Are You Making These Seven Common Portrait Retouching Mistakes?

by Andrew S. Gibson
Are You Making These Seven Common Portrait Retouching Mistakes?

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I’ve seen photographers make the same portrait retouching mistakes over and over. Part of the problem is that applications like Photoshop are so powerful they let you do too many things that you shouldn’t (there’s a simple solution for this I’ll discuss at the end of the tutorial). Another is that the commercial world is full of over-retouched portraits, and it’s natural for photographers to imitate that style.

That said, let’s take a look at the most common portrait retouching mistakes. Do you make any of these? Don’t feel bad if you do, it’s all part of the learning process.

Portrait retouching mistake #1: Over-saturating colors

The subtle approach is often best when it comes to photography and that’s certainly true of color. Your camera doesn’t need any help to create photos with deeply saturated colors.

There are a couple of ways you can take control of color in your photos.

• If you use Lightroom Classic, set Profile to either Adobe Standard or Portrait. Avoid profiles with names like Landscape or Vivid, these are not designed to be used with portraits.

• Set Saturation or Vibrance (or both) to a negative value. Subtle changes in the region of -5 to -15 usually work best.

The two portraits below show you how it works. For the first (left) I set Profile to Camera Landscape. The result is that the colors are deeply saturated and the model’s skin looks unnatural.

For the second (right) I set Profile to Adobe Standard and Vibrance to -10. The colors are much softer and the model’s skin has a much better color.

Over saturated portraits

Tip: If you’re accustomed to using saturated colors it will take a while for your eye to adjust to using less saturated hues. At first you may think that your portraits don’t pop, but with a little time you’ll appreciate the more subtle approach.

Extra tip: In the portrait above you might decide you like the saturated colors of the model’s dress but not her skin. In this case you could use an Adjustment Brush to create a mask that covers the dress and increase Vibrance (which gives a more subtle result than Saturation) a little.

Portrait retouching mistake #2: Too much skin smoothing

For reasons I don’t understand photos of people in movie posters are often so over-retouched that the actors are barely recognizable. Don’t do this with your portraits!

A better approach is to first decide whether skin smoothing is actually necessary. There’s usually no need to apply it to portraits of men. It’s conventional to apply skin smoothing portraits of women, but it’s also important to retain skin texture and avoid the plastic skin look.

Then, (if you’re using Lightroom), apply the minimum amount of skin smoothing required with an Adjustment Brush. Keep it subtle – you can see the difference in these portraits.

Skin smoothing in portraits

Learn more: How to Retouch Portraits in Lightroom Classic

Portrait retouching mistake #3: Bigger eyes

Some photographers use Photoshop’s Face Aware Liquify tool to make the model’s eyes bigger. The idea is that larger eyes are more attractive.

If you do this then please, stop it right now. It fools nobody, especially anyone who knows the model. The only result is an unnatural looking portrait that lacks any authenticity.

The same applies to using Liquify on any other part of the model’s body to make it fit an arbitrary definition of beauty.

Big eyes in portraits

Portrait retouching mistake #4: Bright eyes

Lightroom gives you the ability to make accurate local adjustments. And it’s nice to be able to make the model’s eyes a little brighter or emphasize the texture of the irises using Clarity. The problem is when you go too far and the portrait no longer looks natural.

The best approach, just like skin smoothing and color, is to apply the effect subtly. It’s a good idea to zoom into 100% to make sure it looks realistic.

Bright eyes in portraits

Portrait retouching mistake #5: Getting Clarity or Texture wrong

I’ve no idea why they do it, but this is a mistake that lots of wedding photographers make. Applying Clarity emphasizes textures, which in portraits often means blemishes, wrinkles, sun spots and other signs of aging. Not a great look for the bride, and not good for most other portraits of women.

You can see what I mean in the portraits below, where I applied Clarity to one (left) and skin smoothing, which is basically a negative Clarity value, to the other (right).

Too much Clarity in portraits

It’s different with portraits of men, especially if you’re working in black and white. You can use Clarity or Texture to make the model’s face more rugged or interesting. Every portrait is different and needs to be judged individually. In this case the mistake is not applying enough Clarity or Texture.

In this portrait I used an Adjustment Brush with Clarity and Texture to bring out the textures of the model’s skin and clothing.

Texture and black and white portraits

Note: The Texture slider only appears in Lightroom Classic 8.3 or newer.

Portrait retouching mistake #6: Over-sharpening

When you open a Raw file in Lightroom (or any other application) it automatically applies a default level of sharpening designed to get the best out of the file. It’s only rarely that you’ll need to sharpen the image any further. If you do, zoom into 100% to make sure that the eyes and eyelashes look okay, as this is where you’re most likely to see artifacts caused by over-sharpening.

