Innovators and philosophers like Elon Musk and Sam Harris have been theorizing what our world will look like once artificial intelligence completely takes over our everyday lives. We aren’t quite there, but if you’ve ever dreamed of a day when all your skin retouching might be completed using AI and neural networks, well, the future is a lot closer than you might think.
It seems over the last few years the advances in photo-editing and manipulation software have boomed at a rate not seen since the earliest days of Photoshop. Task that used to seem impossible, like replacing a sky convincingly or making perfect mask selections, are now becoming automated. Other retouching jobs like dodging and burning, skin cleanup, and body shape manipulation are now also becoming more and more common with a single click of a button. It’s pretty amazing to see this jump in technology, but it’s also equally frustrating to find that many of the software solutions offering these new artificial intelligence tools are slow, clunky, and at times, buggy and unstable. However, after playing around with some of Retouch4Me’s automated retouching tools, I’m pretty excited for what the future holds.
What Is Retouch4Me?
As a full-time photographer who also runs a massive photography-based website, I felt pretty well acquainted with the major software players in the imaging world. Therefore, I was a bit surprised and skeptical, to be honest, when we received several emails about Retouch4Me and their retouching plugins. From my research online, Retouch4Me is a relatively new company based in Estonia, and although their name sounds kind of cheesy, their products are powerful.
Unlike other major software manufacturers that offer a single editing platform that can be bought or rented for a set price, Retouch4me offers each plugin effect as a stand-alone piece of software. Based on their website, right now, they have eight different effects, including backdrop cleanup, skin retouch, facial dodge and burn, global portrait dodge and burn, and teeth whitening, to name a few. Each of these plugins can be used in Photoshop and Lightroom or can be used as stand-alone software. As far as I can tell, these plugins cannot be directly applied to a single image without running each plugin individually, but if you create a custom action in Photoshop, you can easily make an automated action that uses each effect as needed.
My Personal Experience
I’ve now been using a handful of these plugins for the last month or so, and I have to say the artificial intelligence used under the hood is pretty impressive. You can watch the above video to see quite a few images I’ve processed through Retouch4me’s plugins, but I’ll also post some of my favorites here below. My favorite plugins were by far Portrait Volumes, Skin Tone, Heal, and Dodge and Burn. Those worked the best, while I found the Clean Backdrop tool not to work very well at all. I have not tried the Eye Vessels, Eye Brilliance, or the Teeth Whitening plugins yet, but maybe I’ll go back and buy those sometime down the road.
Below are a few before and after examples of each plugin run by itself, and then, towards the bottom, I’ll show you a few stacked on top of each other.
Dodge and Burn
The Dodge and Burn plugin seem to have the greatest effect on most of the images I ran through the software. As you can see above, the AI effectively determines which areas of the skin should be lightened and which areas should be darkened to give a smoother, more pleasing effect. It works pretty well on both light and dark skin and was, by far, my favorite plugin out of the five I tested.
I have to admit, Portrait Volumes is a strange name for a plugin, but essentially, what it does is add even more dramatic dodging and burning around the edges of your portrait. It quickly gives you that Martin Schoeller or Chris Knight effect that so many photographers love to emulate. This retouching filter can be a little heavy-handed, so I found it best to pull the blend slider down to levels around 100-130 for a subtler but still noticeable effect. This plugin was my second favorite out of the bunch.
The Heal plugin is what most photographers think of when they need skin retouching. So many skin-healing plugins and effects, including Photoshop’s own neural skin retouching filter, suffers from major skin blurring and detail loss that I find unusable. Manually dodging and burning along with frequency separation and cloning are my three favorite techniques for fixing skin, but depending on your subject’s skin complexion, using these three tools can take a good bit of time to achieve the desired results.
Retouch4me’s Heal plugin doesn’t suffer from the soft and blurry shortfalls that other software does, but at times, it also misses some major blemishes that you might want to have removed. In some ways, it’s best to err on the more subtle side of blemish removal, but I do wish this tool could be pushed a little heavier at times.
Full Edit with Heal, Dodge and Burn, Skin Tone, and Portrait Volumes
In my opinion, Retouch4me’s software shines when you apply for multiple passes on a single image. In the above self-portrait, I ran the image through Heal, Skin Tone, Dodge and Burn, and Portrait Volumes in that order. What’s interesting looking at the final image with the before and after slider above is that the software didn’t necessarily fix every little blemish or stray hair, but it also didn’t produce any major errors. This is super important to me because I’ve seen so many horrendous errors in skin retouching from other software that I personally never felt comfortable blindly using their artificial intelligence skin clean-up tools without rechecking every image.
Retouch4Me’s plugins so far have been so good and without major errors that I would feel confident batching entire sets of images through their software without worrying a client might find a major retouching mistake upon delivery. That is huge and a total game-changer for this type of work. Sure, the Heal tool might remove a natural freckle here and there, which might not be desirable, but all of the skin retouching that does take place isn’t noticeable without seeing the before and after examples side by side.
After using a handful of Retouch4me’s tools over the last few weeks, I have to say I’m overwhelmingly excited about these new plugins available for photographers. Retouching skin can often lead down this labor-intensive rabbit hole that is only really appreciated by pixel-peepers or those looking to print massively large prints. I’ve personally wasted so many hours, probably months of my life, to be honest, retouching skin that I’m thrilled this necessary evil is close to finally being a chore of the past. Every great skin retoucher will tell you there is a true art to the craft, and any software claiming to completely remove the artist from the equation is probably over-reaching just a tad. However, Retouch4Me has raised the bar even higher on what is possible with artificial intelligence and automation in the world of high-end photography.
Initially, I thought these plugins would make my life super easy when it comes to retouching my portrait work, but now that I’ve had some time to think about all of my different photography workflows, I think these tools are even more exciting. Retouching wedding work or any session work that included 1,000s of images was simply something I wasn’t interested in doing at all. However, as this software gets better and better, I can see how batching all my final selects from an event or wedding and running the entire folder through some of these tools would be a total game-changer. Not only could I save hours, but I could also improve the actual quality of my final product delivered to my clients. I’ve never shot school portraits or a lot of senior portraits but being able to send proofing sheets home with basic skin retouching already applied to the images would most definitely increase sales and make your work stand out against the competition.
Now, before I conclude that every photographer needs to go out and buy all eight of these plugins, these tools do come at a cost. As mentioned above, instead of downloading one suite with all of these tools at your disposal, Retouch4Me has created an a la carte style menu with each plugin being sold separately. The good news is you only have to buy those retouching tools you need or use often, but the bad news is each one of these tools costs between $124 and $149 each. Compared to other photo-editing programs, this is incredibly expensive, especially for the extreme niche effects they offer. That being said, I do have to admit that most of the tools I used for this video are the best in class. No other software I have used comes close to the results I was able to achieve, and the amount of time I will save in post-production is definitely worth $250 to $500 for me personally.
Luckily, after writing this article, I was able to get a discount code, FSTOPPERSRETOUCHNOW, to save our readers 10% off their entire Retouch4Me order. It’s still a pretty pricey bit of software, but if you try just the Dodge and Burn or the Portrait Volumes plugin, I think you will find yourself wanting to add a few more plugins to your workflow.