1. Duplicate your image
You always duplicate so that you can have a default image to refer back to and to protect yourself. Lets say you process your image, then a few days later don't like it and want to try something new. By duplicating the original image, you can always start over again and use it as a reference to compare to your final product.
2. Go to the Adjustment Layer Panel and select Gradient Map. Make sure your foreground color is black and your background color is white. Then change your layer blending mode to soft light. Change the layer opacity to whatever suits your need. For this, I chose 41% and used a layer mask so this effect was only visible on certain areas of her face and skin.
You'll notice that the gradient map changes your image to a greyscale image. I use the gradient map because it will define the image with the most contrast going from 100% black to 100% white and won't give you a washed out black and white image like other methods in Photoshop do. By changing the blending mode to soft light, you'll notice you get your color back and your image appears to have more contrast. You can also use Overlay if you want a bleached out effect or luminosity for a more subtle effect. I use soft light because it gives you an effect less extreme than overlay but more powerful than luminosity, and then I can use the opacity slider to adjust the contrast exactly the way I want it. On this particular image, I noticed that her hair had lost a lot of detail, so I applied a layer mask to hide the hair and the background. I didn't want the whole image to have this increased contrast, just her skin to add some depth. Gradient Map is also nice because you can double click the adjustment layer icon and change your black output levels and white output levels, as well as their transitions on the fly. So if you want the whole image to be darker, you can adjust the gradient slider to the right and watch your image get darker in real time, there is no guess work and you can always tweak it later. This method also gives your colors a slight boost, notice her eye shadow.
3. This is tricky, now hit ctrl+alt+shift+E. This will create new layer copy that combines the results of all of your current visible layers. On the stamped layer use the Healing Brush tool to get rid of small blemishes, scratches, and discolored areas on the face and shoulders. Now, use the Healing Brush tool or Patch Healing tool to get rid of circles under the eyes, wrinkles around the mouth, and oil build up around the nose. Any glossy areas on the skin from oil, sweat, and direct light should also be taken care of with these tools.
Healing brush allows you to remove blemishes while maintaining skin texture. If you use the Healing Brush right, you'll never need to blur skin, giving you much more realistic results. Different from the Clone Tool, the Healing Brush tool works to preserve color tones so it looks more natural. The Clone Tool directly replaces target data with sample data and if you use it too much you'll start to notice little spots or patches because the skin tone isn't transitioning well. The Patch Healing tool works similar to the Healing Brush tool but is better at tackling larger areas, then you can use the Healing Brush tool to touch up. I used the Healing Brush tool to remove oil and contrast on the nose which allows it to transition better into the cheeks and makes it less distracting. I then removed the circles under the eyes to make her appear more vibrant and youthful. I also removed tiny imperfections on the cheek, shoulder, chin, and chest.
4. Sharpening. Hit ctrl+alt+shift+E again to create a stamped layer of your work so far. Now go to Filter<Other<High Pass. A new dialogue box opens. Depending on your image size and taste, change the radius and hit ok. I normally choose a radius of 3. Now change this High Pass layer to a Hard Light blending mode. Apply a mask to the layer and hide areas you want to be soft. I normally mask out the skin and lever the eyes, mouth, hair, and jewelry sharpened.
This High Pass sharpening is great because it automatically increase sharpness wherever there is contrast. The hardest contrast in a image is a line. Therefore, this technique reinforces all of the lines in your image. Hair is made more dynamic, eyes appear bright and sharp, teeth appear crisp, and jewelry really stands out. Different from other sharpening methods like Unsharp Mask or the simple Sharpen tool, High Pass puts a focus on lines and leaves softer areas like skin and blank surfaces alone. This means you don't have to mask out as much and the areas you want sharpened are crisp while the areas you want smooth are left alone. This method is always nice because you can change the opacity of the layer to decrease the effect, instead of having to redo the step multiple times until your satisfied with a result.
5. Now go to the Adjustment Layers Panel and add a Levels Adjustment layer. For this image, I moved the white slider in to 246 and the middle slider or neutral slider to 95.
Levels is my favorite method of fine tuning exposure and contrast. By using an Adjustment level it is non destructive to your image which means you can always go back and tweak it later. I left the black slider alone because the hair was already dark enough and I didn't want to lose any detail. The white slider will brighten your image. Essentially, the more you slide the white slider the more lighter color values will become white. This will brighten the lightest parts of the image while leaving the darker areas mostly untouched. The middle or neutral slider affects the brightness of the entire image. By moving it to the right to 95 I made the overall image slightly darker, which also makes the colors slightly richer and deeper.
6. Now create a Vibrance Adjustment Layer. For this image I moved the Vibrance slider to 50 and moved the Saturation slider to -5.
Vibrance Adjustment Layer is a great way to make sure your image has the tone you want. You can really crank up vibrance and saturation to give a warmer and louder tone to your image, or you can knock them both down to give a cooler or more classic look to your image. Vibrance mainly affects blues with lesser emphasis on yellow. Saturation affects all colors pretty evenly. By increasing vibrance I boosted her skin tone a little bit as well as the ambient blue from the background. I then used -5 saturation to even out the colors, so the only visible change is the amount of blue reflected in her bangs and her skin is slightly warmer and more colorful. My changes on this particular image are almost unnoticeable, but you can adjust this depending on your own taste and preference.
7. Vignetting...kinda. Go to the Adjustment Layer Panel and choose Gradient (do NOT choose Gradient Map) and a dialogue box will pop up. Make sure you have the Black to transparent gradient selected from the drop down box, (My default is transparent to black, but I just click the "reverse" option from below). Choose Radial as your style and for this image I set the scale to 121%. Make sure the Align with layer box is selected. Now click on your image to move the gradient where you want, for her, I moved the gradient so that the center was just slightly left of her face. Now, hit "OK" and change the layer blending mode to Soft Light. For this image, I lowered the opacity of the layer to 45% and the fill to 80%.
This is my personal trick for light source manipulation and vignetting. I get all kinds of benefits from using this method.
1. The gradient we created acts like a light source and will darken the areas farthest from the center. Tip: You can use a black to white gradient if you want to brighten the areas closest to the center. This allows you to draw focus and attention to where you place the center of the gradient. I placed the gradient slightly left of her face, thus making that the brightest part of the image and the part you look at first.
2. I can always fine tune every aspect of this layer if I'm not happy with the result. I can change the opacity, I can move the gradient, I can use the scale to make the gradient larger or smaller, I can change the gradient transition rate so it gets real dark real fast, or slowly gets darker towards the edges.
3. Because of the shape of the gradient it achieves the same thing vignetting does without actually applying any dark color to the image. The edges of the image become naturally dark and doesn't look like an intentional vignette was applied. Leave the opacity at 100% for an intense vignette, or reduce the opacity for a subtle vignette.
4. Blending modes: I like to use Soft Light because it's not harsh and preserves color values, though you can also use Overlay for a harder and brasher vignette or Luminosity for a softer vignette.
5. Soft Light blending mode also gives a color boost in the darker areas of the gradient. Shadows become more defined and prominent as you get farther away from the center. This creates a stronger contrasting dynamic from the center of the gradient (which should be the focus of your image) and the edges(areas that frame the focal point of the image).