When post-processing photos, not all of them require the same steps. But still, I’m following these steps roughly every time I edit a picture. Note that the workflow changes somewhat over the years as I learn new things, or just get new tools, or my style changes.
- Take pictures in RAW. RAW gives you more bits to play with (at least 12 bits), where JPEG only supports 8 bits. Each bit is a two-fold improvements, so from 8 to 12 bits gets you 2*2*2*2 = 16x more levels for each color.
- Use a tablet. This might be preferences, because I’ve done pencil drawing in the past, and generally like the feel of painting/drawing. Making physical contact with something that feels like it has structure feels so much more creative than using a mouse to move a pointer.
- Open the image in Adobe Photoshop, first making slight adjustments in the RAW import for exposure so you use the RGB range optimally. Use the histogram to check that roughly. I sometimes underexpose a little, especially under varying lights conditions, since (with digital photography) it’s easier to get back detail in shadows than to get back details in highlights.
Also I check the white balance and correct that a little bit so it looks relatively natural (although I often tend a little to the warm side, so higher temperatures).
- The first step (packed into an action) is to duplicate the original. This allows you to always compare the edits to the original photograph.
- Use the spot healing brush to blot out imperfections. There is also the clone stamp which many people use, and while that gives slightly better results, I hardly ever use it, as the spot healing brush does the job nice enough for me. I change the size of the brush around to be slightly larger than the spots I correct (use the [ and ] keyboard shortcuts to work quickly).
- Duplicate the layer (Ctrl-J) and use Liquify (Ctrl-Shift-X). Optionally increase the hair size (a trick I learnt from Irene Rudnyk; she works super-destructively but the end result is still great).
- Next is skin retouching; I usually use Totally Rad’s ProRetouch v2.0 for that. A pass of ‘Skin: Foundation Strong’ and ‘Skin: Magic Eraser’. The first reduces contrast and does slight blurring, the 2nd one more blurring. Applying this gently through masks allows retouching of the skin without overdoing it.
The first filter does take away some of the highlights, which we’ll bring back later on with dodging and burning.
- Next is that dodging and burning; I create 2 curves layer; one which lightens everything up (just drag a center point up slightly) and another which darkens things. I add an empty mask so initially both layers have no effects (I have wrapped all this in an action for speed). Then I start adding in highlights and shadows with a soft 20-30% brush. With the shadows I accentuate the cheekbones mostly, and adding some depth to some shaded areas. Sometimes when some body parts are lighter than the face, I used the shadow curve adjustment layer to reduce that in brightness as well. It can be used to make the makeup around the eyes slightly darker too, to enhance the size of the eyes.
- Then I do a pass on the eyes; 3 aspects really. First is the sharpness; I add some sharpness to the eyes to make them pop out a bit more. I also use the same layer often to sharpen the eyebrows a bit, plus the lips.
2nd is using a soft white brush in a layer set at ‘Soft Light’ to brighten up the irises. Since I like adding contrast in post, the eyes can get too dark otherwise.
Note that irises are located at depth inside the eye, so add brightness at the opposite sides of the lights. If the light comes from above, add brightness at the bottom of the iris. If the light comes from the left, add brightness at the right side of the iris (as seen from the monitor, not from the model).
The 3rd is an optional paint layer where I reduce bags under the eyes by painting over a lighter color. Like with every layer you have to be really careful to apply the right amount. On the other hand, this is where your style is visible and some may like it more natural, others more over the top.
- Before color grading I sometimes add extra punch to the hair, for example using RadLab’s ‘Hair: Brunette Shine’ action.
- Last comes color grading, or conversion to black & white. This has varied over the years. I sometimes do a conversion to a Smart Object on which I can apply effects from the Nik Pro collection. Lately I’ve been using simpler LUTs from IWLTBAP.
It’s a mix now really between LUTs that are masked, a color balance layer to adjust some parts of the image.
I’ve been writing this flow when doing the picture shown below. Hope this is of any use to you. 🙂