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Skin Deep – How I Retouch A Face

June 9th, 2010  |  Published in Featured, Shoot

I’ve been doing a lot of model shoots recently, which means a lot of skin retouching, so I thought I’d share some of the basics of how I approach retouching a face. Well, actually, all the techniques would be the same if I were retouching arms, legs, or other skin, but I figured that I’d start with the face as that’s the most important part of person.

The example I’m going to be using for this article is a photo I took of my favorite model, Rachel. Looking at her, you might wonder why in the world you’d need to retouch her at all. In all honesty, if all you were going to do were post a small image on the web, you might not have to do anything at all. But if you plan on printing the image large, you’ll start to find things that just jump out at you. They are often things that you wouldn’t even notice in real life. You only notice them when you have time the study the image.

In general I try to keep my retouching natural-looking. I try to avoid anything that screams “Hey, look at the photoshopped face!” Because of this, I can’t rely solely on any of the actions and filters or plugins for Photoshop that intend to make skin look softer.

I’ve found that for the most part they are too noticeable for my taste. They cause the image to lose detail and make face look plasticky. For my work there’s no substitute a bunch of detail oriented editing. That doesn’t mean these tools don’t have their place, in fact there are a couple I use all the time for part of my retouching process.

So let’s get into it. If you want to follow along, I’ve posted a high resolution version of the image I’m working on here:

Another way to follow along is to watch the following QuickTime slideshow, which has a closeup from every major step along the way:

After I open an image in Photoshop, the first thing I do before working on it is to duplicate the background layer and duplicate the background layer by typing Command + J. I rename the resulting layer ‘retouch’.

Working on this retouch layer allows me to revert back to my original image if I make a mistake at any point.

The first thing I attack when retouching a face is small blemishes, pimples, flakes of makeup, or any tiny dark spot or bump on the subjects skin. To get these little buggers, I select the Spot Healing Brush Tool. by typing the letter ‘j’.

One of the best ways to speed up your retouching, or any Photoshop activity, really, is to learn to use the shortcut keys associated with the tools you use most frequently. Click and hold on the Spot Healing Brush Tool and a menu will pop up allowing you to choose any of the related tools in this group including the Spot Healing Brush Tool, the regular Healing Brush Tool, the Patch Tool and the Red Eye Tool.

Notice that next to each tool is the letter J. This is to let you know that you can select the currently visible tool in this group at any time by clicking j on your keyboard. Even better, if you hold down the Shift key and press J repeatedly, you can cycle through and select any of these tools without having to click on the icon in the toolbar. This is a HUGE time saver.

So if you’re following along, type shift-j-j-j until the Spot Healing Brush is selected.

Now go to the Options Bar above the tool bar and set the painting mode to Lighten. This will cause the brush to make darker area lighter while having little or no effect on lighter areas.

I like to work at 100% size so I can see actual pixels when retouching. To quickly zoom to 100%, type Command + Option + 0.

With the Spot Healing Brush, you just click on spots you want to fix. It works best if the brush size is about the same size as the spots you are clicking on.

Here I’m using a brush size of 20. You can change the brush size by clicking on the Brush menu in the Options Bar, or even easier by using the bracket keys [ and ] on you keyboard. then just go around and click on any dark spots or blemishes you see. Here is an example of all the spots I clicked on:

The white dots show both the location and the sizes I used for the brush.

Now let’s switch the Spot Healing Brush to Darken mode and click on any dark spots, like stray glitter or shiny bumps.

After getting rid of small spots on the skin, I work on wrinkles. When working on wrinkles, I duplicate the retouch layer by typing Command + J. This gives me the ability to quickly restore some of the lines I remove later.

Because these lines are bigger, I use the Patch Tool instead of a Healing Brush to remove them. So if you’re following along, type shift-j-j-j until the Patch Tool is selected.

You can also click on it in the tool bar. (But why would you when typing shift-j-j-j is so fast?)

Also, make sure the Patch Tool is set to Source in the Options Bar.

