Editing any photograph is something that is generally considered a must, and portrait photography is no different. The question is, how much should you do?
For most people, a bit of light editing will suffice. The steps I show below can be used in most editing programs, including three of the most popular, Adobe Photoshop, Corel Photopaint, and Gimp. Personally, I have used Gimp in these examples, as it is the only free program that has functions which rival the top paid solutions. Gimp is available for Windows, Mac, and other systems.
Here are the basic steps that will help you understand portrait photography editing:
1 Adjust Your White Balance
Although not strictly editing, the first thing you need to do is to adjust your white balance. This is important since white-balance determines whether or not the subject's skin will end up looking natural in the photo.
The idea behind this is that all light sources have a certain color temperature. This means that different light sources will make something that should look white appear in a different color. The eye and the brain adjust for this naturally, so that we always see things “correctly”. In other words, we filter out the color that is added by the color signature of the light source and see something that is supposed to be white as white. The camera does not work the same way.
White balance is the setting that removes the added color cast by the light source. This is most important in artificial light. Regular tungsten bulbs give the picture an orange hue, while fluorescent bulbs add a blue hue.
Your camera should have an automatic setting as well as several preset modes. Try experiment with these settings. If you are using RAW format, the import function in your graphics program will include white balance adjustment. The most reliable way to fix the white balance is by indicating an area in the picture that has a “neutral” color, either white or gray. The program will calculate how to change that area to its correct color, and then apply the change to the whole image.
2 Adjust the sharpness of the image
The sharpness of an image is what makes it look less fuzzy and it is basically the contrast of the edges in your photograph. One of the most notable differences between the photographs taken by skilled photographers and amateurs/beginners is the sharpness.
The sharpness of the picture can be increased using the “Unsharp” tool. If the whole picture appears to lack sharpness you can apply an unsharp filter to the whole image.
3 Spot Healing Brush Tool
The healing brush tool is the best way to remove imperfections from the picture. This can include dust or scratches in the photograph, as well as bruises, scratches, pimples, scars, etc. on the skin of the subject.
Basically this tool is used to copy an area of the image that has no imperfections and paste it over the are of the portrait that you want removed. The tool will blend the copied pixels into the portrait, so as to try to make it look natural. In other words, it will try to make the copied pixels look like the pixels that surround the area you are editing. You can also use varying brush sizes so that you can edit larger or smaller areas of the photo. Usually it is best to use a brush size just slightly larger than the area you are editing.
Notice how the wrinkles under the eyes of the model in the photo have been removed using this tool.
4 Fix the eyes
As it is human nature to look people in the eyes, editing the eyes will change the feel of the picture a great deal.
The first step is to remove the most noticeable veins around the iris. Use the healing brush to lighten the veins, and also lighten the white of the eye. Make only small changes and remember to check how the picture looks as a whole. If you're in doubt, a little less lightening is always the best option.
If there are reflections in the subject's glasses, it is possible to use the clone tool to remove them. The clone tool works in much the same way as the healing brush tool, except that it does not try to blend the copied pixels into the image. However, if the reflection covers the persons eyes, it can be very difficult to get a good result and it is almost always easier to re-take the photo.
5 Fix the teeth
Teeth will often look more discolored in photographs than in real life because of the lighting. The easiest way to fix this is to use the “Saturation” tool to remove any yellowing of the teeth, and then lighten them using the Brightness and Contrast tools.
6 Skin Softening
Even though we started by sharpening the picture, once you are finished editing and have scaled the image to its final size, you may need to soften the image slightly in places.
Some details, like the pores in the skin, may have become more noticeable in the final image than in the original. If you use the Soften Brush or the Blur Brush, you will have complete control over which areas of the photo are edited. You will easily be able to edit the portrait and undo them if the skin has become unnaturally smooth.
Hopefully you now have some new tools to use for editing portrait photographs. As always practice makes perfect, so make sure you experiment with lots of different pictures taken in all sorts of lighting conditions. Everyone wants to look great, so learning the basics of portrait photography editing is a skill people will really appreciate.
by Simon James Allanach, edited by Alan Frost
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