After numerous trials and errors, I’ve found a skin retouching method that allows me to make people’s skin to look flawless while keeping the photos as sharp as possible.
The method is time consuming and it involves numerous steps. So, it’s not a method I use on a regular basis.
Ideally, the first step involves getting everything correct (including the shadows and highlights) in camera, preferable with small lens aperture so the photos will look as sharp and as detailed as possible.
Removing excessive details is much easier than creating something is not really there. Likewise, adjusting your lighting in person is easier and faster than digitally adding, removing, and reshaping shadows and highlights in Photoshop (or any post-processing software of your choice).
I’m aware that there are apps that can “re-light” your photos. But, just like using the automatic setting of a camera, you can’t exercise a full creative control over images. In other words, you can create good enough photos that are close enough to your vision, but not completely.
I created this photos for VIRTUOGENIX using Canon 5DS. The camera is extremely sharp. It captures more details than what human eyes can see in real life (not in 2D). Combined with the usage of 45 degree angle lighting and small lens aperture, people with perfectly nice skin in real life might look like people who are in dire needs of chemical peels.
Unretouched, the RAW photos might unnecessarily crush the subjects’ self esteems (because their skin definitely look much better in real life).
Like a knife, Photoshop is just a tool. You can use a knife to prepare a wonderful dinner and not to harm anyone or anything. Likewise, you can use Photoshop to create a wonderful artwork or to correct in-camera problems, not to cause psychological harm.
I could have retouched these images the old -fashioned way: 90% dodging-and-burning each tiny detail + 10% clone-stamping and spot healing. Since this is a beauty editorial for a large format magazine, I need to make the models’ complexions as (nearly) perfect as possible without altering their facial features. If I decided to use this method, I would have needed 5+ hours to retouch each photo. Since there are 9 photos in total, I don’t think it’s a good idea.
I could have used a third party plugin to smooth the skin. If I decided to go with this option, I could’ve retouched these photos in less than 5 minutes. But, the images will look too soft-focused, too flat, and too fake.
I could have used frequency separation technique, but I’m not a huge fan of the kind of end results it creates: the unavoidable color shifts, blurry edges, and plastic-looking skin texture.
After many trials and errors, I came up with a simple and effective method to retouch my images:
- First, duplicate the unretouched image and run it through the high-pass filter (you can find it @ Filter > Other > High Pass) and change the layer’s blend mode to Soft Light. I usually set the radius between 3.0 – 5.0 pixels so all the details I want to see are caught by the filter. I don’t set the radius too high because I don’t want the filter to catch unwanted blemishes and dusts. If I want the image appear sharper, I will duplicate the layers as many time as necessary.
- Next, turn the layer(s) you ran through the high-pass filter off for now, make a new transparent layer, and retouch the photo on that new transparent layer using spot healing and clone stamp tools. Remember to set the brush’s hardness to 0% and the flow to 40%.
- When you are done, turn the layer(s) with the high pass filter back on.
- Then, create a new transparent layer and retouch all of the uneven or unwanted texture using spot healing and clone stamp tools.
This is not a thorough tutorial . . . just a CliffsNotes’ equivalent of it. Perhaps I will write a proper, clear, and complete tutorial someday . . . like, how to remove specific kind of blemishes (e.g. acne scars, boils, broken capillaries, etc), how to even out the skin tone, et cetera.
Here is a before and after image from a different shoot