Commercial Retouching Workflow

Sef McCullough teaches the ultimate commercial retouching workflow

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Sef McCullough shares the post-production workflow which has made him one of the world's leading high-end retouchers. Sef reveals for the first time his bullet-proof approach and advanced techniques to change the way you retouch product photography. This tutorial will improve your skills and give you the understanding of how to deliver high-end commercial images to your clients.

High-end commercial retouchers often keep their methods and workflow as a well-guarded secret in order to stay ahead of the competition. Sef McCullough is on the leading edge of commercial retouching with his mastery of Photoshop. As one of the world’s most sought after digital artists, Sef’s workflow has been taught to only a handful of his peers.

Sef has partnered with us to bring you his photography retouching workflow and an in-depth look at many of his techniques in this incredible tutorial, “Commercial Retouching Advanced Workflow.” If you are wanting to learn advanced post-production techniques combined with a bullet proof Photoshop retouching workflow, this tutorial will be your game changer. We combine both a product shoot and a lifestyle shoot to prove to you that an advanced commercial workflow can be applied to any image and the subject matter doesn't actually matter.

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  • 01. Commercial Workflow
    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Sef McCullough Biography
      Sef McCullough Biography (3:58)

      Welcome to Commercial Retouching with retoucher, Sef McCullough. To begin this training series, hear first hand how Sef entered the industry of high end commercial retouching. As the evolution of software and technology progressed, hear Sef's pursuit of higher level photography retouching, working with some of the world's largest, most visible brands. At the core of his process, learn what drives him to create in a demanding, ever evolving commercial world.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / The Client Brief
      The Client Brief (26:31)

      Join high end retoucher, Sef McCullough and photographer, Adam Levy, in a real world creative brief. Listen as Sef works to establish the intention, motivation and ultimate direction for a creative campaign featuring the Nike Air Max athletic shoe. Learn not just the definition of a creative brief but how to interact with a photographer's vision and process to establish a creative road map for high end commercial product photography retouching.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Setting Up Your Workspace
      Setting Up Your Workspace (9:51)

      With the creative brief established, follow the road map with high end retoucher, Sef McCullough. In this first step of the process, learn best practices to establish a clean, logical workspace for retouching in Photoshop. Learn from an experienced pro, how to optimize the right photography tools in an organized way, so that creativity doesn't become hampered by technology. Learn to customize your own workspace and save presets that will transition through Photoshop versions and updates.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / RAW Processing
      RAW Processing (5:12)

      After establishing a clean workspace in Photoshop, jump over to Capture One. Learn the importance of using a camera RAW module to process RAW image data from your photographs. Establish best practices to apply quality assurance to the images you retouch, every single time. Learn how to restore valuable data, creating balance in an image for optimum results during the often rigorous retouching applied in a Photoshop workflow. Work in high-dynamic range to recover valuable image data, analyze clarity to avoid artifacts in high-frequency image data. Create working values across the different tonal ranges of an image. Once balance is established, prepare the image for retouching in Photoshop.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Shaping
      Shaping (16:21)

      Every step to this point in the workflow has been to prepare the image for retouching. With a creative map, efficient workspace, and balanced RAW processing, begin retouching the Nike Air Max athletic shoe in Photoshop. With this first step, learn best practices for shaping the shoe. Leverage the power of Photoshop's Liquefy tool balanced with the seasoned experience of high end retoucher, Sef McCullough, create a clean, dimensional shap. Use Smart Objects, to work non-destructively. Learn keyboard shortcuts and tool comparisons to expedite your product retouching workflow. Manipulate form, shape, and line while listening to Sef's philosophy and approach.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Clipping & Isolation
      Clipping & Isolation (43:40)

      Step by step, advance through the product retouching process, methodically following the road map established by the creative brief. In this section, learn the best practices for isolation in Photoshop. Leverage the power of creating paths using Photoshop's pen tool. Create paths around and inside of the image. Follow high end retoucher, Sef McCullough, to learn the best techniques when using the Pen Tool - standard and two pass clipping. Learn shorthand naming schemes when cutting paths, understood by retouchers and designers alike. Learn the foundations of retouching product photography by mastering isolation and clipping using the pen tool.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / File Setup
      File Setup (42:06)

