Humans Have Pores

Skin. We all want good skinPhoto By Chaunna Michole Henry. It’s an unhappy fact and we can certainly be beautiful without perfect skin, but it’s one of the most difficult standards of beauty to fight against. Smooth skin has been an ideal for millenia and the primary things I’m asked to retouch are blemishes and blotchiness of the skin. There are some prominent celebrities fighting against this standard, but for now it remains an ideal.

However, some retouchers misunderstand the concept of good skin. They misunderstand the very nature of skin. You see, humans have pores. We aren’t made of plastic. We’re made of skin. Two different substances entirely. If you want your images of people to look like…well…people, you have to maintain pore detail. This means you can’t just blur the skin. Blurring the skin is your fast track to uncanny valley.

For quite a long while it was the standard to try to obliterate pore detail. Actually, we’re still really working on this one. There are even countless beauty products on the market to minimize pores because for some reason, we don’t like pores. However, we need pores. Our skin needs to breathe and pores make us look human. Fortunately, this trend is beginning to pass even in the high end of beauty advertising. Look at L’oreal Youth Code, MAC Mineralize, and Estee Lauder. We may not be seeing much in the way of acne yet, but we’re at least seeing people who look a little less like robots.

We owe this to the rise of higher end retouching techniques and retouchers who are advocating those techniques. Blurring the skin has become highly frowned upon. I even receive briefs from clients that absolutely forbid it. It is a clear market trend that natural is in and overly smooth and fake is out. I believe (and hope) that over time, we’re going to continue to see this shift in skin retouch treatment.

Photo By Chaunna Michole Henry Close UpMost of my clients come to me specifically because I won’t over-smooth. I know that many other retouchers are having the same experience. Blurring and oversmoothing are now primarily being relegated to the glamour market (though even that is falling by the wayside) and the lower end market. There’s a middle ground occurring in the beauty and fashion markets. They’re still really really smooth, but not as bad as they used to be.

That said, there are occasions in portraiture where I will use a subtle technique with a low opacity clone brush that softens areas of the skin in a way that is technically blurring. This is not a traditional blur, but it is a soften. This can sometimes be acceptable with certain skin conditions that cannot be addressed with normal high end techniques. For example, when there is simply too much prominent distracting texture and not enough pleasing texture to sample from. In this scenario, the texture is also typically too small to dodge and burn effectively. I use this technique sparingly, but I do want to bring it up since we’re talking about skin texture. There’s always an exception to the rule. A lot of the time I’ll only use this technique on client request. I’m personally not a fan of softened skin.

In the end, it’s really about finding a balance. I know some top end retouchers who do take their images very smooth while still keeping texture. I tend to gravitate toward the extreme of natural. I like to keep things sharp. There are a variety of styles, but the uniting trend, upon close examination, is that your skin needs to look like skin and retain detail. We’re moving toward acceptance of a more natural, human look.

No robots allowed.

Photo By Chaunna Michole Henry Close Up

All photos in this article are by the very talented Chaunna Michole Henry, whose images I always love retouching. More of her work can be found at // IG: @chaunnamichole


Photo by Chaunna Henry

Photo By Chaunna Michole Henry

Photo By Chaunna Michole Henry

Retouching Freckles

Retouching Freckles

No two ways about it: I love freckles. They are just the best. I love them on women. I love them on men. I love them on children. I love them on adults. They’re attractive, they’re visually interesting, and they’re great fun for retouching.

Freckles haven’t always been idealized, but especially with the recent push for natural beauty, people are beginning to celebrate freckles more and more. No longer is there a stigma or a pressure to hide behind layers of makeup. Instead, freckles have become a sign of great beauty and models sporting them are sought after by major fashion houses and publications. Gone are the days when all you see held up as the ideal is “flawlessly” porcelain, unmarked skin. There are still a lot of remedies out there purporting to get rid of freckles, which sadly tells me that freckle pride isn’t universal, but hopefully those will also fall by the wayside as freckled people everywhere grow more confident and start to more broadly embrace their skin’s natural beauty. I think we should celebrate the freckle as one of the most unique beauty markers out there. (No two freckle patterns are alike, so those with freckles have truly one-of-a-kind beauty.)

