Tutorial: 2 Minutes to Perfect Face Contrast


I can honestly say I invented this. Now I’m not saying there hasn’t been anyone else doing the same thing, but unlike some of my other tutorials where I’ve simply clarified or amplified what others have taught me, this I worked out on my own. As a result, the process has gone through a few iterations before I felt like it was working just right for me. So now I’m ready to share it with you! At the end you are quite welcome to ask – even in the comments section, if you’d like – “I don’t get it, what’s the big whup?”

[click “continue reading” below for more…]

The original concept was triggered by someone else’s comment of course. I attended a workshop at my local PPA (Channel Islands Professional Photographers Association, to be specific) about a year ago. Someone from Fujifilm was talking about getting exposure in camera just right in portraiture. He suggested zooming the lens to fill the viewfinder with your subject’s face, and then set your exposure there while zooming back out. His philosophy was that the face should contain the full range of contrast (i.e. light and dark), and the rest of the image could go to heck in a hand basket as long as you had that right. Or roughly that, anyway.

But I got to thinking: this could also be a good Photoshop technique, so that faces pop and don’t look flat and improperly exposed. You want the emphasis to be on your subject’s face, so you want the face to have the most local contrast, (the most range of dark to light). The viewer’s eye will naturally gravitate there if you do it right.

But how to do it right? My first attempts looked a bit weird, and I was always dialing the amount of the processing back, or viewing it later and cringing at what I’d done. But I’ve slowly refined the technique, and here’s how I do it. What’s more, I’ve been able to speed up the process AND make it look better, by trying different things (and doing it hundreds of times!).

So the lead image of this post is the final result. Certainly not a fully-retouched image, as there are a few things I didn’t tweak that I normally would. Like that big faint pink spot on the right side: that’s flare coming back from my shoot-through umbrella, just out of frame. Hopefully that’s the first thing you noticed. Did you notice the perfect facial contrast on Christina? No, you didn’t…it just looks good and natural.

Before I get to the instructions, here are a couple of shots I’ve shown recently, with comparisons. The one on the left is the finished version, with face contrast and other retouching applied. The image on the right is the one right out of Lightroom. The example I’ve used to demonstrate the technique might be a little subtle, unless you also see the difference in other images.



Note that all the following descriptions refer to the image below that description.

Below is the original image, straight out of Lightroom. No local adjustments done, just basic tone/contrast/color adjustments. I picked a decently-lit image to begin with, so the adjustments are going to be subtle. And really, that’s how they should be. An image looks really bad if you can tell something’s been done to the face contrast.

One hint for judging if you’ve gone overboard with the face contrast adjustments: view your finished image in thumbnail size. What isn’t apparent in full size can become sickeningly obvious when reduced to a small image. This is also true for vignettes, I’ve found.


Below is a crop of the original image.


Now you see I’ve selected “the mask of the face”. I.e. the front of the face, but (mostly) left out the hair, the neck etc. I haven’t been too picky as you can see. I’ve simply drawn a rough circle. You don’t have to be precise as long as you know what to look for the in the adjustment phase later


Below I’m adding a Curves layer in the layers menu on the right.


And here is with the Curves window open.


Wait, why did her face go completely white??? That’s because I’ve clicked the “Show Clipping” option at the bottom of the Curves window. It defaults to show the clipping of the shadows. As you drag the shadows marker from left to right (it’s the black pointer located above the “Input” field near the bottom left), the white area will develop solid patched of color, to show you that you’re reducing pixel values to zero and they can’t be moved any lower, and thus are “clipping” off useful data. We want to maximize contrast by bringing that pointer/slider thingie up until we just start to see patches of color.


You can see a splash of red at the edge of her face, upper left. This is her black hair clipping, and we’re not worried about that because we won’t be adjusting that.What we’re looking for is little splotches of color clipping in her actual face. You can just about see some yellow/red dots where the pupils of her eyes would be. This tells us we’ve got the darks adjusted properly.


