How to process a photo: a step by step plan | Lesson | Photo, video, optics


The photo session is over. You transfer hundreds of gigabytes of images to your computer. Choose the best and open Photoshop. You have dozens of watched videos and read educational texts in stock. That’s all well and good, but what can you do? How to start photo retouching? How not to spoil the pictures with processing, not to redo everything over and over again?

In this text, we share with you a working photo processing algorithm that will become your reference and help you retouch more consciously and faster.

Any treatment plan can and should be customized, but this is a good starting point / Source:

RAW development

RAW development is the zero stage from which it all begins. It is necessary, in whatever genre you work: subject matter, fashion, children’s shooting, love story, reportage, etc. The fact is that a RAW file (from the English RAW, which means “raw”) is not quite a photograph, but rather a “naked” negative, if we associate it with film shooting. The negative needs to be shown, prepared for printing. So the photographer prepares the RAW file so that it becomes a full-fledged photograph and goes to the customer and on the social network.

The process of developing RAW is called conversion. You can do it either in Camera RAW in Photoshop (opens automatically when RAW files are loaded into the program), Lightroom or Capture One / Source:

At this stage, the photographer can have two options:

  • Process the photo completely, so that after immediately save it and send it to the customer. In this case, you try to do all the steps described below right away in the RAW converter. This is an incredibly fast option that is suitable for reporters. Naturally, we are not talking about magazine retouching and the highest quality. Yes, this is not the task of reporting shooting.
  • Prepare a photo for further retouching. In this case, you do not need to achieve an ideal result right away. Here your task is to “pull out” the details from the shadows, brightening them, and from the lights, darkening them, as well as correct the following flaws, if any:

— adjust the brightness if the photo is too dark or too light.

— set the correct White Balance if the photo turns yellow, green, blue, red.

— remove lens distortion and chromatic aberration using the tab Optics / Optics.

— reduce noises with a tab Detail.

— change individual colors, their brightness and saturation in the tab Color mixing / Color Mixer.

Read also:
White balance: what it is, how to set it up on camera and fix it in post-processing
Chromatic aberration: what is it and how to remove it
Noise in the photo: what is it, why does it appear, how to remove it
Details about tabs and their use in the text.


Cropping is an opportunity to improve the composition of a photo and remove unnecessary things from it without long retouching. This happens with the help of the fact that we simply cut off part of the canvas of the photo.

By framing, we focus the viewer’s attention on the most advantageous part of the frame, for example, on a person’s face, and not on wires in the sky or people walking in the background / Source:

Also at the framing stage, you can align the horizon. That is, make sure that the horizontal lines are horizontal. For example, so that the line of the endless sea, stretching into the distance, does not “fall over” to the left or right.

You can crop a photo in any RAW converter, but it’s better to do it when you go to Pgotoshop. There for this there is a separate tool — Frame / Frame — with huge capabilities. For example, you can make a square crop or put a «rule of thirds» grid, according to which you can crop, taking into account the rules of composition.

Read more about how to crop a photo here.

Technical retouching

At this stage, we remove everything superfluous that could not be cut off on cropping. To understand what exactly needs to be removed, imagine that you are an artist who paints a picture from scratch. Remove anything you wouldn’t draw if you were an artist.

Examples of what we remove for technical retouching:

  • protruding wires in the studio from the light and on the street, pipes, light sources that got into the frame;
  • dirt on the floor. Garbage, cigarette butts, scratches and marks on the background;
  • people in the background. Naturally, in the event that they are not included in your idea;
  • signboards, inscriptions, announcements. Any text and numbers are information that the viewer pays attention to, reads and thinks about. If it bothers you, remove it. In extreme cases, you can darken or discolor so that the bright color does not catch your eye;
  • wool, pellets, creases in clothes and dirt on shoes.

For technical retouching, two tools are enough — a stamp and a spot repair brush. Read our guide on how to use them.

Retouching will be faster and better if you use a graphics tablet. Due to the fact that you are drawing, as it were, and not holding the mouse, the hand gets tired and sore less, and the strokes are more accurate / Source:

Important clarification! Never work from source. Always create a duplicate layer so that in case of an error you have an untouched original. Read about what layers are and how to use them in this text.

