Natural Looking Skin Touch-ups

January 29, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

 

By: Nathan Cool.

How to touch-up skin with a natural look.

 

Every magazine cover, every ad, every billboard, and just about every photo you'll ever see published has been edited. It's a controversial subject, since with the right software anyone can look like a completely different person, building false images of reality. I, like 99.99% of all photographers, use software to touch-up and make modifications to clients' photos. While I can take this to extremes, like in my Fantasy Portfolio, when it comes to standard work I like to keep things as real as possible while still showing clients in their best light. Case in point is this headshot of fitness model Sarah Parker, where just a few simple edits enhanced her picture while keeping her looking natural. In this article I'll reveal the edits used in post processing shots like this.

 

There are a number of tutorials on the web today that show myriad methods to apply skin softening, blemish correction, and more. Most though, I've found, will make the subject look surreal -- plastic skin with no texture, eyes with attractive but unnatural colors, and faces distorted to achieve the perfect look. Unless I'm working on surreal art, I (and my clients) prefer to keep things looking natural -- how the subject looks in the best possible light.

 

Below is a close-up of a before and after of the headshot I posted above. You can click on the image below for a bigger view. Here, I'll describe the steps I took in post processing to make this subject look their best. There are a number of steps involved, but I've found that if you want to make someone look their best, and not distort the entire photo, then taking many but small changes will make all the difference.

 

The first, obvious step in shooting this subject is to use good lighting, which in turn makes the post processing much simpler. Bad lighting can result in many more hours of editing, so a few extra minutes to get the light ideal can make my life a lot easier later. For this shot I used a 22" beauty dish with a diffuser for key lighting (camera left), and a double-diffused softbox for fill (camera right, angled low and almost 90 degrees from the subject). You can see the lighting angles by the catch-lights in her eyes. The combination of these two lights gave enough light to highlight the subject, but also to blow out many shadows in the face, which is a major step in softening skin and reducing the appearance of blemishes. But even with super soft light like this there are some things I wanted to correct:

  • Shine: the skin has just a bit too much glow/shinyness to it in some spots. This was near the end of a shoot and everyone was getting a bit warm, and subsequently oily. Tons of makeup could have solved this, but this can be easily fixed in Photoshop.

  • Soften: I'd like to add just a touch of softening. One drawback of using a high resolution camera is that you will get more details than the human eye can often perceive. I don't want to make her skin look like plastic, just a little softer in some spots.

  • Wrinkle around eyes: I want the eyes to look natural, but I want to reduce the harshness of the wrinkles around her eyes. Much of this was taken care of with the soft, diffused lighting, but I want to take it a slight step further.

  • Smooth the laugh lines: I want to lower the harshness of the laugh lines around her mouth. Much of the shadows that would be visible were corrected with having the lower softbox, filling in the shadows. Still, there is just a tad more I want to smooth out.

  • Enhance eye color: The eye color is just a tad flat, so I'd like to adjust that slightly. And I mean slightly. I always sharpen the irises, but in this case her eye color seemed just a tad off, likely from wearing grey, which didn't help bring out the green in her eyes.

  • Remove shine flaw on lower lip: the lower lip caught a bit too much light and it looks like there is an indent.

  • Slightly lighten jaw: her left upper jaw bone shows a tad too much shadow. Since her hair covered up some of her jaw, it was tough to get the fill light to brighten that up. It's a simple fix though in Photoshop.

 

None of these changes are anything all that out of the ordinary when the subject would be in their best possible light. In fact, when you think about it, these changes could have been done either with makeup and lighting tweaks, or in post processing. Nothing though should be any more unnatural. Here's how I did it:

 

The Basics

The basic principle for all the steps, no matter what you do, is to use multiple layers in Photoshop with each layer having a layer mask. This allows you to paint in only the areas that need adjusting in each step. Also, each layer can then have its opacity adjusted, allowing you to adjust how much of the correction you want to apply. So layer masking allows you to apply the correction where you want it, and opacity of the layer allows you to control to what extent the correction will be applied.

 

Also, before starting any work in Photoshop, make sure you duplicate the original layer so you can save it as a backup for later.

