Seán Duggan: Strategies for Non-Destructive Retouching (Part 2)
Apr 2013 18

In Part 1 of this article, I showed the basic structure for keeping your retouching non-destructive by using separate layers. These can either be empty layers that are targeted by the Clone Stamp or Healing Brush tools, or area layers that are created by copying a selection of image data and making a new layer from that selection. I’ll conclude this article by examining how you can use this approach with additional flexibility for different types of retouching.

Use Separate Layers for Different Types of Retouching

For some retouching it may make sense to place all of it onto a single retouching layer, but using different retouch layers is often the better approach, especially for portrait retouching. Using separate layers for retouching different areas of the face lets you take advantage of additional functionality such as blend modes and varying the opacity of the layer.

Vary Opacity to Create a More Realistic Blend

With portrait retouching, for example, I almost always have a dedicated layer for retouching the area under the eyes. I use the Healing Brush to create the initial cover-up of dark circles or wrinkles and then lower the layer opacity to create a blend of the original image detail and my retouching. This often results in a more believable and natural-looking retouching than if the layer was set to 100% opacity. The reasoning behind this approach is that there is often slight shading under the eyes and removing it completely does not look natural.

The opacity settings for the layer that is used to retouch under the eyes, however, may not be suited for other areas, which is why separate retouch layers for different parts of the face provides for a more flexible approach. In the example below, a separate layer was used along with the Healing Brush to reduce the dark shadow on the side of the girl’s nose. This layer was set to 50% Opacity

To remove the stray flyaway hairs, a selection was made of these areas using the Lasso tool. Then, with the Background layer active, the selection was turned into a layer using the Layer > New > Layer via Copy command. This uses the area layer approach detailed in Part 1 of this article. With this layer now active, the Healing Brush was used to retouch the stray hairs. The position of this layer is locked using the Lock Position button near the top of the Layers Panel.

Lightening the Eyes with Curves

Next, a selection was made of the girl’s eyes and a Curves adjustment layer was added. When an adjustment layer is added with an active selection, the selection is turned into a layer mask and will only affect that area.

No changes were made in the Curves Properties panel, but the blending mode for this layer was set to Screen, which dramatically lightens the eyes.

The opacity for this layer was lowered to 70% and the Feather slider was adjusted in the Mask Properties panel to soften the edges of the layer mask.

Organize Layers with a Layer Group

Once the retouching is done, you can place all of the retouching layers into a Layer Group. This is not necessary, but it does help to simplify the view of the Layers panel, which can be useful on a file that will have several more layers added. Organizing similar layers together into groups is one way to accomplish this.

To place layers into a group, first select the layers in the Layers panel. You can do this by clicking on the top layer and then Shift-clicking on the bottom layer (note that the Background layer cannot be placed into a group unless you first turn it into a regular layer by double-clicking on it). Then drag the selected layers down to the folder icon at the bottom of the Layers panel. Double-click in the layer group’s name to rename the group.

Using separate layers for different types of retouching allows you to apply your edits non-destructively without harming any of the original pixels in the image. Structuring your file this way means that you can easily correct any mistakes you may make in the retouching process, and apply improvements exactly where they are needed without affecting any of the other layers.

Seán Duggan is a fine art photographer and the co-author of Photoshop Masking & Compositing, Real World Digital Photography, and The Creative Digital Darkroom. He leads workshops on digital photography, Photoshop and Lightroom.