So there you are, taking rather fantastic photos, and then, one day, you realise that everyone else seems to be getting better results. Unfair? Possibly. Or perhaps they’re just handier in Photoshop. Like my old friend Maxwell. I recently came across three of his photo-shopped portraiture sessions (one, two, three), and was rather impressed.
For the purpose of this article, let’s shelve any reservations you might have about the ethics of photoshopping the hell out of a portrait or fashion image (you’ve all seen this video, right?), and have a look at how it can be done. As a wise old man once told me, only if you have the skills to do something do you have the skills to choose not to do it…
Maxwell graciously accepted the challenge to talk us through how he edits his portraits, and is using a photo of himself to go through the process… Take it away Max!
Step one – process the raw
My first step with every photograph, including this one, is to adjust the raw file to an exposure and look that I like. Normally it’s a little more contrasted and artistic than this one, but since we are going for a simple beauty shot (or as close as we can get with me!) I want an image that is pretty balanced and a little flat.
When doing this retouching process, my last step is always to photoshop the image as I would normally (i.e. change contrast, colour, detail, blur, etc.) and because every step I do that loses information in the image I highly recommend waiting ’till the end for any artistic choices.
Once I have that, it’s on the manipulation!
Step two – the healing brush and the spot healing brush.
At this point I like to get rid of all of the really obvious blemishes. I don’t get too nit picky, seeing as I do all the fine tuning later on, but make sure to get all the big ones (pimples, moles, unwanted facial hair, lines under eyes).
To do this I jump back and forth between the healing brush and the spot healing brush, the difference – the spot healing brush tool samples for you, whereas the healing brush tool you select the sample area.
I find that usually I have to play around a bit determining which one to use for specific things. In my experience the spot healing brush works great for smaller blemishes, such as pimples and moles, and the healing brush works better for thing like wrinkles.
Usually I use the spot healing brush until it stops working and then switch in order to have more control.
Step three – eliminating the double chin.
Seeing as I was teaching myself as I went along, this was probably the hardest part for me. I tried a bunch of things before realizing that transform was the easiest option. I use transform a lot for the whole process actually.
I made a selection from just below my mouth to about halfway down my neck. I used transform to stretch the selection upwards to have the double chin line align with my actual jawline. I then created a layer mask and used a very soft edged brush to paint my chin back in and to get rid of harsh lines around my selection.
Effectively this step is pulling up the double chin to hide it behind the first one.
Step four – manipulating all my facial features.
Here comes the fun. I made five or six different layers in this step, one for each facial feature we want to change. For me (and most other people, I suppose) we are going to want to change them all. I made a layer for my mouth (and surrounding area), my nose (and surrounding area), one for each eye (and surrounding… you get it) and a layer for each side of my face.
This step is very similar to the previous, in that it is all transform and masks. I made my eyes larger and changed the placement, made my nose longer and thinner, and made my mouth larger and moved down a bit. I also changed the shapes of these features a little, using the warp transform option. (cmd + T = transform and ctrl-clicking or right-clicking gives you the transform options).
The warp option is very useful when you want to pinch in just part of your selection or change one side, etc. I used the warp option to pull in the sides of my face, in order to make them appear even and slim my face a little. I then used masks to paint in the original image around the edges of the selections, once again to get rid of lines. I then used all these tools to tweak what was left of my face (stronger jaw thinner neck, etc).
Step five – skin.
I know there are a lot of ways to smooth skin, and I alternate between a lot of them. For this image I combined a bunch. First, I merged all my layers into a new one (shift+ opt+ cmnd+ e), duplicated it and applied a surface blur to the duplicate layer. I don’t remember my surface blur settings, but it’s really a personal taste thing (I like to still be able to see pores). I also paint out the facial features in a layer mask when I use surface blur, because I don’t want it to touch the sharpness of the eyes and mouth. I then created three new blank layers, one for darks, one for mid tones, and one for light areas.
I used the eyedropper tool to select a good colour to represent the dark tones and painted very subtly (maybe 5-10% opacity) over the shadowed areas of my face. I did this for mid tones and lights also. The reason I made three different layers is because I wanted to be able to adjust the opacity of each tone separately. The image here looked too fake for me, but had nicely smoothed out all of my skin. I wanted to bring some of the highlights and shadows back, so I copied the layer underneath the surface blur layer to the top of my palette.
I changed the layer blend mode to luminosity and dropped the layer opacity down to 38%. Again this would be a personal aesthetic moment, but 38% looked good to me.
Step six – adding depth.
At this point the image looked too flat for me so I selected my highlights (cmnd-click a channel) and created a curves layer set to screen @ %40 to bring out the highlights more and give more depth.
Then comes the dodging and burning. The way I do that is not with the dodge and burn tool; I create an overlay layer and use a really faint (<10% opacity) soft brush to dodge burn.
Black for darkening, white for lightening. I always do this on two different layers so that I may go back and change the opacity of them afterwards.
I also use this method to get rid of any remaining overly dark or light areas.
Step seven – cleaning up the edges.
There are many ways to do this. I jumped back and forth between the healing brush and just using a soft paintbrush to create and sculpt the outline of my hair.
Step eight – colour.
Again, everyone has their methods.
When adjusting skin tones I use a hue/saturation layer to adjust the saturation of the yellow and red tones until I get something I like.
Also to smooth out the colour I use the eyedropper to select the skin colour I want, create a solid layer of that colour and change the blend mode to colour.
Turn down the opacity or paint in the layer mask to change the strength and affected area.
Step nine – finishing touches and artistic processing.
I used the same transform and mask technique to apply some finished touches at this point. I elongated my neck and thinned it more as well as changed the size and shape of my mouth a little.
I did some more dodging and burning using some curves layers set to screen and multiply (I alter my dodge and burn layer using the blend if slider in the layer menu when you double click a layer), in order to only have it apply to the high- or low- lights of the image.
The final step was to merge it all together on a new layer and unsharp mask it a little. And there you have it, a beautified me!
See a higher-resolution version of this image here (or, y’know, click on the image)
Maxwell Lander is a queer photo-based digital artist and emerging graphic and website designer currently living in Toronto, Canada. Maxwell has been immersed in artistic photography for many years and is constantly seeking out new ways to express a passion for contemporary creativity, including and engulfing fascination with the abilities of the digital photograph and the control/choices it provides photographers.
As one of Canada’s leading emerging artists, Maxwell has exhibited works across Ontario and is continuously developing new photographic series. With a string of awards and accreditations – most recently Runner-Up in the emerging talent category of the 2008-2009 Nikon Photo Contest International and a publication in Photolife Magazine’s emerging artist special issue (September 2009) – Maxwell participates in the political and social sphere of the Toronto artistic community, contributing to the ever-changing art world.
Maxwell’s photography is intended to draw a thin line between beauty and vulgarity, restriction and hedonism, decency and decadence – to expose them all as interconnected and subjective experiences.
In addition to focusing on personal photographic art, Maxwell is available for commercial hire as a photographer, graphic designer, and web designer. To learn more, visit maxwellander.ca, check him out on Flickr, or follow @maxwellander on Twitter!