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 members and frequent contributors to the 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, 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.

Before Image

After Image

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.

Edits Applied

  • 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.

Lips Highlight

The highlight on the lips is a easy trick that anyone can do really fast:

  1. Make an empty layer.
  2. 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.
  3. Apply a Gaussian blur until you get the desire highlight effect.
  4. 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:

  1. Never never use the ICC profile created from a calibration device. This is only for your monitor.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Espacephotos for Richard Belley


I visit the forums on 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!


Example Photos

7588365 7588360 7588404

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    • Hi All, please feel free to ask questions about technique describe here, and of course about anything else you need more details.. if possible i will be glad to answer you ; )

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    • Nice article, Patrick! As always, thank you for the generous sharing of your experience and methods. Many, myself included, will benefit from your techniques. 

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    • Nice commentary, and I am pleased at how you presented the topic of proper retouching vs. blur to the enthusiast audience.  Your skin work and color tone are excellent.  The only constructive feedback I would offer is on reshaping.  For the left 1/2 face photos, it is spot on, but for the full photo, it's inconsistent between the right and left halves.  The left nose and lips appear more flattened than the right.  However, nit-picking aside- very high caliber work.


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    • Great insight into the realm of glamor photo retouching.  Thanks for sharing the wisdom. 

       - Curtis

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    • A question receive my email;


      Now, my question is.. after all this when i need to sharpen the final image.. what's the best tool (unsharp mask? with the high pass filter?) and should i apply it to all the image or just the edges? Can you talk something about it? Cause in magazines like vogue the sharpening is so subtle but amazingly right. I know it must be a really sharp lens+Post sharpening, right?


      I use a 3 step sharpening;

      1_ Capture Sharpening is applied early in the image-editing process, and just aims to restore any sharpness that was lost in the capture process. I do this in my raw developer or in Photoshop as my first stage.

      2_ Creative Sharpening is usually applied locally to accentuate specific features in an image-for example, we often give eyes a little extra sharpness in head shots. This is done after all is finished retouching wise (skin retouched, liquify done etc..)

      3_ Output Sharpening is applied to files that have already had capture and creative sharpening applied, after they've been sized to final output resolution, and is tailored to a specific type of output process.


      What tool do i use? The best one i found during many test i have done is without compromise the Smart Sharpen part of Photoshop. Way better than USM (less halo and noise) Way precise than Highpass (that i use to use for the past 7 years out of the 10 i do this for work uintil i find something better.. smart sharpen). PK Sharpener is also a really good solution IF you are not to experience with the sharpening tool and /or dont ahve enough knowledge to produce quality work at different size.

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    • This article was just what I needed - I had been using the blur technique after being taught it on a course that should have known better. I knew I needed to move on, but was not sure what tools/techniques to use and in fact I ended up using heal and clone before reading this. So this artical has given me the assurance I needed to carry on developing in that direction, and a few other techniques to try too.

      Now a question: I shoot a lot of black models and I find no matter how good their skin is overall, their knees and elbows are often a lot darker colour and rougher texture to the surrounding skin (wish I could send an example image, but 'm at work ;p ).

      I can use clone/heal to smooth out the texture, but what techniques can I use to correct the colour? I've never been satisfied with the localised hue adjustments I've tried.

      Thanks, Rob Sheppard

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    • Hi Rob,

      yes you can use the clone tool set to 30% let say, that will introduce some blur to this rough skin part, a control blur i should say ; )


      For the darker area, i mainly use the dodge / burn tool when the problem is really local and nothing from a artistic point of view..meaning i wont need to go back later asking myselg if i should put the darkness back...


      To unify the color, i use a lot of selective color or color balance or a layer fill with the color i want but the opacity set to the desire level.. all use with a mask give me the perfect and precise way to apply / correct the problem area.



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    • Thanks for the quick response (you managed to reply before I'd even attached the example image!) and for sharing your knowlege.
      I'll give your techniques a go soon.

      Rob Sheppard

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    • Good work. Well done.

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    • Wow this is really great! Can you expand on how you made the lips so smooth and even please?

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    • will be my pleasure to explain it in another tutorial pretty soon ; )


      hint; stamp tool and ....

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    • Thanks so much for this insight Patrick!  For those of us who aren't experts with photoshop it's really well explained.

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    • Patrick, when you get down to the 200%+ zoom, healing and cloning, do you also dodge and burn at the pixel level (overlay/softlight50%grey)? Sometimes i find that is useful in keeping texture round eyes and things, a little easier than cloning it anyway, or do you have another technique for that?


