A split image showing results both before and after my 15 minute makeover.

Skin needs to be retouched. Even beautiful skin with great makeup. The problem with most of the Photoshop techniques I’ve experimented with over the years (burning & dodging individual pores, Surface Blur filter, Dust and Scratches filter, etc.) is they take too long, aren’t very convincing, or - worst of all - make the subject look like a victim of plastic surgery gone bad.

In this article I’m going to show you a combination of techniques I regularly use that results in beautiful, smooth skin that still looks totally real. Best of all, it won’t take all day to accomplish. From start to finish, an experienced Photoshop user should be able to do this in about 15 minutes.

Our workflow follows three basic stages.

1. Manually retouch big flaws and wrinkles via a separate retouching layer

2. Merge the retouching edits into the image layer

3. Use the Red channel of the merged layer to smooth the skin

Before we get started I want you to beware of and avoid what I call Photographer’s Tunnel Vision - that compulsive desire to do the fun stuff first. Making things perfect comes at the end, not the beginning, of the retouching process. Keep your eye on the big picture (no pun intended).

The first tools we'll be reaching for are the Clone Stamp Tool and Spot Healing Brush. With these we can retouch major blemishes, flyaway hairs, and any other texture/color irregularities.

Stage 1: Retouch Obvious Blemishes and Imperfections

Create a new, empty pixel layer above the Background layer to receive the retouching. The trick here will be to choose the Sample All Layers option while using the Spot Healing Brush and the Current and Below option for the Clone Stamp Tool. This ensures that your chosen tool will copy pixels from the Background into the new layer above it.

Go to Layer>New>Layer and add a new, empty pixel layer. Start by retouching the most obvious problems first. Then tackle progressively more subtle issues.
Turn off the visibility of the Background layer to see the edits of your retouching layer in isolation. Here you see the appropriate sampling options for the Clone Stamp Tool and the Spot Healing Brush.

Why not retouch right on the Background layer? If you make a mistake, and don’t notice right away, you have to start all over again! Well, couldn't I just duplicate the Background layer, you may ask? That's better than nothing, but it’s still not a great solution: any retouching you do this way is interwoven into the image pixels, so mistakes can often be more complicated to correct.

By contrast, using a separate 'retouching layer' is elegant. It avoids destructive editing, keeps file sizes small, and allows you to easily change your mind or correct mistakes. Since there’s nothing in the retouching layer but retouching edits and transparency, mistakes are easily dealt with; just delete or erase problem areas without touching the rest of your work. Of course, if you like the adrenaline rush of working without a safety net, be my guest. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Cloning and Healing

The Clone Stamp Tool (S) has been a standby for retouchers for many years. To use it, make sure the Aligned Sample box is checked and set the sampling option to Current and Below, which allows you to match tone, texture and color. Option/Alt+click to set the source from which to copy. Then click or brush to remove the blemish.

The Spot Healing Brush (J) is a more recent addition to Photoshop that does a remarkable job of automatically matching tone, texture and color. To use it, enable the Content-Aware and Sample All Layers options. There's no need to set a source point, just click or brush to remove the blemish. This tool can often seem like magic, but it's not infallible. If your first stroke with the Spot Healing Brush isn’t perfect, undo (Cmd/Ctrl+Z) and try stroking from a different direction. To be certain your work is perfect, always view your file at 100% magnification when retouching. If texture, tone, or color do not match, undo and try again. Our goal is for each brush stroke to be invisible - even to you.

With either tool, you will find that some blemishes call for a single click, while others are best removed with a series of short brush strokes. Initially you may have to experiment to find which situations calls for one or the other, but with practice, this will become second nature.

How do you know when you're ready to move on to the next stage? Retouch as I've described above until you’re satisfied that no flaws bigger than a freckle are visible anymore.

Tip: You can use more than one retouching layer. At left you can see I used three separate layers to retouch this file; one for skin blemishes and such, another to retouch the model’s hair and a third for the area under her eyes.

For even finer control, you could make separate retouching layers for working underneath each eye, on the neck, or anywhere else.

Pay Attention to the Eyes

I always use a separate layer when working on the eyes because it allows me to adjust the opacity of the retouching; striking a perfect balance point between enhanced and overdone. Allowing a bit of the original image to show thorough keeps everything real. It’s up to you how much. If you’ve never done this, you’ll be amazed at the control you can exercise by adjusting the overall opacity of an under-eye retouching layer.

Yes, I know… You can achieve the same result by varying the opacity of the brushes. But with brushes you have to get it exactly right the first time. There’s no experimenting. No changing your mind later. It’s so much easier (and more powerful) to smooth away folds, bags, or dark circles under the eyes, and then dial back the opacity until it looks believable. Take a close look at the examples below.

Here is the image with only skin retouches applied. The eyes could use a little help.
Here is the image with my 'retouching - under eyes' layer at an opacity of 100%. The result is far too strong and looks fake, but this is actually by design. I've purposely overdone the retouching here, knowing that I can always reduce the layer's opacity. Remember, you can always go below 100% but not above it.
Here is the same retouching layer but at an opacity of 50%. Perfect!

Stage 2: Merge All of Your Layers Into a New Layer

Now we're ready to merge all of our working layers into a brand new layer. Why a new layer? Because in a moment we’ll be using the Red channel as the basis for our skin smoothing, and we need that channel to include all of the visible information: the original pixels and the retouching.

Furthermore, we don't want to lose access to the hard work we've done up to this point, so we want to copy all of these layers into a new layer, rather than simply flattening the image! The Merge Visible command is found in the fly-out menu at the upper right of the Layers Panel as well as in the main Layers menu. But here's where a keyboard modifier is a must. Holding the option key when choosing this menu item tells Photoshop to merge into a new layer. Otherwise, it's virtually the same as Flatten Image. The keyboard shortcut for merging all visible layers into a new layer is Opt+Shift+Cmd+E (Alt+Shift+Ctrl+E on Windows). This shortcut is affectionately known as 'The Claw'. Try it with one hand and you’ll understand why!

Since the merged layer will appear above whichever layer is active at the time, highlight the top layer in the stack before merging. Hold the option key when choosing this menu item, so Photoshop merges everything visible into a brand new layer. The merged layer appears here (on the right) as Layer 1.

As you can easily find yourself with multiple retouching layers, now is a good time to get them organized by using layer groups. Select your retouching layers in the Layers panel and choose New Group From Layers in the panel's fly-out menu. Give the group a name, like oh, I don't know, 'Retouching' and hit OK. This is a great way to keep your layers manageable and easily accessible.

Click here to go to page 2 of our beauty retouching tutorial...