Part of building a professional looking portfolio is in learning to retouch your photos in a way that gives them an elegant, high-end polish. However, I unfortunately encounter dozens of images on a daily basis that were quite strong to begin with but ended up looking bewilderingly amateur because of one or two very easily solved retouching mistakes that drags their quality to abysmal depths.
You usually are trying to retouch someone to look like a human, right? So why layer so many changes onto their eyes that they begin to look like a possessed monster? I will give you a hint: eye whites shouldn’t ever be white. It is OK to slightly soften the whites of the model’s eyes and you are certainly advised to remove any distracting red veins, but make sure that you don’t brighten them so much that the eye no longer looks spherical.
Furthermore, when highlighting the iris don’t highlight it to such an extreme level that it begins to look like it is glowing. Instead, be subtle. Don’t be afraid to drop the opacity of your eye adjustment layer by 50 percent or more in order to return the eye to slightly “human-like” form.
Flare From Nowhere
Before creating fake flare in your photos, please do me a huge favor: learn how real flare works. Flare is caused by a light source that is reflecting inside the lens, which means there must be a light in the frame or slightly out of frame that could be causing that flare. Don't dump a fake flare in the middle of a brick wall unless you want to make your image look tremendously fake.
When adding a lens flare to an image be mindful of where the image’s light sources are and only place a flare if there is a viable light source that could actually create a flare.
I really wish this one was as obvious as it seems, but every single day I come across at least several images that have had the model’s skin blurred into a smear of plastic miasma. The goal of retouching isn’t to make the model look like she was molded in a toy factory. Humans have skin texture! Your job is to make that skin texture look perfect, not to remove it.
If you get the urge to use blurring as part of your retouching workflow, call upon every ounce of your inner strength to resist it. Yes, I know that frequency separation uses blurring but that is a special case that is designed to preserve detail.
If the skin has blemishes, clone them away. If the skin has discoloration, use color layers to fix it. If the skin texture is too sharp, decrease the contrast to make it less obnoxious. Don’t ever blur it.
Failing To Clean Up Highlight Clutter
When color grading an image the contrast often gets bumped and certain minor highlights get pushed towards being blown out. Often these highlights are normally no more than a pixel or two in size and are especially prominent on things like grass or rocks. When glancing at an image you probably won’t even notice most of the time but if you clone those little highlights away all away it is amazing how much cleaner an image can look.
Making Your Image Too “Crunchy”
You know what I mean. That look when tonal contrast runs amok making an image look like all the edges are glowing while the contrast and saturation goes crazy. It creates a similar headache-inducing nausea that is common in excruciatingly over-processed HDR shots. Here is a hint: highlights shouldn’t be pure white, clouds shouldn’t be black, and their edges certainly shouldn’t be glowing. There is a time and a place for this sort of look and it is extremely easy to overdo even in the best circumstances. Be careful of tonal contrast-like sliders such as “clarity” for they are the tools of the devil designed to woo unsuspecting photographers towards the blighted depths of crunchdom.
Dodge and burn can be a tremendously useful tool when used well. It can also utterly decimate the credibility of an image when used poorly. Dodge and burn with a very light touch. Use a soft brush at low flow so that you can subtly build up your highlights and shadows without making an image look like it was shrink wrapped.
Photoshop is a dangerous tool, it can either help you craft an image into an elegant piece of art, or it can enable the destruction of even the most beautiful capture. Take the time to learn to use each technique in a subtle and elegant way so that you can best equip yourself to create images that will impress even the most stringent of editors.