This tutorial is all about beauty retouching and how to use adjustment layers, lighting, dodging and burning, and frequency separation to create stunning skin tones and textures for a true beauty photography retouch. This tutorial should work just fine with most versions of Photoshop and you can even download the RAW file I’m using and follow along as we move through the tutorial!
Watch the Video Tutorial
1. Starting with the Raw File
We want to begin with a Raw file or a high quality image. If you want to follow along with this tutorial download the image right here to follow along with this tutorial. In this case I’ll be starting with a PSD file that was converted from a Camera Raw file. With beauty photography THE most important thing is the lighting. You want lighting that fills shadows and ensures the model will have smooth skin even right out of the camera. For this photo I used a fairly simple clam-shell lighting technique.
2. Frequency Separation For Skin Tones
We’re going to begin by duplicating the background layer twice and rasterizing each of those layers (Right Click>Rasterize Layer) and I named the layer on the bottom “lo” and the layer on top “hi”. I applied a 10px gaussian blur to the “lo” layer and then selected the “hi” layer and went Image>Apple Image and used the settings below in my screenshot. Next set the “hi” layer to the blend mode “Linear Light”. We’re now set to smooth tones in the skin and start removing blemishes.
3. Smoothing Skin Colors
I’m going to grab the Healing Brush Tool (J) and set the “Sample” option in the top control bar to “Current Layer” and begin working on the “lo” layer. I’m going to target the bags under her eyes and smooth them out. Working on this “lo” layer means that we’re only editing the color of the image and not displacing any texture. This will ensure that her skin texture stays perfectly in tact while we simple lighten under the eyes. (Watch the video to see exactly how I heal if you need more visual example)
4. More Smoothing
Create a layer between the “hi” and “lo” layers. Name that layer “smoothing”. Next grab the Brush tool (B) and look to the top toolbar and set the opacity of the Brush tool to “10%”. When you hold down your Alt/Opt key you can use that eyedropper tool to select colors and then paint with them. I’m looking to sample colors in the highlights and paint that color very gently into the shadowy areas and then do the same with the shadowy colors and paint them onto the highlights. This will smooth the tones overall in her skin. Again, see my video if you need more visual guidance.
5. Heal & Remove Blemishes
Select the “hi” layer and grab the Healing Brush tool (J) and again ensure that your still have the “Sample” option set to “Current Layer” and begin sampling (hold down Alt/Opt to sample area) clean areas of skin and paint over blemishes that you see.
6. Fill Out the Hair
Hair is a large part of beauty retouching, but due to its complexity I chose an image without much hair and we’ll save hair retouching for another tutorial. Here we simply need to fill both areas beside her chin with hair. Start by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + Alt/Opt + E to merge all layers to a new layer. Grab the Rectangular Marquee tool (M) drag a selection over the right side of the image and then hit Cmd/Ctrl + J to pop that up onto its own layer. Go Edit>Transform>Flip Horizontal and drag it over to the left side of the image with the Move tool (V). I’m going to throw a mask on this hair layer and mask that hair just into the area to the left of her chin.
7. Frequency Separation AGAIN!
Use the merge all layers hotkey again to smash all of our layers together and pop that up onto its own layer and hit Cmd/Ctrl + J to duplicate that layer. Name the lower layer “lo 2” and the top layer “hi 2”. We’re going to blur the “lo 2” layer by 10px and Apply the “hi 2” just as we had done earlier. I also want to go Filter>Sharpen>Smart Sharpen and add about 150% of sharpening at a radius of “1.2px” to the “hi 2” layer. I’m also going to add a layer mask to the “hi 2” layer to be used later.
8. Continue Smoothing Tones
Select the “lo 2” layer and grab the Brush tool (B) and paint the highlights and shadows again as we did before with a brush opacity of “10%” to flatten the highlights and shadows. This time around you probably want to focus on details and don’t be afraid to tweak smaller/thinner shadows/highlights.
9. Blur the Skin. What?!
We want to knock out a little bit of the overall skin detail. I have to admit, I’m still kind of up-in-the-air about this step, but let’s do it here, we can always drop this layer later if we hate it. To blur the skin a little all we need to do is paint with black in the layer mask that we added to the “hi 2” layer. I’m using the Brush tool (B) set to the opacity of “10%” and gently painting where I want to knock out some details.
10. Pumping In Fresh Skin Texture
We now want to add our own artificial skin texture to ensure that her skin doesn’t look like smooth, blurry stuff. Create a new layer and name it “Skin Texture Small” go Edit>Fill and choose “50% Gray” from the content drop down, then go Filter>Noise>Add Noise and add 25% noise with “Uniform” and “Monochromatic” ticked on, and then go Filter>Stylize>Emboss and set the angle to about 85 degrees and height to “2” and the amount to around “200%”. Set this layer to the blend mode “Soft Light”. This is our base texture!
11. More Skin Texture
Duplicate that skin texture layer and rename it “Skin Texture Large” and then go Edit>Transform and set the width and height of the transform to 200% up in the control bar across the top of the window.
12. Masking the Texture
We really need to mask this texture into exactly where we want it because right now it’s out of control. Hold down your Alt/Opt key and choose the add new layer icon to add a layer mask filled with black. Do this with both skin texture layers. Grab the Brush tool (B) and again set the opacity of the tool to “10%” and paint with white gently where you need texture. Begin with the small texture layer and then paint in where you need large texture once you’ve finished with the smaller stuff. TIP: This is a labor of love. Take lots of time if need be and add/remove gently where texture is flat or if it starts looking fake.
13. More Blemishes
At this point we’ll create a blemishes layer to touch up anything that we now notice. Create a new layer and name it “Blemishes” and grab the Healing Brush tool (J) and set the Sample to “Current & Below” to use a very small brush and start getting rid of any tiny blemishes that you see.
