Digital Photography Editing 101: Retouching the Subject’s Skin

April 25, 2013 | By | Reply More

An ongoing series of Photoshop gaffes perpetrated by a huge American lingerie company has recently highlighted something we all know well already. If you try to touch up skin tone too heavily using any digital editing program, you’ll end up with a picture that looks like it has been taken to show off a strange plastic doll.

Any number of elements can contribute to an unfortunate skin appearance in a digital portrait – from harsh lighting to incorrect exposure, or using a white balance suited to a different kind of illumination. A fluorescent white balance applied to natural light, for instance, will make everything look blue.

To smooth out skin tones, without turning a subject into a plastic person, you need to split the skin out from everything else in the image. This is done by creating a duplicate layer, which is used to overlay the original image. The duplicate layer will have the altered skin tones in it.

You’ll need to remove the key facial features from the tope layer (the mask layer). Take out the eyes, the mouth and the deeply shaded areas around the nose.

Now select all the skin on the top layer. This can be done easily by magnetically lassoing the face – and then going back with a brush to select any skin areas the lasso has missed. Make sure you have no hair, or any other feature, accidentally highlighted at this stage. It’s usually only the face you want to smooth off – this is tip one, really, for making a portrait that doesn’t look plastic. Think of the technique as similar to using a soft filter in the good old days of film: you’re focusing the viewer on the middle of the image.

Put a colour mask on the selected layer, so the selected face area can be seen clearly. Then use a noise filter to smooth out the skin tone. Clear the mask, and bring the bottom layer back to visible – you should now see that your image has smoother skin, but looks, overall, quite realistic.

It probably won’t be realistic enough, mind you. No one has completely uniform skin. So you need to bring a little artificial deepening back into the mix, to make the face more like a real person’s and less like an advert.

By lowering the opacity of the top layer (the mask layer, with the smoothed skin on it), you will begin to reinstate the natural blemishes and shadows of the subject’s actual face. Simply play with the level of top layer opacity until the image has the right blend of smoothness and reality for your taste.

Other skin tone problems, for example the white balance or lighting issues alluded to above, may have a separate solution. It is possible to use Photoshop or another digital image editor to change the white balance after the event, and also to perform basic changes to the RGB (red, green and blue) balance of the image; or to change overall colour warmth and intensity according to preference. Simple sharpening or blurring of the whole picture can also give a more realistic look to the person, depending on the exposure and depth of field of the original image.

Marko Jergic is the founder and Managing Director of Enliten IT, software training and a consulting company that provides organisations of all sizes with tailored training solutions on Microsoft and Adobe technologies. He loves writing articles related to Photoshop training in his free time.

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