Pop with colour: portrait editing with Elena Paraskeva

Elena Paraskeva shows us the subtleties of editing a photoshoot created with eye-popping coloured gels.

I love creating images using colour gels with my lighting—I like the challenge. With skill you can make your colours co-exist harmoniously to produce a pleasing and balanced palette. With coloured light you have to illuminate the subject beautifully while making sure the colours are properly saturated. You also have to carefully control the colours so they don’t bleed into each other.

These images are a lot of fun to edit because you are free to experiment. You are no longer bound by numerous minute refinements to make the skin tone look just right (Colour Balance I am talking about you!).

A video showing elements of Elena’s retouching process.

Colour mode

I always work in LAB mode (LAB 16 bit) because it allows you to employ a more dynamic range of colour changes. In Affinity Photo, it’s much easier to work in LAB mode than in other software. You can switch back and forth from one mode to another, with all functions enabled, and without needing to flatten the image every time you do so.

Making notes

First I import the image into Affinity Photo, it is purposefully flat and dull because I shot it as a RAW file and chose to gradually build the contrast and colour where and how I saw fit.

Before I dive into the editing, I like to circle the areas I want to edit on a separate pixel layer. I keep referring to this until the end of the process, simply because after staring at the same image for a few hours, it is only natural that problem areas start becoming more difficult to spot.

Outlining the areas to edit.

First step

The first thing I wanted to fix was the front leaf, because the water drops didn’t reach it and it therefore looked a bit dry. In order to make it look wet, I grabbed the Free hand Selection Tool and selected the blue wet area on the model’s cheek. I then placed it on the leaf, enlarged it a bit and changed the Blend Mode to Hard Light.

I softened the edges by erasing at a reduced opacity with the Paint Brush Tool and then added a Selective Colour Layer to bring the cyan colour of the copied layer closer to that of the leaf. To make sure the Selective Colour Layer only affected the copied layer, I right-clicked on the Adjustment Layer and selected Mask To Below.

Lastly I added a Gaussian Blur of 0.5px to match the sharpness of the leaf. I duplicated the layer several times and placed the copied layers along the leaf, erasing edges where needed.

Selecting the wet area of the cheek to copy onto the dry part of the leaf.
Placing and blending the water droplets from the cheek onto the leaf.


I then started working on areas that could benefit from the Inpainting Brush Tool. While I do a lot of skin retouching with Frequency Separation, the Inpainting Brush works best when used on an empty layer (set to Current and Below) because it impacts both texture and colour.

In my case it got rid of the nipple that was showing through the nylon wrap while maintaining the texture of the wrap, blended the area of the nails that looked dirty with the white part of the nails and fixed the ice-cream cone seamlessly.

Spot the difference?

Frequency Separation

Next stop, Frequency Separation! In other software this is a rather cumbersome process because you need to manually create two stamp layers with specific blend modes applied. In Affinity Photo all you have to do is go to Filters and select Frequency Separation and you automatically have your two layers (I set the Radius to 10 for my high resolution image).

The High Frequency Layer is used for impacting texture (such as pimples and marks), and the Low Frequency Layer is used for impacting colour/tone (for example areas that are dark and need to be lighter, or have a different tone to blend with the rest of the skin).

The Healing Brush Tool worked pretty well on both frequency layers, perfect for taking care of the cracks on the swimming cap and the minor skin blemishes. When I needed to alter the edges of different areas I used the Clone Brush Tool.

Part of the models lips were lit by the blue colour gel and looked odd, so I needed to make that part pink like the rest of the lips. On the Low Frequency Layer I changed the Clone Brush Tool’s Blend Mode to Lighten and then to Soft Light to bring out more colour. I reduced the Flow to 10% to gradually build the effect.

Before and after. Note the subtle differences in colour on the lips and the bathing cap and in the shadows on her cheek and nose.

Dodge and Burn

While Affinity Photo has built-in Dodge and Burn Tools, my favourite method of creating a dodge and burn effect is by is using Curves. (I switched to RGB mode within the Curve Adjustment Layer since I was in LAB mode). I create two Curves Adjustment Layers, one to lighten dark patches and one to lighten areas that need darkening.

This process is the most cumbersome and time consuming of all the editing that I do, but it is indispensable.

Once I am done with the first part of this process I create two more Curves Adjustment Layers. This time I use them to create more dimension and to make the image pop by accentuating the highlights and shadows that are already present. This is part of the process that can be easily overdone, making skin look fake, so it is always best to group the two layers and reduce opacity as you see fit. This helps to obtain more natural results.

Subtle use of curves to lighten and darken areas of the image.

Painting in an adjustment

At this point things look good, but the image is still pretty flat because as I mentioned before, it was captured as a RAW file. Time to kick it up a notch.

