The Photographer’s Portrait Editing Checklist

There are literally over a hundred edits that could be made to a portrait. But when you’re taking off weight, hiding freckles and eliminating laugh lines, aren’t you eliminating a bit of who that person is? It’s easy to get caught up in the editing process and actually ruin a portrait instead of making it better. A portrait isn’t a fashion shoot of a model. Chances are, if you airbrush the image, the person in the photo won’t look like themselves and could even be offended by how much retouching you do.

But, a few subtle adjustments can perfect a portrait, eliminating distracting elements and calling attention to just the right parts of the image. So where do you draw the line? We’ve rounded up a portrait editing checklist to help you find that line between nice subtle adjustments and air brushing gone wrong. Here’s what you need to ask every time you edit a portrait.

Is the exposure accurate?

Check the exposureFirst, make sure that the basics are dead on. Check the exposure. It may need a bit of lightening or darkening. The camera measures for exposure based on the colors in the scene, so the color of the subject’s skin or clothing can throw the exposure off a bit. If you shoot in RAW, an exposure that’s slightly off is an easy fix using the exposure slider.

Is the white balance off?

While you’re in the RAW photo editor, check to see if the white balance could be improved. Note that I said “improved,” not accurate. A white balance that is a little on the warm side, instead of perfectly set, is usually more flattering for a portrait. Warming up the image a bit livens up the skin tone, without that over-edited look.

Should you crop in closer?

A portrait should immediately draw the viewer’s eye to the subject. Make sure there aren’t any distracting elements in the background. If there are, consider cropping. If cropping won’t help, you can use the clone tool to eliminate them instead. Sometimes, a crop is a matter of getting a more intimate feel than the original photo, and filling the frame a bit better. Try cropping a bit and see if it improves the photo.

Do the eyes stand out?

Getting the eyes right is essential to a good photo, so spend some time here. The eyes may need to be sharpened a bit. Often, the whites aren’t actually white—using the dodge tool will brighten them up a bit and help them pop. Darkening the iris can also help the eyes to pop; the burn tool is a quick fix for that. Also look for any redness, and check for stray eyebrow hairs or eyelashes too.

Are there any blemishes to eliminate?

While it’s not a good idea to airbrush a portrait, it’s a good idea to zap any imperfections. Things like birth marks and scars that are always there are best left in the photo because they’re part of who that person is, but a temporary acne breakout is not. Use the healing brush to smooth over skin blemishes and other temporary imperfections.**

from retouching to airbrushing

Is the skin smooth, or can you notice individual pores?

There’s a downside to high resolution, high detail cameras. All that detail makes it easy to see individual pores on the skin. Keep the detail where it matters, like in the eyes, and keep it out of the skin. Use a blur tool or a blurred layer if there’s too much detail in the skin. Be careful though, here is where it’s very easy to go overboard and cross the line from retouching to airbrushing.

Is the skin too red?

Maybe it was warm out that day, or maybe your subject was blushing a bit. Whatever the cause, skin redness is a common problem in portraits. There’s a number of ways to fix the problem. Use a targeted adjustment brush in the RAW file editor, or use a hue saturation layer with a layer mask painting the effect only where you need it.

Is the skin too shiny?