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Automatic skin enhancing and smoothing in Photoshop

That's what every retoucher dreams about. A side plugin or a Photoshop action that will do wonders to the skin. You merely press a button and the problematic skin looks great. Automatic skin enhancing and smoothing in Photoshop. That's how this miracle is called.

The subject is not unheard of on the web. There are a lot of retouching actions available, for free or not. You can also buy and use various plugins, Portraiture being the most famous of them all, especially back then when blurry skin was trending. But things are not as easy as they seem. Problem is, free actions never work properly. I’ve tried quite a few of them, and they usually fail to select the skin automatically, they take a long time to work and create numerous layers, and in the end, skin looks unnatural or just awful. Portraiture plugin, on the contrary, is very effective when it comes to skin tone selection, and you can set it up so that is doesn’t blur skin too heavily. You can write an action that uses the plugin with specific settings, and use it on every model image. Sounds great, doesn’t it? In fact, it does only if you have 200$ to spare. The only problem with the Portraiture plugin is that it’s expensive. I used to work in big companies, where there were many retouchers and many computers. One plugin license is not such a pain, but when you need twenty, it’s unlikely that your management is going to indulge you and buy it for everyone. Too bad.

But don’t get all sad and disappointed just yet. As I said, there are actions and plugins. Plugins are expensive, and actions don’t work as intended. Not all actions though. The action I’m using works. It's actually not mine, but my colleague's idea, and he did this whole thing while I was sure it was not possible to automatically select and smooth skin with good results. Well, at least I couldn't make an action that worked, but he could. I just worked on it a bit and fine-tuned the skin selection process. Vladimir, thank you for teaching me and sharing the idea.

The left image turned into the right image in a couple of seconds, that is – automatically. And the texture is still there, click on the image to see it at 100%

Automatic skin enhancing and smoothing is actually three separate tasks in one. Automatic means you don’t have to do anything manually, so leave masking skin areas for hi-end retouchers, we won’t be doing it at all. Our action has somehow to determine which areas in the image belong to the skin, and then select them.

Then we need it to fix some defects. We usually have two regular skin issues in catalogue retouching: when we work with basic images, where the skin is not shown too closely, and when we work with close-ups, especially close-ups of feet. The first case is not so hard, we just need to smooth the skin a little bit to make it look more even. The second is much worse: we have to fix the overall roughness and all the major defects.

The third step after selecting and smoothing would be to make skin look natural, that is – not blurry or plastic like. We can achieve that by applying some texture to it. Now let’s see how it’s done in practice. We’ll start with step number one, which is the skin tone selection.

Remember the trick how to check if the skin tone (or/and white balance) is correct by maxing out the saturation (LINK), which I explained a short while ago? I said exactly this: “If you get something that you can call orange, you’re good. The deal is that all the natural skin tones are in fact unsaturated orange in color. No matter what race we are talking about, the tint is still going to be the same on average. If you get this bright orange, the skin tone is alright. There’s no need for precision because skin tone is not a single tone, but a wide range of tones. But there’s one thing in common about all these tones and the thing is that they all are perceived as orange if you increase saturation”.

Here’s the deal: normal human skin is normally unsaturated orange in color. When you increase saturation, you get bright orange. This is a good thing to use as a base for skin tone selection.

The algorithm of selection won’t be able to tell the skin from objects similar in color. Beige clothes and shoes, light-colored hair, and all things like that are going to be selected, too. So in the smoothing and enhancing stages we’ll have to be careful about what we do, as it might affect some other parts of the image. One of the reasons actions from the internet work so badly is that they are badly tested. They work on some images, but just some. I’ve tested mine on hundreds of images, and my team used it on thousands of images, which is an advantage. But that doesn’t mean the action is going to work on your images. In the following video tutorial, I’m going to explain how it works so that you can alter it to be able to recognize skin on any images.

