How to do Frequency Separation Portrait Retouching in Photoshop

The goal of portrait retouching is to bring out the most naturally pleasing image of the subject. This image is the finished result of Frequency Separation Retouching in Photoshop.

The goal of portrait retouching is to bring out the most naturally pleasing image of the subject. This image is the finished result of Frequency Separation Retouching in Photoshop.

Portrait retouching may be accomplished using many different methods. Still, how often have you seen a portrait image that has been retouched to the point that the subject’s face looks unnatural? Even many of the software packages available for portrait retouching result in an airbrushed effect to skin tones.

What if the detail and color of a portrait could be separated for retouching? Frequency Separation Retouching will allow you to do just that! It will allow you to fix all the usual facial issues like removing wrinkles, bags under eyes, and blemishes. By dividing your image into two separate frequency layers, one layer being high frequency digital data, which contains the information of detail in the image, and a low frequency layer which contains the tonal and color information of the image.  However, the neat thing with Frequency Separation Retouching is that it allows you to make these corrections and retain the natural textures of the skin. By separating the colors and the details you can work on one aspect without affecting the other. Sure, some people will prefer the usual retouching methods, including airbrushing, but Frequency Separation Retouching gives you another option to use for enhancing your portraits. If you have a working knowledge of Photoshop, here’s how to get started:


#1 Make two copies of the background layer

In Photoshop, open your image, then make two copies of the background layer. Label the first layer “color” as this will be your low frequency layer, then name the second layer “detail” to become your high frequency layer.

#2 Apply a blur to the color layer

Turn off the detail layer and select the color layer. Apply a Gaussian Blur (found under the Filter menu>Blur) to a setting that blurs all the detail of the image, but leaves features intact (see sample below). This setting will vary from one image to another depending of the size of the image.


#3 Setup the detail layer

Turn the detail layer back on and select it, then go to Apply Image under the Image tab. Depending on which color depth you are working with, 8 bit or 16 bit, see settings below for Apply Image.

apply-image3Set your Layer to color. For 8 bit images set the Blending to Subtract, Scale to 2 and Offset. For 16 bit images set the Blending to Add, Scale to 2, Offset to 0 and check the Invert box.

Set your Layer to color. For 8 bit images set the Blending to Subtract, Scale to 2 and Offset. For 16 bit images set the Blending to Add, Scale to 2, Offset to 0 and check the Invert box.

  1. Change the blending mode of the detail layer to Linear Light.
  2. Create a layer group, and drag the color and detail layers into the new layer group.

Once you get the hang of this setup, it’s easy to make a Photoshop action to take care of these steps with one click. Download my Photoshop action for the setup HERE (the file is zipped, just unzip and load into Photoshop)

Now you’re ready to start the fun part!

Retouch the Color layer

By retouching the color layer, you are going to even out all the color tones of your subject’s complexion and to remove dark and light areas.

Clone Tool – the Clone tool can be used to even out the color tones or experiment with different blending modes. Normal, Darken and Lighten are very good effect modes to use on the color layer. You may also need to adjust the opacity (the degree of transparency) of these blending modes.

Dodge and Burn Tools are a couple of other useful tools to even out dark and light tones of the skin tones.

As with almost any Photoshop function, there are various ways to get the results you desire. The tools mentioned above are good starting points for working on the color layer, but the possibilities are endless! Don’t be afraid to experiment.

Retouch the Detail layer

Click on the Detail layer, which contains every detail of your portrait image. There are a wide variety of tools you can use to fix skin imperfections, ranging from wrinkles to acne.

Clone Tool – Use the Clone tool with mode set to normal and just clone out imperfections, sampling (ALT/OPT key click) from a desirable area to paint over an imperfection in another area.

Healing Brush Tool –  The Healing Brush tool works similarly to the Clone tool and will sample textures from nearby areas to make a seamless patch.

Spot Healing Brush –  Spot Healing Brush works similarly to the Clone tool and Healing brush, but does not require you to sample a source area. It will automatically sample from another area to repair the target imperfection. Use the adjustable brush sizes to paint over spots and remove them.

Patch Tool – Like the Healing tool, the Patch tool will match the texture of the near-by area for a seamless repair. Make a selection over the area to be repaired and drag the selection over a good area. For best results work on small areas at a time.

Content-Aware Patch –  Similar to the Patch Tool, but with the Content-Aware Patch you select a good area and drag it over area to be repaired, and the tool will match the texture.

After image

After image

Once you have finished retouching the color and detail layers of your image, you can simply turn off the layer group to see the before and after of your work. (This is also a handy review tactic as you are working, to see how your adjustments are affecting the image.) Because all the retouching you have done are applied to the two new layers, it is completely non-destructive to the original image.  So, if you are unhappy with your first results, you can simply delete the retouched group and start over.


A – Original image B – Air-Brushed look retouching C – Frequency Separation retouching



Portrait retouching can be accomplished by using many different methods, and various software and plugins designed especially for that purpose. This article is meant to give you a Photoshop option for retouching and enhancing your portrait photography. The great feature of this method is the ability to separate the detail from the color and tones before retouching. Do you have any tips for portrait retouching?

Read more from our Post Production category

Bruce Wunderlich is a photographer from Marietta, Ohio. He became interested in photography as a teenager in the 1970s, and has been a passionate student of the art ever since. Bruce recently won Photographer’s Choice award at the 2014 Shoot the Hills Photography Competition in the Hocking Hills near Logan, Ohio. He has also instructed local classes in basic digital photography. Check out Bruce’s photos at Flickr

  • coderednv

    Can you do this with Photoshop Elements?

