Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 3: Contouring for Clothes Fit and Posing

(Before you read this article, you may want to check out Part 1 and Part 2!)

There is a secondary consideration when we’re talking about making people skinnier in Photoshop, but this one is a little less cut and dry than correcting for camera issues. We’ve all agreed now that there’s nothing wrong with being a little larger (Right?) but what about those areas that just aren’t quite smooth no matter how big or small we are? I’m especially talking about those rolls and bumps that appear when we wear clothes that don’t quite fit us correctly or areas that bulge out when we sit on or lean against something in a certain way. These little lumps, bumps, and bulges are almost always temporary issues. Sometimes we see them and sometimes we don’t. They are influenced entirely by external things. However, when looking at someone, we visually interpret these bumps as signs of being heavier, regardless of the actual size of the person. After all, we’re literally talking about excess fat that is made more obvious in some way. (No matter how skinny you are, you have at least some body fat.)

What I want to introduce here is the concept of “the body at rest.” What I mean by this is the body as it looks when it is not pinched by restrictive garments or distorted by environmental things that the model might be leaning against or otherwise pressing a body part against. It can also mean the body when not distorted by wind or motion. The body at rest is the body in its natural state when not influenced by outside factors. In essence, it’s how you really, naturally look.

Making People Skinnier - Body at Rest

We will be looking at this model later on. This is her body at rest in well fitted clothing. Notice no bumps or bulges. These photos have not been retouched besides dust spots and tone/color.

The techniques I’ll be talking about today are mostly contouring or actively changing the shape of the body. This is one of the most controversial practices in retouching and it is very commonly interpreted as making people skinnier. That’s fair. There’s a very fine line. We’re going to discuss that fine line.

Now, contouring varies based on body type. Significantly larger bodies feature more curves that shouldn’t be smoothed out or else it will look anatomically incorrect. A lot of judgment comes into play here. If it’s a naturally occurring curve or bump that is always present when a person is at rest–standing straight and not wearing ill-fitting, restrictive clothing–it should be left alone. We see this a lot in larger arms, legs, and stomachs. However, bulging areas of flesh from bad posing or ill fitting clothing are unflattering and are not necessarily reflections on someone’s natural figure but rather on circumstantial conditions. I believe that these bumps and bulges can be ethically modified.

One thing to keep in mind is that in contouring, you shouldn’t always be making people smaller. You should be moving areas to make body parts wider at least as often as you are making them slimmer. It depends on what makes the most sense for the particular bump. Often with ill fitting clothing, especially jeans, I will bring the pinching part of the jean out and the bulging part of the stomach in to average out the figure, as that’s usually where the figure would be at rest. (see below.) With pinching clothing, that’s how it works. One part is tighter, constricting the body to make it thinner than it normally is. This displaces skin or fat to somewhere else, making another part wider than it normally is. That means the average between the two is where the body actually should be at rest in most cases. Bring one part in, bring one part out.

Making People Skinnier - Contouring Jeans

Other times I will exclusively make a model larger, but the effect is that of making her look slimmer. In the example below, I have made the model at least 1 to 2 jeans sizes larger. However, because her stomach is no longer bulging over her jeans and the jeans look perfectly fitted to her, she looks slimmer. The image is more flattering and our brains, through conditioning, tell us that means she’s skinnier. She’s not. (I urge you to click through to the before/after animation to see how drastic the change really is.)

Making People Skinnier - Contouring Jeans

In this photo, I have made the model at least 1 to 2 jeans sizes larger, but the illusion is that she is slimmer. Click for before/after animation to see more clearly.

The overall effect of contouring is typically slenderizing because bulges are literally comprised of excess skin and body fat. Reducing visibility of these things draws our attention away from thinking about fat which makes us believe a person HAS less fat…even if we are actually making the person larger in the process. It’s an optical illusion of sorts. It’s a disconnect between our eyes and our brains. We equate any kind of bulge or roll with being overweight even though this isn’t truth when we consider the body at rest. A thinner person wearing ill fitting clothing or who is poorly posed can and will have more unflattering bulging areas than a heavier person in perfectly fitting clothing. Bumps and bulges are about restriction and applying pressure, not about body size.

To be perfectly clear about the model I’m retouching above, here are a number of photos where you cannot see any bumps or bulges in her figure. Her default state is without bumps or bulges. The problem is fit and pose and her truer appearance is lacking these problem areas. We are striving toward images that are more honest to her natural appearance at rest. Her contours have not been modified in any way on any of these photos, even to correct for clothes wrinkles. Retouching I have done: light skin retouching, hair cleanup, backdrop smoothing, tone and color. You can click on the images to see larger versions.

