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Tips for Retouching Skin in Photoshop That You Need to Know


When it comes to retouching skin in Photoshop, there are a lot of tools and techniques available to you. Some of these are fairly easy and self-explanatory, like the Healing Brush. Others, like frequency separation, are complicated multi-step processes. They involve such obscure features of Photoshop that you would never be able to figure it out on your own. Many of the skin retouching techniques are useful and work well when used together with one another.

This article will provide you a set of tips to get the most out of some of the most common and most useful (read: my opinion) of these techniques. It assumes you have a basic understanding of how to use them. If you don’t, there are a myriad of good quality tutorials available.

Tips for retouching skin in Photoshop.


Here’s a short list of tutorials for all of the techniques listed in this article:

Healing Brush

The Healing Brush is probably going to be the first thing you reach for when you are retouching skin in Photoshop. It’s a somewhat intuitive tool, that doesn’t take that long to figure out and it is very effective at what it does.

To get the very best results from using the healing brush:

1. Work on a new layer

When working with the healing brush, be sure to work on a new blank layer. That way, you can be sure that you are not altering your original image. This also allows you to make changes later.

To do this, press the New Layer button on the Layers palette or press Ctrl+Shift+n (Cmd+Shift+n Mac). With the new layer set up, be sure that the drop-down box for the Healing Brush labeled “sample” is set to Current and Below.

Using the healing brush for retouching skin in Photoshop.

Working on a blank layer will ensure you can undo any changes you make should you decide to later.

2. Use as small of a brush as possible

You can quickly change your brush size with the bracket keys ( { and } ). Try to keep the brush just big enough to cover only the blemish that you are trying to remove.

Image: For the best results, use a brush size that is just bigger than the blemish you are trying to...

For the best results, use a brush size that is just bigger than the blemish you are trying to remove. This ensures that you don’t make too many alterations to the natural pattern of the skin.

3. Sample often

Don’t make a sample selection just once – do it often. Do it between every blemish if you can. This may seem like a lot of effort, but with practice, it’s really not. Your images will be better for it too.

4. Zoom in

To make sure that you are only trying to heal blemishes, and not the area of skin around them, zoom in as far as you need to.

I understand some photographer’s reticence to zoom in to 400% to 500% for the sake of retouching, but doing so will make sure that you only affect the areas of your subject’s skin that need it.

This tip (and the next one) doesn’t just apply to the Healing Brush. Do this with every skin retouching technique listed here.

Image: Zooming in allows you to be more precise with your adjustments and leads to more natural-look...

Zooming in allows you to be more precise with your adjustments and leads to more natural-looking results.

5. Zoom back out

When you are very zoomed in on your subject, you can get lost in all of the details that you can now see. Make it a point to zoom back out frequently so you can make sure that the changes you are making are actually affecting what you can see on the image at 100%. This can save you hours.

6. Don’t paint

Instead of painting with the Healing Brush, just press once (or click with a mouse) over the blemish you are trying to remove. This will limit the alterations to the surrounding skin.

Using the healing brush for skin retouching in Photoshop.

Painting with the healing brush leads to weird artifacts. To avoid these, simply click on the blemish you want to remove and nothing more.

Patch tool

The patch tool is a powerful utility that allows you to select an area that you want to retouch with a lasso and then drag that over to a sample area that you want to use to fill that first area in. It’s fairly easy to use, but it can be tricky at first.

1. Work on a new layer

You can use a copy of your background layer.

If you’ve already created and worked on a few layers at this stage, you can press Ctrl+Alt+Shift+E (Cmd+Alt+Shift+E – Mac) to create a new layer with all of those adjustments merged into it.

This will allow you to reduce the opacity of what you’ve done with the patch tool in case you go too far. It will also make it easy to delete the layer and start from scratch if need be.

Image: The patch tool can’t be used with an empty layer. Instead, duplicate your background la...

The patch tool can’t be used with an empty layer. Instead, duplicate your background layer and work on the copy. If you’re later on in your workflow, press Ctrl+Alt+Shift+e (Cmd+Alt+Shift+e) to stamp all existing layers into a new one above the rest.

