Intro to Advanced Skin Retouching
Digital photography requires a solid workflow, allowing for professional preparing of digital photo files for the web and print. For the Digital Photography Workflow series, we consulted with a number of experienced professional photographers who are also stellar photo.net members and frequent contributors to the Photo.net Digital Darkroom forum, to walk us through their specific photography techniques and tips on post-processing images.
In this article, republished content from a very interesting and informative post in the Digital Darkroom Forum, Patrick Lavoie offers advice on how to achieve skin softening maintaining the skin’s texture. The article is enhanced with illustrative figures and screen shots, and includes example images from Patrick’s portfolio. Whether you are just entering the world of digital photography and need some tips and advice on how best to post-process your images, or are a seasoned pro, the insights shared here should be helpful with your own digital post-processing techniques.
For more info on Patrick’s digital photography workflow in general, take a look at Fashion Photography Digital Workflow.
Skin Retouching Example
Many times I read in the Digital Darkroom Forum advice on skin retouching. The most common suggestions are to “add some blur” or “Blur this or that”. The truth is, if you want to retain all the skin texture you shouldn’t use any kind of blur in your process, but some extensive pixel-based retouching. I’m sure that many people just like to get fast results, and many people post examples done with different plug-ins to show us examples. However, when viewed at 100%, many of the examples look fuzzy and/or too smooth to be real.
I decided to post an example of what skin retouching and general enhancements look like for me. Rarely will you see a before and after image from me on Photo.net, but my intent is to help inform you as to what I start with before retouching, and what the final results are after applying my magic.
Note: the soft eyebrow is a mistake. I didn’t see it when I posted, then when I reopened the file to continue retouching, I saw the problem. You should always keep the fine texture when it’s there to start with, and add/remove anything to reshape and get them fuller.
- Liquify was used to get the best ratio nose/eyes/lips/jaw possible. On this particular portrait the nose had to be (a personal choice) shrunk a bit, reshaped and centered with the lips.
- The lips also have been reshaped and elongated to give a more pleasing look, the bottom one I reduced in volume because it looked like it was drooping, the upper one got a bit more volume to give a plumper appearance.
- The eyes also were stretched more in a almond shape, and I dodged the eye pupils on the bottom to give them some kick.
- Makeup got some extra contrast to make it look more luxurious [an empty adjustment curve set to overlay, opacity reduced just enough to get the effect I want, then mask apply only over the eyes, on the eyelashes as well. Also a bit on the lips with a brush set to different opacity.]
- The lips’ texture has been removed using a decent brush size with the stamp tool, with a 30% opacity most of the time, painting the hard details away while replacing them with a more subtle texture.
The highlight on the lips is a easy trick that anyone can do really fast:
- Make an empty layer.
- Draw a white line where you need the highlight to appear—on the lips, the nose, the chin, the cheek, forehead, etc. Create an empty layer first for each different need as the line size will be different for all the different body parts.
- Apply a Gaussian blur until you get the desire highlight effect.
- Leave the blending mode to normal, and reduce the opacity of the layer according to the effect you want.
There’s no real secret for skin retouching other than zooming in at 100%-200% and using a small soft brush like 21px/0 hardness or so and switch between the stamp tool and the healing brush to get rid of the small imperfections. It really looks like a monk job when I’m retouching the skin, although experience makes you faster. No plug in can get this kind of look—probably good for most normal users that want to do a quick job to please the regular Joe, but I never do my retouching just to please a client, but to please me first.
For the highlight on the nose, take note that the effect is stronger than the real final result to make sure you can see the result. I follow the same procedure for the lips, chin, cheek etc…
As for how long proper image retouching can take, on this particular image everything took a total of two hours.
Quick Mask Method
Sometimes, it’s really easy just to use the magic wand tool. That’s right. When you have a clean color background, this little tool can create miracles. I select some part of the image, select similar, then invert the selection so the portrait will be the live area to apply my recipe, like in this quick silhouette.
