What is Photo Retouching? | Definition, Tips, and Examples

This is a guide covering photo retouching.

We’ll be covering the following topics (click on a bullet point to jump to that section):

Let’s dive in!

What is Photo Retouching?

The term “retouch” implies the act of improving the appearance of an image. In photography, to retouch is to remove certain defects from an image. This can be minor objects such as dust or dirt on the camera lens or sensor. Retouching can be used to remove some physical defects on the skin of a model as seen commonly in fashion publications.

This process of altering an image can be used for final presentations as well.

Typically, the process of retouching an image involves small localized adjustments to it.

As such, photo retouching services are employed as a finishing touch to polish off the final image.

This would normally come after globalized adjustments such as color correction, cropping, and white balance have been applied.

photo retouching example

What is the Difference between Photo Retouching and Editing?

Now that photography is receiving more interest from casual hobbyists and new enthusiasts, it is very easy to fall down the rabbit hole of using the terms “retouching” and “editing” interchangeably.

The fact remains that the meanings of these terms differ from one another significantly.

There have been instances, where even photographers themselves believe they mean the same thing.

This can lead to misunderstandings, especially between photographers and their clients, unless the job scope and final images have been specified clearly and explicitly explained.

So, what really is the difference between photo retouching and editing? Let’s begin.

Photo Editing

The process of editing a photo is often a quick process, ranging from a few seconds to a couple of minutes for each photo.

This range solely depends on the desired look of the final image.

These are the globalized adjustments mentioned earlier, where lighting/exposure, color temperature and cropping are corrected.

In the case of a wedding photographer, photo editing is the bulk of the work, aside from actually taking the photographs.

There could be hundreds or more photos to sift through and this process could take hours and hours of work, if not days.

The number of photos to be edited depends on how large each batch of photos taken was.

Typically, before the actual edits, photographers would filter out the images that do not make the cut.

Each photo would be assessed and determined whether it would be delivered (and edited) to the client.

photo editing example

This process saves time for the photographer and maintains the quality of the overall batch of photos to be delivered.

Photographers who have just started professionally normally have a larger percentage of images to bin, though the quality will increase over time and experience.

This is part of the photography service so that clients would not need to waste time going through unwanted photos. The service is helping them get to the good stuff straight away.

Photo Retouching

Photo retouching begins when basic edits do not cut it.

The rule of thumb for retouching is to remove unsightly items in the image and possibly enhance the overall quality of the image.

To further explore the difference between editing and retouching and to see a live demonstration, check out this in-depth video by Jessica Kobeissi:

How I Edit and Retouch Fashion Portraits - Photoshop Tutorial

Why Photo Retouching is Important?

In portrait photography, the retouching process could use masks to hide blemishes, smooth skin as well as to whiten teeth.

The width of the face can be adjusted. The eyes can be enhanced too. Hair color can also be changed. The Body can be enhanced.

portrait retouching example

In product photography, retouching can remove fingerprints or make the surface of the product smoother.

One can apply highlights to the product for added depth. These adjustments are applied in order to make the final image more attractive to potential customers.

There are many layers when it comes to retouching a photo.

On another level, the process of retouching may involve enhancing the look of gemstones in jewelry.

This action would make diamonds look more defined, gold and silver to shine brighter, and more texture to leather materials.

In photo retouching services, adjustments are made according to the wishes of their clients. In such cases, the resulting images are required to be aligned with the clients’ branding.

How do you Make Money Retouching Photos?

There are many instances where the client specifically requires extensive photo retouching.

The requests will often be on a case by case basis. Some professionals only do a handful of them per event or upon request from the client.

This could mean removing a person entirely from the image, changing the background, or compositing several images together.

An additional fee can be charged for this sort of work, as it requires creativity from the photographer, aside from the extra hours to surgically work on each image.

The final image would have to be subtle and there would be barely any sign of retouching, if at all.

What do Professionals Use to Retouch Photos?

Retouching is usually done digitally with photo editing software such as Photoshop.

These photo editing software packages offer many tools, namely blurring brushes, color replacement tools and clone stamps, among others.

Although this way of tweaking images may be faster, bear in mind that it could create images that look unnatural, or ‘plastic’.

They Use Presets

Many professionals, including myself, use presets or photoshop overlays in order to speed up the process.

But presets are mainly for photo editing NOT retouching.

What is Photo Retouching in Photoshop?

Photoshop is one of the most powerful photo editing software packages available.

Developed by Adobe, the program is widely adopted by photographers when it comes to enhancing or manipulating the photographs.

Graphic designers, architects, and publishers also utilize the software since it offers them the ability to create.

Furthermore, Photoshop is a pixel-level editor. This allows users to zoom in all the way to see and change each pixel of color in the digital image.

Photo retouching in Photoshop is the process of enhancing or manipulating photographs using the advanced program mentioned above.

