March 7, 2019

The Good, Bad and (Not So) Ugly | Portrait Retouching

Everything you need to know about professionally retouched portrait photos.

Wow–for the second week in a row, I had a blog post all planned and then something came up that made me totally change my mind!  Yesterday, the subject of professionally retouched portrait photos came up in conversation.  Incredible!

People rarely talk about retouching in casual conversation!  Most people don’t really understand what goes into retouching a portrait, so I would be happy to walk you through it quickly.  There are some major misconceptions about retouching, mostly due to a lot of really bad retouching out there.    In fact, I recently had a client ask me to not retouch their photos.  When I demonstrated the difference, they understood that retouching is meant to enhance, not totally change the look of a person.  Think of it as the best version of you.

Retouched Portraits
The difference is subtle but evident.

I always start with a clear understanding of what I want to accomplish.  We are starting with a very pretty bridal portrait that does not need a lot of work to begin with, in part because the makeup/hair stylist was wonderful.  I always recommend stylists who have experience in working for print/weddings.

In the photo above, there were some very distracting stray hairs. They will need to be cleaned up without making it look fake or like she has a helmet on her head.  The eyes look a tiny bit dark, so we want to enhance them slightly.  This is one of those areas where if you enhance too much, they can look “creepy” or even demonic, so a light hand is imperative.  Lastly, with cameras and lenses today, the final image can look a little too sharp sometimes.  This can be noticeable in the texture of the skin.  Our model here has a lovely “peaches and cream” complexion, but we do not want to see the actual powder or any dry skin.  There were only a few tiny blemishes that needed to be corrected.  So we need to smooth the skin without it looking plastic or doll like.  She is a real person, and we want her to look real.  We want to make the portrait look polished without looking fake.

For comparison, we have the correctly retouched version next to an overly retouched version.  It was kind of fun to make it look bad.  And for the record, when I was first learning to retouch, I was guilty of many poorly retouched images.  It is easy when you are working so intently on something close up to go too far.  In the over retouched version, you can see what I mean about plastic skin, helmet head and “creepy” eyes.  Many times when photographers do not understand retouching, they throw a filter on their portraits and call it done.  That is where plastic skin comes from–too much with the filter.

Professional Retouching Photos

Retouched Bridal Portraits
Close up of skin in normal retouching and over retouching.  The one on the left leaves skin texture while the one on the right totally obliterated it.

So here were are again with the Before and After.  Which do you prefer?

Retouched Portraits
I think you will agree some degree of retouching is really necessary.


Did you enjoy reading this post about professional portrait photography?  You might like to read this post about portrait photography as well.  Or did you ever wonder what the difference is between Amateur Photographers and Professional Photographers?

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