When you move the highlights marker (white pointer on the bottom right of the graph), the selected area goes black. Now you’re looking for highlights that get blown out, or exceed the maximum possible value, when moving the slider. Here you have to be careful, because clipped highlights look worse that clipped shadows.

I usually disregard specular reflections, such as bright shine on teeth and eye catchlights. These are going to be blown out anyway, so they will be the first to show up. I wait until I get a highlight clipping on some actual skin, such as a cheek, nose or chin. Below you can see where I’ve gone just a little too far. There’s an eye catchlight, but there’s also clipping on a cheek hot spot.


So I dial it back until there’s barely anything there. Why don’t I dial it back even further, so it’s all gone? Mostly for speed. I’ll be adjusting the opacity of the layer later, which will dial back that clipping some.


And below you see where I’ve turned “Show Clipping” off. You can see the effected area of her face, which is much brighter, more contrasty and saturated. Kinda yucky. Click OK anyway to save your Curves layer.


Below I’m adjusting the Curves layer mode to “Luminosity” in the Layers palette pop-up menu. I do this to get rid of the saturation that occurs whenever boosting contrast using Curves. The Curves layer quits messing with color and saturation, and only adjusts Luminosity.


Below you see the Curves layer effect with Luminosity mode. The color of the skin matches the rest of the model now. Still needs some fine tuning of course.

Note that sometimes, if people are looking a bit pale, I might leave the mode set to Normal. This is rare, but it’s worth considering.


The Curves layer mask ought to be selected because of what we’ve been working on. Go to Edit/Fill…, or simply just hit shift-F5. This brings up the fill dialog. Select “Black” in the pop up menu, and fill that layer mask with all black.


Which removes the effect, since it’s being masked out completely (below).


Now select your paintbrush. Pick a brush size that is roughly the size of the subject’s nose. Set your opacity to 50% (see below). Your brush hardness should be 0%…I rarely set my brush to anything besides 0% actually.


The four images below show the transition as I paint. First is with the effect completely masked out (1)

Set your paint color to white if it isn’t already. Paint over the subject’s face, avoiding areas like cheeks that have hot spots on them, so as not to increase their values too much. Below is the first pass I’ve done with the brush. (2)

And then, making sure you’ve lifted your mouse/pen, do another pass. If you don’t release and start again while painting, you will only ever get 50% maximum application of paint. We want to apply 50%, then 50% again, but in an organic double-brushing action that looks better than doing a single brush at 100%. Below is the second pass I made, and this time I painted her neck too, to smooth out the transition. (3)

I thought her skin highlights were getting a bit too hot. So I changed the brush color to black, kept the opacity at 50%, and brushed quickly over the brightest spots on her nose, cheeks and forehead. It’s subtle. (4)


Below is the zoomed out version.


And then, as I often do, I adjusted the Curves layer opacity to 80% (Layers palette on the right), just so the effect wasn’t quite so obvious.


Now here is an after and before shot, so you can see the difference. It’s hard to see anything happening when you view the steps above, but here you can see there’s definitely a change. Her face has more pop, without looking like I actually did anything to it.


And the best thing is this face-contrast retouch only takes only a minute or two, tops, after you’ve practiced.

Are there better/faster/different ways to do this? Probably…and I’d love to hear about them! Drop me a comment and point me to a link, or just describe how you do it.

5 thoughts on “Tutorial: 2 Minutes to Perfect Face Contrast

  1. As someone who is trying to learn Photoshop on their own at the moment – this tutorial was excellent.

    I will definitely try it out when I next get the chance and see what it does to my subject.

    I just learnt a fairly good method using High pass filter and a graining/blurring effect.

    Thanks very much for putting the time in!



  2. Thanks for your comment, Kris. If you happen to check back, send me a link to that technique you were talking about. I’d be happy to check it out, and post it.

  3. I searched for Photoshop tutorials on Google for weeks and came across this. This has been one of the best tutorials I have come across in a long time. Thanks for sharing.

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