How to retouch photos: pro techniques in 10 easy steps

How to retouch photos like a professional: a quick and easy 10-step Photoshop tutorial

How to retouch photos like a professional: a quick and easy 10-step Photoshop tutorial

With fashion and portrait retouching, the devil really is in the detail; you might want to enlarge the eyes a little, remove a few spots, lighten the skin, or even reduce the size of the feet! It’s all work that requires you to get up close and personal, not something you can accomplish with a quick sweep of the brush at 50% zoom. And this is what makes the use of layers and layer masks crucial when you retouch photos: if you make a mistake, you can easily delete or edit the layer and have another go.

Do that same work on the original background layer and you might find, 20 minutes down the line, that you’ve got a wonky arm, one eye bigger than the other and skin that looks like a Botox accident.

It’s not until you see all the elements working together that you can really decide whether something looks right or needs a little tweak here and there – which is easily done when everything sits on separate layers.

In this Photoshop tutorial we’ll cover subtle body slimming and reshaping, skin smoothing and colouration, and background lightening, all on different layers, as well as hopefully give you some new Photoshop tips along the way. All you’ll need for this project is Photoshop CS or above and about 30 minutes.

Our start image

1 Start Instant slimming
We’re going to start with an old trick to slim our model a touch – not that she needs it, but just to show you how it’s done. Open your start image and duplicate the original Background layer by pressing Ctrl-J.

How to retouch photos like a professional: step 1

Next press Ctrl-T to initiate a Free Transform. In the options bar at the top of the screen type 97% in the Width box and hit Enter twice.

 

How to retouch photos like a professional: step 2

2 Crop out the left edge
We need to crop out the left edge of the shot, where the chair now looks skewed – the right side is fine because it’s just white background. Press C for the Crop Tool, zoom in using Ctrl and + and line up the bottom-left edge so you don’t lose more than you have to before extending the crop around the picture. When you’re happy, hit Return.

 

How to retouch photos like a professional: step 3

3 Select the rear
Next we’ll slim down a part of the model’s body. Switch to the Lasso Tool (L) and draw a rough selection freehand around her back and bum, as shown. Float this selection to a new layer by pressing Ctrl-J and then go to Filter > Liquify. Adjust the brush size until it’s about one-sixth of the size of the selection.

 

How to retouch photos like a professional: step 4

4 Liquify the body
Now carefully work down the edge of the dress, using your mouse to drag inwards from the very edge of the clothing towards the body. Try to get the back looking straight and uniform, switching to a smaller brush to iron out little kinks if required. Hit Enter when you’re happy.

 

How to retouch photos like a professional: step 5

5 Check the joins
Zoom in close to check that any reshaped fabric creases and patterns line up with any areas of the dress that we didn’t liquify. You can blend those that don’t by adding a layer mask, clicking it to target the mask and brushing over the join with a soft-edge black brush. Next zoom in to 200% and hold down to the spacebar to drag over to the face. Add a new layer (Layer > New > Layer).

 

How to retouch photos like a professional: step 6

6 Clean up the skin
Switch to the Spot Healing Brush (J), and make sure the tool is set to Sample All Layers in the options bar at the top. Now work around the face clicking on blemishes, using a brush size just slightly bigger than the blemish at hand in each case. Switch to the Clone Stamp Tool when near edges of the mouth and nose to avoid blurring the features. In the options bar, set the Sample menu to Current And Below.

 

How to retouch photos like a professional: step 7

7 Smooth out rough areas
Add a Curves adjustment layer and drag a point in the shadows sector upwards to lighten the shadows on the skin. Click OK, target the layer’s mask and press Ctrl-I to hide the effect. Tap D, then X if need be to set the foreground colour set to white, and use a soft brush to paint over the neck to lighten the shadows.

To smooth the skin a touch, target Layer 3, then press Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E to create a new layer that merges all of the existing layers. Go to Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur and set Radius to 3 pixels. Hit OK, then add a mask to this layer by clicking the “Add layer mask” button at the foot of the Layers palette.

 

How to retouch photos like a professional: step 8

8 Paint in this smoothing
To turn the mask black and hence mask out your new blurred layer, click the mask thumbnail to target the mask and then press Ctrl-I. Now tap X if need be to set the foreground colour to white. Using a soft-edged brush of around 50 pixels in size, paint onto areas of the skin that look a little rough, to effectively cut a hole in the black mask and reveal the smoothed skin, avoiding facial features or areas of detail.

 

How to retouch photos like a professional: step 9

9 Lighten the skin
We want to tone down the model’s tan too, so add another Curves adjustment layer, then reshape the curve roughly as shown above. Click OK, target the mask and then press Ctrl-I to conceal this adjustment. With the foreground colour set to white, use a soft-edged brush to paint over the skin, cutting a hole in the mask to apply the Curves adjustment to these areas. Avoid painting over the red dress!

 

How to retouch photos like a professional: step 10

10 Finish Adjusting skin colour
Holding down the Ctrl key, click the Curves layer’s mask to load it as a selection. With the selection active, add a Selective Color adjustment layer: the layer’s effect will be limited to the same areas. Choose Yellows from the dialog’s Colors menu and set Yellow to –100% and Black to +100%. Click OK and save the image as a PSD to preserve all the layers so you can revisit them later if you want to tweak them.

 

Using Layers

Because using Adjustment Layers and layer masks is so crucial to advanced portrait retouching, we created this handy cheat sheet to better illustrated what we did and how all the layers fit together when you retouch photos.

Click on the infographic to see the larger version, or drag and drop it to your desktop to download it. And if you find this useful, you might like some of the other infographics in our ongoing photography cheat sheet series.

How to retouch photos like a professional: a quick and easy 10-step Photoshop tutorial

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