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Skin color correction in Photoshop

Models have skin, and when it gets retouched, it still has to resemble human skin, which means natural, beige color. This is the main idea of skin color correction in Photoshop. No bluish, or greenish unnatural tints! And if you see something like that, you have to take care of these unnatural tints and many other problems as well.

It’s very easy to notice that your white balance is off because in this case, the model’s skin will definitely not look normal. This is a good thing – the fact that you can notice any white balance so easily. The bad thing is that you have to fix whatever is wrong with the white balance in Photoshop, or better in ACR, the Adobe Camera Raw.

The left image's white balance is seriously off

As for the retouching process, there’s no such thing as one standard here, it really depends on the decisions made by particular people that are responsible for the content presentation. Sometimes it’s up to the art director, sometimes it’s the head of e-production or even the managing director gets to decide what is good and what is bad. I know some online stores that aim for the natural looks and don’t alter skin at all, I know stores that love plastic-looking smooth skin, that remove not just blemishes but moles as well. I know a store that makes skin tone the first priority when hiring models because they think it’s the most important thing in the world. I know a store that doesn’t pay much attention to the skin when shooting, and retouchers have to do a lot of work afterward because their standards are very high. There are really a lot of options for what you might get as raw images and what you have to do to make them look up to the standards of a particular store. But there are some ideas that are common, so I’ll explain what kind of skin problems are not tolerable and what you can leave untouched.

Unretouched vs retouched

Skin is supposed to be smooth, but not plastic smooth unless there's a valid reason for that. There should be no blemishes, spots, scars, and sometimes tattoos and even moles. Excess hair has to be removed, too. Elbows should not look dark and wrinkled, as well as the knees. The model’s hands, legs, and feet are usually darker than the face and neck, and sometimes it has to be fixed, too. Uneven tan is a problem as well. Feet should look tidy and nice, no blisters, spots or yellow nails, or old yellowish skin. At the same time, the skin should not look unnatural, it should not be heavily blurred or have any weird texture. As I said, retouchers love the winter season, as there’s less skin to retouch. But when I show you how to deal with all these issues, you’ll see it’s pretty manageable.

Models have bodies, and sometimes they are not “perfect” – but what exactly is “perfect” varies greatly. If the online store you're working for has “high” standards, life's going to be tough. But some models are better than others. I’ve written letters to my superiors about models that require a lot of retouchers’ work, much more than I found reasonable, and they were replaced. Sometimes they weren't. There was one guy who definitely loved rollerskating and his knees were always bruised. Another model apparently had a cat – her hands were always scratched up to the elbows and sometimes swollen. When you have to deal with all that stuff – that's bad.

So if you have to constantly deal with skin problems, bad posing, and other things that depend on whether a model does their job well, you should probably complain about it instead of just sitting there and sweating. In this business, every workstation in the studio is responsible for their part of the work. Preparation, photography, styling, modeling, retouching – everyone has to make effort, otherwise, it’s just a waste of time and money. It’s not reasonable to shoot open sandals on a model with feet problems, because you can easily find a person with no such problems and it will save you time. And another reason is that heavily retouched bad skin never looks as good as normal skin.

Pedicure is a must for all the open shoe shootings

But what’s a normal skin in the first place? Well, as we’re talking about catalogue retouching, and we’re working with the RGB color model, normal skin is just a range of numbers. And as there are a lot of different skin tones, this range is going to be quite wide. And, of course, every race is going to have its specific color range. This topic is actually a bit controversial, as there are people who take it very seriously and they measure many spots and do some math to make sure the skin looks right. This approach has come from prepress and it makes as much sense as color matching (not much sense if you ask me). But we’re not going to do that due to two reasons. E-commerce retouching is about products, not people. And as I said before, when we color correct for the catalogues, we have to make sure that the white balance, the exposure, and the contrast settings are right and that’s pretty much it. Well, that’s still valid – we prefer not to color correct skin by altering the whole image because it will inevitably alter products as well, and we’re hopefully not going to color correct skin separately as it is time-consuming. And definitely, we’re not going to make skin fit some color range or particular numbers, as we have better and more important things to do than that.

