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The Essential Beginner’s Guide for Editing Portraits in Photoshop (with Visual Examples)

The Essential Beginner’s Guide for Editing Portraits in Photoshop (with Visual Examples)

Have you ever attempted to edit a portrait and went way too far with your touch-ups? Perhaps you’ve gone the other extreme and wished you could get extra creative, but didn’t know how. Either way, you’re in good hands.

Editing portraits in Photoshop is one of the simplest ways of getting acquainted with the program. However, looking at all the different tools and tutorials certainly doesn’t feel simple. Which digital toolkits are best for boosting the natural nuance in a person’s skintone? How do you know which filters to use and which ones to avoid?

Beginner photographers who are still learning their way around a camera may find Photoshop intimidating. I’ll usher in newcomers with this essential guide to editing portraits in Photoshop. Not only will I cover basic areas such as retouching or skin tone enhancement, you’ll learn common beginner mistakes to avoid.

Source Image: Pixabay

Table of Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Essential Terminology for Editing Portraits in Photoshop
  3. Retouching: A Quick, Simple Adjustment
  4. Skin Tone Enhancements: The Key to Looking Natural
  5. Blending Modes: Enhance the Mood With a Few Settings
  6. Exposure: Creating the Ideal Balance Between Light and Dark
  7. Filters: Get Creative With Fun Effects and Patterns 
  8. Popular Portrait Editing Styles to Try Out
  9. Common Beginner Mistakes To Avoid When Editing Portraits in Photoshop
  10. Conclusion: Conclusion: Editing Portraits in Photoshop is Just a Few Clicks Away

an example of a portrait showcasing a man in glasses and a blue shirt

Source Image: Pixabay

Essential Terminology for Editing Portraits in Photoshop

Before we dive into how to edit portraits simply and efficiently, let’s cover some basic visual terminology. These terms are essential for understanding what you want to edit and why.

Instead of going, “Why does my portrait look off?”, you can fall back on these fundamentals and find a quick answer.

Dynamic Range For Capturing the Full Range of Tones and Colors

Vibrant contrast is not only visually pleasing, it helps the viewer understand where to look. If your image is too washed out or too dark, nothing will stand out. Enter dynamic range.

Dynamic range refers to the darkest and brightest elements in your photo, quite literally to white and black. While DSLR cameras and the latest smartphone models are able to capture more and more, you’ll still need some editing chops to achieve a fuller dynamic range.

Your portraits could likely use a little touching up in the dynamic range area to appear striking and real enough to touch.

White Balance For Achieving the Most Natural Results

Have you ever looked at your photos and felt some areas were a little too washed out and lifeless? You might have been noticing an issue with your white balance – this term refers to how your camera is able to capture white.

The color you see every day is much more subtle than it seems. What may appear to be bright white could actually be very pale yellows or blues. Likewise, what may appear to be black could be deep browns or heavy plums. 

White balance settings on your camera provide different versions of your photo so you can determine which white volume feels most natural. Just a few tweaks in this area can make a portrait go from stale to subtle. 

Blurring and Sharpening to Create a Sense of Depth

The simplest portrait can still utilize a few tricks to create an enthralling sense of depth. Blurring and sharpening are tools you can use either manually or through the aid of a filter. 

Depth of field is one area you should already be practicing with, such as using different focal lengths or trying your hand at bokeh. However, editing portraits in Photoshop is highly versatile – you can completely transform your portrait by blurring the background or bringing your subject into sharp focus. 

an example of a candid portrait showing a young woman with long brown hair pulling up a blue scarf

Source Image: Pixabay

Retouching: A Quick, Simple Adjustment

Editing portrait photos doesn’t have to be an extravagant, time-consuming affair. Simple retouching comprises a big chunk of photo editing sessions.

Remove Unwanted Blemishes

If you’ve ever taken a photo and did a double-take when you noticed a spot of acne too late, retouching can help. Photoshop is more than capable of eliminating minor blotches and bumps with several of its toolsets. 

The most efficient one is the Clone Stamp tool. This handy little tool lets you copy a nearby area so you can paste it right over the offending blemish. Not only will the result be seamless, it saves you time having to recreate the unique texture and color of your skin manually.

Trim Out Stray Hair or Unwanted Elements

Let’s say your portrait looks pretty good overall, but you have a few stray hairs poking out and ruining the atmosphere. Photoshop makes it easy to trim out unwanted elements without messing up anything else.

The Clone Stamp is another useful way of removing stray hairs while still keeping your background in-tact. However, you’ll need to use a little discretion to make sure you choose the right areas to copy. If you’re not careful, you could fix the hair and end up with an oddly uneven backdrop.

The Liquify filter is another tool you can use to manipulate your image. This subtle tool lets you stretch, rotate, push, or pull any area you desire. You can, quite literally, nudge and flatten out stray hairs or minor unwanted elements.

Lightly Sharpen or Blur Certain Details

The human eye naturally will sharpen or blur to focus on certain parts of the environment. You can recreate this phenomenon with the Blur and Sharpen tools in Photoshop.

