areas

These are three of my favorite tools for photo retouching:

Burn Tool - darkens an area with a brush

Dodge Tool - lightens an area with a brush

Sponge Tool - changes the saturation of color an area with a brush

You can select these from the tool bar to darken and lighten areas of your photo without making a selection first. You choose the tool, brush size and opacity. Then "paint" to achieve the effect you want.

As you will see in the following image, I lightened the eyes by painting with the dodge tool. I used a 15% opacity. The result was subtle, but just what I wanted.

Step 8: Clone Away Imperfections

I love the clone tool for retouching imperfections because you don't lose the skin texture.

To use it, select the cloning tool (rubber stamp) from the tool bar. Choose a brush size that will be easy to maneuver in the area you want to retouch. I usually like a soft edge (0% hardness) and somewhere between 80% - 100% opacity. When I'm just covering up a blemish or a mole I use a brush size barely larger than the blemish. For a larger retouch, like wrinkles or a scar, I might use a bigger brush. You'll have to experiment to see what works for you and the image you're working on.

Make sure your photo is displaying at full resolution.

Next, look for a section of skin about the same size and the same complexion as the area you will be fixing. This may be right next to the area to be retouched or on a totally different part of the face. The better the match, the more successful your retouching will be. When you find the right spot, option-click to select it as your "paint". Then, wherever you click next, the selected spot will be cloned right over the imperfection you're "painting" on.

While this child's skin is close to perfect, I cloned away owies on the forehead and nose as you'll see in the next photo. I could have removed every tiny imperfection, but then the photo would start to look fake.

Step 9: Know When to Stop

This is really hard for me. Once I'm in the retouching zone I want to keep going. But do too much and the photo will look like digital art and not a photograph. (Digital art is fun too, but that's a whole different tutorial.) At this point, make sure you're happy with your lighting and your color. Make sure you corrected any imperfections that don't change the subject noticeably. Then rename and save your new image.

Step 10: Before and After

While the changes along the way are small, they add up to a noticeable and attractive difference. A difference that can take your images from snap shots to professional.

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    10 Discussions


    4 years ago

    very nice


    I love how you make it look all natural and didn't cross the line. I remember the pictures from my prom night - the most horrible pictures in the history of mankind! I don't look as myself there. The photograph removed everything from my face, everything. Thank you for spreading the knowledge on how to do it the wright way


    5 years ago

    Any particular reason to do it in photoshop and not lightroom?

    Rhonda Chase Design
    Rhonda Chase Design

    Reply 5 years ago

    Not at all. That's kind of the point I was trying to make. This is a retouching tutorial, not a Photoshop tutorial. Use the techniques to improve your photos (though, yours look pretty darn good!) in whatever program you like best - Photoshop, Elements, Lightroom, Gimp, even Pixlr : )


    5 years ago

    You are cute

    Rhonda Chase Design
    Rhonda Chase Design

    Reply 5 years ago

    Thanks! But I'm going to assume you mean my adorable model for the project : )


    5 years ago