      Learning to isolate and clip can be daunting. Continue to follow high end retoucher, Sef McCullough, as he establishes clean workflow and best practices in complex workflows. With a library of paths set up, learn a method called tiered masking. Learn a different retouching method, using pixel layers to eliminate errors that can occur with mask edges. Develop a thorough method of organization and continue to use Smart Objects, to harness the power of a non-destructive workflow.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Markup
      Markup (6:12)

      As you progress through the organization of the retouching process, learn how to identify all of the problem areas and distractions within an image like this. Walk through and dissect the Nike Air Max athletic shoe, using markup to note and define the areas of interest to smooth out the shoe and idealize all of the forms. Evaluate texture, specks, dust, and shoe form at a more localized level. Learn to see the subtle details while not losing the natural range of the image.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Cleanup
      Cleanup (44:17)

      After completing the markup stage, move into cleaning up the Nike Air Max athletic shoe. Focus on textural detail as well as larger areas of value and hue. Follow high end retoucher, Sef McCullough, in a more advanced method of frequency separation. Using an advanced texture cleanup process, overcome the negative association with frequency separation by eliminating the problems around low frequency blur. Leverage the power of the median tool and wipe away the destructive haloes cause by gaussian blur. Challenge yourself to think in a new way, following an advanced texture cleanup process.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Contouring
      Contouring (41:09)

      With a more advanced method of frequency separation as part of your toolset, transition to the contouring phase of retouching. Utilize the power of Photoshop's curve tools, to dodge and burn your image for creating subtle, smooth rolloff that adds dimension. Learn to dynamically optimize the working Photoshop file size to optimize system performance. To avoid computer system lag and file corruption, learn best practices saving your files in a PSB format.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Background
      Background (21:41)

      Cleanup is a massive task in high end retouching. And this is the highest end workflow to establish the most creative freedom. With the complex technical phase of the process complete, move into the creative exploration of retouching. Shift hue and saturation to create a different body color on the shoe with ease. Reference the creative brief, from photographer, Adam Levy, and build a background aligned with his creative direction. Begin to manipulate color, modo, integration. Start having a lot of fun!

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Shadow
      Shadow (24:24)

      At this stage, utilize an action to create a convincing shadow cast on the custom background that you've created. Use the power of curves and hue/saturation layering for a convincing color build. Adjust luminosity and hue in a separate and organized way. Manipulate white and black points, creating real body for a convincing, realistic shadow effect. Learn how to evaluate and correct unwanted banding that often appears when generating custom gradients in Photoshop.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Creative Elements - Bubble Sole
      Creative Elements - Bubble Sole (41:36)

      Begin to integrate some of the finer details in the retouch, adding creative elements to the bubble sole of the athletic shoe. Use flares that were shot by photographer, Adam Levy, and integrate them into the product story. Jump back over from Photoshop to Capture One, and select the best exposures for the light flares. Use channel masking to create a clean composite for the new integrated elements. Learn the value of a staged, intelligent workflow, building in flexibility for client feedback.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Color Grade
      Color Grade (14:26)

      Using paths, curves, and group, learn to color grade add additional lighting effects to bring the Nike Air Max athletic shoe closer to a finished look. Utilized the organization from the early stages of the retouching process and leverage the power of masks. Work through the length of the shoe, from toe to heel, assessing color, complement, and balance to create a professional color grade.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Workflow-Finishing
      Workflow-Finishing (13:59)

      Before sending the image off for round 1 review, use a couple of finishing moves to bring the entire creative image together. Using high-pass and some grain across the surface of the shoe, create a consistent, finished surface. Learn do develop a process for finishing with subtle details to set your retouching apart from the rest. With the creative complete, learn to assess the image for any final mistakes before sending images off for client review.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / File Prep for Send Off
      File Prep for Send Off (2:08)

      With the first round of retouching complete, learn best practices for sending files to your client. Learn the advantage of using prepared actions, that duplicate and flatten your image. Prepare the image into a review ready format, with optimum compression settings and send the file using standard FTP options for client review.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / First Review
      First Review (31:32)