Let’s say you take a photo of a friend that has some neat tattoos. If your camera doesn’t quite capture the level of detail they have, you can use the Sharpen tool to bring it out. Likewise, you can use the Blur tool to soften up areas that are too hard or jagged. 

Dodge and Burn for Highlights and Shadows

The Dodge and Burn tools are the go-to choice for bringing out the brightness in highlights or the depth to shadows. In fact, they tend to work better together than either-or. 

Experiment with your brush tool sets and their opacity to see what the Dodge and Burn tools can really do. For example, you can bring out the highlights in a person’s hair with the Dodge tool, then deepen their eyeshadow with the Burn tool.

Source Image: Pixabay

Skin Tone Enhancements: The Key to Looking Natural

Skin is a particularly subtle area that the camera doesn’t always quite catch – in fact, there are entire digital editing tools dedicated to getting the skintone right! 

If you’ve ever noticed your portraits appearing washed out or weirdly artificial, there are tools for that.

Adjust Your White Balance

An irregular white balance is one of the biggest offenders to natural skintone. The Curves tool will allow you to shift around the white balance to reduce bleaker areas and bring in some natural warmth.

Use the Auto Tone and Auto Color Features

You can also use the Auto Tone and Auto Color features to get an idea of how color correction works. These only take one click and the program will automatically deduce which areas need to be brightened, darkened, saturated, or desaturated. 

Upgrade Your iPhone

If you want to save a little effort in Photoshop, consider upgrading your toolset. If you have an older iPhone mode, consider upgrading to one of the newer models to enjoy their advanced skintone capture features.

The iPhone 11 Pro camera reduces distortion and captures higher-definition images to create some of the most natural portraits around.

an overhead shot of a woman in sunglasses leaning back on the ground

Source Image: Pixabay

Blending Modes: Enhance the Mood With a Few Settings

Blending modes can completely transform the atmosphere of your portrait. They’re a layer edit you can apply similar to phone filters – they create multiple visual enhancements with the click of a button. 

While there are too many to cover in this guide, I’ll break down the most popular and versatile ones. Many of them I use to give my photography more style or make my lighting more dramatic.

an overhead shot of a woman in sunglasses leaning back on the ground with overlay applied

Source Image: Pixabay (with edit)

Overlay for Creating Vivid or Glowing Results

The Overlay blend mode is the go-to for vivid and glowing results. Any bright color you use will immediately make the lighting softer and richer, while your colors become more saturated.

an overhead shot of a woman in sunglasses leaning back on the ground with multiply applied

Source Image: Pixabay (with edit)

Multiply for Creating Rich, Dark Atmospheres

Multiply is the opposite of Overlay. While Overlay will make everything a little richer and (often) brighter, Multiply is useful for creating a rich or dark atmosphere.

Once you get acquainted with the program, you can use both Overlay and Multiply blending modes together to create truly dynamic range. 

an overhead shot of a woman in sunglasses leaning back on the ground with soft light applied

Source Image: Pixabay (with edit)

Soft Light for Creating a Soft, Faded Result

Last but not least, the Soft Light blend mode is wonderful for creating soft, hazy photos. This is the mode you choose when you want your portrait photography to feel a little dreamy.

Just be careful you don’t accidentally wash out your portrait and eliminate the nuances of their skintone, hair color, or makeup. You can still edit this blending mode by fiddling with the layer’s opacity or combining it with other blending modes.

an example of exposure in photography showing a woman standing in shadow against the sunset

Source Image: Pixabay

Exposure: Creating the Ideal Balance Between Light and Dark

Exposure is one of the most vital elements of any strong photo, regardless of subject. Without a strong balance of light and dark, you risk a photo that’s too washed out or too dim.

Photoshop makes it incredibly easy to boost your exposure so your subjects pop and your focal points are immediately obvious. 

Use the Brightness and Contrast Slider for Quick Touch Ups

Want to fiddle with your photo’s contrast until it looks just right? The Brightness/Contrast adjustment feature is beginner-friendly by sorting contrast into two main features. The Brightness toggle will lighten up the entire photo, while the Contrast slider adjusts both light and dark areas. 

Use the Exposure Slider for More Dramatic Touch Ups

It’s exactly what it says on the tin – the Exposure slider makes it easy to create juicy shadows or vivid highlights with just a few adjustments. 

Don’t worry too much about the Offset and Gamma Correction features, as they’re highly technical and geared toward more experienced editors. While a little experimentation is needed for beginners, the general toolset will give you plenty of versatility for now.

an example of a filtered portrait showcasing a mother and her son blowing rainbow bubbles in a sepia environment

Source Image: Pixabay

Filters: Get Creative With Fun Effects and Patterns 

Filters have a mixed reputation among artists as the hallmark of cheap and lazy editors, but this is far from the truth. As long as you approach these with artistry in mind – not just covering up mistakes – you can create some seriously fun results. 

There are a plethora of Photoshop filters for you to experiment with, but I recommend the following to start with. These are handy for a wide variety of purposes and are easy to use.

