Quick Skin Retouching, Part 1: Removing Blemishes

When shooting photographs that show off skin, we are often quite particular with how it looks, whether it is smooth, wrinkled, or blemish free. Skin texture and marks provide character in a photo but sometimes, presenting smooth clear skin is preferable or even necessary. 

Keep in mind that the trick to good skin retouching is knowing when to stop. It is easy to go overboard to the point that the skin starts to look like plastic and become unrealistic. Also, be careful with removing ‘blemishes’ because some may be considered ‘beauty marks’ and the model might want to keep them. It is always good to know what the intent is behind the skin retouching since this will affect your editing choices. Post processing a person’s skin for a fashion ad will be different from editing a friend’s skin just to make it appear clearer. 

In this 2-part article, we will cover the basic techniques of skin retouching, mainly blemish removal and skin smoothing.

Before we start with the skin smoothing, we must first get rid of blemishes. As mentioned earlier, we must be careful with what we remove because certain imperfections that the person was born with might be considered part of the person’s character and charm. A good rule of thumb is to remove the temporary blemishes such as pimples and blackheads and to lessen the impact of more permanent ones such as wrinkles and moles.

Look at your image and identify the blemishes you want to remove. In this sample, we will be removing the dark spots under the eyes, on the chin and a few on the cheeks. 

There are two common Photoshop tools that we can use to remove blemishes and these are the Healing tool and the Clone Stamp tool. We can do a whole lot of retouching just with these two tools. 

Healing Brush tool – copies the pixels from the target area and tries to adapt them to fit the area that you brushed. 

Create a new layer from the opened image by clicking on the paper icon at the bottom of the Layers Palette then select the Healing Brush from the Tools Palette. If you got the Spot Healing Brush, just right click and change it to Healing Brush instead. Next, change the Brush size to a diameter that is around the size as the dark spot or a small and controllable size if you are healing an area. To change the diameter, click the dropdown list next to the Brush shape and select the desired diameter. You can also right-click anywhere in the image area to make the dropdown list appear. By ticking the ‘Sample All Layers’ option on the top toolbar, you can make edits on the layer without affecting the original layer underneath.

The Healing tool is ideal for large areas such as the dark spot beneath her right eye. Select a source near the blemish, something similar to the color, skin tone, lighting and texture to paste over the area you want to fix. When healing, try varying your brushstrokes. Sometimes, you get a better result by going over the area with short clicks, rather than dragging the brush like a stroke. If you do make a mistake, just click on Edit > Undo. You can also use the Spot Healing tool for smaller areas such as pimples or large pores. Unlike the Healing Tool, the Spot Healing tool does not require you to select a target area. Instead it makes use of the adjacent area around the brushstroke as the source.

Healing tool is good for keeping the original skin texture the same since it gets the information from the area around the brush. However, if the nearby area has both light and dark pixels, this tool can pick up on those and the result might look like a smear.

You can alternate between the Healing tool and the Clone Stamp tool, whichever gives a better result.

Clone Stamp tool – copies the pixels of an area that you targeted. You can set the source area just once and as you move the tool, the source will also move in tandem. When using the Clone Stamp tool (found below the Healing tool), press Alt-click on the target source and a cross will appear in the brush icon to indicate that it is the targeted area. Always make it a point of defining the appropriate source since human skin has various textures and using the wrong area as a source can make your retouching unpleasantly obvious. Next, paint over the blemish or simply click on it and the source will be pasted or copied over it, in effect, erasing the small imperfection. Keep an eye on the source area since this will change as you move the tool around. You might have to select new areas once in a while to keep the editing realistic and seamless. 

Here is a comparison of the results of a quick five minutes of removing blemishes:

Stay tuned for part 2 which will show you how to smoothen skin and minimize wrinkles!


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Correcting Unwanted Color Casts in Post Processing

Have you ever seen your images awash in a hue of yellow, green or blue which didn’t seem to be there when you took the shot? Light sources give off various cool or warm color hues and if your camera’s white balance feature makes an incorrect adjustment to neutralize these colors, then they can be very visible in your shots. This tutorial will show you how to correct unwanted color casts in the post processing stage.

Keep in mind that this method is not the only way to fix images with color casts, and as with all photo editing techniques, it will be effective for some images but be less successful with others depending on the nature of the color cast.

The photo we will be using is that of Mary, the Chihuahua. Now Mary is warming herself in the morning sunlight and there is an obvious yellow cast to this shot, most evident in the areas of her fur that should be white.

