Retouching Photos Frequency Separation And Taste

One of the things that I enjoy most about photography is the never ending learning curve. Sure, the curve may flatten out a bit, but it’s always there. One of the steepest curves for me is retouching photos. On the one hand all of the tools we have access to open up so many possibilities, yet on the other hand they contain so many pitfalls. For the most part, I prefer a light retouching hand; to not “over bake” a photo. But one person’s masterpiece could very possibly be another’s over baked mess.

I was talking to someone today about retouching and he claimed that he doesn’t do any retouching, preferring instead to “get it right” in the shot. That’s all fine, but if you’re shooting in raw format, some processing is going to be in order no matter what unless you want a flat, bland photo. When I mentioned that his response was that he didn’t believe that the adjustments you make to a raw image–adjusting color balance, contrast, etc–should be considered retouching. He has a point. I’ve always considered any post production work to be some form of retouching, but maybe that’s not quite correct. After all, if you set your camera to JPEG mode, you’re simply letting the camera do the post production work for you at a very basic level.

But even then, many photos can benefit from retouching if not require it. I’m talking techniques to lighten skin blemishes, balance skin tones and other things.

For example this pic is straight out of the camera, untouched accept to convert it to a JPEG:

Kid Before
Kid Before: ISO 200, 50mm, f8, 1/200 sec

This was a flash experiment using an off camera flash gun camera left. It looks fine, but like all raw files flat. Plus when I was taking the pic he was complaining about his pimples. I mean what 14 year old isn’t going to complain about their pimples, right? Also from my perspective, along with the generally flat nature of the photo, I wasn’t crazy about the background which is simply a wall painted off white. Just about everything with this pic is “right,” but it can still be better.

After messing around with the color balance in Lightroom I exported it over into Photoshop where I did some frequency separation to smooth out the skin and reduce some of the shadows under the eyes (hey, he was just home from a grueling day of school). I also did some goofy stuff with some filters to bring out the texture in the wall and warm it up–a lot–because I like the way it looks.

It turned in to this:

Kid After: ISO 200, 50mm, f8, 1/200 sec

In hindsight, I think I could do more to reduce the shadows under the eyes, but I was concerned about it looking over baked. But even then, I think it looks much better and the blemishes I took out were the temporary ones. I didn’t do anything to change any features or his natural appearance. I am going to go back and work on those eye shadows for sure. The top, unretouched photo, aside from the flat nature of being a raw file, represents the subject as they were at that exact moment, but the retouched one represents them more accurately generally. Except the wall. The wall would never look like that, but so what? I like it better.

My goal, whether I’m always successful or not, is to produce a result that is natural looking, not over done. I’ve seen some retouching jobs that look so over baked that the subject doesn’t even look real. They look plastic. Definitely try to avoid that.

The whole frequency separation thing is pretty new to me and I’m still learning. There are a ton of resources all over the internet if you’re interested. One of the better ones is this one.

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