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Portrait Edit

Just Some Photoshop

Before and After

So this is going to be very Photoshop heavy, so once you have your great picture, you could come see if this helps make it better.

Start With

Above is our starting picture of the amazing actor Ryan Graham who is awesome. First off, load the picture into Photoshop (all this applies to GIMP or any other program like it. I just use Photoshop).

Next, duplicate the layer.

Skin Tone

The way to getting correct skin tone is all about two things, only one of them we can control easily. 

  1. A colour calibrated monitor, not easy to control.
  2. A little bit of math and curves.

Open up the info window and run your mouse over the face of your subject and you will see a whole load of numbers. Find the CMYK numbers and these are what we are going ot use. 

  • C: Cyan
  • M: Magenta
  • Y: Yellow
  • K: Black

We can ignore black and concentrate on the others. Cyan will be a number (let's say 30), Magenta should be twice Cyan (so 60). Yellow should be 1.25 times Magenta (so 75). 

Except as you move one, the others change, so it's all about averaging. To help with the averaging, take the duplicated layer and add a Gaussian blur. I set mine to about 20.

The Curves item comes up with a graph and a line through it.

If you look at the curves module on the right hand side you can see that it is possible to change from RGB to Red, Green, and Blue channels and adjust them individually. Here comes a little colour theory—the opposite to Red is Cyan, the opposite to Green is Magenta, and the opposite to Blue is Yellow.

By adjusting the curves, you can get the averages right and have your Cyan, Magenta, and Yellow balanced well. 

That will balance your skin tone. Once done, you will need to turn off your layer which has the Gaussian blur on it and then compress all those layers into one image (you don't have to, it just makes it easier to work on the photo). In Photoshop, that requires pressing CMD ALT Shift E. 

That will make a new layer with a picture that contains all that info.


Next is to clean up your model's complexion a little. A good way to think about this is to remove stuff that won't be there in two weeks time. So leave moles but remove spots, or leave it all.

Duplicate the layer which you just created and removed the spots from, and then apply a high pass filter to it.

The high pass filter will make your image grey. You will need to adjust the slider until you can see a good outline without a halo.

I've set mine to 2.9 as that is a good outline in my head. Hit OK, then you will need to desaturate the layer as it will contain some unwanted colour data.

Then change the blending mode (next to opacity) from normal to overlay. This will now sharpen everything, including the skin, and then show any unwanted marks and wrinkles more than they should. To resolve this give the layer a mask and invert it (so in Photoshop the mask looks black). Now grab your brush and set to being a soft brush.

Once you have your soft brush, make sure you select your mask and then paint over the details; eyes, eyebrows, stubble, nostrils, hair, and I went over the seams of the jacket and the lapels as I thought it would look nice.

What we have just done is make the skin appear softer by selectively sharpening other details. You will know that it is working by the mask showing where you have painted with the brush.


You could use the burn and dodge tools or you can do the same thing like this. The advantage to this method is that it is easier to reset. Open another set of Curves and this time set the blending mode to screen, give it a mask, and then invert the mask. You can now set your brush's flow to 3 percent and very carefully paint round the iris of the model's eyes. This should be so subtle you cannot notice it as it is so easy to overdo and make alien eyes.

Then set your Opacity to around 40 percent have a little play. I would advise setting it to 0 percent then slowly raising it to until you just notice it.

Burning and Dodging

This is one method for this but you could just use the dodge and burn tools in Photoshop. 

Make a new curves layer and set the blending mode to screen, then give it a mask and invert it. Then colour in your highlights using the brush set to 3 percent Flow, being careful not to blow out the skin.

Make a new curves layer and change the blending mode to multiply and set the blending mode to screen. This time you want to go over the shadows to make them seem a bit deeper.

The point of the Burning and Dodging is to try and give the face more depth and shape. Then set the level of the effect using the opacity sliders for those layers.

Colour Contrast

Change the tone setting to shadows then set the Blue Yellow slider to 3 and the Red Cyan slider to -3.  

Then jump back onto your midtones and do the opposite, your Blue Yellow to -3 and the Red Cyan to 3. 

What has happened is that you have put blue into your shadows and yellow red into the midtones, making the the subject stand out, a little like the teal orange colour grade so popular in Holywood.

Next we want to add another curves layer and in the RGB mode we want to affect the whole contrast by making a shallow S-Curve in it—I mean really shallow, just a tiny bit brighter a third from the top and a tiny bit darker a third from the bottom.

Edge Contrast

Compress the layers like we did before by pressing (in Photoshop) CMD ALT Shift E. Make this layer black and white then move the red slider to being darker and the yellow to being brighter.

Set the blending mode to soft light and then alter the opacity to fit the look you want. I went for about 10 percent just to kick a little bit. I thought my image was over saturated so I opened the Hue/Saturation and dropped my saturation to -5.

That is what I did to make the difference seen in the first image between the Before and the After.

This is one of those very Photoshop based edits where the starting image is still the most important part of the photo. Without a good picture, all the Photoshop in the world won't help. Having said that, if you have a great portrait and want to take it to another level, why not apply some Photoshop to it? Most of what I have done in this article was adjustable with the celluloid film by either choosing what film you put in the camera or through dodging and burning.  


I hope this gives a little insight into how professional photographers edit photos and how much time goes into it all to make a great image. Next time you hire a photographer or work with one, just think about the time that goes into making one photo happen.

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