I have been teaching retouching and photography for a couple of years, and I found that even my advanced students often didn't know some basic tools or techniques. Those gaps in knowledge are to be expected among self-taught photographers and retouchers, of course. However, I have just returned from my trip to Italy where the amazing Italian Photoshop guru and Wacom evangelist Marianna Santoni organized a series of educational events, in which I taught Beauty photography and retouching. We had over 200 attendees overall, and I have to tell you that the level of Photoshop skills of our Italian fellow-photographers left me open-mouthed. The fact that most common gray areas in the Photoshop education were not new to our attendees made me think that we have to up our game, guys!
Let's patch it up and fill in those gaps! And we should start at the beginning of the digital imaging process: getting the best details out of your raw files.
I seem to always have at least two solid ways to tackle any retouching task. And exporting the best image data from raw is no different - I always use one of my two techniques depending on the task at hand. From my teaching experience I've learned that usually photographers know about either one of them, neither of them, but almost never both. I believe, though, that it will save you a lot of time and energy to utilize these both techniques in your retouching workflow.
I'm Sure You Shoot In Raw
At this point in time, there's no need to even go into the raw vs. JPEG discussion, right? We all know that if you are serious about your photography and retouching, you will only shoot in raw because of the amount of recorded data and flexibility this format offers.
I am a huge believer in getting things right in camera, but there are always circumstances that get in the way. And, no matter how experienced we are with our lighting, the dynamic range in the images we shot sometimes isn't as wide as we would like. That's usually not a problem if your photo files are in raw format and your exposure is correct, or close to being correct, to begin with.
So, before we take our photo into Photoshop for detailed editing, our goal is to export the image with all parts well-exposed. We don't want any shadows so dark that we can't see any details in them, or any highlights blown out. Unless, of course, that's the look you're trying to achieve.
Houston, We've Got a Problem
But what if when we adjust the exposure to dial down the highlights our shadows fall into complete darkness? Or when we pull out the details from the shadows our Highlights Clipping Warning starts screaming with red pixels all over the place?
You can sure compromise, find the exposure with the least damage to both highlights and shadows, and then correct the rest in Photoshop. But that way you are sacrificing the quality of you image, and start by leaving a lot of color and detail information behind. The information that you could actually pull out from your raw file, because it's there.
That's when these techniques come into place.
So, just like I said, I use two main techniques for getting the details that I need from my raw files. Sometimes, I export a few exposure variations to correct my own lighting mistakes, but sometimes I do it to expand the dynamic range of a photo, just because I can. It never hurts to get as much pixel information out of my raw file as possible.
Method Number One
My number one method will work in most situations, including the complex dynamic range corrections when you need to extract many parts of the image with different exposure and other settings.
Simply focus on one part of the image at a time, for example the hair, or the face, or the outfit - adjust exposure, highlights, shadows, etc. and export a PSD naming it accordingly, for example "Details in hair" or "Bright face" or anything that helps you identify your exports when you combine them in Photoshop.
For example, in this photo I have some dark areas in the hair, where details are not visible even though there are no Shadow Clipping warnings.
I'd like to see more details in the hair (especially in the shadows) and in the further side of the hat. So, I export my original as a base PSD and name it "base". If the original requires some global exposure and color corrections, I would perform them before exporting my "base" PSD.
Then I adjust exposure, highlights, colors, etc. and brighten just the hair and the hat. Then export another PSD, adding "hair" or "bright" to the name of the file. I am only looking at the hair and the hat while adjusting exposure for this export - it doesn't matter if other parts of the image get overexposed or lose contrast.
Then I focus on the face and skin and make another exposure variation, in which I only care to prepare the skin for further retouching. I make sure there are no overexposed highlights on the skin and the shadows are not too dark. I don't need too much contrast in the skin texture at this point, so it is easier to retouch it later in Photoshop. After my skin exposure variation is ready, I export another PSD and add "face" or "skin" to the file name.
After all well-exposed parts are exported, I go to Photoshop > File > Scripts > Load File Into Stack and find my exported PSDs in the dialog window.
This function makes it super easy and quick to put all my exports into one PSD file as layers.
I then place the Base layer at the bottom of the stack and the brightest layer at the top of the stack in the Layers panel. Cover all top layers (not the Base) with Layer masks and invert them (CTRL or COMMAND + I).
Needless to say, you don't need to keep the exported PSD files on your hard drive, just keep the master-file, in which those exports are combined.
UPDATE (suggested by Tomas Ramoska)
Like my Australian teachers used to say: "There are always dozens of ways to get from point A to point B in photography and digital image editing". I personally have been using the method I've described above for a few years now, but Tomas has just made a suggestion in the comments, I tested it and it looks like a very good alternative to my method.
Instead of exporting PSD files you can create a Virtual Copy of each exposure variation (right click on the file with the exposure adjustments applied and select Create Virtual Copy). Then adjust your exposure for another part of the image and create another Virtual Copy.
Once all your exposure variations are created, select all Virtual Copies and right click and select Edit In > Open As Layers in Photoshop...
The master-file that is created this way is identical in size to the master-file that is created via my method described above. The only thing that will be missing if you do it this way is the names of your PSDs, which help you to organize your layers in the master-file quicker, especially when you have many exports. But that's something we can definitely work around.
Then I carefully paint with a white brush (soft or hard - depending on how hard the edges of what I am uncovering are) and reveal the best parts of each layer.
The difference with the original may be not so striking in my example, but the principle is there and this technique will work especially great when you accidentally overexpose or underexpose some parts of your image. Normally, if the image is ruined we just leave it alone, but I have a few favorite photos in my own portfolio that were actually rescued thanks to this technique.
I also use this method when I need drastic color changes for parts of the image, for example, lipstick or nail polish color or the outfit color.
Method Number Two: Lightroom Adjustment Brushes
This is an alternative to my main method and I use it when I need just a few local exposure or color corrections before I export my image and get down to retouching it in Photoshop.
As simple as it sounds, I correct all such parts with the Adjustment brushes in Lightroom and export just one PSD.
If you haven't used the Lightroom Adjustment Brushes before, the following two sources will help you get familiar with them.
This video tutorial by my colleague, Fstoppers writer Trevor Dayley:
And the Adobe TV video tutorial: Adjustment Brush: The Basics
Hope you find this helpful and if you wish to learn more about retouching and Photoshop from working professionals, make sure to visit our new project Retouching Academy. We're a team of passionate artists, and, even though, our project is very young we are constantly adding new articles that are helping photographers and retouchers all over the world to become better at their craft.