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Techniques for Retouching Portraits

Photoshop is an advanced photo-editing tool, there’s no doubt. No other program boasts as many tools and features for retouching portraits. But eliminating shiny spots and spot-healing blemishes without a pressure sensitive pen tablet takes multiple steps, and isn’t likely going to satisfy your critical eye (or the critical eye of the person in the portrait!). Like most retouching projects, taking a little time and knowing a few tips and tricks will have your portraits looking amazing in less time, and with less-obvious edits.

Step 1: Smooth Skin Tones

Removing shiny spots on faces and evening out skintones is one of the most-requested edits to a basic portrait. That’s because portrait photography often uses artificial light, which can amplify, or washout, areas of a digital photograph. Without a pressure-sensitive pen, it’s virtually impossible to smooth out skin tones in a single step. Once you become accustomed to the pen tablet, it takes no time at all.

How do I even out skin tones?

  • Click the Brush Tool, and choose a very soft edge brush and modify the size to be something you’re comfortable with. Think of the brush tool like a makeup brush for this activity. In the Brush panel, select Transfer and then set the control for both Opacity and Flow Jitter to pen pressure.
  • Select a Spot: choose an area of the skin right next to the shiny spots you wish to tone down. Hold down the OPTION key on Mac and ALT on Windows to sample the area.
  • Apply the “Makeup”: Using the pen like a brush, lightly paint on the shiny area — very much like you would do with actual makeup in the real world. Gradually build up that effect by lightly “painting” on the tablet. You’ll notice shiny areas gradually disappear.

Step 2: Removing Blemishes

Blemish removal is one of the most misunderstood features in Photoshop. If you try it without pressure sensitivity, you’re likely to create a portrait that looks artificially enhanced, or worse the appearance of a scar. That’s because it’s a multi-step process to do it well. Using a pressure-sensitive pen tablet and the Spot Healing brush however makes blemish removal quick and easy.

How do I remove blemishes?

  • Remove Blemishes without Pressure Sensitivity: Remove a few blemishes without pressure-sensitivity first. You’ll notice the Spot Healing brush picks up pixels from the adjacent area and uses them to remove the blemish. But if the blemish is near a dramatic change in tone — near an eye, or on a cheek line — you’ll also notice the blemish removal results in dark spots or splotches being “cloned” in place of the blemish.
  • Use Pressure Sensitivity to Remove Blemishes: Now enable pressure sensitivity. The options for the Spot-healing brush are a little different. In the Brush Options menu, enable the pressure sensitivity for brush size only. You’ll notice the size of the brush is determined by the pressure of the pen. Small blemishes use a light touch, and larger blemishes use a more solid touch.
  • Accurately Retouch: With pressure-sensitivity enabled, your accuracy is improved. That’s because it’s easier to match the brush size to the size of the blemish, so the sampling of pixels is more accurate in the tough spots. Only correct the areas you need to, and avoid overcorrecting the area around it.
  • Automate your Adjustments: Here’s where your pen tablet saves time — the multiple steps you need to complete for varying blemish sizes, such as changing your brush size, adjusting your tool settings, etc. — are set up once and automated with your pen tablet. All the adjustments are made based on how hard or how soft you press.

Imperfection is Perfection—Remove Blemishes and Touching Up Skin Realistically

Remember, the key to successful portraiture is to make the subject look realistic. To that end, you don’t want to completely eliminate uneven skintones or blemishes. Aim to merely diffuse facial shine, eliminate the obvious blemishes, but don’t hide the freckles or completely remove all imperfections. With a pressure-sensitive pen your edits are nearly impossible to detect. Pressure sensitivity affords you much more control over the amount of retouching you’re actually doing. Retouching takes some getting used to, but once you’ve mastered it, you’ll wonder how you got along without it.