This is the original shot and by the end of this tutorial, you can see a side by side comparison after we get rid of the yellow color cast. . The photo editing program used is Photoshop CS2. 

Step 1: 

Open your image in Photoshop and create a duplicate layer. Next, go to Image > Adjustments > Threshold and a dialog box will appear showing the threshold level. Move the slider all the way to the left until a little patch of black is left. This patch signifies that it is the blackest section in the image. Since this photo has a lot of black areas, there are big black patches even though the slider has been moved all the way to the left of the graph. 

Step 2:

Hover your cursor over a black patch, which has now turned into an eyedropper tool, press and hold the Shift key and select a black patch with the eyedropper. A marker will appear with the number 1. It would look like this:

Step 3:

Next, move the threshold slider tool all the way to the right and the image preview will now show you the areas that are the lightest or whitest in color. Pick a white patch that is around 7 pixels wide, and again press and hold the Shift key then mark the white spot with the eyedropper. The new marker will be numbered ‘2’. 

Press Cancel, not OK, when you’re done placing these two markers.

Step 4:

We’re going to open a different dialog box now. Go to Image > Adjustments > Curves to tweak some of the Curves settings. It’s ideal to set the white point first. Double click the white eyedropper tool on the right and the color picker box will pop up. Change the RGB values to 240 to avoid over whitening. 

Next, click (just once) on the black eyedropper tool on the left and select the first marker you placed when you were setting the threshold. Then click the white eyedropper tool and select the second marker. The middle eyedropper tool sets the gray point. Choose this last and select a medium gray color in the image. If you’re not sure of your choice, double click on the eyedropper to pull up the color picker box. While keeping the left mouse button pressed, move the eyedropper tool around the image while watching the RGB values. The goal is to look for values that are equal to or as near to each other as possible since the same RGB values equal gray. When you’ve made your selection, press OK. 

Step 5: 

Here’s a screenshot of the eyedropper tools and the corresponding markers selected. For the gray point, the area chosen was the gray spot above Mary’s eye. When you’re all finished, press OK. 

This is a comparison between the original photo and after the yellow color cast disappeared. That’s a pretty big change in less than 4 minutes’ work, right? Now the areas of Mary's fur that should be white have been restored. After practicing these steps a few times, you can remove unwanted color casts in no time. 


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How to Give Your Image a Vignette in Post Processing

Have you encountered photos that appear to have darkened corners or edges? That effect is called ‘vignetting’ and is usually unintentional. It is often the result of lens inadequacies or incorrect camera settings. However, this effect can also be deliberately included to act as a border, and is useful if you want to draw the viewers’ eyes to the center area of the frame, which would then be the brightest area in the image. 

There are many ways to add a vignette in post processing, and this mini-tutorial would be a simple yet very effective way to achieve this result.

Step 1:

Open the image and create a duplicate layer so that you can work with that while leaving the original opened image untouched. A keyboard shortcut for Windows is Ctrl +J and for Mac users it is Command + J. You can also do a right-click with the mouse and select duplicate layer from the pop up window.

Step 2:

Select the rectangular marquee tool and make a square near the edge of the frame, approximately the width of the vignette you want to create. 

Step 3:

With the marquee selection still showing (also known as ‘marching ants’), go to Select > Feather and a dialog box will appear where you can adjust the radius of the feathering in pixels. The higher the radius, the more gradual the vignette. 

Step 4:

If we make any adjustments at this point, only whatever is in the marquee square selection will be affected. Since we want the opposite of that, we go back to Select and choose Inverse. The new selected area will be the edges and not the area in the middle of the frame. 

Step 5: 

It’s time now to darken the edges to create a vignette. Go to Image > Adjustments > Curves and the Curves dialog box will appear. There are many things you can do with Curves to enhance an image (more on Curves in another article). Some are simple and some are a bit more complex but for this effect, it will be a very simple adjustment. Place your cursor on the bottom part of the diagonal line, click and drag down to make the line curve downward as seen in this screenshot:

It is up to you how dark you want the vignette to be. The more you drag down the lower part of the line closer to the bottom of the graph, the darker the vignette. Now that was quick and easy, wasn’t it?