But it doesn’t mean we’re not going to work with the skin at all. So what can be done and what has to be done, and how can it be done? Rule number one is that if you have to do something about the skin tone, do it in the Camera Raw plug-in beforehand because with some luck you’ll be able to apply the changes to the whole batch of images. But before you even start twiddling with the sliders to adjust anything, you have to check if the skin tone is fine or not. Most of the time it's like this: if the white balance is fine, the skin tone is fine as well. So what you're trying to determine is whether there’s something wrong with the white balance or skin or both. Maybe it was too cold in the studio and the model was freezing and their skin was bluish because of that. Maybe it was too hot and they turned a bit red. Maybe they were standing for too long, and all the blood rushed into their feet making them red and dark. How can you determine something like that? You can just have a look at the picture. If the color shift is significant, you’ll be able to notice it very easily. And if it’s not significant at all, then no one’s going to notice anything, so why color correcting at all, right?

Adjusting skin tone in ACR

As I said before, some monitors are better than others, and some people perceive color better than others. It means that it’s difficult to see some subtle color changes with the naked eye. In this case, I know a very good trick to make things easier. Grab the Saturation slider and move it to the far right, which is +100 setting. If you get something that you can call orange, you’re good.

Normal looking skin with Saturation set to 0 (left) and +100 (right)

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 here 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 the saturation. And if they are not, if you increase the saturation and get something red or green, well, it probably means you’re in trouble. Some people have their skin a bit greenish, it’s called olive, some people have reddish skin or even bluish, and this is not a problem unless it’s very visible. But if you set Saturation to +100 and see something that can't be called orange, it means that the shift is quite significant and you should do something about it.

Greenish skin with Saturation set to 0 (left) and +100 (right). That's a telltale sign!

On the image above, the skin is seriously green. You can't leave your images like that. When your eyes are trained enough, you'll be able to notice even the slightest skin tone shifts, and you won't have to twiddle with the Saturation slider.

Pay attention to the fact that the aforementioned method is only valid if your monitor is either calibrated or just able to show colors properly. If your whole screen shows you blue instead of grey, you'll see the skin differently. I've got the example above from a real photoshoot where the retoucher shifted the skin tone towards green because he thought it was reddish. It was his monitor problem, and he made a zombie out of a model while not realizing that. Sometimes color shifts exist on your screen only, make sure you remember that.

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Let’s access the Hue-Saturation-Lightness panel in the Camera Raw. The good thing about skin is that as it’s mostly orange, it can usually be modified with just one slider – the Oranges. By adjusting it you can change the skin color, saturation, and lightness, but beware! If you have something else in the images that is orange, too, like beige clothes or shoes, it will also be affected. So before you do something like this to an image or to multiple images, make sure it won’t affect anything else. If there are orange or beige items as well, you’ll have to work with skin in Photoshop. But if only the skin is orange, which happens, you can save yourself some time and solve all the problems with just a bit of slider moving.

If you find the skin too red, move the Oranges slider to the right, and if it’s too green, move it to the left, but just a bit. If it’s too dark, switch to the Luminance tab and move the Oranges slider to the right. If you want to add some tan, move it to the left. Normally I wouldn’t apply any serious changes in these panels, but it’s good to know about such a possibility.

Open

Now, what if it’s not the overall skin tone that requires adjustment, but only some specific body parts? It actually happens a lot in catalogue retouching. Models work for many hours, and they are standing most of the time, so it’s only natural that their blood is drawn to the lower parts of their bodies due to the gravity force. Because of that, the feet are usually darker and sometimes they are more reddish than the hands and the torso. You can use the Adjustment Brush for this matter. I'll show you a real-life example in the following video:

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This photo shoot is some real work I did just a couple of months ago. It's color corrected already, but it's just a basic preset and a bit of white balance fix, nothing else. The background is well lit, the model looks just awesome except for her feet that are significantly darker than the rest of the body. And it's everywhere, every image looks the same. As the background is well lit, you can't just grab a Graduated Filter with Exposure increased and fix this matter as easily as if the background was underexposed as well. It's absolutely clear that if we use a gradient on it, it won't do any good, it will just give us highlights clipping. This method only works when feet are darker because there's not enough light falling on them and on the background as well. But now we want just the feet to become lighter. As they are the only dark thing down there, it means that we can use the Range Mask feature to our advantage.

Here's what I'll do. I'll use the Graduated filter, and set it up as follows: Shadows +40, Clarity -10. It will brighten the feet, and here Clarity does a very good job in reducing the overall tired look. So I'll use the Graduated filter, and I'll drag it from the bottom of the image up to the waist, as it strength fades away with distance. As it's not Exposure but Shadows slider that does the effect, it won't brighten the background. But I don't want it on the dress as well, so I'll set the Range Mask from None to Color and click somewhere on the feet with the eyedropper. From now on, the graduated filter effect will be applied only to the areas that are colored about the same as the feet.