Making People Skinnier - Fashion

Making People Skinnier - Fashion

Making People Skinnier - Fashion

A fashion tangent: The real problem with clothing bulges isn’t that someone is “too large” or in any way inherently unattractive, but that most people do not select properly fitting clothes. This isn’t always their fault either. Clothing stores don’t carry enough plus sizes so that people are often forced to buy sizes that are too small for them. We also have confusing and inconsistent vanity sizing and that encourages purchase of the wrong size, particularly in women’s clothing, but also to a certain extent in men’s. If all that isn’t enough, a lot of plus sizes are initially designed and cut for smaller figures and simply scaled up without actually adjusting the pattern for larger figure shapes. Only the scale is adjusted without accounting for the fact that as the body gets larger, proportions and shapes also change. (I sew as my primary hobby and I always custom fit, so lack of fit variation in clothing stores is a pet peeve.) These are all issues that have nothing to do with actual body shape or size. They have to do with clothing fit and cut and how they flatter the body. Mass produced garments are made for an average and rarely flatter a wide variety of body types, so adjustments are commonly needed, if not by a tailor then by a retoucher. For many body types, well fitted, perfectly flattering clothing simply isn’t available.

As a retoucher, I feel that it is a good thing to give people who are not used to seeing themselves in well fitted clothing the opportunity to know what they might look like in perfectly fitting clothes tailored just for them.  In my opinion, there is nothing unethical about this. On the contrary, it can serve to bolster someone’s self esteem.

People generally know when their clothes don’t fit because clothes that don’t fit pinch and are not comfortable to wear. If a garment looks like it is pinching, it looks unflattering, not because it makes someone look fat, but because it makes them look uncomfortable and that, in turn, makes the viewer uncomfortable. It also makes the clothes look less than beautiful in the case of fashion photography where the clothes are supposed to be the star…Really, this is the responsibility of the stylist, but sometimes we retouchers wear many hats and end up responsible for making the clothes look good.

Moving on, lets take a moment to talk about posing. Bad posing also looks uncomfortable. If you are leaning on something in a way that makes your arm, face, or other body part look squished, creating painful looking bulges or indentations, the viewer of the photograph is going to feel uncomfortable on your behalf. It’s unflattering and it’s not how you normally look at rest. Even when working with thin models, photographers who are good at posing usually do not have the model put their full weight on their hands or limbs. This prevents painful looking posing. Correcting for problems created by bad posing is resetting to what someone looks like in reality at rest, but again, can trick our brains into thinking we’re making someone skinnier for the same reasons as outlined above.

Making People Skinnier - Contouring

Here, we’re dealing with both a posing indentation and a clothing wrinkle (not a stomach bulge, just a clothing pucker.) I took care of both for a more flattering look. Click for before/after animation.

Now, what I am not encouraging is changing contours and body dimensions that aren’t being pinched or distorted. I still don’t think we should be bringing in waistlines just for the sake of making someone slimmer in order to conform to arbitrary beauty ideals. All I’m talking about here is returning a body to its natural state at rest: bringing in clothing wrinkles, correcting pinches, smoothing out bumps from posing, that sort of thing. Our goal is not to make a person look skinnier than they really are. We are correcting the photograph, not the person. Photographs lie and sometimes we also get distorted by our garments, accessories, and surroundings. Our goal is to make a person look like themselves by educating ourselves as retouchers and photographers about factors that distort their true appearance in final photographs. This may result in a photo that has the illusion of a skinnier model, but that is not our end goal and may, in fact, not be the truth of the retouching we’ve ultimately done.

Up next: The Fourth and Final Installment in “Making People Skinnier in Photoshop”!



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All photos by Stephanie Maulding

Upper Model: Amber for CYA Denim; Various Designers

Lower Model: Alexis

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Lens Distortion and Perspective

(Missed Part 1? You can find it here.)

In our previous article we discussed making people skinnier in Photoshop and how you really shouldn’t do it…

…Except when you should.

So when IS it okay to make people “skinnier” in Photoshop? The primary instance where it’s acceptable is when you have distortion or perspective problems in your photo. These are not uncommon and can be very unflattering but have very little to do with the physical dimensions of the person who is actually in front of the camera. Because it doesn’t have anything to do with the person’s actual size in real life, I do not consider this actually making someone skinnier. It is merely correcting aberrations introduced by the camera. However, in before and after photographs, people can construe this as making someone skinnier (or sometimes larger!) because body parts will appear to become smaller (or larger.) Let’s look at some examples.