This is a comparison of the original image and the final result after adding a vignette:

What if you want the vignette to be on the lighter side instead? Easy! Just do the opposite of how you adjusted the Curves graph. Place your cursor on the upper portion of the diagonal line and drag it upwards to curve like this:

This is a comparison between the original image and the end result after tweaking the Curves adjustment tool:


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Using Levels in Photo Editing to Adjust Tonal Contrast

One of the simplest yet most useful adjustment tools in photo editing is levels. Using levels to adjust the tonal range of an image will give you much more control compared to using the brightness/contrast adjustment. To be honest, I used brightness/contrast for years, totally ignorant of the existence of levels. When I discovered the dramatic impact of levels adjustment, I wanted to re-edit every single picture I had post-processed. What really gets to me is that it only takes a few seconds to change a dull and drab photo into a more attractive image. 

We have discussed the histogram in a previous article and here we will apply what we’ve learned.

 Open the image.

  1. Open the levels screen. The location varies depending on what photo editing program you use. For Adobe Photoshop, it can be found under Image, then Adjustments.
  2. The levels screen will show the histogram, which is a graph that shows the brightness of an image.
  3. Using the histogram as a guide, you can gauge whether the image is evenly lighted or over or underexposed.
  4. To adjust the levels, slide the triangles toward the center, the distance depending on how dark or light you want the image to become. The left black slider will darken the overall image while the right white slider will brighten it. Usually the sliders are moved to the edges of the histogram. The closer the sliders are moved to the center, the more severe the contrast.  
  5. The middle gray slider adjusts the level of brightness or darkness of the midtones of the image.

 

The photo comparison above shows the difference in tonal contrast between the original image and the edited copy using the levels adjustment tool. The reds have become more vivid and bright and the reflection of the trees in the water appears darker.

The levels adjustment can also be used to lessen contrast in case your image appears to have too much. This is done by tweaking the output levels (that bar below the histogram). 


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4 More Quick Photoshop Tips That Can Dramatically Improve Your Shots

We have previously discussed five Photoshop tools that can quickly improve your shots and here are four more to include in your arsenal of fast editing tactics. Please note that all these tools can further be explored and controlled by making full use of their capabilities.

1.  Crop – strategic cropping can do wonders for the final image. If your original has some undesirable elements at the edges that you would rather remove, then a simple crop can be the solution. Cropping can also help accentuate the composition you are striving to present. The subject can be placed in a particular area in the frame compared to where it was to start with. In this photo example, the yellow pistils were right at the center of the frame and there were blurry green stems below the flower that I wanted to discard. By cutting them out, the pistils moved to the bottom third of the frame which then showed a stronger composition.

2.  Sharpen – images straight from the camera may not be tack sharp and if you want the edges of lines in the image to appear more defined, sharpening might do the trick. Be very careful, though, because too much sharpening can worsen the image. A blurry shot will not magically become focused with the sharpen filter.  The unsharp mask isoften used if you want more control but for a quick fix, click on ‘sharpen’ in case the result is satisfactory.

3. Color burn – this tool can make colors more vivid although too much of it can also burn out details and make the colors appear oversaturated. Color burn is ideal if you want certain areas in the shot to have a more intense shade of color or to show more contrast. I’ve discovered that it’s also great for lessening the appearance of smoke or fog.

4. Hue – this adjustment option allows you to change the color hues in an image. If you were to slide the hue arrow left or right, you will see the color or colors change based on where they are located in the color wheel (which in this case will look like a strip of colors). Images that show only one color can benefit the most from this speedy color change. If there are two or more colors, they will also be changed to two different hues and you might not like the new combination.


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5 Super Quick Photoshop Tips That Can Dramatically Improve Your Shots

 

If you are in a hurry to edit your pictures, or just want a quick fix to make your photos come alive, here are some Photoshop tips that will spice up your shot in a jiffy. All these quick fixes are just that, fast and sometimes imperfect since you are not fully controlling the adjustment settings. However, you can do any of these in the space of a few seconds and with just a few clicks of the mouse, and you can also get a glimpse of what editing can do for your shot.

1.  Auto Levels – the levels adjustment is used to fine-tune the brightness of an image. You can manually control how dark or light the picture will appear but Photoshop also offers ‘auto levels’ wherein the program will do it for you. It doesn’t mean that the outcome will be perfect all the time. But clicking on auto levels can quickly show you how your shot can brighten up with the use of levels.

2.  Auto color – color can also either be manually or automatically adjusted. If you want full control of shades and hues, you can use a variety of adjustment options such as Color Balance or Hue/Saturation. However, clicking on ‘auto color’ might be all you need to remove a color cast.