      Also, do you keep some samples of perfect skin to use in emergencies?


      Your contributions to have been absolutely invaluable to me, probably 60% of my workflow is from things you have said, 20% from the gry garness ebook that you recommended, and the last 20% is stuff i have got from trawling forums; so every time i edit one of my photos, over 2 hours of the process is from you!

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    • You're a legend, Patrick!

      I've got a couple of questions I'd like to ask you, neither of which is specifically about the main topic of your article.


      While it's only a side issue you mentioned...

      all the images I retouch end up [...] 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.

      ...since you brought it up, I thought I'd try to clarify something for myself (and hopefully others).  Namely, my confusion is about editing in ProPhoto vs sRGB/AdobeRGB color spaces.  I came across many warnings advocating inexperienced users against using ProPhoto, but never quite explaining what are the risks it entails, let alone how they ought to be managed.  I'm no expert in color management, but, even if there often is little to no IQ benefit from it, I can see no harm in doing RAW development and then all PS manipulations in ProPhoto, converting to sRGB only the final flatened output (changing the mode from 16 to 8 bits per channel as the very last step).  I experimented with AdobeRGB as a color space in ACR and it wasn't uncommon for me to get out-of-gamut warnings: predictably, switching to sRGB was further exacerbating the issue; switching to ProPhoto was solving the problem.  Can't one always convert to a smaller space, choosing either Relative Colorimetric or Perceptual intend for desired mapping?  However, this operation is irreversible, i.e., doing it the other way around won't recover compressed (or "clipped") colors, so that information is lost forever, hence my intuitive inclination to perform that step right at the end, only once the final "master" psd file containing all the layers has been saved with embedded ProPhoto color profile.


      The second question is only indirectly related to your tutorial...

      It really looks like a monk job when I'm retouching.  As for how long proper image retouching can take, on this particular image everything took a total of two hours.

      ...but how do you maintain proper posture for extended periods of intensive work to prevent Repetitive Strain Injuries? -- my neck often gets stiff and my right hand fingers always go cold and grow stiff when I'm editing images for any appreciable amount of time  :(


      Looking forward to the next installment!


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    • I think I've finally found a decent elaboration on potential pitfalls of using ProPhoto as an editing colour space in Jeremy Daalder's article aptly entitled ProPhoto or ConPhoto ;)

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    • good chair, proper posture, good monitor height, place to rest your feet, no direct light in my face, retouching for no kmore than 8-10 hours per day with 10min break every 1-2 hours or so... the use of a wacom tablet as my prime and only mouse is the secret tool.. i use it all the time in all the software i use, no mouse for the past 12 years or so.

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    • sorry Richard, i miss your question...


      1_yes i sometime use dodge and burn at pixel/pores level


      2_i like a to use a stamp tool set to lower opacity, and create a neutral grey layer with texture in need to put over it.


      3_i dotn have a generic skin sample that i keep, but sometime, i use one that i make from the subject skin to *patch* difficult area. I think that Gry Garness explain it well in her ebook or DVD? both are a excellent source for a more complete details information about how to retouch

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    • Hi, I am new to photography and I am so glad I found this article. but I have so many questions, if I may ask. I've included a link so you can see some of my work, I think I have "stumbled" on to one good retouch, but I cannot recreate what I did.  I am having such a hard times matching tones, and when I do the pores are a big issue.  I tried the smoothing technique and the blur, I HATE it. so I tried to retouch by cloning tool, which gave me a good result, but like I said I can't seem to make it consistent and it often takes me hours and its still not correct.  my questions are:

      the stamp tool? how are you using it? what are you doing with it? 

      when cloning, should I do small spot, by small pot across the image? should use the clone tool like a brush and paint of the section? or dot it? and keeping tone and colors (this is my biggest issue)

      Creating a patch of skin texture to use? and how?

      the 50% gray layer, what does that do? and how should I apply it? 

      also I am not using  a high pixel based camera, since I am new I am using a rebel xt 8mp camera, is there any advice other than get a new camera (i can't afford one) that I should take into account when retouching? I really want to make my photos have this type of quality so I know alot of questions but ANY advice you can give will be greatly appreciated. thanks Wes

      link to my work so far:

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    • hi Patrick:

      thank you for showing us your very neat work, i like it alot. 

      i'd like to know where i can learn high-end fashion retouching?



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    • Gry Garness have a excellent ebook and DVD about retouching. Amy Dresser have also a web site and give sometime live show on the net.


      If you are in Montreal, i give workshop about cosmetic retouching as well ; )

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