But what about the rest of the images? I'll select them all while the corrected image is active, press Alt-S to access the Sync Settings and synchronize all the images using the Local Adjustments checkbox only. To do so I'll first click on the Check None button, and then on the Local Adjustments checkbox. That's it. The same gradient with the same settings with the same range mask will be applied to all the images. But it's usually a good idea to have a look at all the images and if you see that the effect is missing – it happens, just select the gradient and pick a color sample again. There might be a couple of dark knees left, but I'm don't recommend you try to solve all the problems here in Camera Raw. Tiny adjustments should be made in Photoshop instead.

Open

That was very easy, and I could also fix a bunch of images at once, which is good. But sometimes it's more convenient to work with local skin issues in Photoshop, during the retouching process, especially when you work with mixed images that don't share defects. If I had to deal with just a couple of images, I would try to save time on sliders moving and fix it all in Photoshop, fast.

Adjusting skin tone in Photoshop

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For example, in this image, it’s not just the skin issue, it’s the light issue as well – but anyway, look how dark the feet are compared to the tone of the cheek. I’ll click on the cheek to pick the color and paint somewhere near the feet. The difference is very significant, we’d better do something about it. I know a few online stores where this kind of tone shift would be completely okay, so it really depends on the demands of a particular client, but as I said, there are some typical demands of the industry, and it’s usually expected of models to have consistent skin tone.

There are many ways how to fix it. I can use the Quick Selection Tool and just click on the feet to select the area that I need to correct. Then I can access the Curves or the Levels to lighten the feet. Or I can use the Brush in Normal blending mode and just paint all over with something like 20 percent Opacity, using the color from the cheek. But to use any of the methods above, I have to make a selection first, so why bother. It's possible to do it without making any selections. I’ll just grab the Brush and switch its Blending mode to Lighten. It will still be painting with the color from the cheek, but only over the areas which are darker than this color. Lighter areas will not be affected. As the background is lighter than the feet, I can freely paint all over the problem area without affecting anything else, I just have to be careful not to paint over the dress or shoes.

You can also encounter situations when the skin tone is alright in terms of darkness or lightness, but the color, or better the hue is wrong. Sometimes the feet can look a bit red compared to the neck and the face, but at the same time, the exposure is fine, so it’s only the hue that has to be adjusted. If that’s the case, you can use the Hue/Saturation panel and shift the Hue to the red or to the green side to have the desired effect. Or you can use the Brush in Color blending mode and paint over the problematic parts of skin. It might be a bit tricky to pick the right Opacity setting – if it’s too much, it will look like a dead body, and if it’s too little, it won’t be enough. There’s a trick how to do it fast if you’re not sure about which Opacity setting you should choose. Set it to 100 percent and draw with just one long move, and then press Shift-Ctrl-F on your keyboard to access the Fade panel. By pressing up and down keys on your keyboard, you can increase and decrease the effect and apply it as you reach the desired percentage value. To move between the values faster, hold Shift. You can also apply different blending modes while fading, and it makes it a very powerful feature to speed your retouching process up.

Open

Every method has its advantages and disadvantages. Personally, I wouldn’t advise using Curves or Levels unless you write an action, as you will most probably have to do it several times and the result might vary, which is not good for the overall consistency. Also, depending on what you do with Levels or Curves, you might achieve good results – like making the feet lighter, or bad results – like making them more saturated and contrasted as well. If the feet were not just dark but had some weird tint (like green or red) as well, you wouldn’t be able to fix that with just the Curves unless you use the Channel curves, but it is more tricky and time-consuming. At the same time painting over the skin with a brush is a brutal method, and it brings the contrast down, which is not very good, and you should also watch it with the opacity, because if it’s too much, the skin might lose its texture, too. But in this particular case, I’d definitely pick the Brush over the Curves, as it’s possible to solve the problem with just one quick drag of a brush.

In product image retouching, we deal with skin a lot, but we can't spend much time with it. The things we do don't usually require any complicated methods – it's just brushwork, and preferably with some smart use of blending modes. For skin, it's Lighten and Color, so if you know how that works, you're good. A lot of retouchers ignore this dark feet\red hands problem as it's rather unclear how to deal with it quickly and efficiently. But there's no reason not to spend a few seconds with a brush to improve the image significantly. Do it, it's important for the overall look.

Next: Automatic skin enhancing and smoothing

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