The Business of Boudoir »

Don’t Brush Me Off – Part 2

(aka Everything you ever wanted to know about the Brush Tool in Lightroom and Photoshop)

In Part 1 I talked about the Adjustment Brush Tool in Lightroom. Definitely a useful tool in your arsenal. But if you want to get into the nitty gritty of retouching, the Brush Tool in Photoshop is where it’s at.

Remember: We can do pixel-level editing in Photoshop whereas Lightroom is more global adjusting, even with the Adjustment Brush Tool.

The nice thing is once you learn the various brush settings, they apply to other tools in Photoshop, like the Clone Stamp Tool.

To Wacom or Not To Wacom?

The question always arises, do I need to use a tablet? Well in short no. You can definitely edit with a mouse or trackpad, BUT using a tablet is so much nicer. I use the Wacom Intuos Pro Small. I was using the Intuos 4 Medium and still use it on a second computer, but I have found for the type of work I am doing, the small is an adequate size. The Intuos Pro has the standard features of the other tablets but is also touch sensitive so you can use the Mac Swipe moves with it. I don’t normally use the touch function as I’m used to the pen, but it could be handy for some.

I also do not use the pressure sensitivity functionality with the tablet and Photoshop. I prefer to manually control my brush settings for most of my retouching work. Of course if you are using a mouse you will be working this way anyway.

Size and Hardness

The first thing you want to set is the brush size and hardness. Hardness is the amount of feather from the edge. 0% is a super soft brush while 100% will give you a super hard edge.


The other callouts are pretty self explanatory. You can tweak the brush shape and angle, select a brush from the currently loaded brush set or from a Recent brush. You can also save a new preset and under the settings are lots of options for changing how the brushes display, Text, Small Icon, Large Icon, Stroke etc. This is also where you can save brushes to your hard drive and load brushes that you may have downloaded or purchased.

Now for the VooDoo

Screen Shot 2014-08-20 at 8.04.47 PM


We are mostly concerned with Opacity and Flow here. But let me quickly explain the other settings.

  • Mode – These are the same as the Layer Modes and cause your brush strokes to interact differently with the underlying pixels. I will sometimes use Color mode.
  • The Icon next to Opacity turns Pressure Sensitivity on for Opacity. You need a Pressure Sensitive tablet for this to work.
  • The Icon next to flow enables Airbrush mode. The longer you hold a brush in one place, the more the paint builds up. Just like using a spray can.
  • The last Icon in the row turns on Pressure Sensitivity for Size.

Opacity and Flow

Opacity sets the maximum amount of your color that will be laid down in one stroke. So if it is set to 50%, your color will never be more that 50% opaque in one single brush stroke. If you brush over the same area again it will lay down another 50% opaque layer of color.

Flow determines how much comes out of the brush while you are moving the brush. So a flow of 50% will never place more than a 50% opaque layer of color, unless you go back over the same area during the same brush stroke. Then it will add additional paint.

Opacity sets the overall limit in one brush stroke so no matter what the flow is, if you set Opacity at 50%, if you go over the same area in the same brush strokes multiple times, the color will never exceed 50% opaque. Let’s look at some basic examples. These are all done with one single stroke of the brush

100 pixel Hard Edge Brush with 100% Opacity and 100% FlowPIN

100 pixel Hard Edge Brush with 100% Opacity and 100% Flow

100 pixel Soft Edge Brush with 100% Opacity and 100% FlowPIN

100 pixel Soft Edge Brush with 100% Opacity and 100% Flow

100 pixel Hard Edge Brush with 500% Opacity and 100% FlowPIN

100 pixel Hard Edge Brush with 50% Opacity and 100% Flow

100 pixel Hard Edge Brush with 100% Opacity and 50% FlowPIN

100 pixel Hard Edge Brush with 100% Opacity and 50% Flow

Wait!!! What just happened there? Why all the dots? Well that is how brushes work in Photoshop. They lay down a series of spaced dots. The dots are defined by the brush shape I mentioned earlier. If you dig into the Brush Panel (F5) you will see a setting called Spacing. It defaults to 25%.

brush-spacingPIN brush-spacing-100PIN

At 100% Spacing you can see the individual dots.

So to explain our 50% flow image, what happens is the first dot gets laid down at 50% opacity, but the next dot is actually overlaying the dot by 75% so it now paints an additional 50%. As it goes across the stroke it builds up more and more. Now it will only build up as high as the Opacity setting which in this case is 100%. Let’s look at that same stroke with 100% spacing.

100 pixel Hard Edge Brush with 100% Opacity and 50% Flow with 100% Brush SpacingPIN

100 pixel Hard Edge Brush with 100% Opacity and 50% Flow with 100% Brush Spacing

That looks more like what you would expect, 50% flow, one stroke, each dot at 50% opacity. Try a brush with this setting and then without releasing the mouse button, keep painting over the area and you will see the paint accumulate up to the max of 100%.

This last image shows the effect of building up, not only going over the same area on the same stroke, but multiple different brush strokes.

100 pixel Hard Edge Brush with 10% Opacity and 5% FlowPIN

100 pixel Soft Edge Brush with 10% Opacity and 5% Flow

You can see that it paints very feathered  gradual brush strokes. Believe me when I say the first brush stroke you wont even be able to see. As you go back and forth and create more strokes it builds up. Its very gradual. The max on one individual stroke is 10%.

How I edit skin using these brushes

My go to editing on skin typically involves Frequency Separation or Dodge and Burn. Not the Dodge and Burn tools in Photoshop, the Dodge and Burn technique which uses a 50% Grey layer set to Overlay Mode. The Frequency Separation technique splits the image in 2 layers, High Frequency which holds all the details, and Low Frequency which holds the color tones. While these are a bit more advanced techniques for working on skin, they both allow you to use the Brush tool. Using this last setting of 10% Opacity and 5% Flow lets me build up my skin editing very gradually. With this setting and brushing in the color on a low frequency layer you can make very precise adjustments to your subjects skin tones to even out blotches.

Feel free to hit me up with any questions you have. Play around with the various settings so you can get a feel for it yourself.

Dave Doeppel

Dave is the owner of LA Pinups, specializing in Pinup and Boudoir Portraits in Los Angeles. He has always been a fan of Pinup and Burlesque. He is also an Adobe Certified Expert in Lightroom 4/5 and Photoshop CC and loves teaching photographers how to manage their images efficiently from ingesting through export.

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