Beginner Photoshop portrait editing tools

Where do you start in Photoshop when editing portraits?


Portrait editing can be very daunting. You hear terms like frequency separation, dodge and burn, liquify, and Photoshop highlights and shadows. Well, let us tell you what beginner Photoshop portrait editing tools have to be used as of day one.


So you say to yourself “I want to do portrait editing in Photoshop on my own as opposed to using a retouching service but where the hell do I start?” In this blogpost, we look at 5 essential tools that all beginner, amateur and even intermediate photographers need to learn when editing portraits in Photoshop for the first time.

Athletic woman leaning against a wall staring at the camera
Portrait editing techniques can apply to colour as well as black and white photos.

Establishing beginner Photoshop priorities


Many of us want to learn Photoshop. But Photoshop has a million “layers” of learning with an endless variety of techniques to do the same task. So as a beginner photographer, knowing priorities can be important when developing your photo post-production skills and upping your game. Also, the tools suggested here ensure that you will get excited with quick results on your first try. Bang for the buck is important when beginning any new skill.


In a nutshell, here are the main points of this post


  1. Keep it simple and master the cropping tool
  2. Pay attention to highlights and shadows with dodge and burn
  3. The eyes are the key. Make sure that you brighten, sharpen and whiten eyes all the time with the sharpening tool
  4. The healing brush is the one tool that can take blemishes away
  5. Draw attention to your subject in whatever way possible. Two techniques. Vignette and iris blur.


profile of a woman in underwear and a jacket
This image uses all techniques mentioned in this article.

The crop tool (Define and refine your portrait editing)


Most amateur photographers think of the crop tool as a Photoshop tool to get rid of unwanted parts of an initial photo. Heck, even Adobe’s help section underestimates its own tool when they say it helps to

. . . remove distractive background elements and create a focus on your desired object in the image

But we should define the crop tool as the tool by which a photographer decides what the observer will see. The “create a focus” part of the Adobe definition is key. If you consider the crop tool as a tool that helps focus where an observer looks, you have just upped your Photoshop skills quickly.

So, never underestimate the power and depth of the crop tool. Learn how to master aspect ratios, layering crops, and content-aware crops. Crop techniques can really breathe life into a photo.

Dodge and Burn 


It is stunning how dodging and burning can enhance a portrait. It took me years to learn this. 

Dodging and burning is like a selective brightness contrast tool. The simple explanation of the Dodge and Burn tools is that they allow you to brighten certain sections of a photo and darken others.

There are quite a few ways to go about applying dodge and burn but I would suggest that everyone choose either the dodge tool or the burn tool

Dodge and burn in the Photoshop menu
Make sure thqat the Photoshop workspace is set to "Photography". You will find the burn and dodge tool in the tool palette on the left

To know what to dodge and burn, here is a list of places you can start. Dodge and burn will have the most impact in these places on a portrait but remember that Photoshop allows you to use these tools anywhere.


Dodge: Eyes whites, Hair highlights, Tip of the nose, Top of the cheek, Forehead (Pick a side – Not the whole thing) Bridge of the lip, Reflection in the eye (also referred to as a catchlight), jewellery and accessories

Burn: The jaw bone (one side), Mascara and eyeshadow, Hair where there are no highlights. (Go lightly), Under the chin and at the neck.

The Sharpen Tool – Photoshop’s hidden gem


The focus of any portrait will always be the eyes. Whether they are closed or opened. Always zoom in on your Photoshop project and take the time to enhance the eyes. As mentioned above, whiten the whites of the eyes and brighten the catchlight with the dodge tool, and work on makeup with the burn tool.

The sharpen tool location within the Photoshop menu
While you sharpen a part of your photo, it will be difficult to see how your photo is being enhanced. Make sure to zoom in and out to see the results.

However, we benefit most from the sharpen tool. Use this tool to sharpen the iris. It sounds bizarre because the iris is such a small part of the portrait. But the effect is striking. Browse Instagram and look up some of your favourite portraits. There is a 95% chance that the eyes have been sharpened.

The Healing brush – A beginner’s dream


People are sometimes intimidated by the healing brush. It is worth the time to learn this tool, however. The healing brush essentially takes a sample of a flawless part of a portrait and places it in a spot where there’s an imperfection.

healing brush location within Photoshop
With all tools in Photoshop, remember to click on the "learn more" button to find out all the goodies to the tool you are hovering your mouse over.

So you can guess that the healing brush is there to take away skin blemishes, age spots, and scars. For now, this should be your primary use when fiddling around with this tool.


The healing brush can be very in-depth with parameters like diffusion, “sample” vs “pattern” modes and blend mode options. For us beginners, I strongly suggest you use the default healing brush settings while learning how this tool works.

Blur effects


Whether your portrait subject is wedding, glamour or boudoir, you need to draw attention to the subject. There are so many ways to do this. But the two easiest ways, where you get the most bang for the buck is with vignetting and blurring

location of blur effects in the Photoshop menu
Although there is a blur tool, I suggest that you play with "blur effects" in the filter menu.

Although this is more of a trick, these two techniques help you get the most out of your portrait photo. Learn how to use iris blur and tilt-shift blur. They are in the filter menu under “Blur Gallery”. Experiment with these two tools to see which one you prefer.

You got to get out there and shoot. The more photography projects you do, the better you get at your craft. But once you get in front of that computer and want to deliver the fruit of your labour, nothing will get you up and running faster than learning these 5 easy, quick, and effective tools in Photoshop.

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