Practice Exercise for Dodge and Burn Skin Retouching

If you're one of the countless photographers seeking out the best way to perfect skin on your portraits, then you've certainly been on YouTube tracking down video tutorials in hopes of unlocking the secrets behind the process. And if you're just starting out, invariably you've run into some hurdles. For most experienced retouchers, the tried and true technique for proper skin retouching in portrait work is, of course, the seminal "dodge and burn" method, and for good reason: it works. But perhaps you are brand new to the concept of dodging and burning for skin retouching and still haven't found much success with it? If so, read on.

Skin Retouching Is Hard

In the past 5 years, I have had the pleasure or teaching thousands of photographers about the world of retouching via workshops, tutorials, speaking engagements, and internships. And if there is one consistent retouching challenge they've faced more than others, it's skin work. Well intended but unfortunately very bad skin retouching is one of the more common mistakes you see in an amateur's work, which is no surprise as skin retouching is tricky to grasp at first, and even trickier to master.

You may have discovered by now that the technique known as "dodge and burn" is the preferred initial approach to perfect skin work in Photoshop (and in Lightroom and Capture One, to a lesser degree). To say that there are a couple of video tutorials on YouTube on the subject would be an understatement, which is why I was always perplexed about how many new retouchers didn't utilize, understand or become accustomed to this holiest of holy Photoshop techniques.

Over time, I started to figure out that the act of doing dodging and burning – literally using a brush on an adjustment layer mask – was where the hang ups generally came from. Set your brush Opacity to 100%, Flow to 1%, Hardness to 0%, and then go for it – how hard can it be, right?

Did I Mention Skin Retouching Is Hard?

As it happens, it's fairly difficult when you're just getting started. Whether you utilize the joys of Wacom tablets or you're a classic mouse user, getting accustomed to the physical act of painting with Photoshop brushes – yes even on a mask – takes more practice than the average newbie may fully realize.

Recognizing this, I would always preach the Gospel of Devoted Practicing to all my students, but with varying degrees of success. As I've mentioned before, different people learn in different ways, and for some new retouchers, working directly on a portrait led to immediate frustration and confusion. I started to realize that the idea of dodging and burning to remove skin imperfections is fairly abstract for the uninitiated, especially a retoucher who is also new to Photoshop in general.

I've mulled it over in my head for months, trying to find a way to hopefully clarify how the process works, illustrate it, and also provide a means to practice it in a methodical way. If this first attempt at a dodge and burn practice exercise works, then by all means have at it and practice, practice, practice!

If you want to use the PSD that is used in the video above, you can download it here: Dodge & Burn Practice PSD File

Log in or register to post comments
Chad D's picture

for sure will watch later ;) fun to see how others tackle this
as a photographer and someone who has a post retouch company, I love seeing the D&B method talked about :)

Pete Whittaker's picture

Thanks Nino. I never really found D+B to be hard but I do find it to be time consuming. It's the best way to get even, healthy, natural looking skin but corrective D+B can easily be the most time consuming step in my retouching work flow. Especially if there is a lot of skin in an image like a close up of a face. I'd guess that a lot of photographers and retouchers aren't doing dodge and burn for skin work because they're trying to speed things up and looking for a quick fix.

Nino Batista's picture

I liken skin retouching to wood working. You can hamfist the process of making a fine wooden chair, and it'll look it. Or, you can take care to cut the wood properly, do the appropriate sanding in phases with increasingly finer sand paper, etc, until you have the perfect, pristine finish ready to go – or you can just chop some wood up and hammer it together hastily. It'll work as a chair, but it'll look awful.

Miro Hristoff's picture

Thanks a lot! I've spent hours and hours watching D&B tutorials. And really it's so hard to find some practice lessons! Now it's time to start with the practice! :)