How to Retouch Digital Photos

Yes, I know that the title of this article covers a wide scope. Many readers are probably wondering if the topic is portrait retouching,  photo restoration, or something else. The answer, this time around, is all of the above. This is intended to be a general overview of the  digital photo retouching process and the tools available in today's software.

A Quick Clarification

Before we start, let me point out that I specified digital photos because we're going to be talking about working with digital software, like Adobe's Lightroom and Photoshop, and Machpun's Luminar. That isn't to say that you can't apply these techniques to prints, slides or negatives. When you scan any of those, it becomes a digital file and you'll be using the same tools. 'Nuff said? Alrighty!

Retouching vs. Editing

There's just one more point to clarify. I know, sorry; I promise to move on right after this. Although the two terms are often used interchangeably, there's a very big difference in editing a photo and retouching it. To explain it very simply:

  • Editing refers to the  everyday enhancements we make to our photos . Sharpening, contrast adjustments, color balance, noise reduction and all of those steps you take to make your photo look its best fall under this heading.
  • Retouching is a more intensive process that deals with everything from cosmetic changes to subjects like skin smoothing and tooth whitening, to the actual removal and/or replacement of people or objects in the frame. For instance, if you remove that tomato sauce stain from Uncle Beauford's tie, that's retouching.

There. Now we can get to the heart of the matter.


One of the most common operations in retouching is cloning, also known as cloning and stamping. This is most often used when you need to  remove a fairly large object or area of an image . The  Clone tool lets you sample an area of the photo, them use that sample to paint over the unwanted object. You can adjust the sample size and the brush size, shape, opacity and edge hardness.

With a little practice, you'll find that you can eliminate almost anything from a photo.

Healing and Spot Healing

These two brush tools are often used to quickly correct problems like dust spots on the camera sensor. They can also be used to paint out narrow lines like power lines. The Spot Healing tool simply uses an automatic sample of the surrounding area as a source for the brush, whereas the Healing tool requires you to select a sample like the Cloning tool .

The main difference between healing and cloning is that the Healing tools don't change the highlight and shadow information of the original. This makes these tools more appropriate for areas with different lighting than the source.

Erasing and Masking

The Eraser tool does exactly what you'd expect it to do – it erases. You can change the shape of the eraser and use either a brush or pencil. The brush can be adjusted for softness, while the pencil will have a hard edge. Using the eraser tool in a layer will let whatever is below that layer show through.

Masking is usually a better alternative than erasing. You can apply a  mask to a layer, then use the brush, fill and other tools to paint out what you want to remove and paint back in parts that you want to keep.

Both the eraser and mask can be used at various levels of opacity. This means you can transparentize objects as well as remove them.

“Content Aware” Tools

One of the most useful additions to retouching tools in recent years is Content Awareness. This feature keeps track of textures and luminosity in the areas you apply the tool to and preserves those properties as changes are made. This makes changes much more natural from the start and eliminates the need for replacing texture or burning and dodging to restore tones.

For example, if you need to remove blemishes from the face of a model, the Erase tool in  Luminar and the Healing tool in Photoshop can be set to Content Aware to preserve the texture and glow of the face. Look for this feature in the tools of the editor you choose.

Replacing People and Objects

Removing and replacing portions of a photo is arguably the most complex of the retouching tasks, requiring skills with layers, masking and all the editing tools you'll use for simpler tasks. It's also an area where Content Aware moving of objects is a life saver.

There's no easy way to describe the process of replacing things in an image. In fact, it warrants its own tutorial and we'll provide that for you at a later date. Suffice it to say that if you can do a convincing job of replacing Aunt Sadie's face with the one where she wasn't sneezing or take out that kid that photobombed your portrait session, you're probably an accomplished retoucher. If not, you might want to consider hiring one before you start working on those shots of your cousin's wedding.

“Is that all?”

In a word, no. As I mentioned, this article was intended as an overview of the most common retouching tasks. I believe you'll find that the information above will get you pointed in the right direction to start trying your hand with some of the tools listed.

Why not grab some of those old photos and see what you can do? Go ahead; put the dog's head on your sister. Get rid of those pimples in your high school yearbook photo. You''ll find that retouching can be both fun and rewarding with the tools we have at our disposal today!

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