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When I run the action, it makes a copy of the background layer. Then it fills the new layer with 50% gray color and changes the blending mode to Luminosity, which gives us a gray image filled with orange where skin is located in the original image. A good start! Now we turn this image into a separate layer by creating another copy from the background and merging the Luminosity gray layer with it. This is the base for color selection, but it has to be intensified first. It’s easy to do by using the Levels. As you can see, the black and the white sliders are moved to the middle, which means the contrast of the image gets significantly increased. Now it’s distinctive enough to be selected by the Color Range command. I’ve spent quite some time playing around with color samples and the Fuzziness slider, and this is the result I came up with. You’re free to alter that if it doesn’t work with your particular images.

There are certain cases when this automatic skin selection fails: when the white balance is wrong and when the skin color is reddish. It happens when it’s hot in the studio, and some models have reddish skin by nature. If you deal with red skin, fix it first, you’ll have to do it anyway. The action will still probably select most of it, but it’s intended for use on normal looking skin only.

Now it’s time to adjust the selection a little bit, as it is spotted and uneven. We switch the image mode to Quick Mask and then apply the Median filter to make the selected area less spotted and more even. After that we can just delete the gray and orange layer and get the skin selected on the Background layer. Have you noticed that immediately after that the original skin looks very unsaturated and gray? It happened because a second before you were staring at the bright orange, and it takes time for the brain to adjust your perception. That’s why it’s important that you work in a neutral colored environment. If the wall behind your monitor is orange, you’ll end up oversaturating skin, don’t do that.

If you make a new layer based on the selection you have, you’ll notice that it’s partially transparent. This is normal, but if the result is not satisfying, as might happen with reddish skin, you can intensify what you’ve selected to make it more solid. To do so, just copy the skin tone layer a few times. Every time will give you a more solid result. When you’re satisfied, you can merge all the new layers into one, select it by Ctrl-clicking on it and then just delete it and work with the Background layer. Easy, right? I don’t advise you do it manually though, record an action or alter the Color Range step so that it selects a wider range. But before you do that, you have to make sure that the current selection state is not sufficient, but how can you know before you try the next stage, which is the smoothing?

So, when you've got the selection, you can either leave it as it is and work with it on the Background layer or, if you’re afraid you might make a new layer and work with it. I don’t do that because I told you already, we need to keep things as simple as possible. I don’t really need a layer because I can undo all the effects I don’t like with the History Brush.

Good news. Step number two and step number three can be simultaneous. And you’ll never guess which filter I’m going to use for both of them. Gaussian Blur? No way. Dust & Scratches? Hell no. We need something much more complicated than that. We’re going to use the most powerful filter of them all – the Adobe Camera Raw filter. You can access it by pressing Ctrl-Shift-A or clicking on the respective command in the Filter menu. I prefer using the shortcut, of course.

Let’s deal with the smoothing step first. There’s the Detail tab, which can be accessed by clicking on the button with two triangles. You’ll be amazed when you see how the basic Noise Reduction Tool can be used to make skin smoother. In catalogue retouching, we don’t really use Noise Reduction, as there’s usually no noise on the images we work with at all. If you’re getting noisy catalogue images, there’s a photographer waiting to be fired. First of all, I’ll show you how to achieve the strongest effect with the sliders. Set Luminance to 100 and the rest of them to 0. That’s pretty intense! We don’t need so much, we only need to smooth the skin a little bit. Luminance 25 and Luminance Detail 35 will do it. Now press OK and look at the results. The effect is not very evident, but it’s there. The era of plastic blurry skin is long gone, natural-looking skin is what you want when you retouch, for the catalogues or not.

Now let’s deal with the 3rd stage, which is applying the texture. And you know what, I’m going to use the Adobe Camera Raw filter for that, too. I could have done it at the same time with the Noise Reduction, but you wouldn’t be able to see the difference so clearly. So now I’ll just access the ACR filter again and go to the Effects tab this time, this is where the Grain Tool is hiding. Grain is much like noise, but it’s more versatile and looks more natural when applied to the skin. We’re going to use it to make the texture lost after the smoothing appear again. It will look pretty much normal, depending on the settings of course. If you play around with the sliders you’ll see that the Amount slider is responsible for the quantity of grain, the Size makes it bigger or smaller, and the Roughness slider makes it more or less even. For this kind of image, I think I’ll set the 3 sliders to 10, 25, 45 respectively. If you look at the before-and-after, you’ll see the difference, but it will be very subtle. That’s exactly what we need for basic skin smoothing.