That said, every complexion has its own retouching challenges and freckles are especially delicate to work on because you want to take care to maintain the integrity of the freckle pattern while still perfecting the skin. The saddest retouching I see is retouching that obliterates freckles. Don’t be that retoucher. We love freckles here and retouching them to make them look amazing doesn’t have to be difficult. Just put away the skin blurring plugins and let’s get started.

Technical tips for retouching freckles:

1. First of all, you have to process your initial image tones. It’s tempting to make freckled skin bright and milky white, because fair complexions are most commonly the type that feature freckles. (Though I sure have seen some gorgeous freckled dark skin. With darker skin, just ignore the following advice.) Going light on the skin is a legitimate choice if you’re not wanting to draw attention to the freckles. However, if you want to bring out the freckles, you want to tone the skin down a bit so that they don’t just get blown out. You can selectively bump up the contrast to bring back some of the paleness between freckles. (Sometimes I work a lot with my highlights and whites sliders when processing my RAWs for freckles, but remember that every photo’s tones are different. I can’t give you exact settings.) Really, I can’t stress enough that you need to start with a properly processed photo. This is true with most retouching, but it bears repeating. I am often sent poorly processed jpegs to work on. There’s a lot less I can do with those.

Retouching Freckles2. Speaking of color, freckled complexions will typically go toward red. Use your creative eye to decide whether to stay true to a skin tone from life or to tone it down to something more subjectively interesting. Here, I’ve taken the complexion much cooler than it was originally shot, but I’ve still maintained a red undertone.

3. The most delicate thing about freckle retouching is taking out any blemishes or skin roughness without affecting any (or many) freckles. You’re going to need to skip the plugins and use high end techniques for this. I recommend a relatively small healing brush and a decent amount of dodge and burn. (Really pretty much what you do on any high end image, only you may need to work smaller.) More difficult sometimes is discerning what’s a freckle and what’s a blemish. Luckily, you can get away with leaving more “flaws” in. Freckles camouflage a lot. Freckle photos can end up being the most natural looking photos while still appearing incredibly pristine simply because they don’t need as much smoothing as other photos.

4. Hyper-pigmentation is a big thing to look out with on freckled people. Ruddiness is common. We don’t want to take away flattering ruddiness as that’s just a feature of freckled complexions. However, sometimes it crops up in small patches or awkward places, such as the crease of this model’s nose or the little spot by her chin (See before and after). Even those areas out so they’re less distracting. You can do this with a masked curves adjustment layer or with a blank layer set to color blending mode depending on what kind of area you’re correcting. Experiment with the best approach. In a pinch, I’ve also used selective color and hue/saturation.

5. In fashion, it’s okay to take out really distracting, prominent freckles. In portrait, it’s often not okay. This is a fashion image, so I took out a few, such as the one on her eyelash line. One thing to be mindful of in retouching freckles in a series of images is if you’re taking freckles out, be consistent about which ones you take out. I am definitely guilty of failing on this one because it’s hard to keep track of. Sometimes it’s better to just leave well enough alone.

Retouching Freckles

6. Look for freckles that form distracting patterns or lines. Those can and should be visually broken up or toned down, particularly in a fashion image. Use your discretion in a portrait based on lighting and face angle. If it looks like the freckles can’t be toned down or broken up without changing the person’s true appearance, then obviously don’t, but if you can get away with it and create something more compositionally pleasing, go for it. If you have access to other photos from the shoot, note whether the pattern appears in other photos of the person to determine whether it’s a trick of the light and angle in this particular photo or if the person has a distinguishing pattern of freckles you need to leave alone.

7. People often ask how they can even further emphasize freckles from their original. There are a number of plugins that do this apparently, but I don’t use any of them, so I can’t offer any personal recommendations. Instead of using plugins, you can work with local contrast adjustments. (Typically masked curves or levels layers. You may need to work in luminosity blending mode so that you don’t mess up your color. Depends how extreme you’re going.) You can also just go in and dodge and burn individual freckles. This may be the best way if you want something extreme. It’s labor intensive, yes, but a lot of good retouching is. Honestly, I typically work with whatever freckle prominence already exists in the image with possibly some local Retouching Frecklescontrast tweaks. I feel it’s the most natural, flattering look. My take is that if you want stronger freckles for an image, you really should be casting your model appropriately rather than trying to pull out freckles that are barely there.