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Perspective

This photo was shot from slightly below plus the model is leaning her head away from the camera. This makes her body appear larger in relationship to her head. This isn’t true to her real-life dimensions. Additionally, this was for a hair ad campaign so the head needed to be the focal point. So, I made her body subtly smaller. I also altered her chin for perspective. Click for before/after animation.


Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Lens Distortion and Perspective

This image had some lens distortion plus I was a bit shorter than the model. She is also leaning slightly away from the camera. Again, this amounted to an original photo where her head was not proportional to her body. The correction is so subtle you can’t see it in side by side comparison, but it does make her body proportionally smaller. Click for before/after animation.

In both of these final images, the models’ bodies look smaller than they originally did in the photographs I started with. However, the photos may not have been accurate depictions of the models in the first place. So, how do you know how to correct for things like this? First of all, a good retoucher has at least some knowledge of photography, anatomy, and perspective. You can usually make some educated guesses if you have some background knowledge. When in doubt, a retoucher should draw attention to the face. You can do this by making sure the face is proportional to the body or slightly larger. (Assume a camera position that is slightly above the subject when the photographic composition allows for it and make your changes based on that, following the rules of anatomy. Shooting a photo from a higher angle causes the head to be very slightly larger in proportion to the body. Any changes along these lines should be subtle.) It also helps to compose the limbs and torso into leading lines toward the face when possible. The face is where we most strongly identify personality.

I want to stress the “when possible” part. Never force a change if it isn’t anatomically correct or if it doesn’t stay loyal to the subject’s appearance.

Let’s delve a little deeper into these technical concepts that can lead you to make decisions about altering physical proportions in a photograph.

Leading Lines

I’m only going to touch on this since composition isn’t our main focus here, but “leading lines” are lines that direct your gaze toward something in an image. Our eyes like to follow lines and in images we typically follow lines away from the edges. Leading lines can be things like arms and legs or even fence lines, telephone wires, walls, portions of hair, or any other kind of line that leads toward the face or main image feature that the viewer is supposed to focus on. I will sometimes smooth out a bump in a line or alter a neck contour to make it into a stronger lead toward a face or other focal point. Not because these things make a person look fat, but because it focuses attention where I want it to go. I make a point not to do this because it makes someone look more attractive, but only because I want the viewer to look at, say, a person’s eyes, or their hair, or their face, or their clothes. Whatever is being highlighted.

Making People Skinnier in Photoshop Part 2: Leading Lines

You can see in this image’s composition that most lines point attention up toward the face. Red lines direct attention to the face. Secondary blue lines lead the eye to the stronger direct leading lines.

Lens Distortion

Now let’s venture into the territory where we really might want to start making people “skinnier”: distortion. When a camera distorts a body, we are no longer looking at a photo that is an accurate depiction, so we start to consider changing the dimensions we see in an original photo. Lenses play a big role in how large or small individual body parts appear in a photo. They can introduce all sorts of strange problems, whether the glass is cheap or top of the line. Especially when working with wide angle lenses, distortion is just a fact of being a photographer. Cameras do not see the way the human eye does. Consider the following examples all taken of the same model (my friend, Karen) with different lens focal lengths:

Lens Distortion

I chose to shoot a portrait here because it is a very clear demonstration of lens distortion even though it isn’t as descriptive of instances where you may be changing body dimensions to make someone appear to be “skinnier”.

Karen’s facial proportions look entirely different as we change focal length and the first images are clearly distorted. If I’d done a full body shot, it could easily be her waistline, hips, or legs that showed distortion depending on my angle and her pose. (That’s where we get into controversial retouching when dealing with audiences uneducated about the issues we’re covering today.)

When trying to correct for distortion, it really comes down to training your eye and learning about what focal lengths are most likely to introduce what problems. Wide lenses (smaller numbers) tend to make things at the center of the photo bend toward the edges of the frame and exaggerate the size of anything closer to the camera. Long lenses (larger numbers) tend to make things appear more normal or even compressed. As a retoucher, you’ll usually have less lens correction to do if your photographer shot with a longer lens.

Luckily for us, software is getting a lot more sophisticated. Sometimes, it can auto-detect the lens used and automatically correct for the distortion most typical of that lens at that focal length, though personally, I find that imperfect. It’s a good start and once in a while it will get you all the way there, but I encourage retouchers to also learn manual lens corrections, whether in ACR, Photoshop’s lens correction filter, or using completely manual transform and liquify adjustments.