Gaussian Blur Filter to Induce Depth of Field

Do you want to create a heavier blur effect to make your portrait pop? The Gaussian Blur filter creates a hazy blur that creates incredibly natural depth of field.

Noise Filter to Create a Retro Result

If you ever get nostalgic over grainy photos in an old photo album, you can recreate the good ol’ days with the Noise filter. This filter creates the subtle, colorful artifacting found in older photos or film.

Liquify Filter for Dramatic Exaggeration or Subtle Improvements

The Liquify filter is a little memory hungry, but that’s due to how complex it is. This tool is great for dramatic exaggeration as well as subtle improvements. 

This tool will even separate your portrait’s face into sections such as the eyes, nose, and mouth for easy editing – the program will automatically shift each section around with premade sliders. However, you can go in manually and edit with the Brush tool. 

If you want to create surreal or goofy portraits, you can stretch and squash with Liquify. If you just want to make minor adjustments to the eyebrows or smile, you can lower the tool’s strength and do that, too. 

an example of a classical style portrait of a blonde woman leaning against a table

Source Image: Pixabay

Popular Portrait Editing Styles to Try Out 

When editing portraits in Photoshop, you can sometimes get so wrapped up in the technical aspect that you overlook the artistry. If you feel a little overwhelmed on which result to aim for, fall back on popular portrait editing styles.

These can give you a starting point to create memorable and dynamic portraits.

Classical Portraits For an Elegant Result

Portrait photography has its roots in classical paintings, so why not tap into classical inspiration? These portrait styles are subdued yet striking, often showcasing an elegant pose with fanciful accessories. 

You can create a more classically-styled portrait in Photoshop with tools such as:

  • The Soft Light blending mode
  • The Overlay blending mode with a texture layer
  • The Blur tool to soften and round out edges to the face, hair, or clothes

Au Natural for Recreating Everyday Life

When you just want to recreate everyday life, au natural is the way to go. This style slides past lavish filters and blending modes in favor of simple, effective touch ups. 

Au natural usually involves improving areas of your photo that weren’t captured properly. You can create au natural portraits with tools such as:

  • The Clone Stamp for fixing minor errors
  • Blurring and Sharpening for enhancing or softening details
  • The Exposure tool for improving contrast for bleached out or dimmed photos

Old-Fashioned Sepia to Hearken to Older Times

Easily one of the best known portrait styles is the literally old-fashioned sepia tone. Not only is it particularly eye-catching, it’s also pretty straightforward once you know your way around blending modes.

You can create old-fashioned sepia portrait styles with tools by going to the Hue/Saturation slider in the Adjustments drop-down menu. You can then select Sepia under the Preset menu and voila! You’ve now created a portrait straight out of the late 1800’s. 

a person holding a smartphone and taking a photo of a blonde woman while sitting outside

Source Image: Pixabay

Common Beginner Mistakes To Avoid When Editing Portraits in Photoshop 

Before we dive into a guide that covers several areas such as makeup retouching or hair retouching, let’s look at beginner mistakes to avoid right off the bat!

Fussing With an Overly Dim or Washed Out Photo

While it’s important to face an artistic challenge head-on, you also don’t need to make things harder on yourself. It’s sometimes easier to just retake a photo instead of fussing with a very poor-quality one. 

However, when this isn’t possible, a badly taken photo can still be salvaged with the above tips. Once you get comfortable with exposure, brightness, and contrast tools, you’ll be amazed by the improvements you can make. 

Too Much Dodging and Burning

Dodging and burning is incredibly useful for exaggerating highlights and shadows. It also looks incredibly artificial when you rely on it too much.

Keep the Dodge and Burn for smaller touch-ups such as highlights in the hair, twinkles in the eye, or wrinkles in clothes. Once you start using it over larger areas of the face or neck, you risk creating harsh and grungy results. 

Overreliance on Filters for Dramatic Effect

While filters can add a little zest to your portrait, too many filters used at once just feels cheap. Be mindful of which filter you use so you can get the best possible result.

an example of a well edited photo of a couple holding each other in snowy weather

Source Image: Pixabay

Conclusion: Editing Portraits in Photoshop is Just a Few Clicks Away 

Editing portraits in Photoshop involves asking yourself thoughtful questions about your work. This program is at its best when you’re mindful about the tools you use and what you’re trying to express with your art.

Learning how to edit portraits in Photoshop starts with focusing on key areas of portraiture – hair, skintone, expression, accessories, and lighting. Photo editing sections such as general retouching, skin tone enhancements, blending modes, filters, and exposure can be applied to all of the above categories.

You can tweak each portrait with the beginner Photoshop toolkit — this is a series of tools, blending modes and filters that even advanced photo editors fall back on. However, your Photoshop ability still requires photography fundamentals of exposure, brightness, color theory, and contrast. With each session you’ll have the ability to do simple portrait touch ups as well as create unique and artistic results.

Relying on these tools and filters too much can make the final result seem stale or cheap. I recommend experimenting as much as possible, but keep in mind less can be more.

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