The Art of Retouching
Portrait retouching is just as much an art form as making great photography. It’s a delicate balance of technical wizardry and artistry to transform an image from the camera frame to the wall art frame. Let’s take a look at how I keep the focus of revealing the natural beauty of my subject.
Getting It Right In Camera
There are a lot photographers that focus on getting a great image right out of the camera. When you can capture great composition, great lighting and exposure, an intriguing perspective with flawless tonality and mood; you’re done—right?
There are times when an image doesn’t need any additional adjustments, post-processing, or retouching. However, it is most often the case that the beauty of a portrait can be further revealed with an eye for details and storytelling. Crossing the chasm between good images and great portraits is the hallmark of a professional photographic artist.
Filters vs Frequencies
Like most photographers, I began using filters and presets to enhance my photographic images. After processing a few images in this way, I quickly discovered that using filters and presets didn’t reveal my artistic vision. Rather, they obscured it with someone else’s vision.
Today, I use a retouching technique known as frequency separation to enable portraits to retain the details and textures of my subject—namely the skin texture. A lot of filters today, use a blurring technique to smooth skin. Skin smoothing is intended to make the skin appear younger and more supple. However, it is often so overused that the subjects skin can appear very plastic in texture. That’s not how we look in life and it reduces the integrity of the image.
Portrait Retouching Priorities
The Eyes Have It
When I’m making a portrait, my first priority is to capture my subject’s eyes with tack-sharp precision. This has to be done in-camera at the time the image is made. Currently, there’s isn’t any sufficient technology that can compensate for a bad, blurry image out of the camera. It’s a non-negotiable for portrait photographers of any living subject—humans and animals.
The image below is a beautiful portrait. I’ve taken it through my signature retouching process. However, I include it because it has a subtle flaw—the eyes are slightly out-of-focus. It is difficult to see or notice on mobile devices, Facebook/Instagram, or the back of the camera. Yet, out-of-focus eyes are easy to spot on high-resolution monitors and large portrait prints.
I chose this image to highlight the level of detail that is required to evaluate an image and thus evaluate a photographer’s eye. While, this image is fine for a social media post, I would never sell it to my client or include it in a commercial project. When images are printed or enlarged for presentations or billboards, the small flaws become glaring defects.
Skin Tells The Story
Just like our eyes are the windows to our soul…our skin reveals the pathways we took in our life’s journey. Skin has so many qualities that affect our senses–the way it looks, the way it feels, the way it smells, and even the way it tastes. We perceive so much from the way skin appears on our bodies. For portraits, the way your skin looks is super critical to defining your brand and your look.
The before image in this set is where a lot photographer’s stop. It has the tonal adjustments to give the portrait its “look.” It’s still an authentic representation of the original image out-of-the-camera. However, if you look closer, there are few blemishes on the skin. Sometimes blemishes are actually birthmarks or beauty marks. I pay special attention to those marks to ensure I don’t remove something that’s actually part of my subjects identity.
The after image has four subtle features:
- The eyes have been slightly enhanced to bring more life and energy to them. They balance her gorgeous, electric smile.
- The blemishes have been removed from her skin so that you focus on her face without looking for flaws.
- I removed the tear/malar bags from under her eyes and forehead lines to reflect her youth and vitality.
- Finally, I reduced the shine on her nose from the studio strobes reflecting from her skin. That’s just my personal taste.
Retouching Should Be Invisible
Now, if you didn’t have these images side-by-side to compare, you would most likely not have notice the retouching in the final image. I didn’t use any skin smoothing techniques or photo filters because that would have destroyed the details in the natural texture of her skin. I want to retain those details because they add to the integrity of the image. Basically, she looks like a real person and not an over-processed “photoshopped” image.
Arguments Against Retouching
My subject for these portraits is a beautiful young woman. It could be argued that I didn’t need to do any retouching and she would have looked fine. Yet, that argument would fall flat when my portraits are part of a larger collection from multiple photographers or a photography book.
There’s an ongoing movement against retouching images. The call for “authenticity” is the most salient rationale for not changing or enhancing the physical characteristics of the subject in the portrait. It’s a valid argument in a world where retouching artists can essentially reimagined a person’s whole look. Indeed, there are a lot of amateurs and part-time professionals that fail to continually develop their craft and thus produce results that are subpar.
I’m constantly learning and upgrading my technique to produce the most impactful and relevant work of my generation. I often revisit images from years past to re-edit them with my updated techniques and modern sensibilities. Sometimes, my interpretation is exactly the same. I just see an image a certain way. Most often, I get the opportunity to reenvisage an old image and transform it.
An Authentic Portrait
Because portraits both tell a story and preserve a visual history, I think we should work to retain the integrity of that story while removing distractions from the narrative. We can do that without embellishing it with excessive and poorly executed retouching.
In time, I believe retouching will become the defining characteristic of a photographic artists and inseparable from her portrait-making skills. We live in an age where a lot of photographers either don’t retouch their images, only do minor adjustments, or outsource their retouching needs to a third-party. It is impossible to create a signature look when the most important element of that look is not prioritized.
Furthermore, I believe retouching requires human expertise. I am not persuaded that artificial intelligence (AI) will supplant human intent or artistic vision in the next 30 years. The current generation and the next-generation of visual artists must bring just as much mastery to their retouching artistry as their photographic artistry to create an “authentic portrait.”
Retouching is an inexhaustible topic. I’ve only scratched the surface both literally and figurately in this article. In my future retouching articles, I’ll share about lips, teeth, fingernails and toenails, jewelry, hair, makeup, tanning, overcoming and using noise, and so much more. For now, I want to hear from you.
- How do you feel about those plastic-doll face retouching techniques that have been proliferated by mobile apps and bad photography?
- Does retouching a portrait to make someone look younger violate your sensibilities or make you notice an image?
- How have glamour magazines and commercials shaped your image of beauty and photography?
- What’s the worst retouching work you’ve ever seen and why?
Leave your comments below and let me know what’s on your mind.