Why Less Is More for Portrait Retouching

Why Less Is More for Portrait Retouching

I regularly get asked on Instagram how I edit my studio headshots and yet keep them looking natural. In truth I’ve spent years learning the intricacies of Capture One Pro, Photoshop, and the various retouching techniques that are frequently discussed.In fact, Fstoppers was a major resource in my education. Articles from master retouchers such as Dani Diamond and Pratik Naik massively opening my eyes to the power that our digital tools bring to the table.

As I look back at the time I spent learning the tricks of the trade, I realized that the better my techniques became the less I used them.

Of course, heavy hitting tools such as frequency separation and dodge and burn still have their place in my toolkit. But these days they fall behind more important aspects of a portrait shoot such as the hair and makeup, choosing the right model (if that is an option), and using the right lighting setup for the shoot. 

I spend so much time trying to get perfect skin tones and lighting straight out of camera - lenses like the Nikon 105mm f2 AF-D DC help - all in an attempt to bring to life the personality of the subject. Making heavy use of tools such as frequency separation tend to pull me away from the human connection being made.

So what do I mean when I say less is more? I mean putting the big techniques away and only using them once you've tried everything else.

I have a priority system for dealing with skin imperfection: 

  1. Try to select people who already have great or perfect skin.
  2. Find a good make-up artist you trust.
  3. Zoom in and take the time to handle blemishes individually. This can take a while so get a good music playlist ready! I sometimes spend a good hour or more on this stage but in doing so the blemishes are taken care of in a localized manner without affecting the underlying tones.
  4. Now you have a good base to fix any remaining issues such as patchy tones. Jump in and utilize the power of frequency separation.
  5. Finally, subtly sprinkle some dodge and burn to enhance - and not change - the already great existing light.

Yes, it’s way more time consuming but by avoiding reliance on heavy tools you keep the beautiful natural tones you’ve worked so hard to capture.

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23 Comments

Jonathan Brady's picture

Step 6. Leave the room, come back in 10 minutes and ask yourself: "does this look like a person or a mannequin?"

Thank you for being a proponent for realism!

Peter Georges's picture

That's actually an important step! I try to sleep on an edit before releasing it to the world :)

Especially if the deadline is today by 17:00 :)

Elan Govan's picture

It is only a matter of time photographers will be call photoshopers. Won't be long now.

Daniel Shortt's picture

We are image makers. How you get to the end result to most people is irrelevant. As long as it's good.

Elan Govan's picture

Do not disagree with the term image makers, but I am sure you are aware X Ray department in hospitals take "pictures of the body" and they are not called image makers. I think they call them Radiologist and Imaging Specialist depending which part of the world they work.

As photographers we need to evolve just like the medical profession, and recognise all the expertise that goes into making an image. I would not have any problem hiring a Photoshop Specialist and split the work flow.

I used to be part of the medical profession, and had I said "end result to most people is irrelevant", i have to start looking for a new line of work very quickly.

Daniel Shortt's picture

Apples and Oranges
When I say the end result is what matters I mean to the viewer, they look at a shot and say, I like that/ I don't like that. That looks real/ That looks fake. There are some exceptions like Photo journalistic work where how it was created MATTERS. But when you create to tell a story or art. It doesn't matter.
Besides photoshop can't create mood or emotion or story. Always a place for the photographer.

Elan Govan's picture

OK....no big deal. Neither of us are responding to an exam question.

Funny u should mention photo journalism...I am just about to hold an exhibition...ideal opportunity to find out that very point u raised..

1. Try to select people who already have great or perfect skin. Nice advice thank you. Next time I will get call from bride or maternity client I make sure she have perfect skin.

Peter Georges's picture

Of course there are times you don't have the option. It still is the most important factor which will impact the end result. That's why I put it there so plainly.

Nico Socha's picture

The skin is looking blured at the endresult, typically if you use frequency seperation for skin retouching.

Frequency separation doesn't make the skin look blurred. The main criticism of that method is that the skin may end up looking too orange-peel like. Yes the pores are showing and texture but it appears too perfect. A way to reduce this is by masking back some of the original underlying layer incrementally with a soft brush. Practise will help you achieve the right balance.

Nico Socha's picture

Frequency Seperation is not a professional technique and has nothing to do with the orange color. Look at the forehead, the skin is blurred on the lower layer of the FS. Dont use FS for professional retouching.

Not talking about the colour lol - rather the texture of the orange peel. This is a common complaint. And frequency separation is a professional technique widely used. I don't disagree it's not the most favourable technique but is it one professional technique amongst many.

Have a quick look at the work here on FStoppers by Julia Kuzmenko. She is a renowned photographer/retoucher and has written many great articles about retouching techniques such as FS and dodge & burn etc. She also points out the mistakes one can make using these techniques. The above are both professional approaches to retouching so long as they are used with control and experience.

Nico Socha's picture

Yes you can use FS so slightly that it is ok, but no professional retoucher will use it usually for professional outcome. As far as I know are the tutorials from Julia with FS older and she dont use it anymore, but I dont know exactly.

Nevertheless, in professional retouching studios they dont use FS trust me.

We will have to disagree. I often see it used in a whole host of outputs so it certainly is still widely being used as part of the retouching process. Also remember that it isn't a technique to use on it's own. Maybe it depends on where you're located but you can't blanketly state that the technique isn't used anymore in any studio.

Nico Socha's picture

Thats right, there are to many studios out there so I cant know what they are doing. But from my experience and knowledge from other professional retouchers, they dont use it.

Daniel Shortt's picture

FS is fine, blurring skin is the no no, people who think it's one and the same is where things fall down.
How you work on your FS layers is what makes it good or bad retouching, not the technique itself, I othen use it but don't actually use any blur on the tonal layer, it always shows through.

Nico Socha's picture

Yes thats a good description for that, but as it used in this articles example it is blurred.

In your post you provide retouched example of less or more?

I agree with you, but think even your example is a touch heavy handed in places (e.g., forehead, nose and cheeks which look almost airbrushed, vs. lips and chin which look very natural and yet optimized).

Peter Georges's picture

Yep, it proves that even a tiny bit of frequency separation can be bad! :)