Softening Skin While Retaining Texture
The problem with Lightroom’s method for skin softening is that it pretty much obliterates the skin texture and your subject’s skin winds up looking pretty plastic. That’s why, when it comes to softening skin and keeping texture, we always head over to Photoshop. It does take a few steps, but it’s really easy.
Select the image in Lightroom you want to retouch, then press Command-E (PC: Ctrl-E) to open it in Photoshop. Before we do any skin retouching, we always remove any large obvious blemishes first (you can do that in Lightroom using the Spot Removal tool before you even bring it over to Photoshop). It’s hard to see at this zoomed out view, but she’s got a nice skin texture we want to preserve, and this technique does a great job of that. So, start by pressing Command-J (PC: Ctrl-J) to duplicate the Background layer.
Go under the Filter menu, under Other, and choose High Pass. When the High Pass filter dialog appears, enter 24 pixels (as shown here) for images that are cropped in pretty tight like this. If it’s more of a full-length or 3/4-length photo of your subject, where they’re not so tightly cropped, use 18 pixels instead, then click OK. The image will turn mostly gray (like you see here) when you click OK in the High Pass filter (by the way, we normally use the High Pass filter when we need some really heavy sharpening. See page 134 for more on that technique).
Now, go under the Filter menu, under Blur, and choose Gaussian Blur. You’re going to enter a number that is 1/3 of the number you entered in the High Pass filter. So, if you had a close-up image like we do here, you’d enter 8 pixels (1/3 of the 24 pixels you entered in the High Pass dialog). If instead your image was a 3/4-length shot or a full-length shot, then you’d enter just 6 pixels (1/3 of 18). Click OK to apply a blur to your High Pass gray layer (as seen here).
Next, you’re going to invert this High Pass layer by going under the Image menu, under Adjustments, and choosing Invert, or by just pressing Command-I (PC: Ctrl-I). At this point, it still looks gray and pretty bad, but we’re going to change the blend mode for this layer so it ignores the gray part. Go to the Layers panel and, from the pop-up menu near the top left, change the blend mode from Normal to Linear Light to give you the effect you see here. It’s still a mess, but at least it’s not gray, right? The problem is there are halos around everything. To get rid of all that haloing and stuff, go to the bottom of the Layers panel, click on the Add a Layer Style icon and, from the pop-up menu, choose Blending Options.
When the dialog appears, go right to the bottom, where you’ll see two gradients with little triangle-shaped sliders under them (shown below left). These are the Blend If sliders, and they are for controlling how the layer you’re currently on blends with the layer(s) below it. If you drag those triangle sliders to the left or right, you’ll see how harsh they make the blending. However, if instead you press-and-hold the Option (PC: Alt) key, and then drag the top-right slider (the one marked This Layer), it splits the slider in half and now it makes a very smooth blend. Drag it nearly all the way to left (as seen here at right), and some of those halos go away. Do the same thing with the top-left slider (press-and-hold the Option key and drag it nearly all the way to the other side), and the rest of the haloing junk goes away. Now click OK.
What you’re seeing onscreen is what we’re going to use for our skin texture, but it’s also appearing over her eyes, lips, hair, hat, etc., so we need to hide this layer from view and then reveal just the parts we want. We do this by pressing-and-holding the Option (PC: Alt) key, then clicking on the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the Layers panel (it’s the third icon from the left). This hides your skin texture layer behind a black layer mask. Now, press D to set your Foreground color to white, get the Brush tool (B), then in the Brush Picker in the Options Bar, choose a medium-sized, soft-edged brush and set its Opacity to 100%. Paint over just the skin areas (as shown here), avoiding all the detail areas, like the eyebrows, eyes, hair, nostrils, lips, teeth, and the edges of the face (avoid the edges of her face, or they will get softer). Notice how it’s smoothing and removing the splotchy areas of skin, but it’s actually enhancing the skin texture as you paint? Pretty cool, right?
At this point, you’ve applied the skin softening and texture at 100% (full power), but that’s normally too much. So, go to the Layers panel and lower the Opacity to around 50% and things start to look more realistic. The lower the opacity, the less of the softening we see, so pick an opacity setting that looks good to you. Normally, I use something between 40% and 50%, but it depends on the person and their skin. There are times I’ve had to use 70%. It just depends on their skin.