In short

Freckle retouching is pretty painless, but the results can be spectacularly lovely. Focus on letting natural beauty shine through the skin and freckle pattern, and you’ll likely have some wonderful photos on your hands. Just make sure you go into it loving the freckles and doing your best to preserve them and make them look great rather than trying to fight against them in your image. There’s no reason to smooth over freckles to make them invisible. That’s not loving your subject and making the most of their beauty; that’s passing judgement on what is truly a beautiful feature to most of us and creating a skin texture that is fake and probably less than purely ethical. Let’s put that kind of retouching behind us and just agree that freckles are fantastic!

For further perspective on how much/what kind of retouching I do with freckles, you can check out this before and after.

All photography by Stephanie Maulding // Model: Mira


Beauty Blogger Goes Without Makeup for 3 Months

I’d like to take a minute today to talk about this heart-wrenching, courageous video project by blogger Em Ford.

This talented YouTube personality does makeup tutorials and recently did a project where she spent 3 months posting images of herself without makeup on social media and recording the feedback. The comments she received were pure vitriol. However, what’s really interesting is the comments she gets when she resumes wearing makeup. They’re at times just as negative. I won’t spend too much time summarizing because the project speaks for itself and what I really want to do is talk about some of the video’s themes and how they relate to retouching. Please watch the video (even if you don’t read the rest of this article.) It’s very powerfully done and very thought provoking. (Advisory: strong language)

Everyone’s a Critic

So here’s the thing: Body policing and judgments of physical appearance are pervasive in our society and sometimes they feel inescapable. Messages come from all angles about how we should look and how we should feel about how we look. When it comes down to it, someone is always a critic. This video sends the clear message that there isn’t a “right” way to look, much as people think there is. It’s kind of a case of “the grass is always greener.” Even if you’re a super model, someone is judging. This is a hard truth to swallow. No one can please everyone and especially when it comes to women, the world is full of double standards. We think that if we just get the right outfit, or the right makeup, or the right haircut that the negative messages will stop, but they won’t. There’s always someone who thinks that you’re doing it wrong and worse, thinks that they have the right to dictate how you should be doing it. These messages cut deeply and we are inundated with them on a regular basis. In this environment of constant judgment, how can we ever feel secure that we have full body autonomy and can be in control of our own self images (insecurities and all)?

The fact is, in our society, women (and sometimes men) can’t win when it comes to physical appearance. We go natural and we’re ugly and lazy. We artificially improve our appearances and we’re fake, vain, and shallow. We dress conservatively and we’re boring prudes. We dress provocatively and we’re hussies asking for whatever bad treatment we get. We try to look like everyone else and we’re “basic”. We try to stand out from the crowd and we’re attention seekers or worse, freaks. There is no appearance choice we can make that won’t bring judgment from some quarter, and that’s truly toxic. We need to find a way to reclaim beauty for ourselves. That doesn’t mean never having any insecurities. That’s unrealistic. However, self image needs to come from within and we need to find ways to come to terms with our own beauty independent of the negative messages around us.

My Skin, My Choice

Really, we can make this into something liberating. If there’s no “right” way to look, we get to decide how we want to look and what makes us feel beautiful. It’s not the rest of the world’s business.

Some days I wear makeup and some days I don’t. And I’ll be honest, I retouch my own photos. Selfies, self portraits, whatever. Not always, but sometimes if I feel like features I’m self conscious about are especially prominent. And there are a few people online who like to call me on it. “Is this retouched?” (I get this question on photos I take that aren’t of people too. Just stupid stuff I snap with my phone. It’s often followed up with “Because that’s what you do, right?” And I’ll let you in on a secret: these people can’t tell. They ask about my unretouched photos too just because I’m a retoucher. They just want a “gotcha” moment.) Usually my responses are “Why?” “Does it matter?” “And if I did?” Or, if I’m feeling cheeky: “If you can’t tell, why should I?” Because really, in the end, it’s nobody’s business. Just like it’s nobody’s business if I put cover-up on a zit. If I do it poorly, you might be able to tell I did it, but if you judge me for it, that really says more about you than it says about me.

