How to Retouch Skin The Right Way

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Select, stick a Gaussian filter on, refine the edge, done? No. there are so many wrong ways of retouching skin that are nothing more than a trick to blur out imperfections. The problem is it creates a flat and fake look that is pretty easy to spot, especially by other photographers. Overdone skin looks terrible, and it doesn’t make your images look professional. It’s the mark of an amateur photographer and it can cost you clients and money.

A good portrait photographer produces realistic and natural looking texture to the skin and retouching properly just means making it look believable and not just making problems go away. There are two good techniques for skin retouching which you should know.

Touching Up Layers

This is the simplest process and is best for removing stray strands of hair, make up flakes spots or marks that are not too big. Blotchy patches, hot spots, and birth marks are too big for this. Try and limit the problems that have unblemished skin around them.

  1. Add an empty layer and name it as Touchup 1. You’ll be using the clone and healing brush mostly. Click Sample All Layers so that when you’re working in the touch up layer you’re getting information from the background layer too. The exception is for Cloning when you want it to be Current and Below. Set your brush to 50-70% hardness or the edges look too artificial.
  2. Start by using the healing brush and zoom in so that your brush is a little larger than the blemish. Use a sample from the clean skin that is as close as possible, paying attention to the direction of the pores and any changes in tone.
  3. Click on the blemish but do not sweep or paint around it. Move around the obvious blemishes using a single click and appropriate samples.
  4. Set the clone tool to 20% opacity and use a sample as close to the area you wish to cover as possible. This works best for stray hairs and small lines. Click or paint along lines. If you are doing this for wrinkles and feel you’ve gone too far, lower the opacity of the layer slightly and you’ll see some of the texture return.

photography tips for models

Frequency Separation

This is the most professional choice and it is also the most technical. This works for mild hot spots but only if you have some texture left. It’s also ideal for fixing backdrops and under eye circles.

  1. Create a new merged layer with your current work. Choose Stamp Visible, making sure that both the background and any touch up layers are visible and then merged.
  2. Copy the merged layer twice and label one as high frequency and the other as low frequency. Select low frequency and hide the high frequency layer for now. Using the Gaussian blur filter blur until there are no pore details left, about 2.0 pixels is normal.
  3. Select the high frequency layer and make it visible again. Go to Apply image and change the blending mode to Linear Light.
  4. Create a new layer above the Low Frequency one then move the merged layers to the top of the group, above the High Frequency layer and turn it off.
  5. Select the empty layer and using the clone stamp tool use a 20-50% hardness and 10-20% opacity with a current and below sample. Work to blend areas of the skin that you can see need fixing but try not to overdo it. You can turn the merged layer on and off to see the progress. Avoid spreading highlights and shadows as this changes the shape of the face.
  6. Swap to the High frequency layer then using the clone stamp tool with a 70-100% opacity and 25% softness. Choose an area that has the right texture you want to emulate e.g larger pores, fine hairs etc. Be gentle with this as it’s easy to do too much if you’re focusing on wrinkles or texture.
  7. Duplicate the layer marked High Frequency and mask the layer. Using white paint the areas you want sharpened such as the eyes, hair, or lips.

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