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Beware the blur: Keeping portraits looking real

(Editor’s note: This guest article is by professional retoucher Dennis DunbarHe has been adding the Photoshop magic to images for movie posters and ad campaigns for over 28 years. He loves working on cool images with cool creatives. Learn more and see his work on his websiteFacebook and Instagram.)

As humans we’re keenly aware of what looks natural and real when it comes to faces. Retouchers know how important this is to remember when working on beauty shots and portraits and that heavy handed retouching can result in something looking a bit off.

If you want to craft a well done image the end result just HAS to look like a real person. And to get there you need to be careful with the techniques you use while keeping a close eye on how the image looks, to be sure you’re crafting images that help the subject look their best.

This is why experienced retouchers prefer more traditional techniques like Dodging and Burning over the various shortcut tricks out there. These shortcuts combine a blurred version with a filtered one to smooth out the tones and make the shot look beautiful. The problem with the filtered shortcuts is that it is so easy to go too far, winding up with an image that moves into that ‘uncanny valley’ where we recognize something is not quite right, but we’re not sure what.

Let’s take a look at the image below, before retouching, taken by photographer Kevin Kleitches.

Un-retouched photo

In working on the retouching of this image I first used the Healing and Cloning tools to clean up the things that obviously needed to go. Then I shifted to using a couple Dodge and Burn Adjustment Layers — basically one Curves Adjustment Layer to lighten, and one to darken — to smooth out the tones and unevenness of the skin. This work took about an hour. Below is the retouched version.

Image retouched using traditional techniques

Shortcuts vs. traditional retouching

By way of comparison here is a version of that same image created using Frequency Separation where you combine a blurred version with a sharpened one. In working on this one the Mixer Brush was used on a copy of the blurred layer to smooth out the tones and unevenness of the skin. The work on this one took about 10 minutes.

Image retouched using Frequency Separation

That time savings can be really tempting for someone who needs to work quickly. But if you look closely you’ll see there is an odd disconnect between the structure of the face and the texture. Yes, there is nice skin texture where there should be texture, but somehow that texture now looks out of place in areas such as under her eyes or the outer parts of her cheeks.

Looking close shows a disconnect where the texture of the skin no longer seems to fit.

Here is the same close up view of this image retouched with the traditional techniques.

Close-up of image retouched with traditional techniques

The trick is to learn how to carefully apply the appropriate techniques so you can craft a well done image that looks natural. While it is very possible to use techniques such as Frequency Separation effectively, one needs to err on the side of being light handed. Put in the time to get a great looking image over focusing on speed and those down and dirty tricks that sound cool. These wind up making the portrait look unnatural more often than not.

Photos copyright Kevin Kleitches

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