2. Avoid the content-aware fill

In terms of skin, the Content-Aware Patch Tool never seems to perform very well.  Instead, leave the mode set to normal and use the Patch Tool that way. For things like backgrounds, by all means, use content-aware; just avoid it for skin retouching.

Image: Content-aware fill, as it works with the Patch Tool, is great for many things, but skin is no...

Content-aware fill, as it works with the Patch Tool, is great for many things, but skin is not one of them. Although this was sampled from a very similar part of his face, content-aware has made a mess of it.

3. Patch small areas

It’s tempting to just select a large area of skin and try to work that way. However, this will only serve to create a bunch of artifacts on your subject’s skin. Keeping your selections small allows you more control over the end result and will result in fewer problems down the line. 

4. Use similar tonal areas

When possible, use a sample area that’s similar in tone to your selection area. This will reduce the chances of creating problematic artifacts and blur.

Using the patch tool for skin retouching in Photoshop.

Here, you can see the various areas of similar tonality circled in red. When using the Patch Tool, try to sample from similar areas of tonality.

5. Reduce opacity

Once you’ve done the work that you want to with the patch tool, feel free to reduce the opacity of the layer that you are working on. This can help to hide a heavy handed approach and help to give more natural looking results. This tip applies to pretty much every other skin retouching technique as well.

Clone stamp

When you are retouching skin in Photoshop, the clone stamp tool will probably be one of your least used tools. It’s tricky to use and it’s often easier and faster to get similar results with other techniques. The one notable exception is when you are using frequency separation (covered below).

1. Use a soft brush

This may be a preference, but the Clone Stamp is a heavy-handed tool that makes drastic changes with a single click. By using a soft-edged brush, you will reduce the impact of the area of skin around the blemish you are removing.

To get to your brush menu, just right-click.

Image: This may be preference, but for the most part, you will want to use the softest brush possibl...

This may be preference, but for the most part, you will want to use the softest brush possible when using the Clone Stamp. The Clone Stamp is a very aggressive tool that can affect skin patterns in an undesirable way if used without care.

2. Do not paint

As with the Healing Brush, do your best not to paint an area of skin with the Clone Stamp. Try to keep the affected area limited to an individual blemish, pore or other marks.

Using the clone stamp for retouching skin in Photoshop.

Even though the sampled area was identical in tone, you can see the results of painting with the clone stamp tool in one large stroke.

3. Use sparingly

Again this may be personal preference talking, but try to resort to the Clone Stamp when it’s the only tool left for the job, at least in terms of skin retouching. The problems this tool can create with odd aberrations in skin texture patterns are hardly worth the risk.

Frequency Separation

Frequency Separation is one of those techniques that appears as overcomplicated sorcery at first glance. Once you’ve learned the fundamentals of the technique and how to set it up, it’s actually quite easy. It’s also a very powerful technique that can transform your skin retouching workflow. It is; however, very easy to go overboard with this technique and a heavy hand will result in less than ideal results. Once you’ve got the implementation and the basics of frequency separation down, there are a few tips to help you get the best results.

1. Gaussian Blur settings

When setting up your frequency separation layers, keep the Gaussian Blur settings to the lowest possible number while it is still obscuring all of the detail in your subject’s skin.

“4” is a good number to start with, but it might vary depending on the resolution you’re working with and how much of the frame your subject’s face fills.

Image: When setting up your Low-Frequency layer, use just enough blur to remove all of the skin text...

When setting up your Low-Frequency layer, use just enough blur to remove all of the skin texture in that layer. Here, Gaussian Blur was set to 2.

2. Blur

When applying Gaussian Blur to your Low-Frequency layer, keep the amount of blur to either equal or less than the amount that you used when setting up the layer in the first place.

3. Blur – Tones

Only blur areas of skin that are a similar tone. Blurring midtones and highlights (or shadows and midtones, or any other combination) can result in muddied tones that often don’t look good. Keep your selections to areas of similar tonality to avoid these muddied tones.

Using frequency separation for skin retouching in Photoshop.

When applying blur to sections of your Low-Frequency layer, try to make your selections in areas of similar tones. This will still help to smooth the tonal transitions without muddying them.

