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Polishing a Portrait with Light

Faces are defined by the contours of light and shadow. Retouchers can model a person's face with subtle placement of light to add sparkle and liveliness to a portrait. Jane Conner-ziser says, "By contouring the edges of the lighting, the skin is smoothed and polished. If an area looks flat, by identifying what light is missing or causing the problem you've identified what light needs to be refined."

As Jane explains, "The Five Lights of Nature are always in relationship to one another":

  • Specular Highlights: Brightest points of light, found in the catchlights in the eyes, the forehead, cheekbones, nose, and chin. The sharpness of the edges of this light indicates how shiny the surface is.

  • Diffuse Highlight: Mid-tone area of the face. This base tone area tells you the correct color and texture of the object. If you match it in the highlights and shaded sides, you will leave the subjects with their characteristic pore structure.

  • Shaded side: Appears opposite of the specular highlights. They need to be handled gently so the person's face doesn't look dirty or muddy. Painting with the brush set to Color with a very transparent red will warm the complexion and make the subject appear healthy.

  • Refracted Light: Kicked-in fill light used to open up shadows or reduce contrast. Rims the edges of the shades side and adds dimension.

  • Shadows: Cast by objects and provides information as to where the objects are in relation to the surrounding areas. For instance, the nose casts a shadow on the face. The shape of the shadow follows the contour of the upper-lip area if that's how the lighting is set up. Photographers frequently use nose shadows to identify the type of lighting they are using, such as butterfly, short lighting, or loop lighting.

When I studied photography and studio lighting, I learned that light-skinned faces are defined by shadows and dark-skinned faces are defined by highlights. Either way, faces without highlights or shadows are flat and uninteresting. In Figure 9.81, you see the original portrait of a young man, and Figure 9.82 shows the final retouched version in which the subtle addition of highlights invites your eye to look at his face.

Figure 9.81Figure 9.81 Before


Figure 9.82Figure 9.82 After

Lighting with an Overlay Neutral Layer

Sculpting a portrait with light and shadow can give depth and drama to a flat image. By working on Overlay neutral layer you can experiment freely, and if you overdo any lighting additions it's easy just to throw away the offending Overlay neutral layer and start over.


  1. To add a hint of light to a portrait, start by adding an Overlay neutral layer. (Option + click)[Alt + click] the New Layer icon on the Layers palette. Set the Mode to Overlay and click Fill with Overlay-neutral color (50% gray).

  2. Set the foreground color to white and use the Airbrush tool with a large soft brush set to 2% Pressure on this neutral layer to add highlights to the subject's face, as seen in Figure 9.83.

  3. Figure 9.83Figure 9.83 Working with a very subtle white brush to lighten up the highlights of the face.

  4. Adjust the Opacity of the Overlay layer to refine the effect.

The additional retouching on this portrait was achieved by using the Clone Stamp tool on empty layers and retouching the eyes with the Dodge and Burn tools as described earlier.

Painterly Light

Noses, cheekbones, chins, and foreheads are our prominent features, and they catch more light. Accentuating these five protruding areas with light adds a painterly quality to a portrait. In Figure 9.84, you see a portrait by Rick Billings that has been retouched to take out a few minor blemishes. Figure 9.85 shows how Rick used painterly techniques as described previously to accentuate the contrast, color, and detail of the eyes and lips. Painting with white on the prominent spots on the woman's face on a new layer creates area of light that enhances the portrait.


Figure 9.84Figure 9.84 Before


Figure 9.85Figure 9.85 After

Shaping the Hair with Light

After retouching a subject's face, take a few minutes to shape the hair by adding highlights and shadow to the natural form of the hair. Figure 9.86 is yours truly at the end of a long conference day, and Figure 9.87 shows me with improved skin, eyes, and hair with sparkle and life to it.

Enhancing highlights and shadows adds dimension and liveliness to hair. This technique is called wedging, and you can use it to add tonal depth to hair or a person's clothing. It only takes a few seconds, but makes the final portrait look richer.

Figure 9.86Figure 9.86 Before


Figure 9.87Figure 9.87 After


  1. To accentuate highlights, add a Color Dodge neutral layer by (Option + clicking)[Alt + clicking] the New Layer icon on the Layers palette. Select the Color Dodge Mode and check Fill with Color-Dodge-neutral color (black).

  2. Because you want to work very subtly and build up the contouring, use the Airbrush tool with a large soft brush with white paint set to 2%–5% Pressure to trace the contours of the natural hair highlights, as seen in Figure 9.88.

  3. Figure 9.88Figure 9.88 Working on a neutral Color Dodge layer painting with the Airbrush tool with a large soft brush emphasizes the highlights.

  4. To accentuate shadows, add a Color Burn neutral layer by (Option + clicking)[Alt + clicking] the New Layer icon on the Layers palette. Select the Color Burn Mode and check Fill with Color-Burn-neutral color (white).

  5. Use the Airbrush tool with a large soft brush with black paint set to 2%–5% Pressure to accentuate the contours of the shadows, as shown in Figure 9.89.

  6. Figure 9.89Figure 9.89 Working on a Color Burn neutral layer painting with the Airbrush tool with a large soft brush emphasizes the shadows.

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