Let’s start by viewing a short video, all the way to the end. Click on the following link and watch the video before moving on to the section that follows.
Produce a pleasing photograph of the model that looks realistic and natural, also free from editing artifacts
Tools to know and use
- Photoshop, Lightroom or Adobe Camera RAW for front-end prep
- Layers (adjustment layers, pixel layers)
- Layer masks (add, edit mask, and mask edge control)
- Blend mode (overlay, soft light, multiply, screen)
- Fade (immediacy is important)
- Dodge and burn like a pro (overlay, brush, fade)
- Liquify (shape, build, BE GENTLE)
- Free transform tool (shape head, eyes, lips)
General artistic workflow (your sensibilities will guide you)
- Have a vision for the finished product
- Make sure it fits the subject
- Implement, experiment
General technical workflow (your tools and skills in using them will help you)
- Cover up for the equipment/shoot process
- Cover up for the photographer (we make mistakes, you know)
- Cover up for the model (subtle, natural, realistic corrections can go a long way)
Step by Step
The overall editing flow goes from global adjustments to local adjustments. Often times global adjustments may even eliminate the need for localized adjustments, at least may reduce the need for micro-level work. The steps I present using Adobe Lightroom will work exactly the same way in Adobe Camera RAW module; even JPEG and TIFF format files to some extent. I will demonstrate these steps in greater detail that will allow you to take additional notes. Here, I will focus on the general outline of the workflow with the tools in use indicated. After the tonal adjustment, I will focus on a few important areas of corrections: Blemish elimination, wrinkle reduction, skin smoothing, and eye enhancement. Other areas that may need addressing will necessitate a separate session and separate tutorial. Head and face alignment/sculpting, dealing with blotchy skin, adding stronger or even different makeup, selectively saturating parts of the face, and many more are well within the reach with a little practice but not covered in this presentation/tutorial.
White Balance, First For Accuracy Then For Suitability
White balance is where I would like to start. Keep in mind that we are aiming for a natural look which, for portrait shots may very well be slightly on the warm side. Make the correction first for “accurate” white balance, and then adjust for the desired look. My tool of choice for this task is Lightroom, although you may use Adobe Camera RAW for the same controls.
Open your RAW image in Lightroom (or ACR) and pick up the white balance tool. It is an eyedropper in both programs. Now, click on the neutral color portion of the target you included in your photo shoot. This will neutralize the color cast if any and may make the image slightly duller; that’s OK. Now, look at the image with “accurate” white balance; does it look inviting, pleasing? Most portrait photographs will look more pleasant with slightly warmer color balance. Using the “Temp” and “Tint” sliders (gently) try adding a touch of warmth until you are satisfied. Then move to the next step.
Defringe (Chromatic Aberration Correction)
Often overlooked, fringing around the high contrast edges of the subject can significantly degrade the overall sharpness and acuity of an image. Lightroom offers very easy to use tools to deal with what is known as “fringing” or “chromatic aberration”. Zoom in at least to 300% and look for a colored fringe on high contrast edges in the image. Remember, this is much more visible on the periphery of the frame. When you find the fringed edge, use the appropriate slider to get remove, at least reduce the color fringe you can see.
Look at the overall exposure to see if there are any blown out highlights or blocked shadows. If you are shooting under the controlled studio environment, this will be less likely. But in a large group model shoot, there may be a need for some adjustments. In the develop module in Lightroom, move your cursor over the triangle on the top right corner of the histogram; this is the highlight warning indicator. You can click on it to turn it on while you are working, then turn it off when you are done. Any blown highlights will show as red on the image. So long as the overexposure is not extreme, the “Recovery” slider will tame that and bring the highlights under control. Slide it towards the right until the red blotches disappear. Keep in mind that extreme use of the recovery slider may make the highlights quite a bit duller.
While you are in that area, if you see blocked shadows, you may use “Fill Light” slider to open them up. In all these adjustments subtlety is the key. The other sliders in this block will help you to get the tonal look you like from the photograph.
Blemish Control (minor imperfections, sensor dust, etc.)
Lightroom tool to handle spot healing or cloning seems much easier to use than the one in Photoshop. The tools in Photoshop are more powerful for sure, but for general spotting, I prefer Lightroom or ACR. The tool, which can be used as a healing brush or clone stamp is the second from the left in the top toolbar in Lightroom. Adjust the diameter to fit your needs and remove the pimples, nicks, and other obvious blemishes in the image. The rest of the adjustments we will carry out in Photoshop as we need the power of layers, blending modes, fading, etc.