In a similar vein, I have a friend who uses a phone app to skin blur all her selfies. It’s not a great retouching app. The retouch overlay is pretty obvious and not subtle. However, this app is more accessible than a professional retoucher, and it’s just her way of doing what I do. The main difference is that it’s easy to tell she’s doing it. Should her friends judge her for wanting to look better digitally any more than they begrudge her wearing makeup? Well, the answer to that question is that some people will judge her for wearing makeup too, so who cares? People would judge her if she posted completely clean face, unretouched photos as well. So why shouldn’t she just confidently make her own choice about her own self image? So long as she’s happy.

Ultimately, whether we’re talking about makeup, retouching, or any kind of beauty treatment, it shouldn’t matter what choices people make about appearance (so long as they’re being physically safe.) My friend, for example, is gorgeous without makeup and without retouching. However, it is her prerogative to do what makes her feel good about herself, whether that be going completely natural with her look or totally covering her face in makeup and softening her skin in selfies. It is not my place or anyone’s place to tell her how she should look. I often get portraits crossing my screen that I personally think need no retouching, but the client sees something that they want changed to make them feel more confident. So long as it follows my ethics and isn’t too drastic, I go along with what they want without judgment. It’s not my skin. It’s not my body. It’s not my self image to define.

My thought is if the judgment is going to be applied no matter what we do, let’s do what makes us feel happiest with ourselves and let the rest just be noise. Go natural. Gussy up. Do whatever makes you feel like your best self. I’m with Em Ford: “You are beautiful. Don’t let anyone tell you differently. Not even yourself.”

How We See Part 2: Gestalt Psychology

Today we delve a little bit deeper into the science of how we see and process visual information. This might get a little academic, but I promise we’ll be back to lighter stuff next week. Today we’re going to talk about Gestalt psychology and how it relates to retouching.

Gestalt psychology explains the way we innately organize our perceptions. When we talk about it, we often refer to the “unified whole”. In the simplest terms, Gestalt psychology states that “the sum of the whole is other than its parts”. (This is not precisely the same thing as the popular phrase “the sum of the whole is greater than its parts”, a mistranslation that is clarified by the originator of the phrase, famed Gestalt psychologist Kurt Koffka.)

What does this mean? Well, Gestalt psychology explains that our brains tend to see whole forms before recognizing individual parts. We even see whole forms that aren’t really there when individual parts form certain patterns. Let’s look at some simple examples.

Gestalt Reification Examples

In these examples, you’ll notice that your mind sees shapes that aren’t actually drawn in. They are only implied. This phenomenon is called reification. The triangle doesn’t exist. Nor does the sphere or the serpent or the rectangle. Our minds fill in that information for us. The actual elements of the images are cones or little Pacman shapes or abstract squiggles, but when arranged a certain way, we experience them as more complex shapes than they really are.

This is Gestalt psychology at work.

Another more practical example of Gestalt psychology might be the fact that you have a nose, a mouth, some eyes, some eyebrows, some ears, some cheeks, and a jaw. Separately those are just a random collection of parts, but put them together and you have a recognizable face, which incidentally you notice as a whole before you notice each individual part. Think about when you meet someone for the first time. Do you immediately notice the hook of their nose or the color of their eyes or do you first take in a general impression of their face? (Where this gets really interesting is when you look at Picasso or other cubist or abstract artists. At what point do things become recognizable and why?)

There are other visual principles of Gestalt psychology that are focused on illusions that trick our eyes or how our brains recognize objects regardless of orientation in space. If you’re interested in the topic, I recommend you delve further into multistability illusions or invariance.

To get a bit more technical, there are two fundamental principles of Gestalt psychology that we want to consider. There is the Principle of Psychophysical Isomorphism which simply states that there is a relationship between perceptual phenomena and brain activity. Then there is the Principle of Totality which states that our conscious experiences must be on a global scale, considering all parts of a whole simultaneously, because the nature of the mind demands that each component of a whole be considered as part of a system of dynamic relationships.