Now you might ask: “What if I’m working with images of different size? Should I adjust the sliders manually each time? Otherwise, how will it affect bigger or smaller images?”. It does matter which size you are working with, as the effect will be a bit different depending on it. But that doesn't mean you have to adjust the sliders manually each time. I prefer smoothing low-res images as a final touch because it is more predictable than using the effect on high-res and then wondering if it would be enough on low-res or not.

Another possible question: “What if the selection included some hair and other things that do not belong to the skin? How will it affect them?”. You can easily see for yourself, that though the effect is present on the hair, it’s not bad and it doesn’t look weird at all. Most of the time no one will ever notice something is amiss, so don’t worry. But if you use a strong skin smoothing effect, you might want to use the History Brush on the rest of the image, especially beige or pale pink clothes.

Let’s proceed to another situation, where you’ll need both Noise Reduction and Grain to be much more significant. When you switch between the before and the after images, you might not realize how useful this whole thing is with the effect being so subtle. Let’s see how it can work on the feet close-ups and you’ll love it. With the natural-looking skin trending, most of the time you won’t need much effort to retouch model images. Except for the close-ups, of course. When most people say natural, they mean smooth and healthy looking, and not blurry plastic looking at the same time. So if you have close-ups, you’re in trouble.

How can we remove these dots without blurring the skin? The Dust & Scratches filter might help, but the result won’t look natural, and it's more likely that the skin will look weird and messy. But what if we try to use the Camera Raw Noise Reduction tool and then add some grain, just like we did before, but with a stronger effect? Let’s try it out. I’ll run the skin tone selection action first to get the selection and then access the Camera Raw filter. Remember, we need Noise reduction and Grain. This time we’ll do both at the same time. As for the Noise reduction, I’ll make it 50 Luminance and 20 Luminance Detail. This is quite a strong effect, as we can see on the before-and-after image. As for the Grain, I think 10, 25, 50 will do. Don’t just follow my lead though, play around with the sliders and make sure you find the best combination of settings for your images. Some manual tweaking might be necessary for the best results. Now let’s press OK and see what happens.

No magic here, okay? The biggest defects will stay anyway, so you have to remove them manually. But apart from that, the skin looks pretty decent. The best part is that all this happens automatically when you run the action: the skin gets selected and then it gets smoothed, you just sit there and watch. But as you’ve probably noticed, some of the defects cannot be removed automatically, so there’s a procedure, a sequence of actions that I recommend, what to do and when. When you have a close-up, you have to retouch it manually first, and then run the selecting and smoothing action. Why is that so? I’ll show you. Feet close-ups can be very nasty sometimes. Models change shoes during the shooting, and they do not own the shoes they wear, so they might be too tight. When shoes are too tight for you, they leave traces like here, in this image.

Large veins also don’t look appealing, so they should be made less noticeable. Don’t ever try to remove them completely though, as it’s unnatural and unnecessary at the same time. Before running the action, make sure you retouch all the big defects. You can do it very quickly by grabbing the Mixer Brush and just mixing the defective areas with normal skin. It makes skin smoother, but the Grain effect that will be added later will deal with that – to some extent, of course. The Mixer Brush is also a great tool to use on dry skin that looks scaly, just be careful and don’t overdo it. I hope you remember the settings for the Mixer Brush tool that you need to make it work. Wet 20, Mix and Load 100, Flow 20-50 depending on how strong you wish the effect to be. In the end, run the action and it will do the rest.

