Whether you’re a professional portrait photographer or simply need a new headshot for yourself, taking a good photograph is only the first step. Retouching portraits using editing software like Adobe Photoshop is an equally important step in the process of creating a beautiful, eye-catching portrait.
Below, learn how to make portrait photos look professional in Photoshop using subtle—but effective—retouching techniques.
Like any artform, photo retouching is a creative and subjective process. Your editing preferences and style will likely differ from those of other photographers. In general, however, your goal in retouching portraits should be to make your subject look his or her best. In most cases, that means removing some imperfections, but also allowing the subject’s skin tone and texture and other unique traits to shine through.
During the retouching process, portrait photographers and editors typically focus heavily on the subject’s skin, hair, and eyes. Edits may include removing bumps and blemishes, smoothing flyaway hairs, enhancing colors, fixing contrast, and adjusting contours and highlights.
Adobe Photoshop contains every tool you need to make these adjustments. Once you have your raw photo imported into Photoshop, you have a wide range of tools, filters, and brushes to use to smooth out imperfections, make color corrections, and more.
Before you begin, it’s important to find the right image to edit. After a photoshoot, you may have hundreds of portraits to choose from. Take the time to sort through your photos and select an image that captures the subject well and that you’re generally pleased with. Even Photoshop won’t be able to help if you don’t like the basic composition of the picture.
Once you’ve selected an image, use this Photoshop portrait tutorial to learn the basics of retouching a photo from start to finish.
Many photographers choose to shoot in RAW, which means that the camera captures unprocessed, uncompressed photographs. If you don’t shoot in RAW, the camera converts the images to JPEGs before saving to the memory card, which means that some information is compressed and lost. Shooting in RAW allows you to retain all of that information, which allows you to more easily make changes, like correcting over- or under-exposure, and achieve better quality images.
If your chosen photo was shot in RAW, your first step will be to open it in Adobe Camera Raw. On this screen, you can make initial edits to the photo, like adjusting the white balance, bringing in more detail, or correcting the exposure. Once you are satisfied with those edits, select Open Image to move into Photoshop and begin the retouching process.
There are several elements to evaluate when cleaning up a portrait, including skin, makeup, and hair. Every portrait will contain at least a few imperfections that you want to remove, like blemishes, flyaways, or slight makeup smudges.
First, use the healing brush tool to clean up areas of the skin that stand out, like pronounced blemishes, red marks, or discoloration. The healing brush takes the texture from a sample area (usually right next to the blemish or imperfection) and blends it with the color and luminosity of wherever you paint it—essentially blurring away the imperfection. For best results, make the brush just slightly larger than each spot, and use a hard edge to maintain a realistic skin texture and avoid creating too much of a blurred effect.
You may also choose to use the clone tool for some fixes. This tool duplicates a selected area of the photo and allows you to paint those exact pixels in another area. This can be helpful for removing the peach fuzz around your subject’s nose or chin, for example, without blurring the border of that feature. The clone tool can also be useful for fixing imperfections within your model’s hair.
Dodge and burn is a critical step when learning how to Photoshop a portrait. Dodge and burn is a method of using light and darkness in an image to even out skin tone. Dodging makes an area of the photo brighter, while burning makes it darker. With these tools, you can selectively adjust the contrast of the photo to create an ideal skin texture.
To start, open up two curves adjustment layers—one for dodge and one for burn. On the dodge layer, pull the adjustment curve upward a bit to lighten the photo, and on the burn layer, pull the curve down. Invert the two layers to make them invisible. Then, simply select the layer you want to use—dodge or burn—and use the brush tool to reveal the curves adjustment in areas you want to brighten or darken.
Determining where to dodge and burn is subjective, but in general, think of it as similar to applying makeup. Typically, you will want to highlight areas of the face where the light naturally hits, like the forehead, bridge of the nose, and chin. Focus burning on places where shadows would fall, like cheekbones, jawline, and hairline—similar to contouring.
There are several different techniques you can use for color grading. For example, using the gradient map tool allows you to choose the specific colors for highlights and shadows. Then, by changing the opacity, you can determine the boldness or softness of those colors, ultimately creating a subtle but interesting effect.
For effective color grading, it’s helpful to have a solid understanding of complementary colors. Smart, selective use of complementary colors can make your portrait vibrant without looking jarring or unnatural.
If you don’t want to make these adjustments on your own, try experimenting with portrait Photoshop actions and Photoshop portrait filters. You can apply these pre-set combinations of adjustments to quickly enhance the colors and tones of your portraits.
Once you’re satisfied with the color and tone of the portrait, you’re ready to crop, resize, save, and share the image.
Under the Window dropdown, you can open the same image in two windows and arrange them side by side. Any changes you make in one window immediately reflect in the other. This allows you to zoom in and work on a detailed area, as well as see how those changes impact the overall image.
Contrast is essential to making your subject’s eyes stand out. Make sure to darken some areas of the eye (like the pupil and outer edge), while brightening others.
If you’re wondering how to make a portrait look like a painting in Photoshop, you can use Photoshop portrait filters to achieve a hand-painted look. In the filter gallery, select the dry brush filter, and adjust the hue and saturation until you’re satisfied with the effect. (Alternatively, if you don’t have a photo to start with, you can learn how to paint a portrait in Photoshop from scratch.)
When retouching a portrait in Photoshop, your goal shouldn’t be to remove all texture from the skin. Too much smoothing can make your photo look unrealistic. To maintain texture while fixing the skin tone and shadows, you can use frequency separation.
While these Photoshop portrait filters should be used sparingly, they can be beneficial in some circumstances. Use the sharpening tool to bring more detail into the photo, or use the blurring tool to create a more attractive depth of field (similar to portrait mode on an iPhone).
Even great photos can benefit from some retouching. With these tips, you can create attractive portraits that enhance the natural beauty of your subjects.