Human vs Machine: Can This AI Retouch Photos Better Than You?

Artificial intelligence is no longer a new concept in photography. Complex algorithms allow machines to choose auto contrast and exposure settings in all modern editing software. They’re getting better all the time. What I haven’t seen before however, is a tool that successfully automates face retouching. Until now, that is.

Full disclosure: This article was provided and sponsored by Photoworks, the intelligent photo editor.

The portrait editor I’m reviewing comes from the new kids in town, Photoworks. Within Photoworks, the Portrait Magic tool allows you to retouch faces with the drag of a slider. Well, a few sliders. A novel idea perhaps, but I didn’t have high hopes for this editing software. I imagined a slightly improved version of the ‘beauty face’ filter you might find on your phone. Not beautiful. I actually wasn’t far off in terms of concept, but it exceeded my expectations.

If you’re already intrigued, stay tuned for a surprise waiting for you at the end… With that said, let’s dive in.

Working Around Freckles

This picture was taken outside under relatively subdued conditions. We’ve got some nice side light catching the subject’s hair and an even palette to work with in regards to facial skin tones. The real test was to see how the portrait retouching software managed her freckles. I’d already made some basic contrast adjustments and removed her red zombie eyes before beginning the retouch.

Opening up the Portrait Magic panel allows selection from a group of customizable presets. I chose overall enhancement. Although I wouldn’t be looking to finish the retouching here, it’s pleasing to see that some visible alterations have already been made.

As the lighting was already flat I opted to reduce the redness and glare sliders. This allowed me to successfully keep what little depth the flat lighting on the subject’s face offered. The only other change I was compelled to make was to clone stamp out a couple of problem spots, which the software handled as you would expect. Overall, not bad for a brush-free setup – freckles intact and noticeably smoother skin. A virtual pat on the back for the AI.

Enhancing a Family Portrait

It can sometimes be difficult to know what to do with baby-faced cherubs like these. Age often hasn’t blessed them with creases, crinkles, bumps, spots, and scars yet. You can’t de-crinkle the uncrinkled.

I assumed this would leave the AI algorithms over-enhancing the two tots, but fortunately, Photoworks makes it pretty simple to account for this. By unticking ‘apply to all faces’, you’re able to alter the individual adjustments for each person’s face. This allowed me to ignore retouching the boys and focus on mum.

It’s clear everything is geared towards speed within this portrait editor. Eyes, eyebrows and lip sharpness sliders allowed me to quickly sharpen up the two in front, as the focus was originally set a bit too far towards mum. I really like this, as I would have usually had to mask out each individual feature on each individual face with brushes.

Speed-Retouching a Studio Shot

This is the kind of picture I’d usually like to finesse. Fighting that urge, knowing I wasn’t going to be able to use brushes with this particular portrait photo editing software, was a challenge in itself. I cooled the overall tone and cranked up the contrast before diving in for a retouch. This gave me some nasty glare.

I thought I would have to dial the edit down and approach it from a new angle to fix the hot spot. Instead, I found maxing out the ‘glare’ slider sufficient.

After hitting auto on the skin tone and sliding up the sharpness enhancers, I was feeling pretty good about the end result.

There are definitely changes I would like to make to this image. I would say I have achieved about 70-80% of what I would do within Photoshop. However, Photoworks just turned a multi-hour edit into a handful of mouse clicks. That’s quite impressive.

Enhancing Darker Skin Tones

This final photograph was used to satisfy my curiosity – how would the enhancer handle darker skin tones? I applied the usual exposure adjustments and tweaked the colors slightly before jumping over to Portrait Magic and sliding around (take off shoes for best results).

It handled this challenge competently. The range of colors you can choose from when dragging to adjust makes sense and it’s easy to find the best skin tone without remembering equations or other complexities. If you’re not familiar with these techniques, this article and video on Canon vs Sony goes into detail on some of the more established ways you can achieve great skin tones.

When Would I Use The Portrait AI?

I can see myself using Photoworks Portrait Editor for wedding shoots in the future. I’m often ‘up against it’ when meetings wedding deadlines and know many of my wedding photographer friends suffer similarly. To me, that seems to be where the portrait editing AI shines. Quick edits that don’t need to be polished to perfection, but require decent enhancement to meet wedding season demands.

Weddings also typically include many pictures with multiple faces. Anything with more than one subject will multiply the time you save. Like friends/family candids. I feel like I will use Photoworks for this too.

There was one scenario I didn’t feature where the Portrait Magic tool fell short. It didn’t cope with hair obscuring the face – it struggled to identify features. It also isn’t going to make a bad image good. If it can’t recognize eyes underneath loose hair it’s certainly not clever enough to fix poor photography. One thing I haven’t mentioned is that the software doesn’t currently support Mac. Obviously a deal-breaker for some.


As long as you’ve got a good original photo to work with and a Windows PC to run it on, I think Photoworks has value. For the times when you’re under pressure to deliver or you just don’t have the time/energy to finesse an image with brushes, Portrait Magic’s AI’s got your back.

I think it’s great to see innovative software moving in this direction and also a pleasant surprise to see a newcomer to the scene actually delivering on something the big names can’t. I’m excited to see where Photoworks will go next.

If you’d like to try out the software yourself (or you’ve been dying to know what that surprise I mentioned way back at the start was!) then wait no longer. Here’s a friendly coupon to help you on your way, offered by the developer to PetaPixel folks.

Good luck out there and feel free to let me know what you think about this portrait retouching AI in the comments below.

About the author: Scott Norris is a veteran of outdoors photography and seeker of hidden gems. Has a background working at the stop-motion film studio Aardman (Wallace & Gromit, Shaun the Sheep) and is deeply interested in new photography technologies.