More Portrait Retouching

by William Lulow

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.

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 what he or she wants it to look like. Some people are more vain than others and want you to clean up everything. I usually convince my subjects that a better way is that “less is more!” Again, retouching should not call attention to itself.

In this particular instance, the woman wanted to have the wrinkles in her neck smoothed over. When I looked at the original, I decided that the color balance also needed to be a bit warmer, hairs needed to be cleaned up and other wrinkles needed to be taken out. Here are the “before”  and “after” shots. You can see exactly what was done. This portrait was also aided by some great hair&makeup work:


Sometimes retouching is barely noticeable and that’s just the way it should be. The viewer should have to look hard to see what was done.

The way this look is achieved is through the use of the HEALING BRUSH in Adobe Photoshop. When you are using this tool, the ALT key lets you pick up some tone and when you click a spot with your stylus, it deposits that tone to an area that is defined by the size brush you are using. I always suggest starting out with a smaller brush and increasing its size if need be. When you are using the 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. If you are thinking of doing a bit of this, you will have to get a tablet instead of a 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.