Often, I’ll use the magic wand to first create a more even neutral gray background first. By also using MINIMUM or MAXIMUM, I can reduce or enlarge the mask, and by using a Gaussian blur of 1-2, I create a soft edge mask. Then I reduce the opacity of this new layer, mask the model, and fill the new layer with a gray color to get this slick look.
After that, using the same mask but inverting it I have a quick mask for the model skin and face that I normally optimize and add or remove portions of the mask area with a single brush to get what i need.
For altering and smoothing the skin color, I have a couple different methods I use depending on my needs.
- One way is as easy as using a SELECTIVE COLOR per color channel to get the shade that I need.
- Another method is to create an empty layer fill with a tan skin color set to COLORIZE, then masked, then reduce in opacity to suit my need (protecting the eyes, lips, and other feature that should not have a tan color).
Either of these techniques should give you slick and smooth skin color while retaining details and natural shading.
As for the catchlight, it depends on the kind of image, the scene, and what we’re try to show. I always like to add a bit of it in the eye following the natural light direction.. a personal taste I would say.
A Few Additional Notes:
- Never never use the ICC profile created from a calibration device. This is only for your monitor.
- If I work with files from a high end camera like a Phase One P45 or P65 and the final image is for a cosmetic campaign, I will work in ProPhoto 16-bit all the way and save a flattened copy as sRGB 8-bit just before delivery, keeping the hirez in PSD with all layers for future reference.
- BUT since most of my work is for magazines, billboards and other printed media, I normally develop my image as sRGB 8-bit to start so I’m closer to the final output color space.
Understand that this is the kind of retouching for a high end fashion campaign or high end fashion mag. These edits are a standard procedure. The main point I wanted to make with this article is how to retouch skin to make it flawless while keeping the original pore texture—something you can’t do with a Gaussian blur or other blur method, including image plugins, wrongly referred to as a “glamour look”. In fashion, we are selling a dream and “perfection” so it would be an incomplete job if I had to bring some original back to it. I would never do this kind of retouching on a non model male or female. Most of the time, when I’m retouching “normal” people, the retouching could be as fast as 10-15min to bring them to their best.
ProPhoto and 16-bit vs. sRGB 8-bit
ProPhoto and 16-bit is the best you can use to process your image when you have all the knowledge and info to work with that and fully understand color management. BUT not many users I know really need it in real life situation, nor have the competence to really have this mode work for them. I don’t say it’s not good, but in the wrong hands, it could be really frustrating working in that mode and then seeing a printed result far from what you expect.
I usually suggest to all amateur and semi-pro photographers to use a format that will cause them less problems in a near future until they fully understand what they are doing. Even then, many still won’t need all this power. It’s up to you to figure that out, so yes Adobe RGB or even sRGB could be all you need to work with. For example, all the images I retouch end up in magazines or on some billboard, poster, etc. that are all printed in CMYK. Working in sRGB makes perfect sense for me so I can adjust all the colors and tones to maximize the result of the end print.
For most non pro users that don’t heavily manipulate their images, or don’t take high fashion portraits or landscape images with a lot of gradients, working in these modes could be a waste of time. The reason is that the results are most of the time equal or just a bit better than working with Adobe RGB or sRGB. I have seen this zillions of times and still see this today due to the nature of my work. Not all things in life have to be mathematically perfect, visual is also important in photography and many people seem to forget that and just apply what they read without too much testing. See for yourself if you have better end results when developing a file in 16-bit Pro Photo vs. Adobe RGB 8-bit for your regular image editing and see if when printed you can spot the difference. It’s the best test I can suggest.
I visit the forums on photo.net because I like what I do, and I like helping others. My opinion is if you want to become better you have to share your secrets that way, you have to work harder to be better.. and I like competition. I hope this glimpse into how I approach skin retouching and image editing for high fashion was helpful!