Let’s start by working around the eyes. Type Command and the + key to zoom in to 200%. Using the Patch Tool, draw a selection around a line near the eyes. Make the selection close to the line.

Now drag the selection to an area of smoother skin to patch it. You’ll see that the selected area now takes on the appearance of the area of skin that you dragged to.

The key to making the patch tool work well is always dragging to an area that has a similar skin texture to the region you are patching. Also, don’t always drag to the exact same area or you’ll end up with a skin texture that repeats and looks photoshopped.

Continue the process by selecting each line around the eyes and patching it.

Go ahead. I’ll wait. :)

Done? Great! Now that we’ve removed all those lines and wrinkles, it’s time to bring them back… somewhat. Having some wrinkles and lines is a part of the personality of the face, and to eliminate them totally can look a little too botox-y. We did all of this patching on a copy of the retouch layer so that we could easily turn the opacity of the entire layer up and down until we find the perfect amount amount of smoothness.

For me that turned out to be about 50% opacity.

Now that we’re satisfied with the skin around the eyes, type Command + E to merge the top layer back down into the retouch layer.

The other area of the face that has lines I often want to reduce is the forehead, so let’s work on that next. This will be very similar to the process we used for the eyes.

Start by duplicating the retouch layer by typing Command + J.

Draw a selection around lines on the forehead and drag to areas of the forehead that have a similar texture. Don’t try to select long lines all at once – break them up into multiple smaller selections. Also, some wrinkles and lines you may not want to touch at all.

For example, the wrinkles above Rachel’s raised eyebrow really need to stay there for her expression to look natural.

Just like with the eyes, once you’ve removed all the lines and wrinkles from the forehead, it’s time to lower the opacity of this layer to bring them back a little. I’ll bet an opacity of around 65% works great. If you agree, type Command + E to merge the top layer down into the retouch layer.

While I have the patch tool selected, I’ll go around and patch other things that draw my attention, like the bright spot to the right of the nose, the dark spot on tip of her nose, the dark spots on chin, and some faint lines and spots on her neck. This is also a great time to patch all the things you missed way back at the beginning when you were working with the spot healing brush.

This brings us to the eyes themselves. Rachel’s eyes present a number of challenges. They are slightly bloodshot and a little red and in shadow.

Type l to select the lasso tool.

Or click on the Lasso tool in the Toolbar.

Now click and drag a circle loosely around one eye to select it. Hold down the shift key to add to the selection and drag a circle loosely around the other eye to select it as well. Your selection should look something like this:

It’s fine if you’ve selected a little extra, but make sure you have all of both eyes selected.

So far, every other time we created a layer using Command + J, we got an exact duplicate of the layer we were working on. But now we have something selected. Type Command + J and notice that instead of getting a duplicate layer, we get a new layer that’s blank except for the eyes.

We’re going to be doing some detail work here, so if you’re not still zoomed in, zoom way in to 200% or 400%.

The first thing to retouch about the eyes are the red veins. To remove these let’s type S to select the Clone Stamp Tool. In the Options Bar, set the painting mode to Lighten, and set the opacity to 50%. With the Clone Stamp Tool, you Option + Click on an area first to tell the tool what part of the image you want to sample. then you click and paint somewhere else on the image. Whatever you option-clicked gets painted into the area you are working on. Here’s how we’re going to tackle cloning out the veins in the eye:

Using the bracket keys [ and ] on you keyboard, set the size of your brush to be about the same thickness as a vein. In the diagram above, the green circles are areas you are going to sample by Option-Clicking. After you Option-Click, start painting at the point where the yellow circle is located and move in the direction of the arrow. Your opacity is 50% so it may well take more than one stroke to cover a line.

You’ll notice that you are sampling areas very close to where you are painting, and when you are painting near the eyelid, you are sampling a similar edge of the eyelid and then painting out into the eye.

Use the Clone Stamp tool to remove the veins from both eyes.