3.  Add a border – aside from providing visual enhancement to an image, a border can also frame it by delineating the image from the background page, especially if the shot has large white or very light areas. To add a simple border, click on Image > Canvas Size, then under the drop down menu (under New Size), choose ‘pixels’ and input a number (preferably divisible by two) in the width and height boxes. The numbers will be divided by two and will be the size of the pixels that will border the image on each side. For example, if you choose a 2 pixel horizontal canvas size, it means the left side will have a 1 pixel borderline and the right side will also have the same. To choose the border color, click on the black square beside Canvas extension color and it will open a screen where you can choose any color you want. If you want the border to match with a certain color in the image (like what I did for my photo example), after clicking the black square, move your cursor to the desired color in your image. Your cursor will look like an eyedropper as you do this. After clicking on the color you want in your shot, press OK and this will be your border’s color.

4.  Shadow/highlight – removing a percentage of shadows can bring out details in the dark spots that were previously hidden. Clicking on this adjustment will decrease the dark areas of the shot by 50%. It will also open up a screen where you can then slide the markers for shadows or highlights and adjust them to your liking.

5.  Gradient Map – if you want to convert your colored picture to black and white, Photoshop again has many options you can use to get this result; from using desaturation, to tinkering with channel mixers, to clicking on the gradient map. The gradient map changes the image to grayscale and also provides a higher contrast between black and white compared to desaturation.


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How to Photograph Bubbles

Photographing bubbles can be quite frustrating because they are one subject that disappears on you in the space of a few seconds. They seem to pop right when you press the shutter button. Plus they are extremely fragile, they can float away from you, are very hard to hold, hard to focus on and are transparent so you’ll really need to watch your background.

However, the effort is worth it because they are very pretty to look at, can be iridescent like a rainbow caught in a tiny orb, they provide a sense of whimsy, and they make interesting shapes since they can attach to each other to form a cluster.

To shoot bubbles, you must first have a bubble solution. You can buy it from toy stores and hobby shops but you can also create your own with a few key ingredients. 

Homemade bubble solution:

Mix around 1/3 cup of liquid detergent (preferably Joy Ultra) in a cup of water. Add a teaspoon of glycerin or sugar. This will help stabilize the bubble shape to make it last longer before it bursts. Leave the mixture alone for at least a few hours. Your bubble wand can just a length of wire that has been looped to form a circle with a handle.

Lighting bubbles can be tricky. Sunlight does a great job of it since it can evenly light the bubbles. Take note that they can reflect whatever is near them such as trees, bushes, your house, even yourself. If you are indoors and want to take a close-up shot, a bright lamp will do but you’ll have to strategically place it in such a way that it doesn’t get reflected in the bubble. You can use a large white sheet to bounce off the light. This will show the bubble’s iridescence without the lamp also appearing in the image. Another light source can be a flash. Place a black backdrop, focus on the area where your bubbles will be, then use the flash when the bubbles are in position. Try using the burst mode if your camera has that feature.

The camera settings really depend on your setup. If you are outdoors in the sunlight, then a fast shutter speed will freeze those bubbles in mid-air. If you are indoors and are taking macro shots, a slow shutter speed such as ¼ of a second might work better. Since bubbles explode, they usually leave a soapy residue so be careful of sticking your camera lens too close to the bubble. 

There are all kinds of bubbles, from the blow bubbles children play with to those you get when you shake the shampoo bottle. There are giant bubbles and there are tiny ones. There’s even bubble film, which is the flat ‘sheet’ of bubble on the bubble wand before you swipe it in the air or blow on it to form a bubble globe.

There are so many ways of photographing bubbles, some use an elaborate setup while others just use whatever is at hand. Experiment with other people’s tactics or be inventive and create your own setup. Also experiment with composition by thinking out of the box. Bubbles are already naturally visually appealing but are quite common subjects.  It’s up to you to make your bubble image pop (yes, pun is intended) and stand out from the rest.


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Three Photo Editing Tools You Need To Know

There was a time when digital photography did not exist and film was the standard medium of photography. All pictures were developed and printed in darkrooms, under red lights and surrounded by the smell of chemicals. With the advent of digital photography, films and darkrooms are becoming obsolete but the techniques used to improve images still live on in post processing computer software such as Adobe Photoshop, Gimp and Paintshop Pro.

I will be using Adobe Photoshop CS2 as my photo editing program although other programs will have similar tools. Let us look more closely at three post processing tools that can drastically improve your images, namely the measure tool, the spot healing tool and the clone stamp tool.

1.  The Measure Tool

Have you ever taken shots where the image is askew? The horizon looks tilted and the subject in your shot looks like it’s about to slide to one side of the frame. The measure tool is a very simple way to straighten your shots. It can be located at the tools banner at the left side of the screen. You might see the eyedropper tool first but right click on it and the measure tool should appear. 

