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Four essential portrait editing steps

Posted on May 6, 2020 9 minute read

Portrait editing is a skill in its own right, and one that’s difficult to break into, but these four basic steps will go a long way.

In the world of photo editing, mastering portraits is a skill in and of itself. Becoming proficient can be extremely difficult, especially with so many tools and so many means of achieving the same or similar results.

Here, we’ll cover four fairly simple steps that will set you firmly down the right path and have your portraits looking better than ever in less time than you might imagine. You don’t have to do these exact steps in this exact order – you don’t even have to use all of them at all – but give them a try, they may just become your go-to.

We’ll be referring to Photoshop in the steps below, and though specific commands may vary, you’ll be able to achieve the same results in any editing software, provided it’s equipped with brush, layer, mask and colour tools, as well as some comparable filters.

Skin retouch

We doubt you’re surprised to see this step – it may well be the first thing that springs to mind when thinking of portrait editing. The first thing to note here is that subtlety is key. This applies to every step below, but none more than this one.

Every aspect of photo editing is subjective, and there’s no single best way to do anything. Still, this method of skin retouching is slightly limited when it comes to skin with a lot of texture, such as wrinkles. You may wish to look into frequency separation for cases like that. Don’t fret, though, this will work very well with the majority of subjects, and is ideal for smoothing skin, removing blemishes and reducing unwanted shadows.

First, we’d advise duplicating your layer. So, with your layer selected, hit CMD+J. Next, using the Eyedropper tool, select a clear area of your subject’s skin. Changing your Sample Size: from Point Sample to something larger like 11 by 11 Average can help here, and be sure you’re sampling from a fairly neutral area.

With your sample taken, select the Brush tool. Size will depend on the area of skin you’re retouching, but Hardness should be a very low value and you should consider reducing Opacity significantly, too. Now, simply brush over the skin little by little, paying special attention to any problem areas. To make a new selection, hold ALT and click.

Again, demolishing all texture will make your subject look inhuman, so to reduce the effect even further, reduce the opacity of the layer if needed. You can also use the Eraser tool to remove any small areas that have been too liberally painted, as long as you have your original layer underneath.

Dodging and burning

As we’ve well established, there are a number of ways to achieve these results, but this method of dodging and burning allows us to keep the Brush tool from the previous step. For those unaware, very simply, dodging makes an area lighter, while burning makes it darker.

In portrait editing, this is used to make the highlights and shadows on your subject stand out just a little bit more. This can accentuate the lighting used, add more contrast and make your subject’s features stand out more.

First, create a new layer – no mask is needed. Take a brush with similar soft settings to the one used during skin retouching and ensure it’s coloured white. Then, target any prominent highlights on your subject. The tops of cheekbones, the tip of the nose and the edges of lips are typical, but it will depend on your lighting.

Now, create another new layer for burning. Here, you can use a black brush if desired, but often, making a selection of some darker skin in shadow produces nicer results. Do the opposite of the above and paint the most significant shadows slightly darker.

Left as they are, your brush strokes will look completely unnatural, but by reducing the opacity of both layers significantly, you’ll find the dodging and burning blends in nicely. You can also change the layers’ blend mode to have them appear even more seamless. Soft Light, Overlay and Hard Light work nicely.

Dodging and burning well is actually very hard, and especially in the beginning, less is more. Be prepared to spend some time making lots of tiny and very subtle additions if you want the best results.


Depending on how you want your portraits to look, you may not wish to sharpen. The look can be very distinctive – some love it, some hate it. It doesn’t have to be all or nothing, though. Like any editing technique, you can use sharpening when it fits the intention of the specific portrait and leave it when it doesn’t.

This means of sharpening is very quick and easy, and perfect for portrait editing in particular. Again, duplicate your layer with CMD+J, then simply click Filter > Other > High Pass…, and set your desired Radius. The higher the Radius, the more sharpness the filter will add. A good rule of thumb is adjusting until the outlines of your subject’s features become clear through the grey. Finally, change the blend mode to Soft Light, Overlay or Hard Light.

Some choose to only sharpen the eyes – often the focal point of a portrait. To do this, select your filter layer and click Add vector mask. Then, with the mask selected, hit CMD+I to invert the mask and use a white brush to paint over eyes, revealing them.

Colour grading

Our final step isn’t only used in portrait editing, but it has a huge part to play. We’ve covered split toning in a previous feature, which can work very well with portraits, but this is a slightly different means of altering the colours in your photo.

The key benefit here is that, beyond just making your portraits look good, you can really make them your own. A unique and distinctive look can make your photos stand out among the masses and, at least to a small extent, this should be a goal of your portrait editing process.

To gain easy but extensive control over your colours, try Camera Raw. In addition to being used on Raw photos to make base adjustments, you can open Camera Raw by duplicating your layer, then clicking Filter > Camera Raw Filter…

Once inside, the Calibration and HSL Adjustments tabs will be your primary concern when colour grading. Start with some subtle changes to the Calibration tabs, then HSL Adjustments, making sure you explore each of the Hue, Saturation and Luminance tabs. There’s no right or wrong here, just envisage what you want and make small adjustments that bring you closer to that.

In doing this, you may notice the skin tones of your subject are changing, too. Sometimes, a small amount can complement the photo, but for the most part, it’s best avoided. So, simply use the Eraser tool or add a vector mask and paint out your subject’s skin to reveal the original version on the layer beneath.

Will you be giving these portrait editing techniques a try? If you do, you can share them with us on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook. You’ll find us using the handle @photonewspn

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