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How to Smooth and Retouch Skin in Photoshop

Retouching skin is one of the most common ways to improve portraits. In this Photoshop tutorial, you'll learn how to smooth skin using frequency separation.

Denny Tang March 31, 2021 · 5 min read
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Retouching skin is one of the most common ways to improve portraits. In this Photoshop tutorial, you’ll learn how to smooth skin using frequency separation. This technique splits your photo into two channels, allowing you to fine-tune the skin texture and smoothness. The end result is beautiful, natural-looking skin!

Step 1

Load an image into Photoshop. It should be a high-res photo with visible skin details. We’re using this image by RaquelVizaino.

Step 2

Duplicate the layer by pressing Ctrl/Cmd+J. Right-click on the new layer and select “Convert to Smart Object”. Doing this first will let us use “smart filters”. Smart filters let you change the settings and will be useful later on in this tutorial.

Step 3

Press Ctrl/Cmd+J to duplicate the smart object that you just created. Rename the top layer “High Pass” and the second layer “Low Pass”. We’ll be using a technique called Frequency Separation to give the skin an airbrushed look. To do this, we’ll use the Low Pass layer to blur the skin for a softer look. Then, we’ll use the High Pass layer to bring back the skin texture.

Step 4

Select the Low Pass layer then go to Filter > Blur > Surface Blur. Note: To achieve a classic diffused skin look, use the Gaussian Blur filter instead. For a more natural look, stick with the Surface Blur filter.

Step 5

In the Surface Blur tool, set the Threshold to 255 levels. Adjust the Radius setting until the skin looks smooth without losing the contours of the face. Reduce the Threshold until it’s mostly affecting the skin tones only. It’s okay if it looks too strong because later we’ll be bringing back the details and reducing the overall effect.

Step 6

Next, select the High Pass layer then go to Filter > Other > High Pass. We’ll use this filter to restore the skin texture.

Step 7

Adjust the Radius setting so that you can see the skin texture.

Step 8

In the Layers panel (Window > Layers), change the blending mode of the High Pass layer to “Linear Light”.

Step 9

Right now, the skin should look over-the-top smooth. This is normal — we’re purposely doing this for better control of how much airbrushing to use on different areas of the skin. Select the High and Low Pass layers (hold Ctrl/Cmd to select multiple layers). Press Ctrl/Cmd+G to add them to a group. Rename this group to “Frequency Separation”.

Step 10

Make sure that you have the Frequency Separation group selected. Hold Alt/Option and click on the “Add Layer Mask” button at the bottom of the Layers panel. You should get a black layer mask. If it appears white, simply press Ctrl/Cmd+I to invert it.

Step 11

Now we’re going to paint over the skin to reveal the airbrushing effect. First, ensure that you have the layer mask selected and that your foreground is set to white. You can quickly do this by pressing D on your keyboard to reset the foreground/background colors.

Step 12

Select the Brush tool (B). In the options bar, make sure that the mode is set to Normal and opacity to 25%. Right-click anywhere on the document to bring up the brush settings then set the hardness to around 50%.

Step 13

Let’s start painting! Brush over the skin to reveal the airbrushing effect. You can brush over the same area multiple times for a stronger effect. Remember to also brush over the ears, neck, shoulders and other areas.

Fine Tuning the High/Low Pass Layers

Most of the time, you won’t get the perfect high/low pass filter settings. But because we converted the layers into smart objects in the very beginning, we can edit the settings at any time. Simply double-click on the smart filters in the Layers panel to fine-tune the settings.

Making Edits to the Original Image

Let’s say you want to want to make some changes to the image, such as removing a few freckles. You don’t need to start from the beginning. Thanks to smart objects, you can simply double-click on the thumbnail. Photoshop will open the layer in a new document. Make any changes you like. For my image, I cleaned up the pores a bit using the healing brush tool. When you’re done, save and close the document. Your original document will be updated with the changes and you won’t have to redo the frequency separation. Smart Objects is an incredibly useful feature that you’ll find useful in many situations. It futureproofs your editing and should be used whenever possible. Tip: To use the healing brush tool nondestructively, create a new layer and checkmark the “Sample All Layers” option near the top.

Final Results

Here’s how the image looks like before and after. It may be hard to spot the difference on a scaled-down image but up close, you’ll see a large improvement. This frequency separation technique is the most popular way to retouch skin. However, it is easy to overdo it. If this happens, you can reduce the opacity of the “Frequency Separation” group.

Skin Retouching Photoshop Actions

This frequency separation technique is a popular and quick way to retouch skin naturally. If you have many photos to retouch, you can save a lot of time by using skin Photoshop actions.
One of the bestsellers is these AI Skin Retouching Actions. It uses artificial intelligence to retouch your photos in one-click – saving you a lot of time. The layer setup is similar to this tutorial so, if you’ve been following this tutorial, it’ll feel familiar to you. Products Seen In This Post:
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About the Author
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Denny Tang

Sparklestock is a design studio in Vancouver, Canada that creates Photoshop actions, Lightroom presets, and color grading styles. Their goal is to bridge the gaps between the creative and technical so that you can get back to what matters most: making awesome stuff.

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6 Comments
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