Not long ago, NPR aired a story about a checklist for surgery success. Atul Gawande—a surgeon who also teaches at Harvard—offers compelling evidence that surgeons will get better results if they follow a simple checklist. The biggest challenge is convincing surgeons that they need it.
Of course, when we retouch a portrait we're not exactly saving lives. Egos, maybe, but not lives. Nevertheless, following a checklist (better known as "workflow") can streamline your retouching and help you get the best results possible. This post will tie together some of my tutorials to create a start-to-finish portrait retouch workflow. I will give a brief description of each step, but you will have to click on each step for the full tutorial. [I will come back and add photos to this post, but you don't really need them since each of the links has ample photos]
Step 1. Correct your white balance.
If you work in RAW, you will want to correct not only white balance, but as many other settings as possible. If not, you can open a curves adjustment layer and use the eye dropper from the curves dialog box to sample a white, a black, and a gray (or at least one of those). Correcting your white balance can have a dramatic effect on the overall color and brightness of a photo.
Step 2. Use curves to fine tune skin tone and color.
Even though you created a curves layer to fix white balance in step one, I find it more helpful to create a new curves layer devoted to improving the skin tone.
Step 3. Whiten teeth.
I usually warm up the skin in step 2, which has the side effect of warming up (i.e. yellowing) the teeth. If you were to whiten teeth before warming the skin, you would just have to repeat your work later.
Step 4. Clear up blemishes
Take care of the big problems with the skin first. I prefer the patch tool for most large blemishes, and the clone stamp tool occasionally. Remember to do each step on its own layer. Most people save a version of all the layers in case they need to come back and adjust something later. I have to confess, however, that I usually merge down when I am satisfied with a given step. If a client wants me to change the retouch (and, this sounds vain, but they never do), I can just go from where I left off.
Step 5. Reduce wrinkles (especially around the eyes) as needed.
This step also uses the patch tool, but I do it on a separate layer because my method (as you can see in the tutorial) uses adjustments in opacity. The main point in this step is to reduce larger wrinkles. Save the smaller ones for dodge and burn.
Step 6. Overall skin improvement using either a high-pass technique or dodge and burn.
Your choice of hi-pass softening or dodge and burn retouch will depend on how important visible pores are to you, how much time you have, and the look that you want. If you want a very soft look, a hi-pass softening or even the "foundation method" may fit the bill. It all depends on the style you want.
Step 7. Add sparkle to the eyes.
A little dodge and burn can create better catch lights and help give more interest to the eyes. If you used dodge and burn in Step 6, you can still work on the same D&B layer.
Step 8. Optional contouring with dodge and burn.
If you want to contour the nose, the lips, the cheeks, and so on, you can use dodge and burn to do so. This step is not always necessary.
Finally, don't forget to sharpen!
Maybe one day I'll do my own sharpening tutorial, but until then...
High-pass sharpening is one of the most popular quick techniques.
Adobe has some great recommendations for sharpening and they'll even point you to a long tutorial that covers several methods of sharpening. I use the sharpening programs created by NIK, which I love.