An extensive checklist (and fixes) for portrait retouching

Apr 19, 2017

Joseph Parry

Joseph Parry is a Commercial and Editorial photographer based in the UK that provides cinematic photography and ounces of humour. Follow him on Instagram for stories and kick ass imagery.

An extensive checklist (and fixes) for portrait retouching

Apr 19, 2017

Joseph Parry

Joseph Parry is a Commercial and Editorial photographer based in the UK that provides cinematic photography and ounces of humour. Follow him on Instagram for stories and kick ass imagery.

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Happy Easter guys! This week I wanted to give you a handy guide for double-checking that your images (with people in them) are as free from distractions as possible, and how to fix any that appear, before you release them. There is another impressive article on how to do this with videos if you prefer some German humor ;).

I like to break my images down into 3 key areas (entirely because of Stefan). These are the following:

  1. Color Issues
  2. Luminosity Issues
  3. Texture/Structure Issues

As long as these three issues are covered, you have a wonderful base to assume that your image is going to be relatively distraction free.

So what are these problems, and how can you identify/fix them? The answer is simple, with the right techniques and a ton of experience. I can show you the techniques, but the experience part is up to you! So load up that photo you never got around to retouching and allow me to help you through it with this guide!

In short, everything we’re looking at doing here is to simplify our image and remove distractions.


The most common culprits I find myself coming across are:

  • Stray hairs
  • Skin (cracked lips, spots, creases, folds)
  • Clothes (folds and creases)
  • Distractions (rubbish, leaves etc)

Luminosity problems

  • Limbs (hands, fingers, arms, legs, feet)
  • Subject vs Background
  • Hotspots
  • Edge Flicker

Color problems

  • Skin (Blotches, Lighting)
  • Dyed hair (the roots and ends)
  • Limbs (hands, fingers, arms, legs, feet)
  • Saturation of highlights vs shadows
  • Not adhering to a color scheme (distracting)

Here’s a quick animation taking you through one of my latest images where I worked through the issues above in order:

Structure (healing), Luminosity (brightness), Color (fixing limbs, subject to background ratio, and adhering it to a ccolor scheme). Then it swaps between final and RAW three times for comparison. I think the quality increase and clarity of the image are evident here.

Rather than making this an absurdly long and in-depth singular article, I will instead be linking off to wonderful examples of articles either I or people I trust have already written to allow for a more digestible checklist.

People often tell you how to fix A or B, but people seldom tell you a list of things you need to have fixed before you push your work out there. Because if you’re putting your work out there with a lot of these issues still intact, you’re cutting yourself off from the next level and ultimately reducing your image quality, which reflects on your brand.

Fixing Structure

When it comes to fixing structure I like to use the healing brush for 99% of the process, occasionally swapping out to the stamp tool if required. I have found success using the healing brush at both 0% hardness and 100% hardness, though now I seem to enjoy the results of 0% hardness more.

Pratik Naik recently released a fantastic tutorial with RGG detailing one of the many ways in which you can approach fixing structure and while Stefan Kohler and I seem to part ways here (as he’s a 100% hardness guy with the healing brush) both methods are identical with the exception of hardness.

I work with a 0% hardness brush with my healing tool and paint over problems to fix them. I picked up a cool tip from David Neilands. Basically, I ask myself can I fix the problem by healing it instead of dodging and burning (D&B for short) it? If so, heal it.

I swapped my workflow to healing as much as I can get away with, and only using D&B to fix up some of the issues where replacing texture doesn’t make sense. If I can sample a clean version of the same texture where the issue is I can save the difficulty/complexity and time of micro contrast dodging and burning and simply replace the problem with clean skin. It looks better and takes significantly less time.

  1. Stray Hairs: Use the regular healing brush with a small-sized brush and hardness to taste (0% or 100% is best in most cases). Sample near the hair you are trying to fix and simply replace the hair with the texture that is next to it. If you are dealing with stray hairs that are more isolated and simple, you can get away with the spot healing brush and simply dragging from the base of the hair to the end of the stray hair. I’ve drawn in blue below to show you what it would look like if you were using the spot healing brush to remove hairs. I actually wanted to keep the messy style here so I didn;t remove them, but it’s still an example of what I would remove if I wanted a cleaner look.

  2. Cracked Lips: Use the regular healing brush coupled with the stamp tool at a very low flow (1-5%) and very gently paint over the worst parts of the cracks to gently flatten the contrast and reduce the appearance of the cracks.The stamp tool works wonders here because rather than replacing the texture like the healing brush would, it gives you a softer blended look.
  3. Spots: Regular healing brush, sample near the problem. With regards to wider spread problems like acne, use a small brush (the size of a small pea or smaller and start from the outside (heal the spots on the outside areas), and work your way in (to the centre of the problem).
  4. Creases/Folds: This one is pretty complex to discuss here actually as it requires a lot of knowledge with anatomy. The easiest answer is to make sure you’re happy with the way the clothes are sitting/looking before you take the photograph. If it’s not your photograph and you’re simply retouching it, the fix is the same as the rest. Use the healing brush to remove what you can and follow it up with a gentle stamp tool (on a separate layer) to blend or fix areas that the healing brush cannot accomplish. Make sure to view images from great sources with regards to how feet, hands, armpits etc should all look after retouching. Pratik Naik, David Neilands, Natalia Taffarel, Jordan Hartley, Miguel Maza are some wonderful examples of reference material. By far the best tip for clothing is to buy yourself a steamer for $30 on Amazon.

