Brooks Pro Tip: How to Retouch Photos Using Highlighting and Contouring

March 27, 2013 Christy Schuler Brooks Pro Tips, General, Photography 2 Comments

One of my favorite things about retouching images of people is that I am at times part surgeon, part dentist, part hairstylist, and part makeup artist. So when enhancements are necessary in an image, I often look to techniques from makeup artists. 

One technique that is commonly used by makeup artists is contouring. Contouring is a method for sculpting the face and body by using pigments to lighten areas that protrude and darken areas that recede. For example, to give the illusion of a thinner nose, darkening the sides of the nose will give the feeling that the area is receding, and a small highlight alone the top of the nose will help give dimension and the illusion that the area is protruding. 
Retouching is all about problem solving, and to effectively solve a problem, a good understanding of the subject is necessary. Before any adjustments are made, really study the subject to determine which areas would benefit from contouring.

In the photo below, the top diagram illustrates general areas that recede and protrude on the human face. However, it is important to remember that every face is unique. In some images, the eyes may feel too close together, so highlighting in between the eyes will give the illusion they are farther apart. Yet in other images, the eyes may appear too far apart, so darkening in between the eyes will give the illusion that they are closer together.

How to retouch photos

Once there is a solid understanding of the problem, many techniques can be used to execute the solution. The method I use in Photoshop is to fill a blank layer with 50% grey and place it on the soft light blend mode. I then paint with either a low opacity (10-15%) white paintbrush to highlight or a low opacity (10-15%) black paintbrush to darken. The most difficult part in this process is to refine the brush strokes to keep the image as realistic as possible. The bottom diagram in the photo above illustrates the before and after of an image with only contouring applied.

Christy Schuler is an instructor in the Professional Photography program at Brooks Institute. See more of her work at


Kailie Dan March 27, 2013 at 12:57 PM

This is great information and very helpful. Thanks so much for sharing.

Ben March 27, 2013 at 12:38 PM

I like it! beautiful result

What do you think?