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First Before and After

Tom Mann

I can see why you are fond of this old cell phone photo of your daughter. You caught her at a point in time that will be impossible to ever capture again.

I can also understand that you would also like to post-process the image to bring out the best you can from this photo.

When I am wearing my photo retouching hat, the first thing I *always* do is critically evaluate the original image to determine what flaws exist, and prioritize them. I don't touch or even experiment on a copy of the original until I truly understand the problems that exist in the original and can articulate them.

If you start making changes without first evaluating what you have to work with, one is very likely to introduce more problems (eg, the devil eyes) to try to compensate for the true problems that exist.

In the original of this photo, the 4 main problem areas that I see, in decreasing order of importance, are:

1. Lighting - It appears that she is standing under a fairly small area tungsten light that is almost exactly over her head. This caused at least four sub-problems:

1a) blown out (ie, strongly overexposed) areas on her forehead and cheeks;

1b) deep shadows in her eye sockets;

1c) she is lit by a light of a wildly different color than the rest of the light in the room (which appears to be window light);

1d) she is lit unevenly from top to bottom.

If it had been me, I would have faced her towards the diffuse light coming in from the window, and moved her closer to the window by a foot or two. This would have given her much softer light, removed the racoon eyes problem, and put the overhead light in back of her where it could serve as a bit of a warm hair light, not the main light on the subject.

2. Focus - your cell phone focused on the wall in back of her, not on her.

3. Quality of the image - Your old LG-p505 cell phone had a very small sensor. This means that it simply couldn't do well when faced with scenes (such as this) that have such a large brightness range. In addition, this caused the considerable digital noise that can be seen throughout the photo, but which is especially visible in the shadows. I wouldn't have worried one iota about the fact that the window light is blue because the color balance is one of the things that is easily adjusted in post processing, whereas sharp-edged shadows are much harder to fix.

4. Composition - The background is way too complicated and prominent to yield a beautiful, classic portrait. Turning the subject to face the window and moving her a bit closer to it would have resulted in a darker background, that could have easily been further darkened and blurred to achieve the classic portrait look. Although the cropping you did surely helps, changing her orientation and position would have made a more fundamental improvement. If there happened to be a sofa or table in front of the window, think like a pro photographer and just temporarily move the blankety-blank obstruction so you can get in the best position for a good photo.

So, now that we understand the problems with the original image, and because we have essentially no choice but to work with this irreplaceable original, the question is, exactly what should be done, and in what order.

If it were me, I would have slowly and methodocially worked my way down the list, before I ever brought in Portrait Pro or the liquify tool, or whatever other tools you used to tighten up her chin, crop the photo, change the color of her irises, and warm her up even more.

Specifically, I would have first thought about fixing the blown highlights using the shadow/highlights tool in PS, or using the clone and patch tools to "borrow skin" from properly exposed areas to fix the blown areas on her face.

The next thing I would have done is make a selection of her eyes (and surrounding areas) and use either curves or levels to brighten up the shadows and reduce the contrast.

Next, I would have made a very accurate selection of her and used it to darken and moderately blur the background without the darkening and blurring affecting her. Making such a selection is difficult when hair is against a complex background, but it is an advanced PS skill worth learning. There have been many discussions of the best techniques for this on this forum. Note that I didn't recommend "sharpening" her, but rather, blurring the background. The original simply isn't of high enough quality to do any sharpening - it will just introduce ugly artifacts.

Once I had dealt with the background, I would have cropped it exactly the way you did, and possibly adding a vignette effect on the cropped version to further focus interest on the subject and not on the background.

Next, I would have dealt with any small blemishes and other skin problems (eg, slightly red area just above the center of her bodice).

Finally, only after all of the above is done would I have thought about reshaping her chin, changing the color of her irises, etc.

While the above may sounds like days of work in Photoshop, in reality, it probably would only take an hour or two for someone used to retouching.


Tom M

PS - I've attached a animated Gif that allows you (and other readers) to see exactly what changes you have made in post processing.

PPS - From this analysis, I hope it is has become obvious that just a few seconds of time spent at the time of taking the picture could have resulted in saving an hour or more of post-processing work, and the results of getting it right in the camera are ALWAYS better than trying to fix problems after the fact. In the future, always think about this before taking the shot.


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Markie Jordan-Madden

Well-Known Member
Thank you for your detailed answer, Tom! I wasn't intending to use this as a "final" finished product, since I'm just now learning how to PS. Mostly I just grabbed a pic that had people in it, and played around with settings and what I could do with it. The face sculpting thing I found purely by accident, and we had a blast watching me change her facial features in super speed! The original shot was really just a candid (neither of my kids like to take pictures, so I have more photos of my pets than I do of them!) and I just grabbed it to have something to experiment on.

I will remember your suggestions as far as subject placement, etc. when I take photos in the future. I don't actually remember this shot, so I'm thinking it must have been taken while I was being treated for cancer and heavily drugged on pain medication. She still had that little girl look (she's now a surly teenager) so I'm glad to have found it.