Beginner’s Guide: Top 10 Tools for Retouching Portraits in Photoshop

Adobe Photoshop is a complex, sophisticated software that has become the industry standard for digital photographers. Although it takes a while to get used to Photoshop and to learn its entire repertoire of tools, there are some staple tools that a photographer can use, and use effectively, to enhance a portrait. Most of the time, I have some basic tools in Photoshop that I use to retouch a portrait. Here are the top ten tools I use every time.

1. Layers

Using layers is a must for me because it’s insurance against bad judgement. What I mean is, if I make a mistake on an adjustment on the original file, I’ve got to trash the entire file and start all over again. But if I make a mistake on a layer, I can always delete the layer and start fresh on another layer.

2. Lasso

The lasso tool is great for selective adjustments. These are adjustments that affect only a small portion of the image. Take the eyes of a portrait. If you want the eyes to have some more detail in them, you can lasso the irises of the eyes and make a small curves adjustment, lightening them up a bit. This is just one example of how the lasso tool makes retouching easier.

3. Shadow Highlight

The Shadow Highlight function in Photoshop is a way for you to add some punch to the detail in the dark areas (shadow) or the light areas (highlight) of the image. Using the Lasso Tool, you can for instance select a dark area, choose the shadow highlight tool, and adjust the amount of detail in that selected area by moving the sliders right or left.

4. Curves

The Curves adjustment is something I use for every single photo. Using Curves adjustments, you can add contrast to a photo by brightening some areas and darkening others.

Photoshop is a full of great tools, which once learned can really make portraits pop.

5. Levels

In my workflow, this is actually the first thing I do. “Levels” is the amount of black and white and every value in between, in the photo. It is the levels of light being reflected by every element of the photo. Adjusting levels makes your blacks black, your whites white, and your middle values just right. Photoshop actually has an automated Levels adjustment, which I always test out for every photo I process. Sometimes the program makes a really good adjustment based on whatever mysterious digital computation it makes, and my photo looks better. Other times, I use the dropper method of adjusting levels, which I go over here.

6. Healing Tools

What retouching is done nowadays without using the Healing Tools? I don’t use this for travel portraits or other documentary work, but I use it extensively for retouching beauty shots or fashion editorial work. There are two nifty tools in this subset I use—the spot healing brush and the healing brush. The spot healing brush is like magic—you hold it over the blemish and click—and the blemish disappears! The healing brush is a little more subtle. You sample an area you want to ‘copy’ and then you brush over the areas you want to clean up, and the software helps you to paint over those blemishes with the sampled color and texture you picked.

7. Clone Tool

I use the Clone Tool for a lot of different things. One is to remove distracting spots or highlights in a wide angle shot. Another is to smoothen skin, especially underarms or for eyebags.

8. Brush Tool

The brush is a great tool in Photoshop. You can use the brush to do a lot of things. One, if you use it with a layer mask, or a layer on top of a layer, you can mask out things you don’t want and brush back things you do want. Other times, you can paint over parts of the image with white to brighten up those spots, or paint black or gray over other parts of the image, to increase shadows. This is what is called ‘painting with light,’ which is a popular technique in postprocessing.

9. Hue Saturation

I love punchy color—so I use the Hue Saturation adjustments to add more punch to clothes, or enhance makeup or eye color. The great thing about the Photoshop hue saturation adjustments is, you can choose which colors to saturate using individual color sliders.

10. Dodge and Burn

This is a tool that even Ansel Adams used, only he did it manually. On Photoshop, we’ve got a burn tool which makes things you brush with it darker, and a dodge tool, which makes things you brush with it lighter. I use it sparingly because it does ruin the pixels of a photo, but I do use it especially for monochrome shots. Dodging and burning are techniques that can add drama to a photo.

So now that you have this introduction to the top ten tools of Photoshop I use for retouching portraits, give it a go! Here’s a free tutorial on how to retouch an environmental portrait using most of the tools in the list–it’s a preview to what you might learn at a 3inOne Workshop©. This ebook is only going to be available for a limited time, so hurry on over and check it out.

Have fun, and don’t forget to let me know how you did!

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About Aloha

I am a photographer and writer currently based in Bangkok, Thailand. My work has appeared in CNNGo, Canon's PhotoYou magazine, Seventeen magazine, The Korea Times, Thailand Tatler, and a few photography books including recently Blogging for Creatives, a book published in the UK. I believe there is nothing you cannot imagine that you cannot do.

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