Again, my favourite method is using Curves, but this time I didn’t alter the curves themselves, instead I used the power of Blend Modes.

Painting in the Adjustment Layer to make the eyes pop with colour.

I wanted to make the eyes pop, so I created a Curves Adjustment Layer, and without making any changes to the actual curves, I changed the Blend Mode in the Curves Studio to Screen. I then selected Invert, and using the Paint Brush Tool set to white, I painted in the effect just over the eyes. I then adjusted Opacity to make the effect more subtle and realistic.

Next I created another Curve Adjustment Layer, and again without adjusting the curves, I set the Blend Mode to Overlay and Opacity at about 25%. I could have set it at a higher opacity and be done with it, but I like to make changes to my images in very small increments.

Adjusting the background

The next two steps were designed to separate my subject from the background even more. The first step was to create a Curves Adjustment Layer, my aim was to to bring the magentas closer to a deeper purple and the cyans closer to a cool blue, while at the same creating a bit more contrast. I did this in LAB mode by playing with the AOpponent and BOpponent curves as well as the Master Curve.

I inverted the mask and applied this only to the body and neck of the model (this took care of the area on the chest that was a bit reddish), the cyan part of her face and the bluish part of the swimming cap.

Before and after the Curves have been altered to enhance the magenta and cyan colour tones.

Next step was to selectively decrease exposure for the background. First I created an RGB Curves Adjustment Layer and dragged the Master Curve down a bit. By selecting my subject and the front leaves with the Selection Brush Tool and using the Erase Brush Tool to remove the Curves Adjustment within that selection, I was able to make them look brighter against the background.

Note the subtle change in the background tones when seen side by side.

The last thing that I wanted to do was increase the vibrancy of the magenta tones. If I had used the HSL or the Vibrance Adjustment Layers the colours would look overly saturated and we would start getting chromatic aberrations where the different colours meet (such as the cheek area). So once again I created a LAB Curves Adjustment Layer and dragged the AOpponent Curve up while dragging the BOpponent ever so slightly down.

Adjustment of the curves to enhance the magenta tones.

Fading out the brows

I wanted to give my model a more alienesque look, so I decided to fade out the eyebrows. As I didn’t want to get rid of them entirely, I used the Clone Brush Tool set to Current Layer & Below on an empty Pixel Layer and set it to Lighten. I sampled from the light pink areas of the forehead and using a low Flow percentage, gradually brushed over the eyebrows.

Using the Clone Brush Tool to fade out the eyebrows.

Liquify and freeze

I used Liquify Persona near the end of my editing process to refine my model’s characteristics.

For this image, I needed to open up the model’s right eye which was a bit sleepy, straighten up the nose a bit, fix the upper teeth, push down the shoulder and fix the top of the right arm that looked a bit weird because part of the leaf was in front of it. I mainly used the Liquify Push Forward Tool, but to prevent unwanted warping of nearby areas (for example the lower teeth that were too close to the upper ones), I used the Liquify Freeze Tool to effectively exclude them from that specific action.

A before and after circling the areas where Liquify has been used to make minor changes.
Using the Freeze Tool to prevent areas from moving when Liquify is used.

Let it rest

This is the stage at which I usually leave the image to rest before I put on the last finishing touches.

After taking in the image once again, I noticed that the two pink cheeks had a slightly different tone and saturation. I created a new Pixel Layer, set the Blend Mode to Soft Light, sampled the pink from the left and applied it to the right cheek while reducing Opacity to 25%. I then created another Pixel Layer, set the Blend Mode to Colour, sampled the pink from the less saturated cheek and painted it on the left (70% opacity), thus balancing everything out.

Colour matching the cheek.

Colour Balance

The very last step for all my images is using the Colour Balance Adjustment to boost colour contrast on the entire image. I also use it in selected areas that I need to make stand out even more, or make slight tone changes. I find this is a much better way than using the Brightness and Contrast Adjustment Layer. In this instance, I got rid of the slight yellow hint in the pinks, and added contrast by moving the yellow/blue slides in opposite directions for the highlights and shadows. I then used the techniques described previously to only apply the effect on the subject’s face and body.

And that’s it. From pretty good to great in very small increments!

Artist relations
Charlotte is an illustrator and arts lecturer who is passionate about the creative industries and is now part of our artist relations team. Her interests include mid 20th century inspired design, comic books, board games, movie memorabilia, baking cakes, feminism and yoga. She shares her 1960’s home with her graphic designer husband and her toddler son who likes to hide her iPad. Get in touch with Charlotte if you have work you have made in Affinity apps to share with us, or tag your work with #madeinaffinity in the usual places.
Credits & Footnotes

Images are copyright © of Elena Paraskeva and used with permission