high end retouchingIf you’re at all familiar with magazines, Pinterest, advertisements, or just photos on the web, you’re probably also familiar with seeing lots of high end retouching photo results. There are many reasons why a photo may be retouched, and this technique happens even more than you may think. Learn what high end retouching looks like, how to spot it, and even how to recreate some of the looks yourself to stay better informed about what it is you’re viewing.

Why High End Retouching Is so Prevalent

It’s probably happened to you. You’ve opened up a magazine or clicked on an ad or news article only to come face to face with a person that looks too good to be real. Maybe you’ve even turned to a friend and said, “That has to be Photoshopped.” Chances are that you’re right; it probably was.

High end retouching is an extremely far reaching field that is in the business to ensure that models, actors, and even everyday people in print ads, look plastically perfect. Every photograph becomes an idealized version of the person it represents. This isn’t a case of necessarily removing flaws; it’s about transforming the subject into a version of their very best self.

The process isn’t difficult or very time consuming to do, either. You can take a course in photo retouching that will have you making your own photos look like professional print jobs in just a few days time. And with the technique so easy to learn, it also becomes easy to compare your straight out of the camera shot with one that has been retouched and see all of the flaws and imperfections. This leads to an increased desire to retouch more photographs, leading to a culture dominated by photos that have been doctored almost beyond recognition.

Common High End Retouching Techniques

Really good retouching can often go unseen as the results appear natural, yet flawless at the same time. In these cases only side by side comparisons of the original and the retouched copy will show off what’s been done.

The level of retouching that is done on a photo can change depending upon a few different factors, such as:

  1. Were there any flaws in the photo itself, such as an ill fitting wardrobe or shadows on the face?
  2. What is the photo being used for, and does it currently reflect the philosophy behind it?
  3. How is the subject looking against the background and do the two relate to one another properly?

These are only a few examples of why retouching may occur. Other reasons may include wanting to bring out someone’s best features, emphasize a shape or line in a face or body, or slenderize a part of someone’s anatomy that may appear larger in the photograph than intended.

Common techniques that you may see being used include a wide variety of different tools and goals.

Spot Healing

Spot healing involves using a tool that takes a look at the pixels around the place you’re trying to retouch. It then blends that one spot in with the surrounding area to give it a seamless appearance. In some types of photo retouching, spot healing can take care of dust or get rid of fine lines on the photo. In high end retouching, however, it’s generally used to smooth out perceived imperfections in the skin, such as acne or wrinkles. Spot healing can quickly even out someone’s complexion to make it appear smoother and more even.


The clone stamp tool lets you recreate a section or pattern within a photo somewhere else. This is ideal for adding volume to hair by duplicating strands. It can also be used to move certain areas of someone’s face, hair, or body to a new spot by first duplicating it, then removing the original layer. Cloning is particularly useful for getting rid of things in a photo that you don’t want to see, as well. Unlike the spot healing, tool, it allows you to pick and choose exactly what you want to copy from. An example of how to use this tool effectively would be in a photo where a necklace broke and fell during the shoot, but everything else was perfect. You can clone and stamp out the section of the falling necklace, and recreate its shape around the neck where it was originally meant to be.


One of the greatest Photoshop techniques for high end retouching is the Liquefy tool. Liquefying your photograph allows you to manipulate it in countless ways by moving, shrinking, or stretching individual areas of the picture.

For example, by using the pucker tool, you can shrink someone’s abdomen or nose. The enlarging tool could be used to make someone’s eyes appear to be slightly larger. You can also shift sections of the photo, such as moving the bottom of someone’s arm up slightly to make it appear more toned, or moving a rear end up higher on the back to make it appear fuller. Combining these techniques lets you shrink puffy areas, enlarge muscle, and move a line to make someone appear much more muscular and fit than they really are.

Color Enhancing

Color enhancing is one of the simplest retouching techniques, and it is often the first step done in a high end retouching job. Color enhancing lets you sharpen details by upping the contrast, eliminate shadows from someone’s face or body, fade backgrounds away, and even out complexions. The key is to ensure that you make these enhancements before any other techniques are used to change or retouch the photo.

This is because the pixels may take color differently in a retouched area than in an untouched area. In other words, if you were to remove some blemishes, widen the eyes, and shrink the nose, then retouch the color on the entire photo, you could see those areas reappear in a slightly different color than the areas around them. By making global changes to the color of the photo first, it lets you make other changes that will continue to blend in without being seen.

Color enhancing also allows you to turn up the volume on specific colors in a photograph, such as the irises of the eye. By selecting only the colored area in the irises, you can ramp up the color and add some sparkle and depth that will make them pop out at the viewer, without touching the color of the surrounding skin or the face. Too often it’s easy to spot an amateur retouch job, as opposed to a high end retouching job, because the photo manipulator attempted to boost the color in the eyes by turning up the blue or green in the whole photo. While this does make the eye color pop, it also makes the whites in the photo appear slightly blue or green, including the whites of the eyes and the teeth.

Burning and Dodging

Burning and dodging is a combined technique that allows you to lighten and darken specific areas of the photo a little at a time. For example, if you were to dodge the teeth of your subject, while burning the skin tone, it would give the subject the look of a tan with bright, glowing white teeth.

Burning and dodging is particularly useful in the background and in little details of a photo. You can spot light areas that are otherwise in shadow, or darken an area that might have been hit a little too hard with a glare. This helps to balance the photo’s contrast, and gives you the ability to pick and choose where you apply it, rather than adjusting the curves or levels of the photo, which adjusts the contrast indiscriminately.

Photo Effects

In addition to being able to manually manipulate sections of a photograph, newer retouching techniques are built right into the program. These photo effects allow you to do things like apply makeup, add in a realistic looking blue sky to a background, whiten teeth, increase the color of the greenery in a photo, even change the shape of a face. Many photo editing software programs also allow you to save many of your global manipulations. This means that if you always brighten the eyes and teeth, adjust the contrast and brighten the image, you can save these to be applied to every photograph you work on all at once, rather than having to redo each section again and again. Even the least expensive editing programs allow most of these presets and effects, so if you’re learning photo editing on the cheap, you can still make good use of them.

Try Retouching for Yourself

Even if you deplore using high end retouching for advertisement or magazine purposes, you can still find a lot of use for these techniques in other ways. Learning to restore old photographs will teach you many of the same techniques that retouching a photo for a magazine will. You may also find that there are times you need to remove something from the background of a photo that otherwise spoils the image. Consider signing up for a course in Photoshop to get better acquainted with these techniques, and learn how you can both spot – and create – retouched photographs for yourself.

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