What do we want from our Photoshop retouching? I can only tell you want I want – I want to create beautiful travel and landscape photography. The raw image straight out of the camera is not that. In 2003, I began using Photoshop, but my efforts were crude; there was no structure to follow, no repeatable workflow. I learnt Photoshop retouching by trial and error because there is very little advanced information on the internet. As I learnt individual techniques and Photoshop retouched my photographs, I saw signs of a logical and repeatable workflow appear. I realized Photoshop retouching was not only about leaning individual techniques, but just as important, was the order of those techniques. After many years of refining, this evolved into my standard Photoshop retouching workflow – a workflow evolved for my own work. Teaching workshops further refined my workflow into a now, very efficient, logical and quality driven workflow.
On an artistic level, I love the contradiction of the detail of the photographic process, contrasted against the artistic feel of an old master painting. As I refined my Photoshop retouching skills, I also refined my psychological understanding of image making. Two principles underline strong images. First, the viewer is not in control of where they look in an image, you are. Second, if we create a good optical illusion of a three-dimensional space, we can be very creative in altering the image artistically away from reality – but our brain will still accept the image as ‘real’. If any signature of Photoshop retouching remains in the final photograph, then the illusion of reality is instantly broken; being a perfectionist helps. All principles and techniques I have learnt from studying the old master painters. The Photoshop retouching skills along with the psychological principles are all taught on my travel and landscape photography workshops.
On a technical level, I also have guiding principles that underline my Photoshop retouching workflow. The principle one is: The most perfect quality data, is data straight out of the camera – unchanged. Manipulated data reduces technical quality; so, the more we can create the final photograph from unaltered, original camera data only, the longer we can retain the highest level of technical quality. My initial goal in the Photoshop retouching workflow is to first composite the different technical and artistic exposures together by transferring the data, not changing the data; to create a single layered image that represents the most perfect raw file taken straight out of the camera. Exposure quality is explained in the previous ‘Photography Tutorial‘. My Photoshop retouching workflow has now evolved into four separate stages that I call ‘books’. These four books are also the basis of teaching Photoshop retouching on the workshops.
Photoshop Retouching ~ The Workshops ‘Four Books’
BOOK 01 – End Goal: Create a single image that represents the most perfect raw file shot by the camera. The first part of Photoshop retouching is editing the files to find the best ‘base image’. The exposure that represents the most complete photograph taken in a single frame. Looking at the base image, imagine it exhibited in a gallery. Everything you do not like about this image; we search our files to find an improvement. The base image becomes the final photograph once all the technical and artistic assets have been added. When all the assets are chosen, ideally no more than five or six, we raw convert and import them into a layered Photoshop.PSB file. Align each layer with the bottom base image, clean then composite the layers all together through blending and masking. Major masks are made at this point. Now quality check: There must be no Photoshop artifacts at all, if 100% perfect, the image is flattened, followed by final sharpening
BOOK 02 – End Goal: Create a technically perfect photograph with three-dimensional quality. Global contrast is built up to give the photograph general ‘snap’, before separating the color from the black and white information. The separation allows us to work on the photograph from two separate perspectives; tonal and color changes. This also allows greater tonal changes while limiting the effect to the color. From a tonal perspective, Photoshop retouching now concentrates on building up the contrast on three levels; global, local then micro contrast using dodge and burn to create super rich readability and incredible detail. Lastly, the emphasis of Photoshop retouching turns to creating the three-dimensional illusion of light, form, texture and distance: spatial depth, the feeling of reality. From a color perspective, cohesive color cast and adjusting the saturation. Quality check again: There must be no Photoshop artifacts left showing.
BOOK 03 – End Goal: Create the final artistic personal statement. The artistic Photoshop retouching is freer; working like a painter. Photoshop retouching too date has been very systematic to create a beautiful, technically perfect photograph. Without this foundation of sharpness, tonal richness and three-dimensional optical illusion, the photograph would falter once we changed it artistically. However, it feels generic, clinical, lacking feeling, mood, atmosphere and drama; artistic interpretation. We highlight the main hero, center stage full of light and glory while allocating the supporting cast and stage backdrop by tonal changes, bringing up areas of importance while pushing down others; all of the techniques to control where and in what order the viewer explores the photograph. The artistic phase is about what you felt about the scene and communicating those feelings. Photoshop retouching to create emotional response and aesthetic quality.
