Whiten the Teeth in Your Portraits

For as long as there have been portraits, they've been used to present a somewhat idealized version of their subjects. It doesn't matter whether you're looking at a high-school yearbook photo or a royal portrait from the 1600s, pictures have always been an opportunity to accentuate the positive and subtly deflect attention from the negative. There are some general rules of thumb you can apply to put your subject in the best light for portraits, but this week let's focus on one area where we can easily improve on reality: the teeth. Not everyone is born with pearly whites, but it's easy to reduce the yellow and brighten imperfect teeth in your image editor.

Don't Indiscriminately Whiten

First, what you shouldn't do: just brighten teeth using editing tools like the histogram adjustment, levels, or brightness control. I've seen novice photographers use the lasso to select a mouthful of teeth and then apply a powerful whitening agent. The results can be frighteningly unrealistic. Instead, I'm going to show you a more subtle approach: a two-step process in which you start by scrubbing off the yellow, and then gently whiten the teeth. You'll mimic the effect of adding $10,000 worth of veneers at the dentist's office--for free, since it's only digital.

Remove the Yellow

Let's start by opening a photo of someone with some teeth to whiten. I'll use Adobe Photoshop Elements, but the two tools we're going to use are readily available in many photo editors.

In the photo I've chosen, linked to the left, none of the teeth are especially bad, but both smiles can be improved. Zoom in on the teeth so they mostly fill the screen--that way you can get a much better look at what you're trying to do. Then choose the Sponge tool. In Photoshop Elements, it shares the same cubby as the Dodge and Burn tools. Collectively, these three tools are second from the bottom of the toolbar on the left side of the screen.

With the Sponge selected, make sure you're correctly configured in the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen. Set the size of the tool so that you can paint on individual teeth easily. The tool shouldn't be larger than any individual tooth, but it shouldn't be so small that you need to do a lot of scrubbing. Also change the Mode to Desaturate--this will remove the yellow--and set the Flow (which controls the intensity of the tool) to 50 percent.

Now just start painting the sponge tool over each tooth. You should see the tooth turn a somewhat unappealing shade of gray. That's to be expected--we're currently desaturating the teeth--in other words, we're removing all the color from them. Mainly work the front-most teeth. The smaller teeth toward the rear will be in shadow, and you won't want to overwhiten them or the effect will seem artificial.

Whiten the Teeth

Compare the teeth in the edited photo (right) with the original (left).
Now it's time to replace the gray by whitening the teeth. Go back to the same cubby where the Sponge lives and select the Dodge tool. In the Tool Options palette at the top of the screen, set the Range to Midtones and make sure the Exposure is pretty low--about 10 percent is just about right. If the exposure is too high, you'll know right away, since the teeth will look downright radioactive. Also set the Size to the same value you were using for the Sponge tool. Now just paint the Dodge tool over the teeth to change the gray to white. That's all there is to it.

Hot Pic of the Week

Get published, get famous! Each week, we select our favorite reader-submitted photo based on creativity, originality, and technique.

Here's how to enter: Send us your photograph in JPEG format, at a resolution no higher than 640 by 480 pixels. Entries at higher resolutions will be immediately disqualified. If necessary, use an image editing program to reduce the file size of your image before e-mailing it to us. Include the title of your photo along with a short description and how you photographed it. Don't forget to send your name, e-mail address, and postal address. Before entering, please read the full description of the contest rules and regulations.

This week's Hot Pic: "Turning Back Time" by Chris Alley, Corbin, Kentucky

Chris writes: "While traveling through a small town in central Iowa, I came upon a well-maintained old gas station. This is a photo of its front pump, which I took with a Nikon D90."

This week's runner up: "Radial Blur" by Doug Miller, The Colony, Texas

Doug writes: "Your recent article discussing zoom and radial blur reminded me of a picture I took a while back. It was a nice summer evening at a minor league baseball game, and I was doing some experimenting with my Canon S45. I shot this while twisting the whole camera. At the time, I really did not know what effect it would have on the picture."

To see the February winners, visit our Hot Pics slide show. Visit the Hot Pics Flickr gallery to browse past winners.

Have a digital photo question? E-mail me your comments, questions, and suggestions about the newsletter itself. And be sure to sign up to have Digital Focus e-mailed to you each week.

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