 

The Yellow Channel Step

One of the most common post processing steps in Photoshop is using the Yellow Channel. Google it and you'll find over 8 million results -- it's very popular and very effective. Here's a top-level overview:

  • With the original layer selected, go to Image->Mode->CMYK.

  • Then on the "Channels" tab on the Layers panel select the Yellow channel.

  • CTRL-A to select all, then CTRL-C to copy it.

  • In your history, go back to before you selected CMYK mode.

  • Now paste (CTRL-V), and you'll have a new layer (which should be above the original), which you can label as Yellow Corrections, or something similar.

  • Invert this layer (CTRL-I)

  • And change the blending mode of this layer to Soft Light.

  • Now just reduce the opacity of this layer until it looks natural.

  • And now, as in all other methods described here, add a layer mask that hides all, and then paint where you want the corrections to be (i.e., over rough skin areas only, not lips, not eyes, not hair, just rougher skin that you want to soften).

Additional Skin Softening

If the Yellow Channel method of skin softening wasn't enough or just didn't do it well enough, there is another trick which I do often. In fact, I sometimes use both.

  • Duplicate the original layer and place it above the Yellow Channel layer if you created one.

  • Change the layer's blending mode to Overlay.

  • Invert the layer (CTRL-I).

  • Go to Filter->Other->High Pass and set the radius to between 4-7, until the skin looks soft but not fake (you want to see pores).

  • Now add a layer mask, hide all, and then paint where the corrections should be.

  • You can also adjust the opacity of the layer itself if you need to.

 

Wrinkles and Blemishes

The next step is to correct wrinkles and blemishes. I used these steps to correct the crows feet near her eyes, the harsh laugh lines around her mouth, and that added reflection on her lower lip that looks like an indent.

  • Duplicate the original layer and place it between the Yellow Channel layer you created above, and the original.

  • In this layer you can use the clone or healing brush to correct any wrinkles or blemishes. Don't worry about overdoing it, because...

  • As in all other steps, add a layer mask, hide all, and then paint where the corrections should be.

  • And also adjust the opacity of this layer so that it shows only improvement, not replacement of the original (and only in the places you've painted in the layer mask).

 

Reduce Shine

A simple way to reduce the glare or shine on skin is to use a low opacity brush, once again in another layer, and using a mask.

  • Duplicate the original layer, and place it above the last one.

  • Select the brush tool, and set the opacity of the brush to about 15%.

  • Now paint on that layer, but also by selecting colors using the dropper tool (press ALT while using the brush to select a color) of a nearby color. By slowly painting on this color you can control how much shine you reduce.

  • Now add a layer mask, hide all, and then paint where the corrections should be.

  • You can also adjust the opacity of the layer itself if you need to.

 

Enhance the Eyes

There are a number of ways to enhance the eyes. For this shot I just enhanced the irises a tad, and here's how:

  • Duplicate the original layer an put it at the top.

  • Adjust sharpening (Filter->Sharpen->Unsharp Mask)

  • Adjust saturation.

  • Now add a layer mask, hide all, and then paint over just the irises.

  • You can also adjust the opacity of the layer itself if you need to.

 

Dodge and Burn

The last step is to just lighten the jaw a tad where there is some burning on her upper left jaw bone. You simply use the dodge tool to do this, but the trick is to what layer. You may want, at this point, to group the other layers together, or you could have also done this on your original layer (remember, you also have a backup layer in case you make a mistake). For this shot, I just used the dodge tool and hit her upper left jaw bone ever so lightly.

 

Also, experiment with various layers; for instance, I could have also added a layer called Hair, upped the sharpening a bit and maybe saturation, and then mask off just her hair. Or, I could have made another layer for levels, or curves, or other color adjustments, and once again (by now I'm sure you'll know what I'm gonna say) mask it off.

 

I realize all these steps may feel laborious for such small changes, but that's exactly the point: changes should not be extreme if you want your subject to look natural. Making broad sweeping changes to a photo is easy, but it likely won't look real. Making a subject look natural in post processing may be difficult, but if it was easy, then everyone would be doing it :) 

 

 

-Nathan

 

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