A word of caution: You will never make a photo taken with a 24mm lens look like one taken with a 105mm lens. Some things have to be done in camera. You can make improvements, but you can’t totally fake extreme changes. A clear illustration: notice that you can see Karen’s ears in the photo taken with the 105mm but not the 24mm. I cannot make the first image realistically look like the last.

Human Anatomy

So, this composition and distortion info is all well and good, but when it comes down to it, how do you know how someone is “supposed to look”? Sorry, I have no easy answer. You hit the books and study anatomy. The best place to learn anatomy is drawing manuals and I’m sure there are some good online resources as well.

A crash course in anatomy for artists: We usually measure the body in “head’s lengths”. In other words, we take the height of the head, and use it to describe the proportions of the rest of the body. The average proportional height of a human being is 7.5 heads tall. (So, if a head were 1 foot in height, the person would be 7.5 feet tall. The average head is not 1 foot tall. This just describes the proportion.) This varies obviously. Women are often depicted as 6 heads in a drawing and men as 8 heads. In fashion illustration, women are sometimes depicted proportionally taller because this exaggerates long limbs, which we use to create leading lines. (I have included a fashion illustration here because I typically shoot fashion and so do a lot of my readers…also because the fractions are easy.)

The halfway point down the body is typically about groin level. ¼ is mid-chest. The knee is ¾. The arms extend below the groin 1/2 to 1 head depending on height. When we draw the average figure (not a heavier figure) we typically draw a shoulder line that is about 1.5 heads long horizontally. The hips mirror the shoulders. From here, we take the average figure and begin to vary it for body type, widening or narrowing hips, shoulders, waist, etc.

Basic Straight-On Human Anatomy

Basic Straight-On Human Anatomy

So, what doesn’t vary based on weight? What can we use as baseline references for distortion and perspective? First, a person’s height and vertical proportions don’t really change when they gain weight. The distance between chin and groin should always be approximately 3 head lengths, placing the groin about halfway down the body. See above for other vertical proportions. However, what about when you’re working with headshots or other photos that focus only on the upper body? Well, not a ton of padding gets added on the shoulder line when a person gains weight. A few inches off the bone at most. (This, of course, doesn’t account for broad shouldered people—your average linebacker is going to be a lot more than 1.5 heads wide—but you can usually recognize those types of frames visually if a person doesn’t have an average bone structure.) Additionally, the distance between the shoulder and armpit doesn’t vary all that much. This is approximately 1/2 of a head length.

Keep in mind that bodies are definitely not all exactly alike. There are many exceptions to the rules. Statistics apply here and we are talking about the average.


An important thing to be conscious of when dealing with anatomical corrections is that camera angle will shift proportion. Looking down at a sharp angle will make body parts that are farther away appear smaller and closer together. Sometimes it is beneficial to an image to alter body proportions based on perspective, as I did in my initial retouched examples. These changes can be subtle or extreme and may vary based on the individual photographer. I know when I’m photographing people, I usually have to account for slight perspective problems caused by looking up at someone because most of my subjects are taller than me. Looking up at your subject can cause their head to appear proportionally smaller than their body, whereas we typically want the head to be the focal point and therefore either proportional to the body or ever so slightly larger…This is where taller photographers have an advantage over photographers my height.

Understanding perspective is crucial to making believable image adjustments. I highly recommend that along with anatomy, you study foreshortening and perspective. Anatomy books usually at least touch on these and I’ll include some resources below.


Basic Perspective. Note that things that appear closer are larger and as things get smaller, they appear farther away. The pillars are also closer together as they get farther away.

That said, the basic tenets of body proportion can generally be used as reference points especially on relatively straight-on shots or photos where the perspective is only off by a little. Just remember not to force anything into EXACT proportions because they may be influenced both by body type and by perspective. You don’t need to pull out a ruler, but rather train your eye to average anatomical relationships. Know the average baseline and then keep your changes relatively minor to ensure you aren’t veering too far away from a person’s natural appearance or from believable perspective. Always work with the intention of finessing rather than strong-arming proportion when retouching to ensure better realism.

Another note about extreme changes: if you take a photo looking up at someone at a sharp angle, you will never be able to perspective correct it to look like a straight-on shot. If you try, even your best effort will look weird because you’ll be able to see the bottom of their chin. Always use discretion. That said, you can do some pretty extreme perspective corrections on non-human shots. Just don’t try it with people.