  • Jordan X Randall

    I just recently got PS just to try this and it works pretty damn well. However, it seemed like my final image also had a little bit of blurring applied everyone, not just where I personally did any retouching. Anyone know what that’s about? Literally have no idea how to do anything in PS except this haha.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    I think that it should work in Elements, but I have never tried it there, if you have the Apply Image under Image it should work

  • If you want to restrict where the blur goes you can apply a mask to the blur layer so only the face get blurred. Some quick research on layer masks should get you what you need.

  • Jordan X Randall

    I’ll look into that, thanks. Whole new world

  • Eileen

    Jordan X Randall you should look up “Phlearn”. Aaron Nace is a master of PS, and the tutorials on there are enlightening to say the least!

  • Eileen

    and free!

  • Jordan X Randall

    Hah his tutorial was the one I watched to try this at first. Well it was a brief youtube version at least, not sure if there’s a longer one. Very helpful, I’ll check out Phlearn for more stuff 🙂

  • Just Yeah

    These people look scary :0

  • Tomáš Duras

    I’ve been using this technique lately and am very happy with the results. I’m wondering about the amount of blur used for the separation, though. I understand it depends a lot on the size of the area of interest, but, usually, I choose values in range of 4-12px (for full-body shots) and find the almost 50px used for the image a little overwhelming. I’d be happy to learn more on this topic.

    Also, can someone please explain why using the different parameters for the ‘Apply Image’ process is better for the different images (8-bit vs 16-bit). I thought the two were doing the exact same thing, I guess I’ve been wrong.

    Thanks for the article and your answers!

  • Ted Dudziak

    Thanks for the article. The technique is a variation of sharpening using the high-pass filter. Nice detail given for this technique to retouch photos. One suggestion is that you might want to make each layer a smart object so that they can be modified.

  • Thathater1935

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  • jonsar



  • How much amazing!! very professional and creative tutorial, thanks for sharing your technique with us. Please keep it continue for help us.

  • A bit of criticism, albeit constructive one (I hope)
    As for the Low frequency layer and Gaussian blur, you went too far. Like, way too far. The higher the Gaussian Blur radius, the more tone / colour information you will leave for the high frequency layer. Which means you effectively do not separate as much information, as you should and that means that instead of preserving the skin texture intact, you are going to blur it out and make it rubber-like. “Not being able to see the details” means you shouldn’t be able to recognise stuff like single eyelashes or be able to tell a singe skin pore clearly at actual size (100%), but you still should be able to see all the facial features clearly and, what is most important, leave the contours of the face, facial features etc. easily visible when the image fits the view of the work area.
    Blur radius will depend on the resolution of the sensor of the camera you’re using. But unless you’re shooting 50MP camera, it’s safe to assume the correct radius would be around 10 or below (maybe slightly above for 36MP sensors). If the image is perfectly sharp (and it has to be sharp, otherwise using frequency separation would be a waste of time), I tend to go for radius being around 1/3rd of the sensor’s resolution (just a guideline, final amount will depend on the image in question). The key is to be able to recognise the fine detail when you apply the image (before changing the blending mode), but not see too much colour. If all you see is grey layer, unless you zoom in, that means you have used a radius that’s too small. If you see a lot of colour information “bleeding into” the high frequency layer, blur radius used was too high. There is one easy way to check if you’ve separated frequencies properly. To do so, after you apply image and change the blending mode, you can group both layers and toggle them both off and on. If you see the overall contrast or luminosity changes (even minute ones) in the image, that means you’ve set the Gaussian Blur radius too high or too low. If the image you’re working on doesn’t change at all when you toggle frequency separated layers off and on, that means the radius used was correct.
    As for working on the low frequency layer (tones), one can use several tools. Clone stamp in Lighten mode seems to be popular and so is Patch tool. Some people use Brush tool and sample back and forth between the areas of varied tonality. Some use Lasso tool and blur the area inside (using smaller radius than for the tonal layer itself).
    My favourite is Healing Brush tool, set to sample from current layer (I usually make a copy of the low frequency layer and work on that) and Clone Stamp tool (in lighten or normal mode) if I’m working on areas close to some rapid transition between the tones (like: bright skin next to dark hairline or dark clothes). The smaller the brush size (10-15 is usually OK for the face, again, depends on the image resolution), the more precise you can be, whilst for bigger skin areas (say, bikini shot) bigger brush size (30-35) speeds things up a bit.
    I also use Healing Brush tool on the high frequency layer (texture), but in general, my personal preference is to leave the high frequency layer alone and keep the skin texture as close to original, as possible (I do clean imperfections before I get to frequency separation), unless the model had some more serious skin problems.
    High frequency layer can be also used for sharpening the image. All you have to do is to make a copy of it, create inverted (black) mask over the layer and then paint in with white, soft brush the areas one wants to sharpen (like eyes, for example). This effect resembles cranking up Clarity slider in Lightroom or Capture One, so it has to be used gently and you will need to reduce Opacity of such layer quite significantly. Another way is to set blending mode of the copy of the high frequency layer to Overlay or Soft Light, which tends to add just enough sharpness without overcooking the image.

  • Bruce Wunderlich

    Good info David, thanks for sharing.

  • You’re most welcome.

  • Adam Ross

    You can lose a bit of depth with that much blur (compare area around eyes in first and final photos, especially under them), also masking the layer group and selectively brushing in the frequency seperation as needed is another option.

  • Hi, it is an informative tutorial , perfect retouch will surely enlighten the clarity of the photograph

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