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How to Retouch Portrait Photos in Adobe Camera Raw (Selective Adjustments)

This post is part of a series called Camera RAW for Beginners.
How to Use Brushes and Filters in Adobe Camera Raw (Make Selective Adjustments)

Learn how to make selective edits and targeted adjustments to parts of your image in Adobe Camera Raw in this tutorial about how to use the Adjustment Brush and other techniques for refinements with precision.

Work with your own raw portrait image or follow along with the tutorial with this free raw download from Signature Edits.

Asses the Photo

Let's make a quick plan for how we'll change this photo to bring out the best we can from it. What does it need?

Original image before any editing

It looks like this was an overcast day. The frame is a little bit under-exposed: basically OK, but the dark areas a bit too compressed to black. You can see how, under the chin and the eyes, there is a lack of definition. But, overall, this photo doesn't need much, really.

What else? The photo is from an editorial fashion shoot, so we'll give it a minimal retouching suitable for this kind of assignment. The aim is a look that would fit a magazine or advertisement, keeping in mind the style of this image, which is relaxed, casual, off-the-cut feeling, not over-produced. Less is more with retouching, so we'll try to keep the changes light.

Global Adjustments

If you're editing from a raw photo, you'll need to make your global adjustments as usual to bring it up from the flat profile to a good base:

Original photo with basic global edits
Original photo with basic global edits

This bump lets us see everything. We do lose a little of the mood, but we can bring that back by easing off the global adjustment later.

If you're not sure what global adjustments are or how to make them, you might find this tutorial helpful:

Make Local Adjustments

When you’ve finished with your global adjustments, go to Adjustment Brush.

Select Adjustment Brush
Select Adjustment Brush

Eye and Teeth Whitening

The model doesn’t really need much (or any!) teeth or eye whitening but it might be a local adjustment you want to make when you’re editing a portrait. Let's take a look at how to do it.

Adjustment Brush settings
Adjustment Brush settings

First zoom in until the part of the face you’re editing takes up most of the editing window. Then adjust your brush to have a solid flow and resize it appropriate to the size you’ll paint over. I’ve made the mask green so you can see where I’m applying it – to change the colour of the mask tick Mask Options. If you need a little help with sticking to the edges of the area you want to cover, tick Auto Mask which will help clip the mask to any edges like lips or eyelids.

Paint over areas to edit
Paint over areas to edit

Paint over the area you want to whiten. Next, go to Selective Edits in the right-hand panel and make adjustments that will lighten the area you’ve highlighted – so dragging up the exposure, highlights, whites etc will bring up the brightness of those areas.

The mask will disappear as you change sliders so that you can see what you’re doing, but you can also untick Mask Options to hide it while you work.

Before and after of eyes
Before and after of eyes

Remember the idea is to give a subtle brightening, so less is always more. Too much and you’ll end up with that alien eye effect that you sometimes see on portraits that have been pushed too far. When in doubt, make what you think is the right adjustment, then try turning it down another 5-10%.

Flaw or Spot Removal

If there are places on clothes or skin that you feel need tidying up (spots, fluff, stray hairs) then you can use the Spot Removal tool.

Before spot removal
Before spot removal

When you click it you’ll see the brush tools are very similar to the adjustment brush options, but this time you should make sure to feather the result so that you don’t get an obvious circle where you ‘fix’.

After spot removal
After spot removal

Under Type you’ll see the option to Heal or Clone and for any imperfections you’ll usually use Heal. With the brush at the correct size, place the circle over the area you want to fix and click. You’ll see the area you’ve chosen will get a red circle around it and a green circle connected to it with a line will appear.

This green circle is the area that the software is taking as a reference. You can click-drag that to another area if it’s a better match for the part you’re fixing.

Use the same method over each part of the image you’d like to adjust. Again it’s wise not to go too far, some things that we can perceive as imperfections actually make portraits more unique and visually interesting. If you make a mistake, just click on the point you’ve ‘healed’ and hit delete to remove it and return it to the original.

Skin Smoothing

The model in the example picture has really nice skin and smoothing it would lose those lovely freckles, so it absolutely doesn’t require any here. Nevertheless, this technique, used very, very sparingly, can come in handy.

Skin smoothing mask
Skin smoothing mask

Back to the Adjustment Brush, create a new adjustment with the plus icon and then paint over your model’s face avoiding any details like eyes, nostrils and mouth.

After skin smoothing
After skin smoothing

To smooth out the skin you need to reduce sliders like Texture and Clarity. You can also slightly bump the highlights and exposure to make the face appear brighter and draw the eye to it. Likewise if you want to add texture to the skin rather than smoothing it out then drag the sliders the opposite way.

Other than adding a little brightness, I’ve reset the texture to the photograph as the skin here is part of what makes the image work well.

Lips

To smooth out lips and add some colour (when working with lipstick, or to amplify natural colour) then add a new adjustment point and paint over the lips. Increase the Feather slider if your adjustment becomes too obvious. Reduce the Texture, Clarity and Sharpness just enough to knock the hard edges off any lip lines but not enough to make them look oddly blurred compared to the rest of the image.

To add a colour or enhance a natural one you can adjust the Hue and Saturation.

Adjusting lips
Adjusting lips

Hair

Most of our model’s hair is covered, but you can add some texture and light to what is showing. Paint a mask over the hair with the Adjustment Brush as before.

Adjusting hair
Adjusting hair

Your adjustments will depend on the hair type and colour, but here I’ve increased the highlights and lowered the shadows for contrast, bumped the saturation and added a small amount of texture and clarity.

After hair adjustments

Results

Here's the image after the local adjustments:

After global and local adjustments

And below, the image as it was in raw format and the image after editing for comparison.

Before and after
Before and after

This tutorial is an updated version using the latest version of Adobe Camera Raw. If you're using an older version, you might find this video tutorial useful:

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