Five Things You Should Learn to Improve Your Retouching

Five Things You Should Learn to Improve Your Retouching

If photography is an art, so is retouching. While there are school teaching photography classes, fewer offer retouching programs. Many photographers starting out seem to be looking at the same tutorials over and over again, without ever actually getting anything out of it. Frequency separation, dodging and burning, or curves will only get you so far before you hit a wall. In past the two years, I’ve been looking at other crafts to step up my retouching work. Here are five things I have spent time on that you should look into and why.


It’s no secret, retouching is very much like digital painting. Using a Wacom tablet for hours to dodge and burn imperfections, recreate hair, or clone out bad texture is a form a drawing. The feeling of using a brush, or even a pencil, isn’t the same as a tablet, but it’s close. I’d say it’s close enough that drawing is an excellent way to improve your retouching skills.

Talking with other photographers, I’ve found many seem to know all about every single technique out there, but just lack the delicacy in their practical application. For example, when dodging and burning to even out tones, some people will actually create new issues, such as wavy lines, because they are not meticulous enough. This is where drawing becomes interesting and even essential.

Learn to draw what you tend to retouch. It will help you in different ways. You’ll learn to draw what you usually find on your images, giving you a better understanding of shapes, colors, and tonality. But that’s not it, you’ll see exactly what you do. When retouching an image, creating minor issues isn’t always a big deal, because other elements may overpower them, thus making them almost invisible. Drawing on a white piece of paper is a totally different story! You’ll learn precision and attention to detail, both fo which are paramount when a natural look is your goal.

Reading Light

Light comes hand in hand with drawing because if you don’t understand light, you won’t be able to draw anything remotely believable. Studying painting masterpieces will help your understanding light, and probably colors as well. When dodging and burning, or making any luminosity adjustment, it’s important to know the difference between soft and hard light, as well as shadow placements. I’ve seen countless portraits on social media with contouring added in post that made no sense at all.

If you are a retoucher, try to give photography a try and play with artificial lighting. If you are a photographer, practice with lighting setups or light sources you haven’t tried before. To learn more about lighting, like I said before, go to a museum and study legendary painters’ work. If you cannot, or if that’s not enough, spend time watching and analyzing movies or TV shows. A few of my favorite picks would be any Quentin Tarantino or Nicolas Winding Refn movie, Seven, Skyfall, or even the TV show Gotham. Just keep in mind when watching a movie or a TV show for learning purposes, it’s not time to crack open a beer… Pause as many times as needed, take print screens, and analyze the scenes. Try and imagine how the light could have been setup. If you like a scene use it as an inspiration for a future photo shoot.

Makeup Fundamentals

I’ve already talked about makeup in previous articles, and I’ll never be able to describe how much of a difference it made in both, my photography and retouching work. Learning about makeup is crucial when communicating with your team, but it’s also fantastic to know which product does what on the skin and under what light. For example, certain products react differently under a hard or soft light. Furthermore, being able to analyze what your makeup artist did, will help get a grasp of what should or shouldn’t be corrected in post.

Understanding what to contour or not on a face to make it more pleasing, mastering how to draw the lips outline, or simply knowing makeup tricks to make the eyes look bigger or more even are some of the tips you learn along the way that can have a huge impact on your retouching work. If you are a photographer and learn about makeup, an additional bonus is that you won’t be left behind when your makeup artist talks cosmetics with the model.

Learning about makeup is just like learning about photography. There are tons of websites, schools, YouTube videos, or even books. I’d advise any photographer or retoucher who wants to learn quickly just the basics to either talk to a makeup artist they know or browse through YouTube channels. Some of the best channels I follow are Jordan Liberty – who’s also a photographer –, Melissa Alatorre, and Linda Hallberg. All three of them have a ton of interesting content and even inspiring ideas for creative projects.

Color Theory and Psychology

Colors play a huge role in any visual art. You can use them to set the mood of an image, add contrast, or give more dimension to your picture. However, they can quickly become a nightmare to manage from capture to the finished picture. Furthermore, it’s one thing to get your calibration right, know how to use the curve or HSL tools, but it’s another to know about colors themselves.