Now, either open the file from Adobe Camera Raw or in Lightroom right click on the image and select “Edit in/Photoshop”. When the open file dialog window appears, choose “Edit a copy with Lightroom adjustments” so that all the tonal adjustment and other corrections will be applied to the image. When the image is opened in Photoshop it should be tonally correct, free of blemishes. We have covered for the errors induced in the lighting, camera, lens, and some of the problems stemming from the model.
The purpose of this step is not to stretch a piece of plastic sheet on the model’s face but to minimize some of the imperfections like pimples, uneven skin tone, wrinkles, and so on. The idea is not to create a Barbie head, but a pleasing and plausible portrait of the model; male or female.
Since the blemishes are controlled in the previous step, we do not need to focus on that here. If there are some that slipped through, you can always use the Healing Brush tool to take care of them with relative ease.
Wrinkle control in Lightroom does not have enough finesse, so it is best handled in Photoshop. The tool of choice here is again the healing brush most of the time. Remember: we are not trying to stretch the skin unnaturally; the purpose is to REDUCE the wrinkles. I prefer to make all my changes on separate layers. This gives me a great deal of flexibility in adjusting the intensity of the adjustments independent of one another. Start by placing a blank layer above the background layer, name it “Wrinkle control”, and pick up the healing brush.
Using the appropriate blend mode for the tool, generally “Lighten,” and making sure that “This Layer and Below” is selected for sampling on the toolbar, go over the wrinkles around the eyes one long stroke at a time. After each stroke, before you do anything, “Fade” the stroke to a reasonable level (Edit/Fade, or Shift-Ctrl-F.) This will allow much-finessed control on your efforts to reduce the wrinkles. Repeat as necessary.
In these three photographs, you see the original, wrinkles removed at 100%, and the wrinkles removed at 45%. You can see how unnatural the second photograph looks; it has lost facial sculpting and it is beginning to scream “Photoshopped!!” The third image presents the model with facial features, eye depth, raised cheeks and young skin.
Skin smoothing seems to be the focus of many portrait/model/glamor photographers. Often, this practice goes to an extreme where the model looks like a person with electro-luminescent plasma skin. Photographers have used many tools and techniques to minimize the major blemishes like pimples, acne, and overly large pores. These ranged from dedicated soft-focus lenses to soft-focus filters attached in front of the lens, to nylon stocking stretched over the lens. They all did one thing, more or less effectively: spread the highlights over the shadows. Since most skin imperfections are darker than the skin, the method worked and used by many.
With the advent of digital photography and its grainless image structure compelled photographers to seek digital solutions to rendering skin in a more pleasing way. The typical method involves creating a pixel layer of the image above all the layers, applying some amount of Gaussian Blur to it and lowering the opacity of the layer for a pleasing effect. This method has many variations, like using the content of the red channel, changing the blend mode from normal to screen, making eyes and lips to show through with the use of masking, and so on. When used with care, this approach still produces acceptable results. However, one has to keep in mind that the process supposedly mimics the behavior of a soft-focus lens, which does not discriminate parts of the face photographed. Furthermore, a soft-focus lens never produces skin that you are afraid to touch. The main objective is to subtly hide most of the imperfections without plasticizing the skin; it must remain touchable, delicate, sensual, and human.
I would like you to consider a more flexible tool with greater finesse, which lies under a different filter. Try this:
- Create a duplicate of the background (or a merged layer if necessary)
- Invert it to a negative (Ctrl-I)
- Convert it to “Smart Filter”
- Change blending mode to Overlay
- Now apply: Filter/Other/High Pass (yes, I know it is used for sharpening, but humor me!)
- Try a radius around 5-10 pixels while you watch the effect. You will see the softening effect as you change the radius.
- Since the layer has been converted to work with Smart Filters, you can always go back and change the radius. This will give you a much controlled softening, leaving most of the sharper edges intact.
- Remember, you can always adjust the layer opacity to reduce the effect of skin softening; and whatever you do, leave the skin as skin don’t make that soft skin look like hard plastic.
6. Eye Enhancement
There are tutorials, DVDs on enhancing the eyes to very significant extent. The purpose of this small and short tutorial is to cover the key issues, so I will mention only a few things and offer a simple to use tools that will get the job done.