Architecture Perspective Correction

Don’t try this on a person.

In Closing

Keep in mind that the goal here is not to actually to make someone look skinnier than they really are. The goal is to make the body proportions look natural and to correct for camera and perspective issues so that your subject looks more like themselves as viewed by the human eye. (Remember that the human eye and brain fill in a lot of information that isn’t really there and can interpret visual information such that things look the way we expect them to rather than as they are. In life, our brains automatically correct for a lot of things that cameras don’t.) Changes made in the name of composition, perspective, and lens distortion may end up looking like someone has been made skinnier because you may have to shrink some body parts to make your corrections. Other times you may have to enlarge body parts, though people are less likely to balk at that.

The final effect may technically be making someone skinnier than they are in the original PHOTOGRAPH, but our intent is not to make them appear skinnier than they are in REAL LIFE. That’s the distinction. True to life, not to the photograph. Remember that photographs lie and sometimes we, as retouchers, are not trying to make them into bigger lies, but rather bring them back closer to reality.

Coming up: Parts three and four in “Making People Skinnier in Photoshop”

Recommended Resources

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All photos and illustrations by Stephanie Maulding

…please forgive my drawing skills…

A Comment on “50 Shapes of Brows”

It’s pretty common that I disagree with people in my field, but I often hesitate to comment. Most of these retouchers are hard working and well intentioned. None of them mean harm. However, it is the goal of Imperfected to start a dialog about the techniques commonly touted as industry standard, so I really need to stop this hesitation as much as I respect the people expressing their views and spreading these techniques.

Yesterday an article was published on Retouching Academy about eyebrows. The results produced by the techniques discussed are stunning in a technical sense. However, they cater to a standard of beauty that is pre-prescribed and do not necessarily respect a subject’s natural looks. Respecting a subject’s natural beauty is, of course, a tenet Imperfected likes to at least discuss if not always enforce as law.

50 Shapes of Brows: How to Treat Eyebrows in Post-Production



The tutorial at the end is a relatively minor change and I very much respect that. The retouching really is high end. However, the beginning of the article cites reshaping eyebrows entirely to suit face shapes. (“whether you are following an already clear image and just ‘cleaning and filling up’, or reshaping and restyling eyebrows completely, there are a number of thing to keep in mind.”) I’m not so sure that stops to ask the question “Is this ethical?” Rather, it jumps straight to a formulaic standard of beauty and suggests that we institute it in our photos even if that means drastic change to our subjects’ appearances.

I will not say that this is a flat out bad article. That would be throwing the baby out with the bath water and I respect the retoucher who wrote this a great deal. What I will say is that we should always be looking at these things with a critical eye and be asking questions about ethics rather than focusing solely on technique. Take a look at the article for yourself and draw your own conclusions.

There are many ways to treat eyebrows in retouching and lots of the advice in this article is solid. I recommend taking a look at it. I just recommend taking a look at it while asking the question “How can I best use these techniques while still ethically preserving my subject’s own natural beauty?”

Image used under Fair Use Doctrine: Editorial Criticism.

Full image credits can be found in the original article.

Copyright belongs to Marcus Turner.

Local Skin Color Correction Video Tutorial

After my article on local color correction a few weeks ago, I received a few requests for a video version of the tutorial. Well, ask and you shall receive!

This is my first video tutorial, but I hope to do more in the future. (I’m open to requests!) And of course, if you have any questions on this one, please feel free to ask. I’m available here, on social media, or via e-mail. I hope you enjoy!

Time Lapse Retouch: Christina

Today I have a new time-lapse retouch video for you. I would consider this a relatively extreme retouch; one that walks that line of good ethics. These are important retouches to talk about. I feel more comfortable doing extreme retouches on my own images, honestly, because I can compare them to my own memory of the model. To me, this “after” image more closely resembles my mental memory of Christina, my lovely model. We had her under very harsh lights that caused some problems with her skin in the final images that I felt should be addressed in retouching. A lot of the things visible in the “before” image were not prominent to me under softer lights.

I am not going to answer the question for you of whether this falls under the category of “too far” or not. I’m going to present it and let you be the judge. I’m putting it out there for discussion. I plan to do another post in the future entirely on extreme retouches for further discussion of the topic.

For me, this is subjective. A retouch like this could be too far, but it could be right on target. It depends on a lot of variables specific to the shoot and the model. As we’ve talked about before, it’s important for retouchers to educate themselves so they can make good judgements on images like this. We need to constantly be thinking both about social issues and about technical issues that influence how an image looks vs. how a person may look under different conditions. These are the elements that go into making an informed decision about extreme retouching.

