Skin Retouching

Digital photography has the sometimes undesirable quality of being too sharp when it comes to photographing a person's face. All the little skin imperfections and usually hidden details get showcased with a spotlight! So let's go over a few tricks to help smooth out someone's skin.


Step 1

Skin Retouching Step 1

Open the photo you want to work with. To begin with this type of skin retouching, you’ll need to make a copy of the background layer. This is easily achieved by using a keyboard shortcut, Cmd-J (PC:Control-J). Next you’ll want to reduce the sharpness that digital images are so good at acquiring; do this by applying a blur filter. Simply navigate FILTER > BLUR > SURFACE BLUR. The Threshold slider in this filter has two advantages, 1) you can eliminate the dreaded halo effect that you get when applying a blur and 2) it will enable you to proficiently blur the surfaces within the edges of an object, while keeping the actual edges sharp as a tack.


Step 2

The trick with Surface Blur is getting the ideal settings for Radius and Threshold. Radius is the “reach” of the filter effect on all the pixels within the edges of a given object. What you need to do with the Radius slider is find the desired setting where the skin’s surface is Nivea smooth! Play around with the Radius setting until you find the value you’re happy with. Increase the zoom inside the Surface Blur window to witness the elimination of large pores and other skin problems.


Step 3

Skin Retouching Step 3

Now that you have the skin quite smooth, you’ll want to adjust the Threshold to really make the grade. Slide the Threshold up until you notice those unsightly halos that manifest around your subject. Then dial back the slider to the value in which the halos are gone. But be warned, if you continue decreasing the Threshold, you’ll bring back the finer details that you worked so hard to get rid of with the Radius control. You goal is to make the skin smooth, almost too smooth; as we’ll bring the texture back shortly.


Step 4

Skin Retouching Step 4

Now we have to create a layer mask to bring out only the specific Surface Blur areas out where we want to soften the skin. You do this by holding down the Option key, and clicking on the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layer palette. This new layer is filled with Black that is hiding the surface blur on our top layer. What you’ll need to do next is paint out the Black so that we can reveal the blur effect. Select a soft-edge brush and set the Opacity on the layer to 60 – 80% and paint away, just don’t paint out areas where you want extreme detail, like the lips, the eyelashes, the eyebrows, etc.


Step 5

Skin Retouching Step 5

The Surface Blur probably did not eliminate all the minor blemishes and details that you want to. So select the top layer (Layer 1), hold down Cmd+Opt+Shift and then press E (this takes some nimble fingers). What this does is clone the visible elements of this photograph into a new top layer. Because these minor irregularities are similar to dust and scratches on a film negative, that’s precisely what we’re going to use to get rid of them. Navigate FILTER > NOISE > DUST & SCRATCHES, and then set your Threshold value to zero. Then increase the Radius ever so slightly to eradicate any glaring skin issues.


Step 6

Skin Retouching Step 6

We’re not done yet! You have to bring back the skin texture, and you do this by manipulating the Threshold slider. Be careful not to raise it too much or the minor skin problems will come back! After you’ve applied the Dust & Scratches, hold down Option and click the Add Layer Mask icon in the Layer palette to obscure this layer’s effects.


Step 7

Skin Retouching Step 7

We’re almost done – last step! Choose the Brush and select white as the output color. Then zoom in to 200% or so and paint out the Layer Mask where you want to erase any imperfections. By zooming in to 200% you can spot the skin imperfections better and make sure that the skin is smooth, but be realistic. We don’t want to have any one looking like a mannequin!


Before & After Skin Retouching

Before Skin Retouching
After Skin Retouching



After you’re played around with all the goodies at your disposal and gotten down to brass tacks regarding the sharpening of your image, use the Preview check box to toggle back and forth between the Before and After. Eventually you will find the combination that is appealing. However, you must remember that it is critical not to over-sharpen the image; otherwise your image won’t look natural.

Attila Kun

Attila is the founder and editor-in-chief of Exposure Guide. He is an avid photographer, graphic designer, bedroom DJ and devoted Mac addict. Attila got his first DSLR camera, a Canon 10D, back in 2003 and he has been hooked on photography ever since.