Ted's Photo Retouching Process


I thought I'd detail the steps I go through when fixing up photographs in Photoshop in the hope that it might help others figure out how to use Photoshop. Also, if I somehow forget all this, I'll know where to look. Everything I do here should work with Photoshop 5.0 and up.

Hopefully one day I'll get around to adding example images and screen shots.

If this is all a bit overwhelming, you might want to start with my Introduction to Photoshop. It lays the groundwork for what you'll read about here.


Before you can retouch anything at all, you have to have a goal in mind. For me, the goal was to fix up images so they would be good enough to print 4x6's and display full screen on a computer monitor. I decided on a resolution of 800 pixels for the widest side. Printed to a 4x6 this gives 150dpi worth of resolution. On a typical computer monitor, 800 pixels is usually plenty for a full screen image.

These images would be archived to CD and possibly shared with friends/family on the CD. I decided to use the JPEG format and played with Photoshop 5.5's JPEG settings and found Quality 6 to be a good compromise between file size and image quality. I also decided to include title cards as 800x600 GIF files that contained descriptive text interspersed throughout the collection.

Some sort of file naming convention was needed so I finally settled on the convention used by Fuji's EXIF Viewer. YYYY_MMDD_HHMMxx.jpg, where "xx" is a two letter code to prevent name clashes. I got lucky with the sorting of the GIF title cards because "GIF" comes before "JPG" in alphabetical order. So title cards with the same name as a JPG file appear before the associated image when sorted by name. I use my own ExifRen utility to rename my digicam JPEG files automatically.


With a goal in mind, we can now start working on the images.

Stock Color Correction

If the photograph was taken under a known set of circumstances, like in my basement hallway with my Sunpak 383s flash, I will first lay in a stock color correction adjustment layer. This will get me good neutrals to start with. Even if it wasn't shot in the hallway, but it was shot with the Sunpak 383s, this adjustment layer may still help.

I usually make this stock adjustment layer by shooting a white card in the environment, then making a Levels layer that neutralizes the white. Make sure you neutralize the white using only the output sliders. Using the input sliders will result in a loss of data. Once you have the levels the way they should be, you can either save the settings, or make an action with those settings. Either way, you can then automatically color correct for that situation any time you need to.

For best quality, when you begin a shoot, you should shoot several frames of a white card under the lighting you plan to use. This gives you a great white reference to start with. Make a color correction layer for the shoot from these white card shots.

Noise Reduction

This is also a good time to consider using some sort of noise reduction on the image. Anti-aliasing color works best at the full resolution of the image. See my anti-aliasing color tutorial for more.


Images that are obviously slightly tilted, or with poor composition can be rotated and cropped to suit. Sometimes it's a good idea to put this step off until after color correction since you may crop off a good white reference.

A common problem that can be corrected prior to Rotating/Cropping is convergence due to a wide angle lens and the camera not being level. No need for the rising front adjustment on your view camera, just use Photoshop's "Perspective" Transform to fix up convergence problems.

  1. Select All (Ctrl-A)
  2. Edit | Transform | Perspective
  3. Grab a top corner or bottom corner and pull in or out until the image looks right.


The Rubber Stamp tool is an indispensible spot remover. Combined with a pressure sensitive graphics tablet, it is a joy to remove spots from images. Typically spots happen in film scans from dust in the scanner. Color negative film will have white spots, while transparency (slide) film will have black spots. Digital cameras aren't immune to spots. The CCD in a digicam might have bad pixels that show up as spots, more commonly in long exposures and dark areas of the image.

Removing Red-Eye

My favorite red-eye removal technique requires three steps. First, create a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer with the Saturation set to 0, and mask it out (fill with black). Then with the paint brush (preferably a soft-edge brush) and the color white, mask in the layer in the area where the red-eye is. This turns the red-eye into "grey-eye". Next, load this layer mask as a selection (Select | Load Selection...). Now create a new Levels adjustment layer and adjust the input black point up until the grey-eye is gone.

For most red-eye, this technique will suffice. In extreme cases, more artistry is required. I usually try to avoid these extreme cases.


Resizing should be done after Cropping/Rotating, Spotting, and Removing Red-Eye. Spotting and Removing Red-Eye are easier with a full resolution image since they require fine detailed work. Cropping/Rotating will change the size of the image, so the resize step must come afterward.

Photoshop's Fit Image (File | Automate | Fit Image...) feature lets you quickly resize an image to a limit like the one I set (800 pixels). I have this on a Function Key so I can use it quickly when needed.

