Here’s a Roadmap for Learning How to Retouch Photos Like a Pro

If you are a photographer or fledgling retoucher opening Photoshop for the first time, it is a daunting experience, to say the least. There is a wealth of knowledge, free and purchasable online, but how do you know what to search for if you don’t know what you don’t know?

If you do get a few tips on what to search for, how do you know what is considered good practice and where will you be led astray? What do the professionals do? Who are the guides that can steer you in the right direction?

If these are the questions you are finding yourself faced with, I hope this article can be of some assistance.

I have put together a list of pointers, enabling you to search further and teach yourself the methods and tools mentioned, now hopefully knowing what you do not know. It comes from my own experience as a professional and is by no means exhaustive, but it is an attempted to put together a curriculum or roadmap of sorts, for you to make your own and get you onto a good footing with. I have selected the methods and tools that I use daily and most broadly. I should mention that my background is fashion and beauty retouching and that this would have had a bearing on the points I have selected.

Getting to know and becoming comfortable with these tools and methods takes practice, and I would recommend going through the list slowly (the more basic points are at the top of the list) and getting comfortable with one or two points at a time before moving on. So much of good Photoshopping is being able to creatively problem solve, and in order to do that you need to know how to use techniques across a range of scenarios, so understanding them properly is essential.

You may find it useful to print this out and check off points as you learn them.

Tools, Methods and Techniques

  • Using layers
  • Layer masks (using layer masks as opposed to the eraser tool)
  • Inverting a mask
  • Clone tool
  • Healing brush tool
  • Non destructive editing.
  • The brush tool and using a soft vs hard brush (you can also make other tools such as the clone tool soft or hard however I recommend always using the healing brush on full hardness).
  • Creating a stamp visible layer
  • Making selections using the pen tool and creating paths.
  • Feathering your selection
  • Adding one selection to another, subtracting one selection from another and inverting a selection.
  • Copying and pasting selections
  • Curves (arguably the most powerful tool in Photoshop) and understanding the red, green and blue channels.
  • Using curves to correct white balance and exposure
  • Creating contrast with an S curve
  • Adjustment layers (I most frequently use — curves, hue and saturation, color balance and levels but it can’t hurt you to search and experiment with each one).
  • Layer blending modes (especially lighten, screen, soft light, overlay, multiply and darken).
  • Creating contrast with the black and white adjustment layer.
  • Sharpening your image using the high pass filter.
  • Transforming in warp mode
  • Liquify (less is always more with this tool — it is not generally considered good practice to drastically alter a person’s shape)
  • Dust and scratches (useful for cleaning studio floors)
  • How to soften mask edges.
  • Clone and healing brush tool blending modes (especially darken and lighten).
  • The history brush tool
  • Dodge and burn (preferably a method using curves)
  • Using hue and saturation to correct skin tones — specifically the reds.
  • Using the eyedropper and the point sampler tools to match colors across various parts of an image by creating and matching points on the RGB channels in a curve.
  • Channels and making selections using channels
  • Using the dodge and burn tools to refine masks
  • Using color range to make quick selections (using the pen tool and channels are the preferred/most accurate methods in most situations).
  • Select and Mask (used to be Refine Edge for older versions of PS)
  • Creating custom brushes
  • Frequency separation (I mention this as a technique mainly useful for tricky hair situations and for removing creases from clothing).
  • Texture grafting with frequency separation.
  • Fixing color burn using channel mixer

The list could probably go on indefinitely, but if you know these few tools and methods, you should have a solid grounding to work with. You can download a printable PDF version of this roadmap checklist here.

Good Practice

  • Non-destructive editing (it’s in here twice for good reason).
  • Dodge and burn as the method for evening skin tone.
  • Avoiding blurring skin at all costs.
  • Knowing that short-cuts and quick techniques (such as evening skin tone with frequency separation) usually come with a cost. Time and patience are almost always what make for a good edit and therefore use short-cuts sparingly and only when necessary.

Guides and Resources

A few guides and resources I would recommend for learning Photoshop:

If I could recommend one last tip to someone starting out it would be: consume as many high quality images as possible. Find those who are doing this best and examine their work. This will develop your eye and in turn improve your retouching.

I hope you have found this useful. Happy searching!

(via Retouchist)


About the author: Sarah Tucker is a professional photo retoucher. You can find more of her work on her website, Instagram, and YouTube. This article was also published here.

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