BOOK 04 – BLENDING & MASKING. Blending is joining one layer to another by general painting without regard to edges or specific tonal ranges. Masking is joining one layer to another with regard to a defined edge or specific tonal range. The first option to choose is always blending because it is the easiest solution. The easiest solution in Photoshop retouching often means the highest quality solution; it’s not about being lazy, but quality! The minute we create any mask involving edges, we are forced to worry about the accuracy and quality of their joins; the area notorious for retouching artifacts which appear very quickly and easily. Masks can be simple RGB channel masks to more complicated but very accurate, handmade masks. The travel and landscape photography workshops teach the blending and masking as a separate, additional ‘book’, because they are the core techniques required throughout the Photoshop retouching process.
Photoshop Retouching Workflow In Practice
“Identify the Problem, Create the Solution, Join the Solution”. Photoshop retouching a photograph is solving a thousand problems. Photoshop retouching is less about software, more a way of thinking; being good at problem solving. “The sky looks wrong” is a problem, but not specific enough to indicate a solution. Is it the contrast or the color? Once the specific problem has been identified; the problem indicates a solution. A tonal problem requires a tonal solution such as a curve. Color problem, a color solution and so on. Your choice of solution is greatly reduced by understanding the problem. The second part is to create a solution that solves the specific problem; without regard to it altering the overall photograph. Having identified the problem and created the solution, we are only concerned with limiting the solution to the problem area. Joining normally triggers the need for some form of mask. A standard approach to Photoshop retouching.
“Global Changes First, Major Objects Second, Small Details Last”. A second standard approach to Photoshop retouching. Using this philosophy, working from large to small, means the most dramatic, overall changes are always made to the photograph first; giving an accurate context for making the correct judgment on smaller objects. The smaller objects then set the context for how the detail looks. As the photograph progresses towards completion, we can polish all the details to sparkle full of life, yet remain correct looking within the context of the whole cohesive photograph, reinforcing ‘The Theater Stage: Create Order Out of Chaos‘ philosophy explained in the Photography Previsualization Tutorial. If we do not follow the ‘working from large to small’ principle areas of the photograph could emerge over worked, ruining the cohesive feel. It is important to consistently keep all areas of the photograph to the same level of finish, like a painting.
“Sketch”. Before Photoshop retouching the final version of the photograph, it is important that we create a quick sketch first. Completing the Photoshop process to create a quick impression of our final photograph without attention to detail or retouching quality. The sketch is an exploration of the photograph on an artistic and aesthetic level, not technical; to get a feel for the final composition, lighting, mood and drama. Because the Photoshop retouching is a meticulous, slow process, the final photograph can lack life and spontaneity. The sketch is all about capturing the feeling of life. Having a sketch first, confirms the photograph is worth pursuing and gives us a greater level of clarity of about how we want the final photograph to look. The sketch also provides a great ‘life and mood’ reference image to make sure those qualities are reflected in the final photograph. This keeps our artistic and aesthetics aims on track while focusing on the detail.
“Science versus Art”. A large part of Photoshop retouching simply requires applying everyday logic and common sense to the photograph. A solid foundation of qualities based on science; decisions that you have no artistic say about. They simply must be done ‘by the book’. If a landscape has no spatial depth between the foreground and the mountains you must put it in – if you wish to create the three-dimensional quality. Light, form, texture and distance are all dictated by science not art. Art dictates style, composition, mood and atmosphere. Logic is giving our brain the correct answers to basic questions. Our brain knows how the everyday world should look; it knows what is right and wrong and is very quick to reject an image with inconsistencies. However, applying correct logic allows us to use many powerful psychological tricks to fool our brain into believing it is seeing something real. Tricks you do not visually notice, but ‘pick up’.
Photoshop Retouching ~ Retaining Your Personal Style
“Question: Does the Photoshop retouching workflow impose your style, on me?” Certainly not – no way. The Photoshop retouching workflow is a universal structure to follow, regardless of style or subject. Think of the Photoshop retouching workflow as a very methodical and carefully structured sequence of ‘questions’ that you answer – not imposed presets. How you answer those questions defines how your final photograph will look. The important point is that the retouching workflow incorporates all the important questions, you need and in the correct sequence for you to achieve very high-quality Photoshop retouching with beautiful print quality at the end. It is a structured set of ‘questions’, all learnt from my original inability to achieve quality, but learnt then refined from years of experience. Imposing my style on you, is not the purpose of the Photoshop retouching workflow, a structured way of work that gives you repeatable quality, is the priority.
David Osborn | Professional Photographer, London, 2020