Eyes are the most visible part of a human face and they may need extra attention. First, they need to be sharp unless they are rendered not so for a reason. Second, the white of the eye sometimes tends to record a couple of shades darker than one would want and may need to be brighter. This, again, needs a subtle touch so as not to make the eyes look like they are emitting light. If there are strong veins visible, they can be tamed down by desaturating the color and/or by carefully applying some healing brush strokes.
My choice of tool here will be to dodge the whites carefully. If you are using Photoshop CS5 the dodge and burn tools are perfectly usable. Earlier version users should resort to an overlay mode layer above the image. Here is the process; and this will work in Photoshop CS5 as well.
Dodging & Burning With Overlay Layer
- Alt-Click on the new layer icon at the bottom of the layers panel which will open a dialog window. Fill it like what you see below:
- This will create a new layer, fill it with 50% gray, and change the blend mode to overlay. Since this mode affects only tones that are lighter or darker than 50% gray, there will be no visible change in the image
- Pick up your brush tool (shortcut key B), and set your default colors black on white (shortcut key D), then swap them (shortcut key X) so that the brush color becomes white
- Change the brush opacity to 50% (shortcut key 5), adjust the brush hardness to about 40%
- Make sure the “Dodge Eyes” layer is targeted and the image is zoomed in to give you a comfortable painting area and paint on one brush stroke one corner of the white of the eye. Do not make multiple brush strokes, click and hold the left mouse button and paint on the white part of the eye, you will do this one corner at a time. It will likely be overly bright, that’s OK.
- Without doing anything else or picking up another tool, press Shift-Ctrl-F to summon the Fade tool and using the slider reduce the dodging effect until it looks natural. If you err, do so on the brighter side (more on this later)
- Now, repeat step 6 for the other 3 corners of the eyes
- Review the image with this layer turned on and off. If it looks over done, reduce the layer opacity until the eyes look brighter yet normal. Below are the partial captures of before and after images of the eyes
If the eyes have some veins showing, dry to desaturate them first, then carefully apply healing brush or clone stamp tool.
Mouth and Teeth Adjustments
Mouth, lips, and teeth may need attention with restraint; after all, a slightly awkward smile need not kill. Overly corrected teeth may look like falsies, and lips unnaturally curved or plump may make the model look like the Joker from the Batman movies. The tools that may help here are Free Transform, Liquify, Clone Stamp, even cut and paste. Always make these adjustments on separate layers; if anything goes wrong you can throw away that layer and start again.
There are numerous plugins for Photoshop that will, or claim that they will give you one-click fix of a model’s face. Or various Photoshop actions offer similar results with the same ease. I have seen results produced by some of these plugins and actions and I am amazed how unnatural they look and how accepting the photographers are when it comes to “smooth skin.” The electro-luminescent plasma skin I mentioned earlier is their aim and they typically use a selection mode of some sort to select the skin color, make a new layer of this selection, and blur the megapixels out of it. The result: Two eyes looking through a plastic mask!
There are two excellent products if you are in a spending mood. I have tried both and can comfortably tell you that they both work to produce the results I would approve.
The first one is the Portraiture Plugin from ImageNomic.com (http://www.imagenomic.com/pt.aspx) and it comes in flavors to serve Photoshop, Lightroom, or Aperture users. They promised to offer 20% discount to NECCC participants. I announced the code at the end of my presentations at NECCC.
The second product is Anthropics Portrait Professional (http://www.portraitprofessional.com/). It comes in three flavors at three price-points. Look and decide. They offered to NECCC 2010 participants a 10% discount. They have a sale going on and I am not sure if the discount will still apply. I announced the code at the end of my presentations at NECCC.
Each product offers training guidance, tutorials, videos, and the like. I think you can do all that in Photoshop but it is a matter of time efficiency, which will improve with repeated use. Plugins should not be a substitute to learning how to achieve a result in Photoshop or Lightroom they just save time.
After all is said and done, the photographer and the subject are the ultimate arbiter of what constitutes a pleasing photograph. However, it is up to all of us to improve our photographic sensibilities and our mastery of the tools we use so that we can also educate both the models and other subjects as to what makes a better result and explain why.
May all your models be beautiful, with smooth skin, perfect teeth, bright eyed, and with great attitude.