Here’s a before and after of an image with the texture/structure distractions fixed:

Fixing Luminosity

Luminosity is the brightness of elements within your image, and one of the most powerful things we can use to direct people in your images. By changing the brightness of areas relative to each other we can selectively increase or decrease contrast.

Wherever there is contrast, the eye will be directed to.

  1. Subject vs Background: This is the idea of making sure the area we want our viewers to look at has the greatest contrast within the image. This means making our model brighter than the background in most cases. Though sometimes it will make sense to make the model darker than the background, but you’ll have to use your own taste to decide when this is right for you. I’ve written about this in more depth here.
  2. Hot Spots: Hot spots are bright, high contrast areas in your images (gaps in trees, street lights, Christmas lights, reflections etc) that can direct you away from the main subject. Hot Spots are distracting, and as such, have to be removed. You can see that I removed mine with the structure fixes. This was because it looked better to heal them out rather than reduce the brightness down giving the trees a fuller look. It will depend on the image and your taste when you reduce brightness or remove completely. I simply use the combination of the healing brush and stamp tool (on separate layers) to remove them. If you wish to keep them and simply reduce the brightness, there’s an article I’ve written on selections here.
  3. Edge flicker: With Edge Flicker, examine the edges of your image and make sure that there are no high contrast areas touching the edge of your frame. If there are, remove or reduce them to keep the viewer’s eye within the picture. A handy way to do this is to make a new contrast/brightness adjustment layer and paint on the mask around the edges on problem areas. Then reduce the contrast to taste/need.
  4. Limbs: Pay attention to the limbs of your subject, are they the right brightness/contrast to allow the viewer’s eyes to look at what’s important? I like to keep the face as the brightest part of my images and reduce the other areas to match or fall below. Here’s an example of fixing the arms/hand brightness below:

Here’s a before and after of an image with the luminosity distractions fixed (from the first step of fixing structure):

Fixing Color

Color is a vast subject, so I’m going to avoid as much theory as possible and stick to the quick fixes. If you want to dive into color there’s a fantastic tutorial from Stefan Kohler here.

  1. Skin blotches/lighting: I’ve written an article on how to fix color issues here. In short, we are using the info panel to match the RGB values of one area to another area and using a mask to paint the changes in selectively. Skin blotches are simply spots of skin that are different colors clumped together and we can use curves to fix them. You can also hold ALT(OPTION)+left click on a skin tone near the blotches and paint over them with the layer set to “color” mode. The latter method isn’t the ideal way, but it may work for you in certain situations.
  2. Dyed Hair: Keep a keen eye on the roots and ends of your hair and fix them by sampling a color nearby, then using the brush tool to paint over the hair that needs changing. Set the blend mode of that layer to “color”. If you run into saturation issues, make yourself a Hue/Saturation layer and reduce the saturation of the hair. You can then paint this back in with a new layer mask.
  3. Limbs: Like the first problem, the fixes are curves-based and I’ve written about how to fix them extensively here. Keep an eye on the knuckles, fingers, arms and legs. The most common issues I seem to find myself fixing each time are the following: Knuckles are too red, arms are too blue/magenta, legs are often darker and completely wrong in saturation, hue and luminosity. Use curves to fix the luminosity and color issues, and use a Hue/Sat adjustment layer to fix the saturation issues.
  4. Saturation of Highlights and Shadows: Be mindful of the fact that highlights are less saturated and shadows are more saturated. Make sure that any changes you do to your luminosity are compensated this way. This generally means if you do a huge change in luminosity you will have to change the saturation to match. If you darken something a lot, you’ll have to add saturation, and if you brighten something heavily, you’ll have to reduce its saturation. Be mindful of makeup and lips, make sure they match in saturation throughout its range/shape. the chest can often be a lot redder than the face also, so check and see if you need to reduce the saturation there.
  5. Adhering to a color scheme: Natalia Taffarel has directed many a photographer to Color Scheme Designer (CSD for short) with regards to it’s uses and I have to completely agree with her. You can learn quite a bit from this color harmony post and color tutorial. I use CSD for every image I work on to create a color scheme based off of the clothing/subject within the image and work the colors to it. If you leave the website open as a reference while you work, you can pick the color of the main subject matter and click on any of the tabs such as “complementary” or Triad to see which colors your image should have within it. You can then use a combination of Hue/Sat, Curves, and Selective Color to change saturation and hue of any of the problems you’ve seen. The reason we want to adhere to a color scheme within our images is simple. It reduces subconscious distractions for our brain and makes an image more pleasant to view.

Here’s a before and after of an image with the color distractions fixed:

I really hope you guys find an immense level of value here as I’ve detailed almost everything I would look for in an image and how to fix them. Until next week, Happy Easter and wishing you a smashing week.

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Joseph Parry

Joseph Parry

Joseph Parry is a Commercial and Editorial photographer based in the UK that provides cinematic photography and ounces of humour. Follow him on Instagram for stories and kick ass imagery.

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4 responses to “An extensive checklist (and fixes) for portrait retouching”

  1. cbenci Avatar

    Well done Joseph, great article.

    1. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry

      Thank you!

  2. Ellie Fulford Avatar
    Ellie Fulford

    Nom <3

    1. Joseph Parry Avatar
      Joseph Parry