Essential retouching techniques in Affinity Photo: beautify your portraits

Affinity Photo
(Image credit: James Paterson)

Watch video: How to retouch portraits in Affinity Photo

Amongst the masses, the term ‘Photoshopped’ has become a byword for digitally enhanced portraits. These days, though, it’s not just Photoshop that lets you carry out these kinds of edits. 

Affinity Photo offers a range of powerful portrait-enhancing tools, from those that let you remove marks and imperfections, to dedicated features for skin softening. What’s more, the layer-based workflow of Affinity means that these edits can be done on separate layers, so you always have the option to control the strength of an effect, or go back to an earlier stage.

Here we’ll explore several key retouching techniques that you can apply to almost any portrait. Along the way we’ll encounter many key features in Affinity Photo. Portrait retouching is often about enhancing different areas of a face – we boost the eyes, soften the skin, sharpen the lashes and so on. We can use layer masks to confine effects to specific areas of the shot. This is a key skill not just for retouching, but for all kinds of editing.

We’ll employ the powerful High Pass filter in two contrasting ways. First we’ll use it to create a subtle softening effect, which we can confine to the skin with a layer mask. We can also use High Pass for a sharpening effect over details like the eyes, lashes and lips. As such, it’s a useful filter for boosting portraits.

Read more:

• Affinity Photo 1.8 review

Step 1: Patch over blemishes

You can click on the gadget in the top right corner of these screenshots to zoom in on a full size version. (Image credit: James Paterson)

Open a portrait in Affinity Photo. Duplicate the bottom layer with Cmd/Ctrl+J (we’ll edit this layer to preserve our original), then grab the Patch tool from the toolbar. Zoom in close, then use the tool to drag selections over blemishes. Next, click on a clean sample area nearby to fix the blemish.

Step 2: Smooth eye bags

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Grab the Clone tool and hit ‘2’ to set the tool opacity to 20% (this way we can gently soften patches). Go to the tool options at the top and set the layer blend mode to Lighten. Hold Alt and click to sample a clear patch of skin below the eye bag, then paint to clone and soften the darker patch of skin.

Step 3: Soften the skin

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Once you’re done patching and cloning, duplicate the layer again with Cmd/Ctrl+J, then go to Filter>Sharpen>High Pass. Set Radius to around 9 (or play with other values) and hit Apply. Set the layer blend mode to Overlay, then go to Layer>Invert. This creates a subtle softening effect.

Step 4: Paint a mask

(Image credit: James Paterson)

We need to confine the softening effect to the skin. Hold Alt and click the Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel to add a full black mask that completely hides the layer. Highlight the mask in the Layers panel. Grab the Brush tool, set your colour to white, then paint to gradually reveal the effect over the skin.

Step 5: Sharpen fine details

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Duplicate the second-from-bottom layer, drag it to the top of the stack, and go to Filters>Sharpen>High Pass, setting a radius around 1.7. Hit Apply and change the blend mode to Overlay, giving a sharpening effect. As before, add a mask to confine the effect to the eyes, lashes, lips and fine detail.

Step 6: Boost the eyes

(Image credit: James Paterson)

Click the Adjustments icon and choose Curves. Plot a shallow S-shaped curve to add punch. Next, make another Curves layer and plot a stronger S-shape. Add a mask and paint to reveal the stronger contrast over the eyes.  

Quick tip

As well as the High Pass technique, Affinity Photo also offers a dedicated Frequency Separation command (Filers>Frequency Separation) for retouching. This separates the high frequency (the fine details, lashes, lips, skin pores) from the low frequency (the wider colours and tones that make up the skin) making it easy to edit one separately of the other. So it means you can smooth out rough patches in the skin while retaining the all-important texture, which helps to prevent the plasticky look that plagues bad portrait retouching.

About N-Photo magazine

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James Paterson

The lead technique writer on Digital Camera MagazinePhotoPlus: The Canon Magazine and N-Photo: The Nikon Magazine, James is a fantastic general practice photographer with an enviable array of skills across every genre of photography. 

Whether it's flash photography techniques like stroboscopic portraits, astrophotography projects like photographing the Northern Lights, or turning sound into art by making paint dance on a set of speakers, James' tutorials and projects are as creative as they are enjoyable. 

As the editor of Practical Photoshop magazine, he's also a wizard at the dark arts of Photoshop, Lightroom and Affinity, and is capable of some genuine black magic in the digital darkroom, making him one of the leading authorities on photo editing software and techniques.