editing before and after

by Rachel Nielson

editing before and after photo

In this before and after tutorial, I am going to walk you through how I edited this image start to finish. I love the expression in his eyes and how he is biting his lip just a little bit. Melts my heart, but I am his mama, so I might be slightly biased!

editing before and after photo

My workflow starts in Adobe Lightroom 4. I import my images and do all of my RAW processing there before importing my photos into Adobe Photoshop CS6.

The first thing I correct in Lightroom is white balance. This image looked pretty good to me straight out of the camera. I know that I sometimes warm things up in Photoshop and so I don’t always warm it up as much as I would in Lightroom if I didn’t know that. I set my camera’s white balance by Kelvin, so it makes it really easy to get great color straight out of the camera.

Next, I am going to crop it so that one of the intersects of the rule of thirds falls on one of his eyes. The highlights look really good to me and I can see that in the histogram, nothing is blown. So my next step is to take it into Photoshop.

editing before and after photo

Once in Photoshop, I am first going to correct the skin. He has some dry skin around his mouth and also a red spot on his cheek. I like to use content aware fill for the little spots and then to take care of  the dry patches, I am going to smooth his skin and also even out his skin tone.

editing before and after photo

If you have CS5 or CS6, you can use the content aware fill by going to edit>fill and then choosing content aware in the drop down box. If you have a previous version of Photoshop, the patch tool or the spot healing brush tool will work great too!

editing before and after photo

To smooth the surface of the skin, I am going to duplicate my photo layer and then go up to the filter menu. Go to filter>blur>Gaussian blur. I usually set the radius to around 9. Hit okay and then your photo will look blurry. In your layers palette, go down and add a layer mask (it is the box that looks like a camera) to the blurred layer and then invert the layer mask. The keyboard shortcut to invert is cmd + I (ctrl + I on a PC). By inverting the layer mask, it should now be black and your photo should no longer look blurry. Now we are going to make sure that the foreground color (the one on top) is white and then select the brush tool. Make sure the layer mask is selected and set your brush opacity set around 20-25%, I am going to brush it onto the skin and reveal the blur layer in the areas that I want it to be.

editing before and after photo

Next I am going to duplicate the photo layer (the keyboard shortcut is cmd + J or ctrl + J on a PC) and I am going to change the foreground color to match his skin tone. I lightly painted it onto his face to even out his skin tone. I again keep my brush at a 20-25% opacity. Once I have covered the skin, I am going to turn down the opacity of the layer so that it keeps the original texture of the skin and looks more natural. When finished, I flatten my layers.

editing before and after photo

Now I am ready to give the image a little pop. I started by duplicating the layer then I go up to Image>Adjustments>Shadows and Highlights. You can see my settings in the screen shot. If the shadows and highlights box does not look like this, make sure to check the ‘show more options’ box at the bottom. Hit Ok. Then on that layer, I reduced the opacity to around 30-35%. It added a little light into some of the shadows and reducing the opacity helps keep it looking natural.

editing before and after photo

Next, we are going to add a layers level to brighten it just a bit and add a little depth. My settings for the levels top sliders are black slider at 16, gray slider at 1.15 and the white slider at 250.

editing before and after photo

A gradient is my next step. First, I am going to make sure that my foreground color is set to white on my main photo layer. Next, I am going to go to my adjustment layers and add a gradient. It is at the top of the adjustment layer options. In the options box, adjust the drop down box that says linear to radial. The angle can stay at 90 degrees and then adjust the scale to fit your image. I set mine here to 145%. Before you close the box, you can drag the circle on the photo to where you think it would be best. Then hit OK. You will see the white circle over your photo. With that layer selected, change the blending mode to overlay and reduce the opacity to around 15%.

editing before and after photo

Adding a little more contrast is next. Go to the adjustment options again and select brightness/contrast. Slide the contrast slider to +24 and then adjust the layer opacity to 61%.