14. Retouching Eyebrows
The eyebrows are very important. Begin by merging all layers to a new layer with Cmd/Ctrl + Shift + Alt/Opt + E. Use the Lasso tool (L) to create two selections across the top of the eyebrows where you want to trim them and then use the arrow keys to nudge these selections straight up. (TIP: You must still have the lasso tool active to nudge the selection like this) Go Select>Modify>Feather and feather the edges of the selection by 5px.
15. Trim the Eyebrows
Hit Cmd/Ctrl + J to pop those two pieces of skin up onto a new layer and then switch to the Move tool (V) and nudge the skin downward until you’ve trimmed the eyebrows as I have.
16. Mask the Eyebrows
The skin doesn’t quite look right because you can see edges. Add a layer mask to the the “Eyebrow Trim” layer as I have and paint away the bits of the the eyebrow skin that you don’t need. I used a medium sized, soft-edged brush to paint black and hide what I needed to.
17. Cleaning Up the Eyes
Create another new layer and name it “Eye Blemishes” and zoom in on the eyes and use the Clone Stamp Tool (S) to paint away veins and blemishes on the actual eyeball. I set the Clone Stamp to sample “Current & Below” and then with a little brush size started sampling clean areas of eyeball and painting away blemishes.
18. Dodge Eyes
Add a Curves Adjustment Layer by going Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves and then set the blend mode of that layer to “Color Dodge” and fill the mask with black. Grab the Brush Tool (B) and set the opacity of the tool to “10%” and paint gently over the catchlights in the eyes to boost them, also paint on the retina of the eye right around the iris to increase the “roundness” of the eyeball. I also painted on the lips where the highlights were to increase the shininess of the lips and the shape of them as well.
19. Burn Eyes (Ouch?)
Create another Curves Adjustment Layer and set the blend mode to “Color Burn”, just like before, fill the layer mask with black. Paint the edges of the eyes to make them look a little more round, paint a little around the iris’ to set them off of the retina a little more, I also painted over the eyebrows one pass to darken them, painted around the eyes to make them pop a little more, I also painted a little below her lower lip, and also in the slot between her lips where her mouth is slightly open. Be gentle and careful when burning, remember to paint with black if you need to mask away any of the effect that you create.
20. Vibrance Adjustment
The retinas have a bit of a blue color cast. Let’s reduce the overall vibrance of the whites of her eyes by adding a Vibrance Adjustment Layer (Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Vibrance) and reduce vibrance to “-50” and then fill the mask with black. Use the Brush tool (B) and set it to about “65%” opacity and paint into the whites of her eyes to clear away a bunch of that color.
21. Make the Iris Pop
Create two new layers and name them “Brighters” and “Darkers” and grab the Brush tool (B) and set the tool opacity to “100%”. I’m using a 2px, hard edged brush and a foreground color of white and I’m going to paint on the “Brighters” layer. I’m placing little dots of light wherever I see some lightness on the iris. Shut that layer off by clicking the little eyeball icon and do the same with the “Darkers” layer, but paint with black over dark bits. Make sure both layers are turned on/visible and set both blend modes to “Overlay”. Reduce the “Darkers” opacity to “20%” and the “Lighters” opacity to “40%”.
22. Dodge & Burn Skin
We flattened much of the highlight/shadow distinction in this image and this will now allow us to rebuild shadows and highlights exactly where we want them and also exactly the shape, intensity, size, etc… that we want them to be. Create a new layer and go Edit>Fill and choose to fill the layer with “50% Gray”. Name this layer “D&B-01”. Set the layer to a blend mode of “Soft Light” to make the gray disappear.
23. Now It’s Time to Dodge & Burn For Real
Grab the Burn Tool (O) and set the Range to “Midtones” and Exposure to “25%” up in the top control bar. We’re going to be burning in the shadows first and then we’ll play with the highlights. I’m going to focus on anywhere that we see hair meeting skin and also adding contrast to natural areas of depth (around the eyes, along both side of the nose, under the lips, etc…). NOTE: In the second screenshot below I set my dodge burn layer to the “Normal” blend mode to show the burn pattern that I ended up with.
24. Dodging & Building Highlights
We’re going to switch to the Dodge tool (O) (Located under the Burn tool) and set the Range to “Midtones” and the Exposure to “25%” up in that top toolbar here as well. I’m going to look to intensify highlights while keeping a smooth transition to the tones around the highlights.
25. Duplicate & Blur
Duplicate our D&B layer by hitting Cmd/Ctrl + J and then go Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and choose to give this layer a 50px blur. Reduce the opacity of the layer if you feel it’s too strong.
26. Frequency Separation For Sharpness & Blur
We’re going to make another frequency separation. Refer back to earlier in this tutorial if you can’t remember how. I’ve merged all layers to a new layer and duplicated that layer and named the lower layer “lo 3” and the upper layer “hi 3”. We want to sharpening the “hi 3” layer by going Filter>Sharpen>Smart Sharpen and choosing “175%” amount and a “1.5px:” radius. Apply a layer mask to this layer and paint with a black brush set to “10% opacity over the skin to add softness to skin while maintaining that biting sharpness.
27. Adding Contrast to Face
Add a Curves Adjustment Layer by going Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Curves and add a nice little “S” curve as I have in the screenshot to add contrast. We’ll fill the layer mask with black and paint over the face with our 10% opacity brush and white as our foreground color to add a little touch of contrast to the face.
28. Selective Color & Grading
Create a Selective Color Adjustment Layer by going Layer>New Adjustment Layer>Selective Color and changing the qualities of the Red channel as well as the Whites, Midtones, and Blacks as I have in the screenshots below. That’s it! This is an overview of how I retouch beauty images and have a little fun with color grading to finish it off as well. Boom!