      With the first round of retouching sent to the client, watch a real world client interaction, between retoucher, Sef McCullough and photographer, Adam Levy. Watch a live breakdown and discussion about assessing current work, pushing the creative further, taking client feedback, and developing a process for the second round of retouching.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / First Revisions
      First Revisions (39:45)

      With fresh notes from the creative brief, work with high end retoucher, Sef McCullough, to execute the notes from the first review. Using the markup notes from the call, begin to incorporate the feedback into the working file. Begin with the most intensive notes and work forward to refine the creative. Learn workflow practices that allow you to see your progress as you continue to refine the image. Address cleanup, brightness and saturation. Create an effect for transillumination or sub-surface light scattering. Learn now to address photographer's notes, maintain the relationship, while problem solving the creative. Reference backplates and address the notes, moving the creative though the second round of retouching in Photoshop.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Second Review
      Second Review (15:20)

      With the first round of revisions complete, observe as high end retoucher, Sef McCullough, works through a second live review to go over the image progress. In the review, watch as the photograph gives detailed notes on the color, lighting effects and refines his vision. Listen as Sef, asks pointed questions to move the edit closer to a finished, deliverable image.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Second Revisions
      Second Revisions (15:27)

      After the second round review, learn to adapt with ongoing notes, use the information a client gives you, as well as decipher sometimes confusing information, common to creative collaboration. Address the second round of notes focusing on honing colors, creating more subtlety and realism with the lighting effects. Using selective color layering, dial in the colors. And create more demarcation between the sole and bubble of the Nike Air Max athletic shoe. Complete all notes and send the second round revisions off for review.

    • Thumbnail for Commercial Workflow / Final Delivery
      Final Delivery (9:38)

      After receiving final approval from the client, apply the final changes to create a commercial deliverable image. Integrate a new shadow for more speed and shape. Using high pass, smart objects and filters, quickly iterate through the final notes. Finish the final pass of retouching a create a clean, professional, commercial image for the Nike Air Max athletic shoe.

  • 02. Lifestyle Application
    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Introduction & Creating a Plan
      Introduction & Creating a Plan (8:53)

      With the entire process of retouching a commercial shoe complete, apply the system to a new lifestyle image. Shift to working with an image that has more environmental qualities. Focus on creating a plan to retain the natural reality of the shot, while gaining full creative control of the subject athlete and environment. Analyze each element of the image, marking up creative changes and adjustments and prepare the shot for a full retouch in Photoshop.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Linked Workflow
      Linked Workflow (17:07)

      Begin retouching the lifestyle image by creating balance in the RAW file. Use a smart object workflow to create flexibility in raw changes. Enable profile correction and correct lens distortion. Leverage the power of Adobe Camera RAW. Create an image with the highest level of detail in data, that will serve the entire retouching workflow and yield the best fidelity image. Adjust the horizon and begin to integrate separate shoe exposures to replace the show wardrobe in the original capture. Leverage smart objects, scaling and opacity to visualize the replacement shoes as possible elements for compositing. Using transform and warp, manipulate the new shoe elements and adjust for a rough composite. Work from macro to micro level, gaining a clear visualization of the bigger picture and then the specific details. After building a rough composite and confirming the shoe elements, move forward into a linked workflow.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Shoe Retouching
      Shoe Retouching (1:14:42)

      With a linked workflow established, begin honing the replacement shoe elements for compositing into the main lifestyle base image. Shape and refine the shoes with the Liquefy tool in Photoshop. Use silo clipping to create clean mask, cutting clean, flexible paths for compositing. Leverage the knowledge gained from the commercial workflow to create interior clipping and an organized tiered masking system. Use two-pass clipping, liquefy, and smart objects in a linked workflow.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Integration
      Integration (39:53)

      With clean clipping and isolation of the replacement shoes, integrate these elements into the main lifestyle base image. Utilize Liquefy to tweak the shape of the replacement shoes, using the original shoes as a base target. With the shoes placed, develop a process to integrate them with the athlete's body, respecting the authenticity of the original image and subject. Improve the visual quality, flow, and shape of the athlete's apparel, adjusting the base structure. With the shoes replaced and the structure of the apparel reshaped, learn how to isolate the athlete from the background environment, using a complete silo clip out. While cutting the clipping mask path, correct chromatic aberration within the image. Work efficiently and intelligently to create a solid mask that creates a strong foundation and will integrate into the workflow as a whole.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Isolation
      Isolation (17:20)