Face retouching

If you are processing a portrait, the next step is to work with the model, her face and skin. Depending on the genre and requirements, retouching can be more or less strong.

  • If you are doing a «live» portrait, it may be enough for you to remove a couple of pimples.
  • If you shoot beauty portraits, where the face is close-up and it is important to show, for example, perfect eyebrows or lipstick, then you need to process every detail — skin, eyebrows, lip contour, complexion, whites of the eyes, teeth, etc.

In any case, there are three stages:

Face and body cleansing. Pimples, wrinkles, scars, lumps of shadows, hairs. Here we need the same tools as for technical retouching — stamp, repair brush, spot repair brush.

Facial cleansing and skin tone smoothing using frequency decomposition. Suitable as a quick, but high-quality retouching option for portrait photographers.

Detailed skin texture, redrawing chiaroscuro or sculpting a face using the dodge&burn retouching method. This is the most expensive, high-quality and time-consuming way of retouching. However, you can greatly speed up the work if you combine all three stages of retouching.

Retouching portraits is more convenient to do on a graphics tablet. Management occurs with the help of a pen, which must be held like a pen. It is much more comfortable than working through every detail with the mouse, and the result is better.

Read also:
How to choose a graphics tablet for working in Photoshop

Tone is brightness. At this stage, you can lighten or darken certain parts of the photo to emphasize some details and tone down others. For example, slightly brighten the eyes or face of a person who are in shadow. At the same stage, the contrast should be raised. For this you can use the same dodge&burn or curves.

In this photo, working with tone, the eyes are clearly highlighted to focus on them / Source:

Color and tones

At this stage, you can finish working with color. For example, recolor individual elements of a photo, apply a toning that will change the color of the entire image.

Also at this stage, you can bring the photo to a specific color scheme. To do this, you can use the Itten color wheel and our text about the most common schemes.

By applying color schemes, you can make a photo visually more catchy and coherent / Source:

Make plastic

Maybe you want to emphasize the waist or slightly increase the lips and eyes? In our text you can find detailed instructions on how to use plastic and where it is located in Photoshop.

An important clarification. This step, like any other, is optional. In general, the entire proposed algorithm is not an indisputable truth, but only one of the options, a working scheme that can be adjusted to suit yourself and your tasks.

Different photographers may have a different look and different processing techniques. For example, some photographers prefer to make plastic at the very beginning of retouching, after developing RAW. But the author of the text does not think this option is the most convenient — if the model does not like the plastic, then the whole photo will have to be redone, since the layers above will be superimposed on the layer where you have already changed the proportions of the person.

Sharpen up

This is the final stage, which should always go at the very end, after plastic surgery and before saving the final version of the picture. If you make plastic after sharpening, then where you moved the pixels, the picture will blur. For example, the whole face of the model will be in sharpness, and the lower lip, which you enlarged, will become a little blurry. If you increase the sharpness at the very beginning, when you develop RAW, then face retouching and technical cleaning will become much more difficult, since you will increase not only the sharpness, but also emphasize texture imperfections.

Processing steps — briefly and point by point

1. Develop Raw in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, Capture One:

  • Tighten the brightness (lighten or darken);
  • Fix White Balance;
  • Remove noise;
  • Remove chromatic aberration and distortion;
  • Work with flowers if you like.

2. Crop your photo to improve the composition.
Tool in Photoshop: Frame.
You can also crop directly in Lightroom, Adobe Camera Raw, Capture One

3. Technical retouching — remove everything that distracts attention from the model.
Tools in Photoshop: Stamp, Healing Brush, Spot Healing Brush.

4. Retouching a person/object in portrait or product photography.
Tools in Photoshop: Stamp, Healing Brush, Spot Healing Brush.
Retouching methods (all at once or any one): Frequency decomposition, Dodge&Burn.

5. Work with tone. We place accents, lighten and darken individual parts of the photo.
Tools in Photoshop: Curves, Exposure, Levels.
Retouching methods: Dodge&Burn.

6. Working with color, adding toning.
Tools in Photoshop: Curves, Selective Color, Hue/Saturation, Photo Filter, Color Lookup, Color Balance, Blank Layer in Color Blending Mode.

7. Plastic filter.

8. Sharpness.
Tools in Photoshop: Unsharp Masking filter, Smart Sharpen, Edge Contrast in Overlay blend mode.


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