Blur is the new norm. Just look at a newspaper ad or a model’s portfolio and see how all too often a retoucher has taken shortcuts and smoothed out skin at the cost of the little imperfections that make each of us unique. In extreme cases, we see people who look computer generated.
A photograph can be interpreted and manipulated in almost unlimited ways. It’s like a piece of music, with the photographer the composer. The retoucher, then, is the conductor, and as such needs an approach that endeavors to preserve all but the sourest notes.
Big Adjustments First
The first step is to take a deep breath and analyze what you have in front of you.
Where are discolorations? Are there any bigger blotches?
A good trick to find those is to hold down the space bar while in Photoshop’s full-screen mode and then use the mouse to move the whole image around. If you’re looking at a static image, your brain adapts quickly and makes discolored areas blend in with the rest.
Another trick is to flip the image horizontally or vertically. That resets your brain and you will be amazed how many new things you will discover that need fixing.
Sweating the Small Stuff
Once you have identified the main areas that need adjustment, move on to the smaller details. Some people print out a reference copy and circle the areas so they don’t forget.
You are looking for blemishes like pimples or eyelashes. Create a new layer and start removing undesired particles immediately with the help of the smallest clone or heal brush.
When using tools like clone or heal, you will want to set the brush hardness to 0 in most cases so that the artificially created “patch” will blend right in. You will also want to make sure to set an origin ([option] for Mac, [alt] for Windows) that is close in both structure and luminance of the area that you are about to fix.
Easy with Enhancements
Once you’ve cleaned up the photo it’s time to enhance the image. Keep in mind that whoever is going to look at the photo has no clue what it looked like before you started editing it. Part of editing photos so they look natural is to edit them at places you least expect. I look at the hairline and see if there are any gaps that I can easily close.
Similarly, I look for blood vessels in the eyes or flaws with the make-up. Then, if you want to pronounce the jawbone or the shininess of the hair, no problem. Just use a slight dodge on the already brighter areas and a subtle burn on the darker ones. You’re just enhancing what’s already there while creating a little bit of locational contrast.
If a rogue strand of hair is bothering you, take it out. But remember that leaving it in will help to make the image look untouched. Personally, I always aim for an image that looks more real than reality.
In all this, be mindful of the model’s dignity. You are having a big impact on how this person is perceived.
With the power of the tool you’re wielding, namely Photoshop, comes great responsibility.