Tips For Retouching Skin In Photoshop

before and after photoshop retouchingRetouching skin can be a bit tricky when you're just getting started with Photoshop editing. Often times the first few attempts morph your images into something that resembles a play-doh ad, full of odd, melty faces. But, alas, there is hope! A few simple tricks can get you on your way to understanding how manipulating skin works, and keep you from making aliens.

One rule of thumb (which seems to apply in most areas in life) is all things in moderation. Sometimes it's just too fun to stop, and while going crazy on an image may function as a nice learning experience, it's best not to save after a paint-fest.

First, open your image in Photoshop and press command(control) + J to duplicate the image in a new layer.

Now is a good time to do the basics. Adjust your exposure and white balance as necessary. Next, select the healing brush tool. Adjust the size of your brush and use this to remove any unsightly blemishes. Perform this step carefully, or you may end up with strange lines or duplicate patterns from healing too close to shadows, etc.

Now let's duplicate the layer and name this one Gaussian blur. 

Blurring skin should be done very sparingly. I like to apply a Gaussian blur with roughly a one-pixel radius, then reduce to 60% opacity. Then I grab my eraser tool, with a blurred edge brush set to about 35%. Go along the jaw line, defining lines of the nose, eyes, eyebrows, hair, mouth and anything that needs perfectly sharp focus. Erase over these areas until they're crystal clear. Next go over other areas to reveal a bit of the skin's texture.

Remember, we are bent on realistic, glowing skin. Not putty.

Now, in a new layer, use the paint brush tool, set to about 8%, to highlight under the eyes and smooth out fine lines. By holding down the option key while using the paint brush tool, you get the eyedropper. This gives you easy access to near by colors, which will ensure you're keeping it natural. I tend to grab colors within the highlight of the cheeks, or forehead, and then start lightening. Finally, switch the blend to lighten and you're done.

It's not a bad idea to use this layer to lighten up smiles and whites of the eyes, as well. You can use the dodge tool, set to highlights, at an exposure of about %10 percent to get going. Make sure you hit the highlights of the teeth and eyes more than anything else. We want to maintain the spaces between so the person we're working on doesn't end up with an awkward, white mouthpiece. You may also use your paintbrush tool with a very low opacity to do this, too. (But again, very sparingly!) Hitting the highlighted areas on the back teeth will help them appear to match the front-most teeth, without standing out too much, or melting into the rest.

At this point I like to make a selection around the cornea of the eye. (You know, the blue, green or brown part.) Then I create a new layer of my selection. Next: adjustments > brightness and contrast, and hue and saturation. I generally bump the brightness up by about 40 percent, the contrast by 25, saturation by 20 (on blue and green eyes) and then erase around the edges and pupil so there are no harsh edges. Next, duplicate that layer, switch the blend mode to multiply and erase the highlights to once again reveal the boosted colors and definition without them appearing over done.

Make any final edits you deem necessary, and you're finished. 
These quick steps will quickly become second nature and help your portraits become a bit more welcoming.

Lacey Williams is a photographer/graphic artist who loves to travel and writes for Bumblejax, a photo mounting boutique lab.

If you have any questions, please ask below!