The Complete Guide of Retouching Photos with Human Subjects

There are tons of magazine covers with models, females and males that amaze the onlookers with their bodies or faces. The perfection expressed by these models conducted to deviated behaviors, many young women attempting to look similar to these and many times the effects were disastrous. The tabloids encouraged the “improved silhouettes”and the phenomenon is still widespread even if it is well-known that it is all about the talent of a good user of Adobe Photoshop and not natural beauty.

Under these circumstances, enhancing pictures with human subjects became degrading, many people considering the artists making these retouches aresomehow selling fake dreams. People must revise this opinion. A better understanding of their work will make everything clearer and the specialists doing these won’t be considered as a “paria” of the design world.

Retouching photos is one of the most difficult job to do for any designer: while creating layouts depends on some objective factors, modifying an image is totally a subjective task and it’s impossible to satisfy all tastes. This situation makes the specialists consider the retouching of pictures more as a new kind of art than a normal passion of the Photoshop lovers.

From this perspective, the models from the covers magazine aren’t just a marketing tool,they are the human perfection imagined by a designer. When the attempt to reproduce the perfection consists only in making the breast looking better it is a shame, and yes, these pictures must be avoided and ignored. The improving of the images that are taken from a bad perspective or have some imperfections is also the appanage of the designers interested in retouching activities. It’s nice to have some pictures from your weeding improved, to reflect the entire beauty of the bride even if the initial shoot wasn’t realized very professional.

The amazing portfolios of the designers passionate of improving images are the best proof that demonstratesthat special skills and a lot of work are required but the final results are nothing more than real miracles.

A special category of improving images is the one where human subjects are presented, as it is mentioned previously, it’s a very debated topic. In spite of the negative aspects, I prefer to show you a method to apply when dealing with these tasks. Being such a complex matter, there is no clear formula to apply, everything depends of the style of each one but this algorithm works for me, and it’s inspired from the advices of the best photo retouchers. Much more, when working for a client’s project, he has a word to say, hence the situation is pretty difficult but also it’s a nice challenge for any designer.

1. Study careful the picture

Pay attention to the size and the subject, identify clearly the directions to take action.

Let’s suppose that you have in front of you the digital file to modify. Before starting to modify any picture it’s highly recommended not to neglect this part, the one of “mediting” about the necessity of the modifications and how will look the final image. In this stage is important to consult with the client, if it’s the case, and debate about his perspective. It’s true that apparently there is nothing to do, but it’s quite important to have a good start.

2. Write on a paper or make a copy of the picture to note the modifications to make

The normal consequence of the previous step is to take into consideration the decisions made. I propose you two different ways to realize this:

  • The classic version, take a pen and a paper and write what you need to modify. I save a lot of time when these notations are in a logical order and not randomly.
  • The more effective way, by using Adobe Photoshop or any similar alternatives you simply duplicate the layer and write on it. I recommend using Pencil tool or a very small brush. Don’t be scarred about the multiple modifications, be optimist, it’s mandatory in order to evolve.

Depending on the deadlines you have, I prefer to take small breaks between these stages, I called this pause “the time to breathe for brain and inspiration” (not very inspired but it fully reflects the reality).

3. Organize in your head the image of the final result

I have another secret that sometimes really produces miracles: I work on two almost separated projects. One is the file that must have as result the picture imaged together with the client or the one established in the first step and one that has no limitations, along the work on the file I have various ideas in my mind and sometimes I followthese. Definitely, the first item must be presented to the clients but as long as the alternatives files are interesting, these may be considered as an extra option.

4. Start working with the “destructive” tools-Liquify and so on

Now, you effectively start the work of retouch. Before delving deeper into the problem keep in mind these advices:

  • Name your files properly and have them grouped to the regions affected or effects. A complete work may contain more than one hundred layers and it’s impossible to know what is affecting each one without a good naming of them. By grouping them it is easier to know if the cumulated effect is positive, you must change the opacity, add a new layer etc.
  • Don’t expect to do something in just few minutes, a professional retouch requires many hours of hard work and many times, what was considered good few hours ago, at the present seems foolish. A very good realization means many come-backs, lots of frustrations but the patience is the key element.
  • A good retoucher applies a very simple method, the one of the small steps. It’s impossible to create a good work by modifying large areas, small steps must be taken very and once the result is good at this scale, you must zoom out to see the big picture. Never, but never consider that if the image looks fine at his normal size, when zooming to let’s say 200% it would look fine too. (the vice-versa is also true).
  • A good result doesn’t mean very big modifications, it is about making better or perfect the respective project and nothing more.

When you open the image to modify in Adobe Photoshop or any other software the first idea must be to the plan you just created previously and how the final work should look. Immediately, create a working scenario: a wise designer starts with the effects that destruct the image (obviously, you must create a duplicate to work on and keep the original to see the actions). “Liquify” is quite probable the most used tool and all the actions that implies it must be done in the first layers. Once these are finished, the best method is to work from big to small scale. More pragmatically, is recommended to pay attention to the background (where is the case) then to the subject. By consulting the initial guide, the zones where it is necessary to bring the modifications are identified and, by patience, these are corrected step-by-step.

Not in the end, the lights and color improvements may really create miracles and these may be easily modified again and again.

5. Work with the body-if is necessary

It all depends on the picture to modify, but there are few ideas when in the image iscentered on the body of someone. The most common mistake is to exaggerate with some features, i.e. the arm is very muscled but the face is one of an obese or a skinny guy. Clearly, this aspect must be treated very carefully.

