How I Retouch Portraits

by William Lulow

Note: I have written about this topic before, but I’ve updated some information here and have re-posted it to maximize its reach!

When you go to retouch a portrait, you really only want to clean up obvious blemishes, marks and maybe take out some unwanted lines and wrinkles. You definitely don’t want to make a sixty-year-old look like a twenty-something! The thing about retouching is that it should never call attention to itself. If it’s too obvious, then it doesn’t do the right job. When I learned how to retouch portraits many years ago, the teacher talked about a process of building up tone little by little. With today’s digital retouching, the actual process may have changed, but the main idea has not. Retouching for portraits is about learning how to use certain key strokes along with a tablet and stylus. I use a small Wacom tablet and stylus, but there are systems that will allow you actually to do the work right on the screen itself. These tend to cost a bit more, but they are definitely the way to go if you are contemplating doing some serious retouching. The stylus allows you to be much more precise about picking up pixels and placing them at just the right spots. Whenever I retouch a face, I enlarge it on the screen in order to see the image clearly. (Learn to use the keystrokes in Photoshop with the “+” and “-” keys to change the size of your image quickly). By the way, bought this tablet many years ago on eBay. I saw, right away, that I couldn’t use a mouse to do the kind of job required for professional-quality, digital retouching.


As in most things photographic, I always start with some kind of idea about what I want the final print to look like. This depends on the subject and how he or she wants it to look. Some people are more vain than others and want you to clean up everything. I usually convince my subjects that the better way to go is that “less is more!” Again, retouching should not call attention to itself.

Here is one example:


This “Before/After” image was made to highlight the difference that retouching can make. The first shot has good lighting, but no hair, makeup or retouching. I know, from looking at the subject that I will want to smooth out some lines around the neck, remove most of the bags under the eyes and generally clean up some imperfections (and everyone has them). You can readily see the difference.

Retouching with Photoshop is a process of using the ALT key and the HEALING BRUSH together to pick up pixels and deposit them where you want them. First, I enlarge the image to show just the area I want to touch up. Then, I use the HEALING BRUSH to pick up adjacent pixels and I usually start with a smaller brush size than I think I will need and add to it later. The first step is to make a NEW LAYER to your image so that any mistakes you make can be erased easily. Also, I usually make a NEW LAYER for different parts of the same image. That way, anything you don’t like can be changed or redone. Once I’ve got my layer, I begin with smoothing out bags under the eyes and around the mouth. Without taking out all wrinkles, I try simply to create smooth lines with a small sweeping stroke with the brush. This technique allows me to put down many more pixels at a time without as many individual “points” on the image. Sometimes I need to pinpoint certain spots on the face and I start with a small brush and work up to a larger one depending on the need. As you are working, you can always use the STEP BACKWARD option under the EDIT menu to change things you don’t like immediately. I try to think of the process as if it were a painting to which I am adding tone in much the same way as I used to use chemicals to retouch a print.

Of course, the pose and the smiling expression help with the overall impression, but look at the retouching. I did not get rid of all the lines, just softened them up a bit.  I did get rid of most of the bags under the eyes and most of the neck wrinkles, but I softened the ones I left in. When you are using the HEALING BRUSH, the BRACKET keys allow you to adjust the brush size. Once you get used to using the key strokes combined with the stylus, your retouching jobs become much easier and quicker. Again, if you are thinking of doing a bit of this, you will have to get a tablet in addition to your mouse. The mouse just isn’t accurate enough when trying to replace tone in an image. You will also have to get used to using LAYERS. Create a new layer for each part of the image you want to retouch. This way, if you make a mistake, all you have to do is delete the layer and start over.

Again, with portrait retouching, don’t try to do too much right away. Follow the “less is more” approach and build up a little at a time. You will be able to see quite readily the effect of the retouching and when you have gone too far. You can always scale it back a bit if you have to.