Skin Softening / Basic Beauty Retouching

Alrighty then, 'tis time for more instructional work here on the Blog. Today we'll be looking at basic photo retouching.

The issue of photo retouching can be a bit of a thorny one, and showing off how you manipulated someone to look like a fantasy version of themselves isn't always met with thanks. Understandably so, perhaps. As a result, I reached out and found that Lesya Gulkina was okay with others editing her pictures. This was great news - I didn't have to offend any of my friends and I get to show you some nice tips. 

Today we'll look at Removing Blemishes and Skin Softening.

Original File

So here is our starting image. We have a photo of this awesome Russian model looking brilliant. But like a human being, she has blemishes and whathaveyou that signify that she is indeed a real person and/or not wearing 3 inches of makeup on her face. But y'know, most of the time, that's not what clients want or expect to see when you submit images like this. So we have a little bit of work to do. Not a lot, just some quick fixes. 

The first thing is to duplicate the layer (Ctrl + J). Then on the new layer, bring up the overall exposure of the image. The image we started with was quite dark, but with reason. Shooting an image slightly underexposed has it's advantage, particularly when you shoot in raw. First off, you get more detail in the shadows for when you get to the edit (i.e. more 'wiggle room' to edit with). Secondly shooting to the right means that you can use a faster shutter speed, allowing for the images to be unaffected by camera shake caused by slower shutter speeds. 

So opening this file in Camera Raw, we make the following adjustments. 

Now, this is not an exact science - you can't just plonk these adjustments into any image and expect it to be right every time. Essentially you're aiming for brighter skin tones, dark blacks and empty shadows. These are flattering to most skin types. Already we can see an improvement to the overall image. A great start. 

Now on closer inspection, we can see some blemishes that we need to tackle.

As you can see from the panel on the left that I have already selected, in the above image, we need to select the healing brush tool (J). With this now selected, alt-click on an area on smooth skin (usually it's easier to pick the brightest area too) and with the alt key no longer held, but still holding down left-click, draw over any blemishes. Use a very small, very soft brush and work on small areas one at a time. This allows for detailed, safe editing that won't result in any weird blotches. The gif below shows the small edits that we've made. 

It's subtle and that's what you want. You're only removing blemishes to start. Keep it small, delicate and precise and you can't fail. 

The next part is where things can go wrong, but if you keep it subtle, you'll be fine. 

So now that we've removed the blemishes and stray hairs, it's time to soften the skin a bit more. I've got an action set up for this, which speeds up the whole process, but if you're new to this here's the process in full. 


So here are the layers I had at this stage. At the bottom is the file I started with, the second one is the edits made in camera raw and finally the top one is the one with all the blemish fixes applied to it. You don't need to have been working on different layers to this point, but I always like to see where I come from as I work. 

The next step is to duplicate the top layer twice (Press Ctrl + J, twice). 

So you've now got two extra layers. Next thing to do is to change 'Normal' to 'Overlay'

Your image should look quite contrasty now. 

For the love of God, don't stop here. You might think it looks 'rad', but it's not 2008 anymore and super contrasty images are not what we're going for. 

Invert it instead (Ctrl + I)



Freaky, right? Don't worry, stay with me. 
Now you want to add a high pass filter. Set it to 10 and expect it to get a bit blurry. 

Next, you'll want to add a blur. A Gaussian Blur. Choose '3 pixels' when it appears. 

Okay, we're nearly done. Essentially, we've been setting up a very simple way to soften the skin. It's a bit convoluted to set up, but if you make it an action as you're doing it, you won't have to do it again. 

The next bit is probably the only bit where you could go wrong. You'll need to hold down the Alt key and click the 'Add Layer Mask' icon. I've highlighted it at the bottom of the following image with a bit of pink. 

*It's important to check that you've done it right by seeing a black box in the new layer that appears and not a white one. 

Now you're ready to paint that face! 
Select the paintbrush (B) and make sure that you have white selected as your top colour. 

Pick a large, soft brush and paint over the face. Be careful not to paint over the eyes, nostrils or teeth. These will want to be sharp, whereas the skill can be made softer by painting over it. The lips can be painted over liberally, and you'll notice great results with this. It's particularly handy for cracked lips too and makes great lips look amazing!

And that's that. We haven't touched the body, the hair or colours at all. We've just smoothed out the skin. Remember, keep it subtle. We're dealing with three-dimensional people here, not weird, alien artboards. You're aiming for the image to look believable and beautiful. 

There'll be more tutorials in the future if there's any demand, so don't forget to comment below and let me know if there's anything you'd like to see covered!

Keep at it!