Another problem related to the body work is related to the skin. An amateurish approach is to have different nuances of skin color which is wrong and instantly is remarked by an experienced eye. The problem won’t be so difficult but it’s impossible not to have the lights that must be taken into account. Therefore, even if the advice is unclear and maybe annoying, the best idea is to imagine, as much as you can, the subject in a natural environment.

A specialist to be in retouching images will archive on his hard-drive various nuances of skin, from Afro to Caucasian types and in this way, the matter of skin color is simplified but, by far, not resolved.

Very precious tip: it took me a long time to realize it but it is very important. If you really care about your future as creative retoucher then it is mandatory to establish a database with various items as brushes, actions, shapes, tutorials, videos etc that will be priceless when effective working. I have special folders on my hard drive and when I find something interesting (and free) I instantly bookmark the address and download the materials. You don’t know when these may be utile for future projects and the space occupied is ignorable.

6. The face- “the last frontier”

If the problem of the body is still reasonable because it, usually, doesn’t contain a huge density of items to modify and the surface is pretty big, the face is the real headache. The face contains the forehead, the eyebrows, the eyes, the nose, mouth and chin (nothing new, isn’t it?) but all these occupy a small area, therefore zooming becomes mandatory.

In a natural way, people have the tendency to admire the face so there is another reason to pay tenfold attention to it. When working with faces I recommend the same process: start with destructive effects, there is almost no retouch that I don’t use “Liquify” tool. Then, select a direction, up and down or inverse and effectively work on the parts that need improvements.

Paradoxically, there is respected the rule of 80%: any project needs 80% from the time to complete 20% from it and the same is happening here. The face is a very complex item and there is no surprise to “waste” here the most time. Usually in this stage I prefer to work 50-60 minutes and 10-15 minutes complete break. Of course, it is related to the deadline but when you are able to respect this pattern, be confident and try it.

7. Pay attention to the eyes

If the face is the most difficult part from the retouch process, then the eyes are the most challenging items on the face. Apparently, too small to be noticed, they speak a lot about any person and any viewer is interested in interpreting their message. An unclear message or a strange sight doesn’t satisfy the viewers and subconsciously wouldn’t like the picture.

The conclusion is simple: no matter how small they are, the eyes reveal the professionalism of the designer that modifies the images.

8. In any conditions the light and colors may help a lot

The common mentality is that retouching meansmodifying deeply the images but in fact there is more: no matter how, the images must look fine. A good designer will be very careful to the lights and colors, more than a beginner that is preoccupied mostly by powerful changes. I don’t say that it is wrong, but a lot of good things may be realized by using more efficiently the bynom light-color.

9. Bigger modifications don’t equal better results

I made references to this idea but I considered that is necessarily to emphasize it once again. There are projects and projects, each one has its own specificity but when the situation allows, don’t try to get better results by making huge modifications, a great designer must retouch a photo by using fewer actions.

Therefore, by reaching this point it’s quite probable that you are interested in this fantastic type of modern art but there are many other aspects that, in order to get clients or, why not, make a living from should be avowed.

  1. There are no shortcuts

    The Internet is full of amazing stories, from websites that crashed the servers immediately after launching or by instantly successful social networks and people influenced by these stories won’t have the patience to accomplish a task. The same situation is here, to become a real professional it’s required tons of finished projects and, 100% sure, there aren’t shortcuts. Briefly, work hard and don’t expect fast outcrops.

  2. Be very passionate or forget it

    Very frequent at the beginning of the carries, the many difficulties may make the wannabeswant to quit. Probably, by reading the post, you observed that I used the noun “patience” very often so I am sure that you deduced that it works here too. A strong will and a great passion are the winning combination.

  3. Tutorials, blogs and inspirational showcases are the best help

    In the field of retouching, the trends change more frequently and the designers must be very flexible to them. Under these circumstances, don’t worry. If you are the best today, surely tomorrow will be another no.1 designer; nobody can adapt to the tastes of everyone. In spite of this situation, the self-preparation is mandatory. The tutorials are quite useful and each passionate-about should have a list of cool bookmarks with the best tutorials. The specific of retouching is that the “written” tutorials aren’t very practical, the video format being more utilized and useful. The bad part is that, the quality ones require paying an amount of money (from my experience the money invested are a gain and not a loss). YouTube or other video sharing websites offer many tutorials and, sometimes these are really pro made.

    These are very helpful to sharpen your skills but there is another factor that is many times ignored: where to get your inspiration… you have the potential to realize something cool but without it, you can’t start working! The best solution to get inspiration is to admire the works of other people involved in the field. I almost hate myself because I sometimes spend too much time viewing other people’s portfolios but this activity inspires me very much. Try it and let me know if you enjoy it!

  4. Create a portfolio

    A portfolio is the next step in the evolution. When someone is passionate about this and wants to get clients the need to modify some images it is mandatory. Two aspects are capital in having a portfolio that attracts people and converts them into clients: the respective website must be optimized for the right keywords and the works exposed should be very creative and have a high quality. Yep, it’s so simple to write but so hard to put it into practice.

Finally, I wish you good look in your attempting to become a professional photo retoucher and don’t be shy, if you have any problem, feel free to contact me. By far, I am a modest designer but anyway, a new idea is better than nothing.

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  1. Grammar much?

  2. Yes I know there are no shortcuts. Thanks for sharing such a beautiful post. That is very helpful.

  3. Excellent information, your first two paragraphs are certainly true, including these words “modifying an image is totally a subjective task and it’s impossible to satisfy all tastes.”
    I wish people would look at it from that point of view, and just enjoy the ability displayed rather than been so critical.
    Anyway thanks for the info, will bookmark and share this site.

  4. There are various tutorials available for that and you can use that according to your need. It’s really the best option to adopt and it looks better too.

  5. A beautiful and helpful post to touch the old memory about retouching !

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