Levels (Color and Density Correction)

There are several tools for Color and Density Correction but Levels provides a good balance of power and ease of use. If your goal is quick retouching, Levels is definitely the way to go. If your goal is perfection, Curves would be a better choice.

Depending on where your images are coming from, there are different approaches to using levels. In the simplest case, images are already very close to being correct color-wise. Images from Digital Cameras and scans of transparency (slide) film fall into this category. Usually a tweak to the black and white points is all that is needed. Sometimes if the light source doesn't match the digital camera or slide film's color balance (e.g. a tungsten lit subject on daylight balanced film) you'll need to do more work to get things looking right.

In the case of scans of color negative films, the Auto-Levels feature in Photoshop can be a real lifesaver. It isn't perfect, but most of the time it will get you real close to something useful.

For on-camera flash photographs (and others too) I tend to set an RGB Gamma of 1.1 to reduce contrast, and a Blue Gamma of .9 for added warmth. The warmth is particularly helpful with skin tones which tend to become very red under artificial light.

If the contrast is really out of control I've started using a new trick. I call it "Lighten Shadows". By loading the luminosity mask (Alt-Ctrl-~), inverting it (Shift-Ctrl-I), then creating a Levels layer, you can reduce contrast without killing saturation like Gamma would. Adjust the white point to brighten up the shadows only. This trick has proved itself to be worth its weight in gold many times. You'll have to balance this with a normal Levels layer. By going back and forth you can get almost any effect you want.


I use Hue/Saturation adjustment layers to handle a few common problems. One of these is yellow grass. In photographs, grass and foliage tend to be a bit on the yellow side, particularly when lit by direct sunlight. By adjusting the Saturation in the Green Channel by +10 to +20 and adjusting the hue by +10 (+20 if you like to live dangerously), you can get significantly better greens. There's one more step, though. You must shift the green range toward the yellow in the color slider at the bottom of the Hue/Saturation dialog. Otherwise the effect will be barely noticeable.

Another useful trick with Hue/Saturation is dealing with on-camera flash and caucasian skin tones. We already warmed the image up with a .9 Blue Gamma in Levels, now a tweak to the Red Channel in Hue/Saturation completes the effect. Shift the Hue of the Red Channel by +4 (more or less to taste) and reduce the Saturation by -5 (less to taste). For me, this is the difference between skin tones in a professional portrait, and skin tones in a typical drugstore print.

Blue skies can also benefit from some Hue/Saturation tweaking. A Hue shift of +10 in the Cyan Channel will darken a light blue sky. Cranking up the Saturation helps too (+10 to +20).


Photoshop's Unsharp Mask filter does a great job sharpening a soft image. It can't fix an image that is out of focus, but it does add an extra sparkle that makes an image come to life. This step should always be done after resizing since its effect is dependent on the size of the image.

Dodge/Burn (optional)

Although Photoshop does have dodge and burn tools, I find them very hard to use. Instead, I add a Levels Adjustment layer, and mask in shifts in white and black points to darken or lighten areas. The big advantage is that you can change these dodges and burns later if you don't like them.

Blur Background (optional)

Digital Cameras tend to have small apertures, as do most cameras when used with built-in flash. With small apertures come large depth of field (DOF). Everything is in focus. Sometimes, it would be nice to have a more shallow DOF with the background out of focus to reduce distraction.

In Photoshop, you can blur the background by creating a duplicate layer of your image. Gaussian blur this layer to taste, then mask it out. Carefully mask in only the background (a Graphics Tablet is a huge help here). When you are done, only the background will be blurred.

Soft Focus (optional)

The approach to achieveing a Soft-Focus effect is similar to the background blur effect above. Create a duplicate layer and blur it with Gaussian Blur. Mix it in with "Lighten" mode and an opacity around 50%. You can also mask out certain areas so they will be sharp while the rest of the image is soft focussed. This works well on eyes and hair.

Note that using "Normal" mixing mode gives a heavier "wetter" look to the soft focus. You'll need to back off on the opacity (10-30%).  This can be great for softening up skin.  Sort of a "digital makeup".


I use Actions and function keys to automate the above sequence of tasks. My F2 key does the resize for me, the F3 key runs an action that gives me a Levels Adjustment Layer, a Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer, and Unsharp Mask. Finally my F4 key is set up to Flatten Layers. I also have actions for other extra processing like Soft Focus. Using Actions and function keys speeds up retouching considerably.

Final Product

When is it done? That's up to you, of course. If the pictures are just for the relatives, you don't have to work too hard. But if your goal is an 8x10 or maybe even a gallery image, you'll want to spend extra time in the above steps.

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Copyright ©2001, Ted Felix