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There are many articles that discuss the overuse of skin smoothing in portrait photography. Photographers strive to find a balance between realistic skin and fixing the imperfections. Obviously, one way to minimize the use of Photoshop for skin issues is to hire a phenomenal makeup artist who can make the skin look realistic and flawless all at the same time. For the times when there are issues with a client’s skin I try to not go overboard and fix every little thing. I want my client to still look like themselves when I am done editing.
Some photographers use the spot healing brush religiously. I never use it. Instead I use the patch tool. My reasoning is that the Patch tool actually takes samples of the pixels and closely matches them to what you are trying to fix. If the results are not quite right, you can tweak them to suit your needs.
As you can see my model is absolutely beautiful, but she does have a few blemishes on her skin and we are going to fix those before we give the image to her.
Hit Ctrl or Command + J to duplicate your layer. You can add a Layer Mask in case you want to undo anything later. Then select the Patch tool and draw around the part of the skin that you want to replace (make sure the “Source” setting is selected to patch the source from the destination so it will use information from the area you drag to fix the blemish). Once selected, keep holding your mouse down and move it over to better spot of brighter skin. The skin does not have to be in the same area where you are working. You can use skin from the neck, shoulder, hand, or wherever you find better, smooth skin.
Repeat the process for any other skin issues. Just keep circling the area you want to replace and dragging the circle over to a clean area. If you change something you did not want to or it doesn’t look right you can use your layer mask to hide it or you can click undo (Cmmd/Ctrl+Z).
Most of the time you will find that some dark circles under the eyes are showing. While it’s actually normal, we want our clients or models to look bright eyed. If you want to decrease these, simply use the patch tool and circle the under eye area. Drag that circled area over to better skin. The result will be very harsh if left like that, so fade the technique. Go to Edit > Fade Patch Selection and a pop up window will appear. Lower the slider until the fade looks like it will blend in. Repeat the process for the other eye. The percentage of fade you use may not be the same on both sides, depending on the lighting.
Once you finish, you will see that the skin looks much better and smoother, but the details of the skin are still there without being overly fake looking. If you are satisfied, merge your layers. If you are going to do any further edits, go to your History in the Layers Palette and make a snapshot of the image so you can always come back to it.
Optionally, you can brighten up the eyes a bit. Duplicate your layer again using Ctrl or Command + J. Again, add a Layer Mask in case you might want to change anything later. Select the Dodge Tool and make sure your exposure is set to around 30%. Take a big brush that covers the eye and the brow and in one motion with your mouse sweep over the eye and the brow. You can adjust the layer if it’s too bright or use your Layer Mask and remove the parts that might be too overdone.
The Patch Tool can be one of the easiest and quickest ways to clean up skin and still retain the overall look of your client without making the image seem overdone. After a few times, using the Patch Tool can become like a second nature and skin edits will go quicker. Here is the before and after showing that with just a few motions with the patch tool you can achieve an overall better image where skin looks smoother, brighter, and still looks natural.