We all start from scratch, whether it’s a hobby, craft, or profession. The key to improvement is constant learning, deliberate practice, and refining our workflows and habits to continue becoming better.

Today, let’s take a look at five common retouching mistakes that can stall your progress. I made these mistakes myself, and, in our Retouching Academy group, I see many fellow artists making them as well.

I trained myself to get over these roadblocks, here’s how.

1. Info Overload vs. Practice:

Learning any new skill is great, but over-learning without deliberate practice might be actually holding you back.

In the book “Peak: Secrets from the New Science of Expertise” the excellence experts Anders Ericsson and Robert Pool state:

…these automated abilities [your previously acquired skills] gradually deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve

Purposeful practice has several characteristics that set it apart from what we might call “naive practice,” which is essentially just doing something repeatedly, and expecting that the repetition alone will improve one’s performance.

Sure, devouring YouTube tutorials and trying out Photoshop magic tricks is fun, but will it really lead you to mastering any skill that you can consistently use as a creative professional? And how long that journey is going to take?

If you are just starting to learn retouching, learn the basics first – Layers, Clone Stamp, Healing Brush, Selections, Adjustment Layers, Blending Modes, Dodge & Burn.

Then, practice.

Retouch 10-20-30 images from start to finish (we’ve got some practice files for you here) to solidify your new understanding and skills.

You’ll see a lot more improvement in a much shorter time than continuing to surf through random YouTube retouching tuts that offer no structure, strategy, or direction for acquiring this skill.

Additional food for thought:

  • Spaced Repetition: Instead of consuming large amounts of information at once, spaced repetition systems deliver smaller chunks in increasing intervals, leading to better long-term retention. Studies show a significant advantage of spaced repetition over massed practice, with one study demonstrating a 90% retention rate after 6 months compared to 20% for massed learning (Cepède, 1807). This means that you are better off learning retouching and practicing for an hour or two a few times per week than learning & retouching for 10 hours once a week.
  • Interleaving: Mixing different skill components or practice tasks during learning leads to stronger connections between them and ultimately better performance. Meaning that a full retouch of just one practice image will allow you to practice a range of tools and techniques at once, which is great.  

2. Not Refining Raw Files Before Retouching in Photoshop

There’s a good reason why we shoot in Raw file format. Raw files hold a treasure trove of recorded light and color data, making them much more forgiving than compressed formats.

If you shoot your own images and your lighting skills are not top-notch just yet, you can balance the quality of the captured images before taking them to Photoshop for retouching. It does not make sense to discard all that rich light and color data of Raw files without extracting the best out of the possibilities for each image.

There are many ways to prepare your Raw files for retouching, but here is what I do before I even open an image in Photoshop: My Beauty Retouching Workflow: Before Retouching Even Begins, Part 1, Part 2 and Part 3.

Additional food for thought:

  • Studies on human perception show that viewers are more sensitive to global image properties like brightness and contrast than local details (Winkler, 2015). By optimizing these qualities in your Raw files, you can achieve a more aesthetically pleasing result, and hopefully minimize retouching needed as well.

3. Not Zooming Out Enough

This is a game-changer – stop pixel-peeping! Zooming in too much or staying zoomed in for too long as you are retouching skin, facial features and other details makes you overwork tiny details and lose sight of the bigger picture.

Zoom out often to see the entire face or the entire image and maintain a natural look.

Working when zoomed in for too long makes us spend more time and over-polish everything in the process, losing the realism of the image.

Basically, when staying zoomed in for too long while retouching you are wasting more time on unnecessary details and getting a result that is worse than it could have been.

Our smart retouching panels Beauty Retouch UXP panel & Pixel Juggler UXP.

When I realized that, I had to actively remind myself to zoom out to see the entire image (or just the face) on my screen, especially when Dodging & Burning. And only zoomed in when I needed to manipulate a small area using small D&B brushes – then zoom back out again.

It soon became second nature.

Just make an initial effort and you’ll see the benefits very quickly, and see how fast your retouching results will improve from this tiny but important working habit!

4. Not Checking Your Progress

In the past 7-8 years, I’ve had quite a few retouching assistants for commercial projects that I shoot, as well as the commercial retouching projects through Avenue Retouching Agency.

They handle the initial cleanup, basic skin and hair retouching, and then I adjust their results, fine-tune, color correct, color match, and finalize each image.

Even though my assistants are very skilled, one important thing I had to teach almost all of them is to frequently toggle the working layers in the PSD file to monitor their retouching progress and compare the interim results to the original as often as possible throughout each retouch.

It’s simple but vital.

If you don’t toggle, you risk drifting away from the realism of the original capture. Over-retouching, unintended reshaping, over-contouring, and other errors can sneak in unnoticed.

I forced myself into the habit of checking my progress often, and I do it with intention.

I stop and zoom out to see the entire image, toggle all working layers to see where I am in relation to the original capture.

I toggle many times – on/off, on/off… – while I am scanning the entire image, from the overall look to local parts of it to make sure I did not unintentionally deviate too far anywhere.

Model @kensnation, ⁠Makeup & hair by @lupemoreno_mua ,⁠Photo & post @juliakuzmenko ⁠

And if I do notice such deviations, I either adjust the Opacity of the respective layers, add Layer Masks and conceal my errors, or even group multiple layers and add a Layer Mask to the whole group to correct my mistakes before investing more time and departing further from the original image.

It’s a small step that makes a big impact in maintaining the authenticity of the image.

5. Over-Perfecting Skin and Other Details

Over-brightening eye whites and teeth, over-retouching skin, over-contouring, over-sharpening, over-“liquifying” – you get the idea.

We could talk about each point separately, but I think the tendency to over-retouch certain details stems from a lack of understanding of human anatomy, industry trends, and/or visual taste. But don’t worry, we all begin there 🤷‍♀️

Train your eye for balance and realism.

For example, I love commercial beauty and product imagery, so I constantly examine advertising images by top cosmetics and skincare brands in magazines, cosmetics departments at shopping malls, and cosmetics & beauty supply stores such as Sephora.

Check out the Skin Retouching video course that I developed with Retouching Academy. Our goal for this course is that you gain a great deal of confidence in retouching skin and end up producing results that are both more polished and more natural. Use promo code JKM20 for 20% off.

Notice how subtle imperfections are always left in for a more realistic, human appearance.

Chasing perfection also often leads to unnatural-looking results, especially for beginners.

Train your eye by immersing yourself in beautiful, high-quality imagery of the genre or style that you are into.

It is even more important now than just a few years ago to preserve the realism of the original capture for most beauty brands.


I would also like to add that I believe beginners should go easy on using the Liquify filter if their knowledge of human anatomy is limited.

Learning more about the bone and muscle structure of a human face, and observing human faces in motion with intention will help an artist to know how to subtly re-shape forms when requested by a client without making it obvious to the viewer.

Analyze photos, paintings, and films. The more you see, the better you’ll become at retouching and photography in general.

With a lot of hands-on practice, of course 🙂

Other Notes

I will also quickly mention that for quality retouching results you should definitely consider working with a graphics tablet. Wacom Intuos Pro Small would be my tablet of choice.

And lastly, if photography and retouching are not just a hobby, you need to educate yourself at least on the fundamentals of color management and color calibrate your monitor on a regular basis.

My current color calibration device is Datacolor Spyder X Elite.

Hope you find my notes helpful!

Updated, originally posted on the Master Beauty Photography blog.