The next step is optional but I love to do it to add some softness to my images. Select the main photo layer and then select a color that matches the skin tone. Then go to the adjustment layers again and select gradient. This time, leave it on the linear setting in the drop down menu. Adjust the angle to one that works for your photo. In this one, I set the angle to 0 and then I adjusted the scale to 52% and hit Ok. Then adjust the opacity of the layer to taste. Mine is set to 37%.

editing before and after photo

Now I am going to flatten my layers and pop the eyes just a tad. First step after flattening, is to duplicate the layer. Now I am going to select my dodge tool and in the options bar at the top, select highlights in the range and set the exposure to 12%. Then I am going to click once or twice on the catchlights in his eyes and once in the color off to the side. It is really easy to over-do it, so make sure you don’t do too much. Then I am going to select the burn tool. For the range, select mid tones and set the exposure to 12%. I am going to brush on his lash line once and a little on the outer edge of his eyes. Again, it is easy to get carried away, so a light touch is key. Now flatten the layers once more.

Then sharpen and save for print or web!

editing before and after photo

editing before and after photoRachel NielsenUtah
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Rachel is a modern wedding photographer based in Salt Lake City, Utah. She loves her supportive hubby, their 5 little ones and staying up late to read. She has an on-going love affair with Photoshop (which started in early 2007) and almost loves it as much as she loves taking photos. Almost. She is also a vendor on Clickin Moms as Digital Darkroom Secrets.


editing before and after photo


  • Jodi says:

    i always enjoy learning the thought process behind how other photographers approach their images. thanks for sharing your editing steps here with us. his little grin is so, so cute! :)

  • Colleen says:

    Thank you for sharing this information. I’m new to photo editing and struggle with how to remove the red from my daughters’ naturally flush cheeks. I did not know about fill layers and this did the trick without leaving her looking plastic.

  • Beautiful! Love your photography style and appreciate you sharing some of your Lightroom tips for making it happen.

  • Lara K says:

    Thank you so much for sharing Rachel! I absolutely love following other photographers editing but really love your clean style. And having a super handsome little guy to photograph doesn’t hurt ;)

  • venus says:

    does this work in any version of lightroom & photoshop?

  • Krista Campbell says:

    This is such a beautiful edit Rachel! Love, love, love!!!

  • Ale says:

    really easy to follow, thanks for sharing.

  • Mel says:

    Thank you so much! This is awesome, such an insightful and detailed look into ways to really get a lot out of PS! Definitely bookmarking!

  • Elly says:

    such a great tutorial! i love love love it! i have been working in PS for a little over a year, and this tutorial taught me so much! i love knowing how other people do things!

  • Katie says:

    Thanks so much for sharing! Is this something that can be done in PSE as well?

  • Marie says:

    Just loved this. Your instructions were fantastic! Thanks so much for the terrific tutorial.

  • Venus-yes, these steps should work in pretty much any version of Photoshop :)

    Katie-Everything can be done in PSE too! The shadows/highlights option is located in the Enhance menu in PSE and doesn’t have as many options but it still works great!

    Thanks everyone for the great feedback!

  • Katja says:

    Fantastic – Thank you very much – really helpful :-)

  • Rachel, this was wonderful!! Thank you so much!! :)

  • I want to use the gradient more, so this tip is going to help my workflow!! Thanks :)

  • Emily says:

    I am saving a link to this blog post for future reference! Photoshop is very overwhelming for me and I love that you showed us your process step-by-step! Thank you so very much!!

  • Brandy says:

    I’ve been learning layers and masking on Ps slowly but surely. This tutorial had several answers to things I was confused about. Thanks so much for sharing!

    Out of curiosity, how long does this edit take you?

  • Yuri says:

    Would i be able to do something similar in light room? I’m hesitating to buy photoshop since I don’t know how to use it. Well, I don’t know how to use either program, but lightroom is much more in my budget. Have you been able to adjust images in lightroom this way? Or as a total beginner and amateur, should I go to photoshop? Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

  • Melissa says:

    Thank you for that tutorial Rachel! I am a LR user primarily. Nice to hear from a fellow Utahan! :)

  • Brandy says:

    I went through and followed all the steps and not only learned SO much more about the options I’ve been trying to learn more about, but I LOVED the edit! So clean and soft, I used it for a baby. Thanks so much again for sharing!

  • Kari says:

    Hi there! Beautiful little boy and gorgeous photo! I am just dipping my toes into photography and I am wondering how long it took you to edit this photo..


  • Kim says:

    Your briljant :) thanks a lot :)

  • Tish says:

    Thanks for sharing this!!! Its full of great tips!! I have CS5 and have never used the content fill. I’m excited to learn about it! Thanks!

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