While tools such as Adobe Capture or Paletton can aid the process of choosing colors that work well together, it won’t tell you what colors give what mood to your image, neither will it apply it for you. To learn about colors, you could probably spend some time in any art school library, but if your time is limited, the following videos are a good starting point and will only require about 40 minutes of your attention.

Being Patient

That last point is the one nobody wants to see or hear about. Nothing comes without practice. Spend time working on the skills mentioned in this article, but also spend time away from your computer and resting. It’s important to keep your eyes and mind fresh when retouching. Go out and seek inspiration in nature, watch TV and find new lighting ideas, read a magazine and look at the colors used… Everything can become learning material if you think about it and it can be done during your downtime. There’s almost no need to set time aside to learn and improve!

Writer Malcolm Gladwell came up with the 10,000-hour rule. In his opinion, one becomes good at something only after spending an average of 10,000 hours doing it. Meaning you’d have to spend about 2.7 years retouching 10 hours a day to become good at it. That’s a long time, isn’t it? If you are not that patient, try to apply Tim Ferriss method described in the video below – start at 9.40min if you only want the methodology and not how he came up with it.

I’d love to hear what you guys have done to improve your retouching, or even just learn it. What are the things you learned that aren’t software related that helped you the most in your career? Do you do anything on a regular basis to improve your craft? What are your biggest issues when retouching? Leave your thoughts in the comments below.

Quentin Decaillet's picture

Quentin Décaillet is a photographer and retoucher based in Switzerland specializing in portrait and wedding photography.

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The biggest thing that I'm now focusing on is using the right lighting angles, modifiers and distance from the subject based on there skin tone and texture. I notice when I nail it, which isn't that often yet, I don't have to do nearly as much retouching because proper lighting for that particular subject has eliminated most of the skin issues right away.

Another thing I used to forget was looking at the clothing prior to shooting. Most people think skin and hair when they think retouching. That is until they realize they have to liquify baggy clothes and clone out wrinkles. Clips are always in my bag now.

Couldn't agree more :) Lighting should always be used to diminish post-production work, especially when you are the retoucher and cannot justify spending hours correcting blemishes.

Clothing choices are just as important as the model choice. Choose a model with poor skin to shoot beauty, and you are in for a lot of trouble… get a poor stylist or make poor outfit decisions, and retouching becomes a real pain.

awesome article, all points are valid and strongly recommended to improve my photography, thanks a lot for sharing this :)

Gotham for lighting and colors, i love it!

Thankyou, this was really good advice. Last year i was not taking photography sessions ( i work with newborns for comercial work), and i was learning to paint with watercolor instead. I had promise to myself i should give me the time to do so. I took lessons with a girl from England, i live in Bolivia.
Now that im back with photography, i realize how much has grown my hability to distinguish different tonal hues when editing at the is amazing.

i was painting things like this...

That's gorgeous!!! If you get into portraits or beauty, definitely give makeup a try! I'm sure you could create some quite stunning work :)

Beautiful painting Valentina!

Gonna have to step up my game now with Valentina throwing in gorgeous water paintings.

great article, great advises, thank you Quentin!

Unfotrunately, there is no video about Tim's method mentioned above.

I draw like I sing, Bad really bad.
But I read on color theory (and I use gelatin), learn to read lightning and I make myself make-up (a lot of SFX) and body painting and i make myself a lot of props.

I'm awful when it comes to drawing. I focus on trying to get the lighting to do as much of the sculpting for me so I can do as little dodging and burning as possible, because I know when I have to do a lot of it, it looks sloppy.

great article Quentin, I feel like you hit the spot of many photographers out there, and every single one of us can identify themselves in one of the shortfalls you describe.

Thank you for your time, research, writing and sharing, as always.

Using a new retouching technique is my topic for dissertation work. I am very glad that I met these guys They helped write creative work with many examples of graphic options. I received my bachelor's degree and I plan to continue my studies in Dublin.