      Move through retouching the lifestyle image in Photoshop. In this next section, focus on isolating all of the elements in the athlete. Completely deconstruct the athlete, with the same process applied to the shoe. Separate shirt from skin, shorts from athletic tights. Learn to break everything apart to give you the flexibility to manipulate everything separately and individually. Use a two-path process and use the silo path that you've already created at the outset. Work through each element of the athletes body to create clean isolated masks.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / File Setup
      File Setup (29:30)

      With the athlete completely broken out into distinct masks for each body part, begin to create a folder structure for the organizational workflow. Break out each body part into named folders moving incrementally for seamless integration. Create smart objects, setup liquefy guides, and follow procedural steps for an organized system. Color code your layered organization to easily visualize each body part, article of closing, and shoes. Use the same tiered masking system, with colored fill layers to ensure clean mask edges and no unwanted overlapping. After creating a clean, masking system move through each mask layer, liquefying to shape clean edges for isolating and separating the athlete from the background, while creating isolations within the athlete for skin and wardrobe cleanup.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Cleanup
      Cleanup (49:26)

      After creating clean edges for all of the isolated elements of the athlete subject, move forward into frequency separation to cleanup the skin and apparel. Utilize a refined, advanced texture cleanup method of frequency separation, that eliminates unwanted haloes and distractions. Create believable, natural skin texture with an improved, even fun approach to frequency separation. Using gaussian, median, and the mixer brush, leverage the power of Photoshop to wipe away distractions in skin, cloth, and virtually any surface. For this section focus on cleaning up the apparel.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Skin Cleanup
      Skin Cleanup (27:52)

      Using the advanced texture cleanup process of Frequency Separation 2.0, retouch skin with ease. Wipe away distractions using the power of Photoshop's mixer brush. Avoid the fundamental flaws of frequency separation, learning advanced concepts and implementation from high end retoucher, Sef McCullough.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Color Change
      Color Change (21:05)

      Continue to leverage the preparation, organization, and clean edges built using, the silo and two pass clipping process. Retouch with creative front of mind, focusing on color control and manipulation for the athlete's apparel. Using hue/saturation and curves, enjoy creating your own look for a lifestyle image. Separate color from light and dark adjustments for complete control. Learn how to convert a white athletic shirt to a realistic black. Manipulate color and luminosity seeing color across a range of tonal ranges. Use Frequency Separation 2.0 for advanced texture cleanup, applying final texture tweaks during the color change process.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Subject & Background Integration
      Subject & Background Integration (37:53)

      Advancing towards the final stages of the lifestyle image retouch, focus on the perimeter outline of the athlete in relationship to the background of the image. Work to create a clean, refined, high end extraction for stand out results. Learn a couple of tricks from high end retoucher, Sef McCullough that will expedite your workflow and provide the highest quality results in subject and background integration. Apply Frequency Separation, the silo mask, leverage Photoshop's Lasso Tool, feathering, the mixer brush, channel masks, curves, the paint brush and Content Aware Fill for a clean separation of subject and background.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Mood & Grade
      Mood & Grade (1:04:28)

      The critical and technical construction of the image has been the majority of the focus. Transition into the establishing story and mood through grading the lifestyle image. Moving towards final touches, focus on adding contrast and manipulating saturation. Use curves and the targeted adjustment tool. Learn to evaluate the tonal range of color for intelligent, motivated grading. Work in targeted and global moves for a dimensional grade. Use Photoshop's lasso and masking tool sets for specific areas to adjust color.

    • Thumbnail for Lifestyle Application / Final Look & Fixes
      Final Look & Fixes (46:41)

      Congratulations! You've completed the Commercial Retouching course with high end retoucher, Sef McCullough. In this final video, work with Sef to finalize the lifestyle image. Follow his markup to fix any distraction and complete the color grade for a finished, deliverable image. Thank you for pursuing this course. Go and implement your knowledge and create something new. Share it within our community and reach out for support, questions, and feedback. We want to see the work that you are doing in Commercial Retouching.



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