Stage 3: Use the Red Channel From the Merged Layer to Smooth the Skin

Now that the Background and all the major retouches have been merged into a single new layer, we get to the fun part! To get started we need to copy the Red channel of the merged layer and paste it into the file as a layer at the top of our layer stack.

To do this, make just the Red Channel in the Channels panel active by clicking on it. Then hit Cmd/Ctrl+C to copy the channel to the clipboard. Next, click on the RGB composite channel and hit Cmd/Ctrl+V to paste the channel as a new layer. With this task accomplished you can now delete the merged layer (named Layer 1 by default) residing just beneath it. Look at the image below for an alternate way to accomplish this task.

You can save some steps when copying the Red Channel to a layer by going to Image>Apply Image. Select Merged in the Layer pull-down and set the Channel pull-down menu to Red. Make sure the Blending Mode is set to Normal, as shown above. This method automatically replaces the merged layer with the Red channel's contents. Bonus points if you can tell me a third way to do this, using a Channel-Mixer Adjustment layer (reply in the Comments section at the end of the article).

Regardless of how you end up with a (monochrome) 'Red channel' layer at the top of your stack, the magic begins when we change the Blending Mode of this layer to Luminosity. Suddenly everything looks lighter and more radiant – and the skin looks amazing.

Radiant Skin: Here we see the result of the Red Channel of the merged layer, with the Blending Mode set to Luminosity. 

Some Finishing Touches

The effect shown above works great for skin. If you look carefully, however, you can see that our subject's eyes, hair, and lips do not respond so well to  this kind of enhancement. That's often the case, and this effect doesn't work very well on clothing either, for that matter. No problem. Our next step is to mask this layer so the change is applied only to areas of bare skin.

 Almost there: The retouched image with and without Red-Channel-Luminosity-Blend-Mode-Smoothing.

A great way to do this is to first select the skin by going to Select>Color Range. With this tool you can quickly select the skin tones, while leaving hair, eyes and lips unselected.

With the Color Range dialog open, click and Shift-click in the main image window on areas of skin to add them to the selection. Option/Alt-click on non-skin areas to remove them from the selection. Adjust the Fuzziness slider to expand or contract the selection parameters.

With our selection still active, we add the layer mask by going to Layer>Add Layer Mask>Reveal All. The mask will automatically appear in the shape of the selected areas. Refine the mask as needed, using brushes and, if necessary the (awesome) Refine Mask Edge feature in the Masks Panel.

You can see that our merged red channel layer is now linked to a layer mask. Dial back the opacity of this layer, to taste. Be conservative. Less is more here. Make a duplicate of the merged red channel layer (shown at the top of the layer stack) and blur it by going to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur. Reduce the opacity of this layer, also to taste.

In the example below, you can see a progression of the steps we've just undertaken. Once we fixed the most obvious flaws via our retouching layer, we used a copy of the Red channel to make the skin smoother and then applied a layer mask (as well as a duplicate) to restrict the smoothing to skin areas.

From Left to Right: A) Retouched Image with no smoothing. B) Red channel smoothing visible everywhere. C) Soft-edged layer mask that restricts smoothing to the skin. D) Image with the layer mask applied.

Your Layers panel may look a little crowded, but we've really only done about five or six basic edits – et voilà! I think this is a remarkable result for the effort.

The final image shows just how productive those 15 minutes can be.

I hope you'll find this method a useful (and fun) addition to your arsenal of Photoshop techniques. Of course you can build on these steps for even more control and flexibility. Sometimes I'll use multiple smoothing layers, all placed in a layer group, with a single layer mask. On some images I'll even add a Curves adjustment layer clipped to the smoothing layer(s) for the best results. And if you're a fan of actions, this entire workflow can easily be recorded and later run automatically and interactively, saving even more time on future projects.


Jean Miele has been digitally editing images for over 15 years. A working commercial photographer and highly sought after Photoshop instructor, his fine art images and workshop schedule can be seen at  www.jeanmiele.com