Ok, that’s a mouthful. What does this mean to us? When we consider a visual (either in life or in a still image) we are typically considering a unified collection of parts, or a “whole” (or in other words a group.) We are looking at a system of how smaller parts relate to one another, not necessarily pausing to linger on individual components. We are always influenced by the surrounding information for any given part. In other words, we focus on the larger picture, not the parts making up the picture. This does break down a little bit if we stare at something long enough, much like our second read on the above images is to notice that there are, in fact, no invisible shapes, but only little shapes implying something bigger. (We look longer and we notice the cones and the Pacmans instead of the sphere and the triangle.)

At its core, Gestalt psychology states that we organize our experiences in ways that are simplest, most orderly, and most symmetrical. Parts are many and sometimes chaotic. The whole is one simple thing because the whole tends to to be formed of orderly grouping structures. There are many ways (laws) in which we group smaller stimuli: proximity, similarity, closure, symmetry, continuity, good gestalt, common fate, and past experience. Here’s how some of those laws work. (Some are being excluded for simplicity’s sake because this article is a primer.)

Gestalt Law of Similarity

Law of Similarity – We group objects that are similar to each other. Here, objects are similar due to color and we see 6 groups rather than 36 dots.

Gestalt Law of Proximity

Law of Proximity – We perceive objects that are close to one another as groups rather than individual objects. Here we see 4 groups rather than 72 circles.

Gestalt Law of Symmetry

Law of Symmetry – It is pleasing to the mind to group objects symmetrically around a center point. We perceive these as 3 shapes rather than 6.

Gestalt Law of Closure

Law of Closure – Much like in our reification examples, the law of closure states that we see incomplete shapes as complete. Otherwise we would just see random dashes.

Gestalt Law of Continuity

Law of Continuity – We generally recognize the straight lines despite other input that might influence us to group in other ways, such as color change.

So what does all of this mean for retouching? When I retouch, I retouch with Gestalt psychology in the back of my head. Gestalt theory is something I learned in design classes, not photography classes or retouching seminars. It’s more about composition than anything else, but as retouchers, it’s our job to be creating pleasing, unified compositions. My goal is always to create one single pleasing whole. If I notice multiple competing systems (or groups) that compete with my ultimate final composition, that’s a problem. Competing systems can be certain kinds of stray hairs that form complete shapes, pores that form discernible grouping patterns rather than fading into subtle uniformity, lack of symmetry that might contribute to creating a less easily processed whole, etc. It also can work the other way for me in telling me what I don’t need to retouch. If there are gaps in lines, can I leave it alone because the shape is implied? This is particularly useful in determining how much work I need to do on a jawline. Color work also comes into play. Is something standing out that creates it’s own similarity aberration that makes it appear to be a separate whole? That needs to be toned down. Or it can go the other direction. Do I want something to stand out? I can use similarity grouping to my advantage. Always be aware of competing or harmonizing systems within your image and how all of the parts are interacting to build the whole.

The other way that I look at Gestalt psychology is a little more abstract. When we are with a person in life or when we first glance at a person or when we remember a person, we don’t see certain “flaws” the same way that when we first look at reification fallacy images, we don’t see the gaps or component shapes, but only the unified forms. Instead, we are biased to see a symmetrical, organized, pleasing whole. When we have time to stare at a still image closer, we can start to pick out the individual parts. This can mean picking out unattractive features we didn’t initially notice. I believe that we dissect visuals the longer we look at them. A retoucher can re-focus attention on the whole by cleaning up some of the parts or adding more parts to make sure that the still image whole is pleasing even upon close inspection. This refers back to my philosophy on making people look the way we may think of them in memory.

In the end, I’ll say what I always say. We aren’t looking to fix a person or change the essence of a product or place. We’re not looking for cheap tricks when we look at Gestalt psychology. We’re looking for greater understanding of how we see. In the end, we want to know how to make a person or thing look like a polished whole by knowing how the brain interprets visual data. Keeping Gestalt psychology in mind can help us do that by knowing the advanced design and psychological principles that contribute to a good, pleasing visual. Know how the eyes work. Know how the brain works. It will improve your artwork no matter what discipline you’re working with.