Local Skin Color Correction

Not all photos really need to be fully retouched. Sometimes we only need to deal with the color. Most people know about general overall color correction and are comfortable with that. However, most skin changes color throughout its surface and will look more attractive with the color evened out locally (or in other words: taken care of in small patches). We really don’t tend to notice these color shifts in real life especially since they’re often introduced by lighting and cameras. The exceptions are glaring tan lines and sunburns. (And yes, I deal with both of those as well.)

Hyperpigmentation of certain areas is common and you can end up with strange things like green shadows or glowing red fingers even when you do everything right in camera. Let’s take a look at some of the top ways to fix these. It’s really quick and easy and, better yet, no one really tends to question whether it’s ethical to remove a green shadow from someone’s face when the lighting introduces an aberration. Color correction is about as far as you can get from controversial.

Today, we’re going to improve a set of images without touching the cosmetic portions at all.

I’m going to be working with a shoot where we used no makeup whatsoever so that you can see this more clearly. We were working with nothing that might help to even out the skin tone. Additionally, I haven’t done any other retouching on these images except to remove a few dust spots that appeared because I forgot to clean my lens before shooting. (Oops!) These are not the most severe discolorations I’ve worked with, but they’ll work for demonstration. One thing to note is that very few people are the same color all over their bodies. The most common thing I see is different colored legs than faces. However, I didn’t have any current samples of that I was allowed to show you. The same technical principles apply, however. The only technique I’m not covering is dual RAW conversion which I hope to cover in the future.

So, here’s an image with some issues:

Imperfected Skin Color Correction

Imperfected Skin Color Correction

Here is the corrected image. In this particular image, I used a combination of techniques. I used a simple Hue/Saturation layer to tone down the hands. For the face, I used a layer set to color blending mode and sampled a more pleasing color and painted that onto the problematic areas. I then adjusted the face saturation with a second hue/saturation layer and then applied a curves layer to add some color and tone contrast. This is the only image where I really mixed techniques. You can click on it for an animated before and after.

Imperfected Skin Color Correction

On this next image, we had a lot of smaller problems going on all over the place, so I decided on a global technique that I often use. This is a very unifying technique and is often useful for series of images where you want to keep the skintone very consistent. I selected a gradient map (available in your adjustment layers menu) and created a custom gradient map based on skintones already existing within the image. I picked the ones I liked best. I decided to go warmer here. I usually set the very end highlight to white otherwise I personally feel it gets muddy. I then applied a black mask to the layer, dialed back the opacity, and painted with white in the areas of the skin that I wanted to have that color (most of it.) Note: avoid the eyebrows. You can also click on this one for before and after (The effect is subtle so watch closely.)

Imperfected Skin Color Correction

This last one was a minor adjustment, but I wanted to demonstate it. Strictly speaking, this adjustment wasn’t necessary on this image as it was meant to be contrasty, but it could have gone either way. I particularly use this for legs, though I typically also have to adjust color for legs as well as tone. Here, I simply used a masked curves layer to lighten her back to better match her face tone to give the image a more consistent lighting look. I used a sloppy mask because I wanted a little light on the backdrop behind her as well. I did not address the color issues on her face here. Again, click to see the before and after.

Imperfected Skin Color Correction

My point with this post and my point in doing this with no makeup and no cosmetic retouching is to demonstrate that not all images need lots of retouching. We can make a significant difference with color and tone only. They go a really long way in improving an image. Body positive retouching can be about evening out inconsistencies that have absolutely nothing to do with how a person looks. Saghar, my model, is absolutely gorgeous and is totally confident. She walked into my studio and immediately told me “I want to shoot without makeup.” Me being me, I thought this was great. She was a fabulous model who absolutely rocked the natural look and I love her photos both before and after cosmetic retouching.

You will come across situations where you can’t or shouldn’t cosmetically retouch something. I, personally, do not consider color work true retouching, though it falls under our job heading and is an absolutely crucial part of what we do. I feel that most images can benefit from both global and local color work and sometimes, all I do is color work. I do come across occasions where I insist that the person needs no retouching, but I can almost always find color problems and sometimes fixing the color takes an image from average to outstanding. Local color work seems like a little, subtle thing, but it makes a huge difference.

You can see more photos of Saghar (most of which have cosmetic retouching) if you poke around the blog and my various portfolio and social media sites. I loved working with her and have used a number of her photos.

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