Using your cursor, draw a line from one end of the horizon to the other. When you’re done, click on Image>Rotate Canvas>Arbitrary… A little window will appear showing the angle of the ruler, the acronyms CW (clockwise) and CCW (counterclockwise). The software will automatically choose on which side the picture should be rotated to straighten the shot by bringing the angle down to 0. You don’t have to change anything in this window, just press the OK button and voila! Your horizon is now straight.

You can also use the measure tool to align your subject vertically, such as straightening crooked buildings or lampposts. Once you get the hang of this tool, straightening your image will take only a few seconds.

 2.  Spot Healing Brush Tool

 Spot healing, as the name suggests, is great for cleaning up little areas in the image such as sensor dust, grains of dirt, and it is the perfect solution to removing facial blemishes. It makes these small imperfections vanish by matching information from the surrounding pixels such as texture, lighting, and shading, and then blending them to seamlessly cover the specific area where you click the spot healing brush. You do not need to specify a sample spot for an area to be healed, unlike with the Healing Brush tool.

In this screenshot, you can see the problem spots on the leaf image. There are several small dots on the leaf (by the red arrows) that are lighter in shade which seem to make the image look unclean. The Spot Healing Brush tool is perfect in quickly removing these blemishes. 

When you click on this particular tool, the toolbar at the top will change to the brush preferences. Click on the arrow button beside the word ‘Brush’ for a dropdown window to appear. Choose a brush diameter that is slightly bigger than the spot you want to heal. Using the hardness scale, you can choose how strong and solid you want your brush tip to be.  

For simple retouching, set your Brush mode to ‘Normal’ and choose between two types of healing options, the Proximity Match and the Create Texture. Proximity Match is used in most cases. It samples the nearby pixels at the selection’s edge to correct the blemish while Create Texture makes use of all the pixels inside the selection to create a texture to cover the flaw.

You can also click on the ‘Sample All Layers’ option which creates a new layer for which to use your spot healing brush. This gives you the results at the top layer while the image in the original layer remains untouched. The great advantage of this is that if you made a mistake and want to redo your spot editing, then you can just delete the top layer while the rest of the work you did at the lower layers or the original image will not be affected.

This is a ‘before and after’ example of what the Spot Healing Brush tool can do. Without the distracting little dots sprinkled around the leaf image, it now looks smooth and clean.

3.  The Clone Stamp Tool

There are two main reasons the Clone Stamp tool is most often used. One is for copying a detail to another location in the image and the other is to remove objects. After selecting the Clone Stamp tool found on the left toolbar, press on the Alt button on the keyboard then click on the image area which you want to copy. After that, click on the spot where you want the selected area to emerge and, while holding down the left mouse button, drag your cursor back and forth until the sample area appears.

To give you an exaggerated example as to how the Clone Stamp tool works, here is an image of the moon. It’s a pretty moon but what if I wanted two moons in one sky? By using this tool, I can copy the moon to add another in the same shot. 

What if, instead of adding, you want to remove something? In this macro shot of a paper tear, I used the clone stamp tool to remove the diagonal line at the center of the frame. I cloned over the line by selecting the nearby empty parts of the paper as my sample area.

Play around with your brush size since if it’s too big, it will clone a bigger area that you might not want to include. Also, don’t forget to first make a copy layer of your original image. This way, you can protect it while you are doing your retouching. In case you make a mistake, you can just delete the clone stamp layer without harming the original image.

These three photo editing tools are quick to use, can easily improve your shots in a few minutes and are necessary components of your photo editing skills. As you practice your digital darkroom techniques you will soon find these tools invaluable. 


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Shooting Water: Frozen Water Shots

Since it does not have a definite shape, water can appear in different forms, literally and figuratively. In this article, we will discuss how we can freeze water action in an image using camera settings. We will also talk about freezing water literally to come up with creative images.

To freeze water in mid-motion, adjust your shutter speed to a very high setting, the highest you can make it. Since the shutter speed is very fast, you will need to compensate for the exposure by adjusting your aperture to a relatively small f-stop, which would mean a larger lens opening to allow more light to pass through.

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Shooting Water Drops

Water has so many properties which make it such a versatile subject to shoot. They can become solid and turn to ice or they can become gas. They can give off reflections or appear transparent. Objects can sink or float in water. By playing around with the camera settings and being creative with your composition, you can capture water and portray it in various ways.

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