Magazine Article


Facial Retouching - How Much Is Too Much?
Know how to gauge when you've gone too far

These three photographs show a comparison of no retouching (top), too much retouching (middle), and just enough retouching (bottom). You want to reduce the lines around the eyes without losing the detail in the eyes.
Gary & Jerry Small

The original photo (at top) without any retouching, and the final image (above). Notice that along with the facial retouching, the corners have been darkened in the final image for dramatic effect.
Gary & Jerry Small

Gary & Jerry Small

The before (at top) image and after (above). Notice the retouching that was done includes smoothing out the model's skin as well as taming flyaway hairs; in addition to burning down the corners.
Gary & Jerry Small

Now there's a question that's long been the subject of so many interpretations-how could we possibly have a definitive answer? The short answer is: There really is no right answer. The reason? Retouching, like many forms of art, is subject to interpretation. Interpretation by who? Usually the person paying the bill! Or, as many experts have said over and over, "beauty is in the eye of the checkbook holder."

That being said, for those of us doing retouching, we need guidelines to go by to help keep us from going too far. A late mentor of mine, referring to traditional retouching, often said, "Retouching should be invisible, to the point that anyone looking at the finished image can't tell it was retouched." That was the best piece of advice I ever received, and I've been guided by that mantra for all the years I've been doing retouching, whether traditional or digital.

Adobe Photoshop is such a wonderfully diverse program. It allows us to do anything we want to an image. But as I've often argued, just because we can do something doesn't mean we should. Just like photography, there are so many ways of achieving the same end result with Photoshop; no one can claim that their way is the right way, or the definitive way, of doing something. That includes me. I've been teaching Photoshop for the last eight years, and over that time I've seen many examples of what I feel is overdone retouching. Since this is an entirely subjective interpretation, I'm going to center on my own opinion of what is "too much" when it comes to facial retouching.

The most common examples I've seen of overdoing it are: over-softening faces, over-retouching under the eyes, completely removing every line and wrinkle, over-whitening the whites of the eyes, and completely removing any highlights and shadows so as to totally remove any lighting created by the photographer.

Facial softening: Thanks to digital, many photographers no longer use soft-focus filters when shooting portraits. Instead, they apply the softening later. There are many ways of softening, including a ton of third-party filters. In most cases, I brush on the softening effect to avoid softening things like eyes, lips, hair, and teeth, which shouldn't be softened. Most softening effects involve some kind of blurring, like using Photoshop's Gaussian Blur filter, to a certain degree. And while a little softening is nice, totally removing all traces of skin texture is, in my opinion, a big no-no.

Under-eye retouching: Everybody has something going on under their eyes-dark circles, wrinkles, puffiness, or all of the above. And while I don't know anyone who doesn't appreciate having that area improved, overdoing it is just not realistic-especially as subjects age. This kind of finesse comes from experience, but as a guideline, I generally remove less from under the eyes as the subjects get older. As a mentor of mine put it, "Grandparents earned those wrinkles. Who are we to take them away?"

Wrinkles: This is the same as the guidelines for under-eye retouching. Again, while many people don't like getting hit with a dose of reality when they look at themselves, totally removing every line and wrinkle is unrealistic. It still has to look like them, albeit a much improved version. As they age, I find myself removing fewer wrinkles and lines. How many senior citizens do you see with absolutely no lines or winkles?

Whites of the eyes: As my now-teenage daughter text messages so often, "OMG!" (That's text-speak for "Oh My Goodness!") If there's any one thing that's been overdone more than anything else, it's the whites of the eyes. Folks, let me give you a tip: The whites of the eyes aren't really white! That's just an expression. If you look closely at eyes, they're really off-white. Use Photoshop's Eyedropper tool, along with the Info palette, and roll over the white of an eye. The red, green, and blue values in the Info palette won't be the same. We also have blood vessels running through our eyes, and while we do want to help our subjects so they don't look bloodshot, totally bleaching them out so they have no texture or definition is, in my humble opinion, more unrealistic than over-softening a face.

Highlight/shadow removal: Nobody likes an overly shiny face-it makes people look sweaty and greasy and is unflattering. At the other extreme, bad lighting can sometimes cause undesirable shadows that we'd like to see improved. However, completely removing the shiny highlights and all shadows flattens a face out so much that the face loses dimensionality and, once again, begins to take on a cartoonlike appearance. Like every other aspect of retouching, this requires a certain amount of finesse. Remove just enough so it doesn't look bad but still looks realistic. In the case of shadows, sometimes we do need to totally remove a bad shadow, especially if the purpose is to fix bad lighting. But don't go so far as to remove natural shadowing that helps shape a face and give it dimension.

Communication is Tool #1

Perhaps the most important tip I can offer is about communication. As with many retouchers, early in my career I made the very mistakes I outlined earlier. In some cases, I learned the hard way by being forced to redo or remove retouching and make new prints. In many of these cases, I was very pleased with the work I did on someone's face and couldn't wait to show off to the customer, only to be met with rejection and disappointment over doing too much. I learned the best way to avoid remakes and wasting valuable time and resources is to talk to customers at the time the orders are taken; ask them how much retouching they want. I have a collection of before-and-after images, with different levels of retouching. The customer signs off on everything-there's no doubt as to expectations.

The most important thing to learn from this is you will find from talking to your customers that there are people who want little to no retouching. On the other end of the spectrum, you'll have the occasional customer who wants every line and wrinkle removed and every trick in your retouching book done-or as I call it, "digital plastic surgery." I once had a customer whose face was prematurely wrinkled tell me she wanted me to fully retouch the image of her so she didn't see one line or wrinkle whatsoever. When I got done, it looked like a different person. She looked 25 years younger and, to tell you the truth, I wasn't thrilled with doing that extreme of a job. But she absolutely loved it. Go figure! That was an extreme case, however, and far from the norm. If I didn't have a conversation with her, though, I wouldn't have known to retouch to that extent.

In my classes, I pair up two photographers and have them exchange photos of themselves, so they each have one of themselves and one of his or her buddy. Both photos are then retouched by both photographers and then compared. The picture each student has retouched of himself or herself usually comes out perfectly, while the one of his or her buddy is overdone in some way (according to them). There are usually similar results from the buddy's point of view. Why? Because we know how we like to see ourselves and won't go too far. Yet we try to do everything we know to our buddy's picture to show them our abilities. Try this test, and use the retouching you do on your own picture as a guideline for others-you'll be in the ballpark 99% of the time.

In most cases, people want to see improvement yet still look like themselves. Of course, remove any blemishes, cuts, flyaway hair, scars, etc. And flatter the subject with a little softening of the skin, smoothing out under the eyes, and removing some wrinkles (but not all). But please be careful and try not to go too far, even though the temptation is great.

[Editor's Note: Along with retouching techniques you can learn, and software plug-ins like Image Trends' PearlyWhites and ShineOff, and Imagenomic's Portraiture, there are also companies who can perform retouching services for you, such as, DigitalCustom, Hollywood FotoFix, JaincoTech,, PicWash, and others.]

Gary Small of Photographic Creations ( has been a pro since 1979 and in business with his father, Jerry, for most of that time. He instructs other photographers in Photoshop and color management and is teaching at the L.I. Photo Workshop this August 4 - 7, 2008. For more information on the L.I. Photo Workshop, check out the website at (