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Portrait Retouching

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This chapter is from the book

The first step of successful portrait retouching is to identify the character of the person and which facial features you can accentuate or minimize to help that person shine through the picture. Imagine you had to retouch three portraits: a fashionable teenager, a professional athlete, and a successful senior executive. Each of these people has different characteristics to recognize and enhance. The teenager's skin might need to be cleaned up, whereas the professional athlete's sweat and muscle tone could be accentuated for greater effect. In the senior executive's portrait you wouldn't want to take out every wrinkle or gray hair because lines in the face and gray hair are signs of wisdom and experience. Before you pick up the mouse, take a moment to look at the portrait and recognize what type of person you're working with.

As a retoucher, it's your job to bring out the best in each person. In this chapter we'll learn to work with contrast, color, and detail to make each person look their best. The areas we'll concentrate on in this chapter are

  • Improving skin texture

  • Accentuating the eyes

  • Polishing a portrait with light

As a portrait retoucher your role is to accentuate the person's natural features while minimizing the blemishes that can detract from a pleasing portrait. Most importantly you want to maintain the individuality of the person. Not every person will have the Hollywood ingenue's flawless skin or a lion's head of hair. So study the character of the person in the picture and decide which attributes to accentuate and which to minimize before you begin to click your mouse.


If by chance you jumped to this chapter first, please understand that the very first step to working with any digital image is to apply global exposure and color correction, as explained in earlier chapters. When those problems are solved, you can move on to correcting and enhancing selective areas as described in this chapter.

Levels of Retouching

Retouching a person's face can be a very sensitive undertaking. You don't want to take away important characteristics or accentuate less-than-flattering features. Additionally, you don't want to put time and effort into a portrait retouch that the client isn't willing to pay for. Before you begin any retouching it is imperative that you discuss with the client exactly what they want done to the portraits.

Clients may have a hard time envisioning the possibilities of retouching. To avoid any confusion or miscommunication, create a sample portfolio of your retouching services. As clients page through the portfolio, explain that you can remove blemishes and wrinkles for X number of dollars; if they would like additional retouching as seen in your more advanced examples, it will cost them X dollars. Not all clients will want the full treatment, and knowing this before you begin will save you time, effort, and money.

Rick Billings has developed a three-level approach to retouching, shown in Figure 9.1 through Figure 9.4:

  • Level 1: Removes obvious blemishes, wrinkles and distractions with a process similar to applying a little make-up.

  • Level 2: Continues where Level 1 stops and uses lights and darks to create volume and shape; this draws the viewer's eye into the subject's face.

  • Level 3: Finely sculpts the face with contrast, color, and detail to accentuate the eyes, lips, and facial contours just as a classic painter would use light and shadow to define important details.

A three-level approach enables you to develop a plan as to the amount of retouching you will do, which in the end determines how much you will charge the client. A straightforward blemish removal or subtle wrinkle reduction can be accomplished in ten to fifteen minutes, whereas applying chiaroscuro lighting requires a master's time and touch—both of which will add much more to the final bill. Communicating with your client and knowing what your final outcome will be before lifting a mouse will help you to work economically and efficiently.

Looking Behind the Curtain Costs Extra

In the movie The Wizard of Oz, the great and wondrous wizard insisted that no one look behind the curtain, because that would reveal that he was really just a bunch of hot air and noisy machinery. Digital retouching is not smoke and mirrors, but it is magical, and I highly recommend that you keep the process magical for your clients.

Don't let the client watch while you're retouching. Letting clients see how quickly you can work and the magic you can create with Photoshop is a sure way to deflate your position and have them ask for more and more retouching for possibly less money. I've heard it over and over: "Oh, you make it look so easy! While you're at it, can't you just straighten out my nose or remove the dark circles under my eyes?" Well the answer is of course you can, but doing it quickly while they watch will cheapen your value and skills.

Clients seem to forget that you had to practice long into the night to develop your skills or that you may still be paying for your equipment. In addition, you can work much more efficiently without having a nervous client watching or distracting you. The only clients that I permit to watch me are the art directors hired and paid for by the client or agency to direct a project.


Retouching is more than a skill; it is an art form. Don't rush through any job, and try to avoid working when you're over-tired. You're working with a person's face and identity—something that requires your full concentration and empathy.

Figure 3.1Figure 9.1 Original Portrait


Figure 3.2Figure 9.2 Level 1 retouch with exposure improvement and blemish removal.


Figure 3.3Figure 9.3 Level 2 retouch with shaping face and smoothing of skin by modeling the lights and darks.


Figure 3.4Figure 9.4 Level 3 finish using painterly techniques to model the face and draw attention to the eyes.

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