Advanced or extensive retouching can be performed with this software. Examples of retouching tasks include pixel level editing and changing the width of a model’s face.

To further explore the subject of retouching in Photoshop, check out this video by Kayleigh June and then read the common retouching techniques down below:

How to Retouch Skin in 15 Minutes or Less || Photoshop Portrait Skin Retouching Tutorial

Common Photo Retouching Techniques

After filtering out the unusable photos from the batch and making global adjustments to the images, comes the process of photo retouching.

The following are some of the more common techniques in photo retouching using Photoshop:

1. Spot Healing

Spot Healing is a basic primary tool in many photo editing software packages.

In model photography, this tool is useful for removing blemishes on the face or body.

Photographers and editors should learn to use this tool as early as possible in order to get started.

To further explain spot healing and see it in action, check out this video by tutvid:

All About the Spot Healing Brush - Photoshop CC Tutorial

2. Frequency Separation

This tool allows you to make tweaks to the skin texture of your image. 

If the skin of the model looks too sharp or blurred, this tool would be useful for fixing it.

Frequency adjustment can make the skin on an image to look either sharper or blurred.

When this tool is used, the editor can retain the skin tone as well as the skin condition of the model in the image.

To further explain frequency separation and see it in action, check out this video by Anita Sadowska:

Frequency Separation Made Easy - Photoshop Tutorial

3. Dodge and Burn

The dodge and burn tool is a simple way of adjusting the lightness and darkness of certain spots in an image.

Although it is an easily overlooked tool, since it only adjusts the brightness and darkness, the amount of control provided with using this tool contributes a lot to the photo retouching process.

The resulting image can be of much higher quality.

That being said, one should use the dodge and burn tool in moderation, since too much of it being applied to your images may ruin the overall quality and make them seem unnatural.

To further explain dodging and burning and see it in action, check out this video by PHLEARN:

Simple Dodge & Burn in Photoshop

4. Eye Retouching

In model photography, the editor will always be working with images with models. As such, eye retouching is a very commonly known adjustment.

This process could include eye bag removal, changing of the eye color, and shadow adjustment in eyes.

Since human’s attraction relates to the eyes of the model, successful efforts in improve the look of the eyes would overall improve the image as well.

To further explain eye retouching and see it in action, check out this video by PiXImperfect:

Create Amazing Details in the Eyes with Photoshop!

5. Toning, Using Colour Balance, Levels and Hue/Saturation

Toning is essentially a color filter. It can be used to make a lot of changes in how the viewer of the image would feel about the resulting image.

A warmer tone would exude a friendlier and more inviting sense, whereas a cooler tone would give off a more distant atmosphere.

This tool requires subtlety and moderation. Once an editor can master this tool, it will contribute greatly to the quality of the produced photographs.

6. Resizing

Another simple tool that is usually passed over is the resizing tool.

Many find this tool to be an extremely basic tool since practically every photographer and editor knows it well.

This is a tool that should never be undermined because when one applies the rule of thirds/the golden ratio with it, the excessive areas of the image can be cropped out.

This is called the art of leaving things out. In photography, drawing, or any form of art, a good piece does not beat around the bush to speak to its audience.

It is direct and would usually require five seconds to capture the attention of the audience.

As such, it is vital that for any image in photography to have what it needs to speak and to leave the rest out.

7. Clone Stamp

The Clone stamp can be used to lighten the image.

This tool can be used on backgrounds or the skin of a model. The opacity of the clone stamp would ideally be around 15% and onto areas that are not very detailed.

Such instances may include images shot in natural light as there is not as much level of detail on them.

Some professionals prefer this tool over frequency adjustment as they find it simply is not worth the time and trouble.

The clone stamp tool can also be used for blending transitions in the sky or onto patterns where there are not a whole lot of details.

To further explain the clone stamp tool and see it in action, check out this video by Brooker Films:

The Clone Stamp Tool - Photoshop

8. Highlights, Using Curves

By using the curves adjustment layer, you can add some more contrast to the image.

One photographer prefers to have a small S curve with several points most of the time.

Though it was warned that this is not the one size fits all formula, so some exploration on the curves would be needed.

To further explore the subject of the curve tool and see it in action, check out this video by PiXImperfect:

Master Curves from Start to Finish in Photoshop

Final Remarks

In conclusion, the question of “what is photo retouching” can be answered that it is an integral part of post processing in photography.

One can either invest in the widely used and discussed photo editing software that is Photoshop (check out some Photoshop overlays) or look into cheaper or free software for a more budget friendly tool for photo retouching.

Retouching photos takes lots of practice and with enough time and effort put into it, you can come up with quality images that could win you clients and, if you are lucky enough, international photography competitions.

Happy post processing!

1 thought on “What is Photo Retouching? | Definition, Tips, and Examples”

  1. You’re a natural at facilitating good thoughts, Jon. Excellent and accommodating staff. Thank you so much for your abilities!


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