Portrait Photography

Perfecting Portraiture #2

Perfecting Portraiture #2: Skin

It is easy to ensure that portrait subjects have perfect skin in finished images. I’ll show you the basics that you’ll need to create that flawless finish.

In the last post, I covered some of the tips and tricks that you can use to make the eyes pop in a portrait. While the eyes are an important element, they are by no means the only element to worry about. Skin is important, too. Depending on the type of portraiture you are doing, you may want to either smooth the skin as much as possible or you’ll want to highlight texture.

When would you smooth and when would you allow texture to hold a prominent place in a photograph? Skin is typically smoothed to make the subject of the image look more glamorous. You'll see smooth skin in fashion portfolios, graduation pictures or anywhere that emphasis should be placed on form and expression over details like texture.

Texture should be prominent when it adds to the story. For instance, if you are portraying a weathered cowboy or an elderly person whose lined face belies the wisdom that comes with age.

For our purposes, let’s focus on the tips and tricks necessary to produce smooth, properly toned skin. If you decide that you need to add texture, then I’ll show you which step to adjust in order to do so.

First and Foremost, White Balance is Essential

Before we get into the tips and tricks to help you smooth skin, you'll need to know a little something about white balance. In any image, achieving the proper white balance helps you to represent colors as they really are in real life. In portraiture, correct white balance is absolutely essential to prevent strange looking skin tones.

Fluorescent lighting, for example, can result in greenish skin, while incandescent lighting can make skin look reddish or even somewhat orange. Even natural lighting can bring out odd colors. For instance, on an overcast day, it is easy to make a fair-skinned subject look washed out or bluish, while golden sunlight can make someone with a pink or golden complexion look red or sallow.

There are lots of ways to correct white balance. Start by correcting for the type of lighting you are using on camera. You can also use filters that mount on your lens that are meant to correct that color casts caused by different types of lighting. Lastly, if these measures are not enough, then you'll need to correct white balance in Photoshop, which is a fairly simple task.

Lighting is The Key to Smooth Skin

If you think back to those times that you and your family went to a photographer for family photographs or when you had your high school yearbook photos taken, one thing probably sticks out: The photographer doubtless had several light sources arranged all around the area in which he or she placed the subject of the image. Those lights were meant not only to illuminate the photographer’s subject but also to help smooth out textures.

Smoothing is all about avoiding shadow. When you are photographing skin, obviously there are the large shadows that you'll want to avoid, like around the nose and the eyes. But shadowing goes much deeper than that. A pimple, when photographed under harsh, directional light, looks much larger than it actually is simply because of the shadow it leaves behind. This is also true for wrinkles and even pores, which look larger the more shadowy they are.

In other words, if you want to smooth skin, then you'll need to use several sources of light. For instance, one common setup would be to place a strobe in front of the subject, and two more to the front left and front right of the subject, each diffused with an umbrella. With lighting like this, you'll have soft lighting and smooth, even skin.

Now, what if you do want to add texture to the skin? Simple! Use directional lighting from only one or two sources so that enough shadowing remains to make wrinkles, pores and other features of the skin more prominent.

Post Processing Tactics

There are several ways you can go about smoothing blemishes in Photoshop. The healing, spot healing, and clone stamp tools are invaluable. To use these tools, make a new layer so that you can do the work in an overlay. Then, to remove a blemish, like a pimple or a mole, you'll want to select your tool and sample an area as close to the blemish as possible so that the tool picks up skin of the proper color and texture. Make your corrections in the blank layer and adjust that layer’s opacity to make the fixes look perfect.

Another tool that you can use is the high pass filter. This filter is normally used to sharpen images but it can be used to soften them, too. In a nutshell, the high pass filter is a tool that detects sharp edges within an image. I'll quickly show you the basics.

To soften using a high pass filter, start by creating a duplicate layer of the original image. Then, apply the filter to that layer. In the high pass dialogue box, you’ll see options to adjust the filter. Make adjustments until the duplicate layer is mostly gray, but clearly showing defined lines such as the eyes, nose, mouth, and edges of the face. Now, you can change the filter’s lighting to linear lighting and apply a Gaussian blur to the duplicate layer. Then, adjust the opacity of the duplicate layer so that the original layer is visible underneath.

At this point, your image will look like it has been wildly over-sharpened. Look for the option to invert the duplicate layer, which is in the Images menu of CS6. Now, instead of an over-sharpened image, you'll have an incredibly blurry image.

In the upper right corner of the Layers panel, there is a small menu box which you can click to open a menu that features blending options. Click into the blending options and you'll find options and sliders that you can use to blend the two layers together properly.

There are many, many more ways to smooth and soften skin – and some of the tools discussed here today could use tutorials in their own right! However, the things that I have mentioned will be enough to get you started. Next week, we'll move on to the tips and tricks that help you photograph hair beautifully.

About the author

Will Moneymaker

Will has been creating photographs and exploring his surroundings through his lens since 2000. Follow along as he shares his thoughts and adventures in photography.