And again, if you’d like to learn more about how we process visual information, I really highly recommend this book. It’s part biology, part psychology, and throws in a bit of physics of light: (affiliate link)


How We See Part 1: Optical Illusions

In order to understand why and how to retouch, it’s important to understand how we process visual information. There’s no denying that our visual system is remarkable, but it’s far from perfect. It’s incredibly easy to trick. Our brains don’t always interpret what’s in front of us correctly. Our perception is influenced by a number of different things, so that what we see isn’t always what’s there. So, let’s have some fun and take a look at some optical illusions!

Zöllner illusion

Zollner Illusion

These lines are actually parallel. You can also see a dynamic demonstration of this illusion.

Pinna’s Illusory Intertwining Effect

Pinna's Illusory Intertwining Effect

These circles are actually perfectly concentric. It’s easy to throw our visual system off balance.

The Checkershadow Illusion

Checker Shadow Illusion


Squares A and B are the same shade. The proof:


Checker Shadow Illusion Proof

Correct tone and color are the lifeblood of a good photograph. Knowing how people will interpret them is very important.

Poggendorff Illusion

Poggendorff Illusion

We perceive the blue line as connected to the black one, but it’s actually the red line. I’ve moved limbs and strands of hair because of this effect.


Simultaneous Contrast Illusion

The background is a gray gradient. We perceive the smaller rectangle to also be a light to dark gradient, but actually it is one color.

 Ebbinghaus IllusionThe orange dot on the left seems smaller than the one on the right, but they are the same size.

 thaumatropeAnd of course, because I love all old things, I have to conclude this post with the traditional thaumatrope, which is a set of two images on two sides of a piece of paper that you can twirl around on strings to create the illusion of a single image. Classic example: bird in a cage.

So, why is this significant for retouching?

Retouchers need to understand, on at least a surface level, how the brain interprets visual information. People can look at a photograph of something and see all sorts of strange visual phenomena. We need to correct for that in one direction or the other. We can either remove aberrant, confusing visual effects or create illusions to compensate for shortcomings in a photo. One thing I often notice in skin is when pores or light start to create strange, distracting patterns or channels. Have you ever stared at clouds or a stucco wall and started to see pictures? Same effect. We would never notice that in real life. That’s an example of an illusion we need to correct for. Another weird one is limbs that go behind objects and then emerge again at seemingly totally different angles, much like in the Poggendorff illusion. They look like they don’t line up at all! That needs fixing so that the poor person in the photo doesn’t look like they’ve dislocated something. Tonal and color illusions can also completely run amok, especially in mixed lighting, and are a major part of retouching that we always need to be aware of . There are many examples of day to day illusions and they aren’t just limited to photos. We encounter them in life as well. We just don’t notice them as readily because life moves so quickly. There’s no freeze frame without a camera.

Ultimately, optical illusions remind us that experience isn’t always the same as the reality. We are constantly bombarded with all sorts of subtle optical illusions. When looking at a still photograph, we have more time to pick apart those illusions, much like we can pick apart the above illusions when we sit and consider them. Armed with knowledge about how we see, retouchers can bring a photo closer to our day to day experience of a person, place or thing. Sure, sometimes we want the cold, hard, facts about a scene, and sometimes it can be fun to spot all those things we can’t see in the blink of an eye–it can be a game–but art, in the end, is about the human experience, not always cold, hard documentarian facts. Properly armed with the laws of visual science, we can use our understanding of how we see to bring a photograph more in line with how people really visually experience things on a day to day basis.

You may be wondering at this point why we don’t process optical illusions as the norm when we’re looking at things in our day to day lives. We’ll be talking about a meaty subject next week that may explain some of those compensatory mechanisms in How We See Part 2: Gestalt Psychology.

And really, if you’d like to learn more about how we process visual information, I really highly recommend this book. It goes into great detail about our visual systems and psychology. I consider it a must-read for any artist and retouchers in particular: (affiliate link)