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“A thing of beauty is a joy forever”, wrote John Keats. A work of art, whether it is a painting or a photograph, can immortalize this beauty we speak of. A portrait, for example. Beautiful looking skin isn’t really as hard to get as you might think. The key thing is in combining the methods and being meticulous about it. In general, the most important thing you should remember is to avoid skin that looks too smooth and has no texture at all.
Let’s go through the process of preparation and understand how important it is. Preparation is easily the most important step when it comes to getting a “professionally looking” skin. By preparation, I mean make-up, cleanliness and the like. This is the process that sets the foundation for how the overall image will look. Every bit and piece you do here affects the final product, whether in a positive or a negative way. In short, being prepared is always a good thing.
Make-up: Too Much Isn't Too Good
The make-up shouldn’t be overdone. You need your model to have just enough foundation applied in order to have equal skin tonality and retain the texture and “imperfections” at the same time. If it is a portrait you are shooting, for example, make sure the face has the same tonality as the shoulder and neck. Often, having foundation applied on the face alone makes the neck and shoulders have a different color and that is emphasized even more when contrast is increased.
Photo by The Urban Scot
Choose the Best Lighting Setup
Light plays a key role in skin smoothness. You’ll need to choose the proper diffusion based on the skin type the model has, but generally speaking, the softer the better. Harsh light creates harder shadows and harder highlights, thus emphasizes skin imperfections more, while softer light makes everything look uniform. Besides diffusion, light temperature affects skin tonality and can make the skin appear weird due to a color cast. Therefore, make sure the light color temperature is as close as possible to daylight.
Post-Processing: Making it Better
Post-processing the skin can be quite a difficult task. There are tons of plugins that do the work for you, but most of them do an average job. If you want to achieve excellent looking results which are both realistic and beautiful looking you’ll need to do it manually.
The best way to do this is through frequency separation. It is a process which divides the work into two layers which you can edit without having one affect the other. This is the perfect way to smoothen skin tones and retain the texture, and be able to fix the texture without changing the tonality.
While you are at it, you can shape the light a bit on the tone layer using dodge and burn in order to enhance the depth of the portrait per se. Also, you can correct color here.
One thing you need to remember is that skin shouldn’t be too smooth – it should have a natural looking texture. An excessively smooth skin looks unnatural and makes the model look like a painting. Your aim should to be make the skin beautiful, flattering with the texture contained. Of course, you’ll remove all blemishes and anything similar, but retain as much texture as possible. Pores and some wrinkles around the dimple areas are part of the texture. If you remove every bit of imperfection, you remove the identity and the unique characteristics your model has.
Skin with almost no texture. Photo by allegra
While we are talking mostly about skin on the face, make sure you don’t forget the skin on the other parts of the body. Arms and legs undergo different post-processing compared to the face since there are more gradients and you’ll need to retain or enhance them accordingly while keeping the texture to flattering level on the hands and feet.
Neck, stomach and similar areas tend to have more shadows, so you’ll need to be careful around that since ruining a shadow can make the whole image look weird. You can soften shadows, but do not remove them.
I see many photographers who are afraid of highlights. Highlights on the skin are often a good thing – they give a 3D feeling. In other words, they bring a more natural look to the picture and they counter flatness. If you remove the highlighted parts (often the forehead, nose and cheekbones) you pretty much ruin the depth and naturalism the image/portrait has. If the highlights are harsh, smoothen them, but don’t remove them completely.
Oversaturating the skin is another common mistake we usually see. When you saturate skin, you deviate from the natural skin color and it can make the skin look orangey, the tonality and skin colors go wrong, and the skin might look artificial. Nobody wants that, right?
In addition, removing too much undereye, dimple and other shapes from the skin makes the image appear unreal and can totally ruin an image (and potentially a model that starts to hate you). You can soften those areas if you will, but leave some there.
Lastly, remember that everything should be done in moderation. Don’t overdo anything. Do your skin retouch, and let the image sit for a day or two, then look at it again. It will freshen up your perspective and you’ll be able to judge better whether you did a good job or not.