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Image Retouching: Advanced Skin Softening

Digital Photography Workflow Series: Techniques and Tips by Jean-Sébastien Monzani, July 2008

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, Jean-Sébastien offers advice on how to achieve skin softening using low and high pass filtering. The article is enhanced with illustrative figures and screen shots, and includes example images from Jean'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.

Advanced skin softening with low and high pass filtering and noise reduction

This tutorial will show you how to adjust a model's skin without losing skin structure and texture. I call this approach "High Pass + Low Pass Filtering." It splits the image into two layers:

  • One layer holds the texture and fine details of the image (high frequencies)
  • One layer holds the tones of the skin and its color (low frequencies)

Furthermore, we will apply noise reduction to create a clear frequencies layer.

Level: Intermediate

Tools: Adobe Photoshop CS3 [Mac], Noise Ninja

Step 1

My example is a close-up of a face. Your first job is to clean up the main problems like spots, bumps, and skin imperfections with the healing brush tool. This is a fairly easy job so I won't go into details here. We will see here how to reduce and adjust both the texture and tones of the skin. On this image, my goal will be to make the texture of the skin less obvious, as well as brightening the side of the mouth and the bottom of the eye.

Step 2

Make a rectangular selection around the face and duplicate it twice (Layer->New-> Layer via Copy). You will end up with two layers: the topmost one will hold the texture, while the tones and softening is handled by the second one. I've renamed them for easier understanding. Select both of them and group them, and add a mask to the group with Layer->Layer Mask->Reveal all. Adding a mask is important as it will help you with hiding parts that shouldn't be affected by corrections, such as the eyes, the mouth, and the side of the face. To hide things, just paint on black over the mask. This will be typically done at the end. For the moment, just focus on the main corrections without looking at parts that shouldn't be affected, such as the eyes, hair, etc.

Step 3

Hide the texture layer and select the retouching one. To create the low frequencies, you simply need to soften or blur the image. I suggest to pick up Filter -> Blur -> Surface blur. Use a radius of, say 7, and raise the threshold towards 11. This should blur the skin. If you own an older version of Photoshop, a Gaussian Blur will do it too, but color blending will occur on the edges.

Step 4

Still on the retouching layer, pick up a soft brush with a low opacity (20% is fine - you can change this on the top bar). Now gently paint on top of your image to remove elements that you don't like. Use Alt + Click to pick up a color and then paint over the layer. Your result should be pleasing, even if it lacks texture. On my example, I've brightened the areas that I didn't like much on the original image.

Step 5

Now activate and show the texture layer. Next item is to retrieve the details that have been lost. I will use the Noise Ninja plugin here. As with other noise-reduction plugins, Noise Ninja needs to estimate the noise in your image. This profiling is done on specific rectangles that should only contain noise and rather few color changes. I've cleaned up the rectangles that were automatically created by right-clicking on them and then just drew mine. As you can see, I've picked up an area with almost no changes in colors and luminosity. Now select the Filter tab. Your goal is to adjust the image so that some texture remains, but not too much. I would suggest to lower the contrast (I've picked up a value of 5) and apply no Unsharp Masking (USM) amount (value: 0). USM will try to enhance high frequencies, which is not something that I want. Just play around with these values. The ones I gave as a guideline should be a good start. Once you are satisfied, press OK and apply the filter.

Step 6

We now have two layers: texture contains the softened skin but had some dark areas that were fixed on the retouching layer - unfortunately, loosing texture at the same time. How can we combine both? This is actually quite easy: on the texture layer, apply Filter -> Others -> High pass with a radius of roughly 8. This makes a gray image with only details available. Don't panic! This is normal. Now go to Image -> Adjustments -> Hue / Saturation and use a saturation of -100. This is necessary as some color artifacts are created by the High pass filter. Finally, in the Layers window, change the blending mode of the texture layer from Normal to Overlay. You will now successfully see your texture merged with the previous retouching. If your texture isn't strong enough, apply an Image -> Adjustments -> Brightness/Contrast on it and pump up the contrast a little more.

Step 7

This is it. Just paint in black on the mask of the group to remove areas that shouldn't be processed. Remember that masks are quite helpful. You can, for instance, add a mask to the texture layer for finer control, and paint in black on it to hide parts that are too textured.


I hope that you have enjoyed this tutorial. High + Low pass filtering add an interesting new dimension to your work and can be used on several problems.


About the Author

Jean-Sébastien Monzani is a Swiss and French full-time freelance photographer and graphic designer. Elegance, simplicity, a strong sense of composition and emotions are key elements in his work. His images are often constructed as photo-series—something between fashion photography and movie storyboards. The sequence of shots usually tells a little story but each image also works independently. Since he often tries to convey atmosphere in his photos, he mainly shoots on-location, almost exclusively in Lausanne, Switzerland, where he lives. More »

Example Images from Jean's Gallery

Text ©2008 Jean-Sébastien Monzani. Photos ©2008 Jean-Sébastien Monzani.

