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This model was photographed mostly using available light with fill from a Canon Speedlite 580EX II. Camera was a Canon EOS 50D with an EF 28-105mm lens with an exposure of 1/60 second at f/4.5 and ISO 400. I did some light retouching with Photoshop’s Healing and Clone Brushes, followed by applying Imagenomic’s Portraiture plug-in. The image was further tweaked using the Viveza plug-in, then converted to monochrome using Silver Efex Pro, topped off by applying the Glamour Glow filter that’s part of Color Efex Pro. Photos © Joe Farace, unless otherwise noted

The following is something people tell me when I suggest using a plug-in or specialized software for enhancing or retouching portraits: “But you can do that in Photoshop!” That’s because when it comes to software for wedding, portrait, and boudoir photographs, everyone has an opinion—sometimes a strong one—even if they’re wrong.


When Photoshop introduced the Healing Brush tool in Version 7, a former colleague was aghast that Adobe was making retouching “too easy” and hated that “no skill was needed” for enhancing portraits using this tool. I think that using the right tool for enhancing and retouching portraits is no different than choosing the right lens to make that same photograph.

Although I don’t agree with Adobe’s approach to distributing Photoshop, any version shipped after 2002, if it runs on your computer, is suitable for retouching and enhancing portraits. No matter which version you use, Photoshop remains the 800-pound gorilla for portrait retouching and enhancing.

While the program’s Clone and Healing Brushes are my initial retouching go-to tools, Photoshop has so many options, including monochrome conversion and artistic filters. My friend Cliff Lawson, one of the finest high school senior photographers in the Rocky Mountain West, uses Adjustment Layers to create dramatic and award-winning images. I like using the Diffuse Glow filter in the Filter Gallery to render an image as though it were shot using a traditional soft focus or diffusion filter.

For mundane yet important retouching techniques, such as removing redness caused by sunburn, you can add a Hue/Saturation Layer to adjust and remove the color cast. Another way to accomplish a similar correction is to use the Camera Calibration controls found in Adobe Camera Raw. Of course, one of the most important aspects of Photoshop is its ability to accept compatible plug-ins, which I’ll beat to death later.

You can use the plug-in’s eight presets that are found in a pop-up menu in the upper left-hand corner of the dialog box or a set of sliders to achieve the look you want and then save these settings as custom presets, making them part of your workflow. No matter what approach you use, it’s easy to over retouch a portrait and produce plastic-looking skin.

Tip: Select the New Layer option from the Layers menu and after applying vary the plug-in layer’s opacity in Photoshop, allowing some skin texture to show through, to create a natural yet retouched look. The latest version, Portraiture 3, is twice as fast as the previous version and is optimized to handle the large image files made with high-megapixel cameras, like the 42.4MP Sony A7R III (see our review here.). This version also has a new user interface. You won’t see that here, because Portraiture 3 is only compatible with Photoshop CC. Ka-ching.

Another way to retouch a portrait is to use a Photoshop-compatible plug-in such as the Dynamic Skin Softener filter that’s part of the Color Efex Pro package of filters. Using the software’s built-in color picker, you can select a specific skin tone from your original image so softening is only applied to specific areas while preserving important details such as the subject’s hair. In addition to color selected by the skin color picker, a Color Reach slider lets you expand the range of colors affected by the filter.

Who’s It For: Every portrait photographer who retouches their portraits, although I know not everybody does. If you use my previous tip and apply Skin Softener to a separate layer, you can apply Dynamic Skin Softener in small amounts to create a softened look that doesn’t look like it was softened.

As an alternative to the Dynamic Skin Softener, I’ll often use the Glamour Glow filter that’s part of Color Efex Pro, varying the amount of Glow but also changing the effect layer’s opacity in Photoshop from 20 to 100%, depending on the image and its physical size.

Tip: Big files can take larger amounts of softness. Glamour Glow is more controllable than Photoshop’s Diffuse Glow filter and also has sliders for color saturation and glow warmth. DxO acquired the Nik Collection from Google and has promised to continue development. As we go to press, the software is available for free through DxO’s website (nikcollection.dxo.com) and includes seven wonderfully useful plug-ins for Photoshop and Lightroom.

If you’re new to retouching portraits, Anthropics Technology’s PortraitPro ($79, online discounts may apply) is more than just a retouching application. It uses what amounts to a built-in tutorial that allows you to select specific parts of a subject’s face, telling the software the face’s shape and orientation before doing overall retouching and dropping you onto a screen with sliders that let you adjust the final suggested retouching to suit your style.

New features with Version 17 include a Vignette tool and Bronzer makeup styles for sculpting or softening facial features. A new Snapshots feature emulates Photoshop’s History menu and lets you save your progress so you can try something different and revert back to a previous enhancement if you change your mind. The latest version also lets you edit your subject and the background without leaving the program. You can choose from four different styles, including a New Image option for inserting your own backdrop. PortraitPro 17 runs on Windows 10, 8, 7, Vista, XP, or Mac OS X 10.7 or later.

Topaz Labs makes all kinds of photography software but two Photoshop-compatible plug-ins—Adjust and Clarity—stand out as special tools for working with portraits. Cliff Lawson uses Adjust ($49) to bring out details in a subject’s clothing but clearly it does more than that. For example, Adjust’s Adaptive Exposure lets you balance your image’s tonal values, enhancing local contrast and dynamic range. And you can control whether Adjust processes detail and exposure together or separately.

Clarity has been renamed to Clarity in Studio ($49) and photographers I know who use it tend to apply it to portraits of men. Clarity enhances contrast using technology to eliminate artifacts and halos while letting you manipulate the image’s micro, midrange, and overall contrast without noise, while maintaining natural-looking tonality. There’s also an HSL tool for Hue, Saturation, and Luminosity adjustments.