If you have any scratches, bruises or other large defects, remove them first with whatever tools you like, be it Healing Brush, Mixer Brush or Clone Stamp, then run the action. It’s as easy as that. Just make sure it doesn’t affect anything that is not skin. As the action selects it by a color range, any objects of similar color and tone might get selected as well. If that happens, you can use the History brush to remove the effect from any areas where you don’t need it.

I also like the fact that Noise Reduction doesn’t affect the rest of the image drastically if it has some distinct texture. Looking at this image you might think that if I try to use the strong smoothing action on it, it will just destroy hair and clothes. But in fact, when I run it, it smooths the skin and hair, but the rest looks more or less decent. It doesn’t mean you can just run the action on all your images and leave them be. We don’t work like this in catalogue retouching, it’s not the best course of actions. So use the History Brush to undo the damage, and don’t use the strong smoothing on anything but close-ups.

As for the little smoothing effect that we discussed a while ago, the retouching procedure is still the same. If there are any big defects, remove them first. This guy has some stretch marks on his back. I’ll retouch this area with the Mixer Brush, but carefully, don’t just leave a flat spot here, you have to preserve the volume. When you apply the little smoothing effect, it will cover the tracks a bit, but it won’t be able to turn blur into skin.

The Noise Reduction and the Grain are not the only effects you can apply to skin after you automatically select it. You can also use the Hue/Saturation/Luminance tab to make skin lighter or darker, less red and so on. I don’t recommend doing anything like that by default, because it might go good to some images and bad to other images, but if you work with some specific images, you can alter the Camera Raw settings to make them suit your needs.

In case you want the strong smoothing effect to be even stronger than what can be achieved with the Noise Reduction effect, there's another way how to do it. Use the Clarity slider and move it to the left to reduce the most uncanny skin defects if you have to. But it will decrease skin contrast and personally, I think it's too much, so I prefer not to touch the Clarity slider at all. But I don't know what kind of images you are working with. If desperate times call for desperate measures, go ahead and unleash the power of the Clarity slider, but don't say I didn't warn you about the consequences.

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This is pretty much everything you need to know about automatic skin selecting, smoothing, and enhancement in product image retouching. Please remember to use the History Brush when necessary and don’t use the strong smoothing on images it’s not supposed to be used on. Alter the settings and make your own actions that do exactly what you need, and you don’t need to buy expensive plugins or spend much time when retouching skin in catalogue images.

In some cases, you might not even need skin smoothing, as some models have really great and smooth skin. It really depends on the particular images. But there’s a reason why I prefer to do this strong smoothing thing on all the feet close-ups. In a well-organized retouching process, all the images look the same, no matter how many retouchers were involved. So there should be strict rules, and you can’t really use something like the strong smoothing action on just some images. They will differ from the other. For the sake of consistency, it's pretty reasonable to use the smoothing action either everywhere, or nowhere.

You might not even need it on some of the images, but there will be particularly nasty images when you’ll pray for the action to work. Personally, I prefer to apply strong smoothing to all the feet close-ups, and slight smoothing to all the underwear images or any other images that show a lot of skin. It makes all the images look similar to each other, and skin defects or irregularities do not stick out like sore thumbs. And when I say sore thumbs I literally mean sore thumbs.

Automatic skin smoothing won’t make all your images look great without any effort on your part. Rough skin is not the only problem that you might encounter when retouching images for online stores. No matter how good the models are, no one is perfect when it comes to blemishes and other skin defects. Acne, red bumps on the neck and the bikini line due to ingrown hair, scratches, small bruises – you have to remove them all. In some cases even moles are ought to be removed, as they might distract customers, at least they say so. Your tools of choice for this kind of work will be the Healing tools group and the Clone Stamp. But anything that can be removed with a stamp or a bit of healing is easy, you won’t have much problem with that. Just pick a source and click, and drag.

You can download the images for practice purposes from the gallery above. Each thumbnail is linked to the respective hi-res image, just click on the thumbnails you need to open them in a separate window. You can right-click and "Save link as…" to download images without having to open them first.

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