You may have some weird transitions left over which you can clean up with patch tool.

With the veins removed, we can now remove the overall red cast from the eyes by desaturating them a bit. Command-Click on the eye layer’s thumbnail in the Layers Palette. This selects everything that is not transparent in the layer.

Now from the Layer Menu, choose New Adjustment Layer–>Hue/Saturation. In the new Hue/Saturation layer, turn the saturation all the way down to 0. This will look weird as the eyes will go black and white.

That’s OK for now as we are going to paint out the areas of skin that we don’t want affected on the layer mask. To get ready to paint on the layer mask, type the following:
B – to select the Brush Tool
D – to default the colors to black and white
X – to switch the black and white swatches in palette so you’ll be painting with black

With the Brush Tool selected, paint on the areas of skin around the eyeballs as well as the irises and pupils. As you paint in black on the layer mask, the area you paint will return to full color. Once you’re done, lower the opacity of the Hue/Saturation layer to whatever feels right. You want enough color so that it seems real, but not so much that it looks too red. For me 30% seemed to work well.

Type Command + E to merge the Hue/Saturation layer down into eyes layer.

Now let’s brighten the eyes a little. Again we’ll Command-Click on the eye layer’s thumbnail in the Layers Palette to select everything that’s not transparent in the layer.

Now from the Layer Menu, choose New Adjustment Layer–>Levels. In the new Levels layer, move the middle gray arrow to the left to brighten the eyes to taste. It’s OK to make them a hair too bright as you can lower the opacity of the layer later.

That helps the eyes pop a lot without looking too fake. It’s affecting part of the skin too, so with the Brush Tool still selected, paint on the layer mask of the Levels layer to hide the areas of skin around the eyeballs.

When it looks good to you, type Command + E to merge the Levels layer down into eyes layer, then type Command + E one more time to merge the Eyes layer down into the retouch layer.

Remember way back at the beginning of this article, I said that there were some skin softening plugins and actions that I would use as part of my retouching workflow? Well this is were I use them. Now that I’ve done all of the intricate detail work on an image, a lightly applied filter that evens out the remaining skin tones a little can be useful. The plugin I find myself reaching for most often these days is the Portraiture Plug in from Imagenomic.

The reasons I like Portraiture are:

1) It targets skin tones and leaves objects with other colors in the photo alone.
2) It retains a lot of detail in the areas it targets for smoothing.
3) I can tell it what color the skin tones in my image are.
4) It creates a layer that is transparent except for the areas it is softening, making it easy for me to further tweak the softening by erasing it from areas of the image or changing the opacity of the entire layer.

The above image shows both the default (lowest) setting for Portraiture and the highest setting. As you can see, it retains a lot of detail and avoids looking too plasticky even at it’s highest setting.

Finally, I’ll do a little dodging and burning, selectively lightening and darkening areas of the image to finish it off. I could use some of the dodging and burning techniques I demonstrated in my earlier Blending Fun article, but instead I think I’ll plug another maker of cool Photoshop Tools. Yin/Yang is a dodging and burning action that is part of the Totally Rad Actions Set, Volume one. This set is chock full of insanely useful actions like Yin/Yang that I find myself using all the time.

Yin/Yang creates two layers called Yin and Yang. Paint on the layer mask of Yin to darken areas of your image, and on the layer mask of Yang to brighten parts of the image. You can see from the image above that I used Yin to darken the edges of the image and to darken the red wall a little. I used Yang to brighten up the black feathery area of the hat and to brighten some of the shadow areas of Rachel’s face.

And that’s about it. But before we go, here’s a before and after of the image.

And here’s a link to a high res version of the final image:

I know there are a million ways to ‘skin’ this particular cat :). I’d love to hear how you approach retouching faces in your workflow. Let me know in the comments. Also, if you have any questions, ask them in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer them for you.

About Earl Christie

Earl Christie has written 40 post in this blog.

Earl is a Boston wedding photographer who finds love and magic and wonder in everything he shoots.


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