Over sharpening in portraits

Note: Reduced to screenshot size you might think that the over-sharpened portrait looks best, but when you see it on a computer monitor you can clearly see it’s over-sharpened.

One of the reasons I recommend that you don’t apply extra sharpening is because it’s unlikely to be the last time that the portrait is sharpened. For example, Facebook and Instagram tend to sharpen images when you upload them. Lightroom gives you the option of sharpening for web or print when you export your photos. If your portrait is published by a magazine, the printer will sharpen it as part of the printing process.

It’s when all this extra sharpening is applied on top of sharpening you’ve done yourself that image quality is most likely to be adversely affected.

Portrait retouching mistake #7: Not having a plan

It’s too easy to aimlessly push sliders around in Lightroom or apply Develop Presets without a specific goal in mind. While you can discover some interesting effects and color treatments this way, it’s not as productive as applying certain effects with a specific goal in mind.

For example, if know you’d like to create a portrait with a vintage look, you can apply a color and tonal treatment that is typical of vintage style photos. But if you’re after a modern, edge look, you’ll need to take a different approach.

Another consideration is the relationship between character and beauty. If your aim is capture your model’s beauty, then you might ask her to dress appropriately, use make-up and retouch the portrait so that her skin looks as clean as possible.

But if you want to capture your model’s character then you’d take a different approach – you might convert the portrait to black and white, use strong eye contact in the composition, and view any wrinkles and other signs of time passing as indications of character.

These two versions of the same portrait give you the idea.

Character and beauty in portraits

Portrait retouching and Lightroom Classic

At the start of this tutorial I mentioned that there’s a simple solution to many of these common portrait retouching mistakes. It’s this – use Lightroom. Avoid Photoshop and any portrait retouching plugins (with the possible exception of ON1 Photo Raw, see below).

Lightroom doesn’t have a Liquify tool, so you can’t be tempted to change the shape of your model’s eyes. There are only two skin smoothing presets, and they are easy to adjust, so you’re less likely to get carried away and obliterate all signs of skin texture. Sharpening is taken care of automatically. In other words, there’s far less temptation to make most of the mistakes listed above.

Lightroom Classic alternatives

I get it – not all photographers use Lightroom, especially now that you can only buy it through a subscription. An alternative is to use Photoshop Elements, but it’s not as easy to use as Lightroom.

A better alternative would be ON1 Photo Raw, which has a portrait module with dedicated tools for retouching portraits. Another is Exposure X, which has lots of beautiful presets and an Adjustment Brush with skin smoothing preset that works in a similar way to Lightroom’s.

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Michael Farber June 17, 2019 - 6:04 pm

Andrew, yes I totally agree on the most portrait retouching mistakes you so clearly explained. However, on mistake #2 – “too much skin smoothing” I would add the option that labels the process as it depends. You know 99% of ladies over certain age love when their faces look smooth and young looking. Your model is young and actually she does not need any skin smoothing at all but when you photograph a woman in her 50 + years old, personally I do use skin smoothing and spot removal quite a bit and they love it.
Next on the mistake #4 -“bright eyes” I have read many times that the eyes of the subject should be always razor sharp and bright making your portrait to stand out from these point and shoot jobs, I always do sharpen eyes but rarely over saturate the irises.
Thank you very much for all your help to pursue this passionate hobby of mine.

Andrew S. Gibson June 19, 2019 - 8:41 pm

Hi Michael, I guess that even with your older clients they don’t want the photographer to go too far with skin smoothing, otherwise the portrait no longer looks like them. I’m just guessing, I haven’t photographed anybody that age. A little eye brightening is okay but it can be kind of jarring when you take it too far. Whether your typical non-photographer client would notice is another matter though.

Michael Ward June 18, 2019 - 11:10 pm

This isn’t about the previous comment so I apologise in advance if this shouldn’t appear here but hope this new request is acceptable. Which of your books is best for learning about masking? I’m fairly comfortable with Lightroom but not with using masks/inverse masks etc and the options that accompany this area.

Thanks Andrew.

Andrew S. Gibson June 19, 2019 - 8:43 pm

Hi Michael, no problem at all, the best book is one I’m working on now regarding using Lightroom’s Develop module. I do have an older book for Lightroom 6 but it doesn’t cover the Range masking options in Lightroom Classic as they didn’t exist back then.

Andrew S. Gibson June 19, 2019 - 8:44 pm

I’ll add it to the article list, as I havent covered it on the website either.


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