Article created July 2008

Readers' Comments

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shlomo hanegbi , July 19, 2008; 01:12 A.M.

absolutely usefull

Mac Moss , August 02, 2008; 12:31 P.M.

The Photoshop maneuvers explained here are clear and very potentially useful.

The danger in using these powerful techniques to reduce skin texture is always that it can easily make the subject look more like a corpse, a wax dummy, or a mannikin. With a young, beautiful subject expecially, such as you have here, I always prefer to leave their texture completely untouched, except for the blemish removal that you first mention.

Of course this is all a matter of taste. But I think traditional professional practices are consistent with what you demonstrate here. This is why the great majority of images you see in fashion magazines these days are a collection of ghoulishly lighted wax dummies- and why so many people pay no attention to them.

Don't mean to be contentious, but it's an interesting subject. In the pre-Photoshop days, the wax dummy effect was de rigeur using makeup, which to me was always equally unappealing.

I do appreciate the technical usefulness and time and effort behind what you present. This should be a springboard for discussion!

Mario Antonio , August 13, 2008; 04:25 A.M.

A well written and concise article. I am learning these techniques myself and found it very useful. I do however agree with Mac that these techniques are sometimes over-used. I prefer to convey the "real" person but do however repair minor imperfections like skin blemishes and scars which may detract from the image.

Jean-Sébastien Monzani , August 14, 2008; 05:49 P.M.

Hello and thanks for your feedback.

I do agree with you: I don't like over-processed photos that look like "dolls", that's why I wrote this tutorial: you gain more control on what level of details you would like to keep than with a gaussian blur, for instance.

Actually, I quite rarely use this technique, only from time to time on extreme closeups. But what is interesting is that it can be used on many other things too.

Kristina Sherk , September 03, 2008; 02:10 P.M.

Great Article! Will come in useful!

Ilze Lucero , September 12, 2008; 11:47 P.M.

Thank you

Omega NC , September 19, 2008; 12:24 A.M.

Tres bien explique' et tres utiles pour les retouches.

Graham Thompson , October 06, 2008; 01:38 P.M.

Thanks for the time and trouble you have taken. One of those items to bookmark for future use. Like your work by the way. You make technology work with you. That's art.

Emmanuel Enyinwa , October 17, 2008; 01:18 P.M.

I second Mac above. I have done my share of portraits, not glamous pictures of celebrities, but portraits of people. I think the texture of one's skin, including the blemishes, is the most important part of that person.

In fact, one of my favorite models had a mole on her forehead. I tried to photoshop it out 20 years ago, but she told me that she wants it on the picture as it is almost her way of identifying herself. I learned an important lesson then, that we are what we are.

I think character in a face is more important than perfection of skin tones, and that the best portaits are achieved by taking the time to study the model, engaging her in conversation and making useful eye contact. Everything else is seconday.

Now, that said, I applaud the time you have taken to prepare this article, which, I presume, would come in handy for those who are faced with the demand to photograph an older model still who obsessed with reversing the effects of a richly lived life. Philosophically, I do not identify with people like that, and thank my lucky stars that my daily squares do not depend on feeding their misguided predilections.

Leslie Nicole , October 27, 2008; 03:27 P.M.

I used to work in photographic services back when we retouched the actual fiber print and I also worked doing retouching digitally later. I can guarantee you that all model’s and actors shots as well as other portraits are retouched drastically. When we worked on fiber prints, I swear there would be nearly nothing left of the actual face! I once read that you should photograph a performer as one would see them from the audience. In other words, you aren’t looking down their pores. So while the idea of a “natural” photograph is nice, people want to be seen as their ideal self. In in the performance and fashion world, a retouched photo is a must. Interesting technique. A good technique for the tool bag. Thanks for sharing.

Minh Nghia Le , February 22, 2009; 03:15 A.M.

Thank you for sharing this technique :)

Danilo Freddy Carriel Ramirez , April 06, 2009; 02:38 P.M.

Muy buen tutorial, te lo aagradezco infinitamente. felicitaciones

YALUN LAN , July 02, 2009; 09:11 A.M.

like you style very good!!! Proceed

Alejandro Riccombeni , December 31, 2009; 11:43 A.M.

super useful! thanks

David L. Forney , March 11, 2010; 01:14 P.M.

Thanks for the tutorial. I appreciate your sharing your techniques, and sharing like this is of great value here. David

Cristy Mov , April 08, 2010; 02:34 P.M.

Nice Tutorial... In fact There is many ways to Retouch a Skin Face ... Contrary to popular belief, digital photo restoration and repair is not about computer magic; it's about art, experience, knowledge, hard work, and, dare I say, love. I attached here a sample of skin retouch ... The quality of photo is low but Anyways I've been trying to hide all the blemishes from the skin ...


Image Attachment: fileQychQa.jpg

Sherwin Anos , June 09, 2011; 04:45 A.M.

I've been looking for this tutorial for so long, thanks Jean for the great tips.

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