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Every portrait photographer strives to achieve the best-looking skin in his or her portrait images. As much as it seems so, this is not an easy task to accomplish. The trick is to smooth out the skin without making it look unreal and unflattering. It is crucial to hit the sweet spot between good-looking and realistic skin. Retaining as much texture as possible is essential while removing the imperfections. There are various ways to smooth out skin, but I’ll give you a short guide of my 5 favorite ways to do it (number 5 being my favorite one). You can try them all and chose the one that works best for you.
1. Manual Labor
Even though it is necessary, it is my least preferred way to get smoother skin. I often mix manual patching up with other methods depending on the situation and the extent to which I’m willing to go for. Under manual labor I mean manually fixing blemishes, discolorations and so on using patch, clone stamp, and healing brush tools. This applies to similar processes as well.
2. Color Balancing
Often, skin smoothness consists of making the skin a uniform color. Therefore, balancing the colors on the skin can make it look smoother and more pleasing. Often the issue is the red color, being too saturated and strong when compared to the other colors which are a part of the skin tone. There is an easy fix: just increase the luminosity of the red channel and decrease the saturation of the red channel a bit. This will work in both Photoshop and Lightroom, just make sure that you use a mask or a selection for this fix to be applied on the necessary areas only.
Even though blur is considered to be the worse way to go, it can prove pretty decent for small fixes if used in moderation and selectively. Often works well combined with color balancing since it removes most of the texture and retains tonality. Blur is often underestimated due to the fact that it is used badly and sometimes way too much.
4. Inverted High Pass
I use this rarely but it is good for getting rid of hard texture. All you need to do is duplicate the layer, then create a high pass filter with the radius which suits your need (Filter > Other > High Pass, in Photoshop). Then change blend mode to soft light or overlay. Then you need to make an inverse of that high pass. This will effectively cancel out texture, and combined with masking in order to be used selectively it can be good for removing harsh textures.
5. Frequency Separation
My favorite and most complicated method of them all. It is basically a combination of all of them but in a special way. The point is, frequency separation allows one to edit the texture or the tone separately, without one affecting the other. This is done in Photoshop. I’m not sure if it is possible in Lightroom.
Essentially you need to create two duplicate layers from the original image. On the bottom layer you apply a gaussian blur filter. You should choose radius size which is just enough to remove the fine texture and leave you with blurry but recognisable photo. On a 10 megapixel photo, I prefer radius of about 5-10 pixels.
On the second layer you should choose Apply image. Source layer should be the blurry one. You set the apply image to subtract, scale 2, offset 128. You will get something that looks like high pass filter. Then set the blending mode to linear light.
On the blurry layer, you can use the lasso tool with decent amount of feather (around 20 px) to make selections in the areas where you want to fix the tonality, then you apply gaussian blur filter (10-15 px radius should do).
On the high pass look alike layer (the texture one) you can alter the texture as if you were doing it on regular image. You can do this using clone stamp, patch and healing brush tool. However, in this case you won’t affect the tonality, just the texture and nothing more. Keep in mind that since there is no tonality, spot healing brush will work a bit awkward, but you’ll get used to it.
Frequency separation is a bit hard to figure out for the beginner photographers, but it is the process that suits many photographers well, including me. It provides total control the affected area allowing you to achieve the best results. In a future article, I’ll provide a step by step guide on doing it, few tips and tricks, and will explain the pros and cons of using this technique.