4. Zoom in

Ensure that you are zooming in to at least 100% on your images to watch for any hard edges that may appear while applying blur.

This can happen as you get close to hard edges within your frames, such as lips and eyes. If they do start appearing, you can reduce the amount of blur you are using, or you can make a new selection farther away from the areas causing you trouble.

5. Clone Stamp

For the High-Frequency layer, you just need to be careful with how you use the Clone Stamp. As above, the Clone Stamp is best used on very small areas with a single click. Sample often and don’t paint with it and you should be fine.

Dodging and Burning

Probably the most powerful and versatile of the techniques listed in this article, Dodging and Burning might as well be considered an essential tool for anyone that expects to be doing a lot of skin retouching. There are a lot of ways to do dodging and burning, but for the sake of these tips, I am going to refer to the method that involves using a 50% gray layer set to Overlay that you then paint on with the brush tool with white to lighten the tones and with black to darken them.

1. Keep the brush flow at 1%

Like all skin retouching techniques, subtlety is the key, and with the brushes flow at 1%, you can slowly build up any alterations that you are making.

Dodging and burning for skin retouching in Photoshop.

When dodging and burning on a grey layer, set the flow of your brush to 1%. This will allow you to build strokes slowly for more natural results.

Using dodging and burning for skin retouching in Photoshop

Circled at the top: The flow for the brush was set to 10%. Circled at the bottom: The flow here was 1% You can see the drastic difference just 9% makes on the flow settings.

2. Try to avoid broad strokes

Instead of trying to alter large aspects of your image at one time (for example, lightening an entire forehead in one go), zoom in on the area you want to work on and work on areas of a similar tone. By working with smaller areas, you will get more natural results.

3. Use multiple layers

If you are using broad strokes and working on finer detail with dodging and burning in the same image, do both of these on separate layers. Dedicate one to each layer.

With the large brush strokes, you will likely be more concentrated on overall contrast. You will often want to use a Gaussian blur on your brush strokes to even them out too.

This is not the case with fine detail where your brushstrokes should only deal with tiny, precise areas.

Using dodging and burning for skin retouching in Photoshop

For very fine control over your image, use a different layer for dodging and burning all of the sections of your image. This will allow you to alter, or get rid of any changes you might change your mind about later on without undoing all of your work elsewhere.

4. Use a small brush

Skin has a lot of fine detail in which the light in your scene passes over and creates contrast. It’s this contrast on the skin that creates the appearance of blemishes in your photos.

Because these blemishes are often small, you want to try and use a brush that is at least as small as the area you are working to lighten and darken with dodging and burning. This will ensure that you are lowering the contrast – therefore lowering the visibility of the blemishes – rather than adding it where you don’t want to.

5. Use Ctrl+z (Cmd+z) often

When you’re using a technique like dodging and burning for retouching skin in Photoshop, you are using a lot of little adjustments, maybe even thousands of them, to build up to a  finished result. You will get some of these wrong. Don’t be afraid to undo anything you’ve done if it isn’t right.

6. Reduce the Layer Opacity

Once you’ve done any adjustments that you are going to make with dodging and burning, try reducing the opacity of the layer(s) to see if you can get a better result with less of an effect.

With a time-consuming technique like this, it is easy to get lost in it and go overboard. Sometimes reducing the effect at the end is just what is needed for a more natural result.

Using dodging and burning for skin retouching in Photoshop

When you’re finished with your dodging and burning, you can always turn the opacity of the layer down to see if you might have gone too far. It’s a good idea to always at least look, even if you don’t decide to lower the opacity in the end.

7. Zoom way in

Unless your image will never be printed and only viewed in a small resolution, zoom as far into your images as you dare while retouching skin in Photoshop (this applies to all of the techniques here) to achieve the absolute best results.

Sometimes, you will find that you need to be zoomed in at 300-500% to see all of the detail that you need to work with. Sure, working this way takes a lot longer and is intimidating to think about, but putting that amount of effort in will help you to achieve better results.

The end

There are, of course, many other techniques available for retouching skin in Photoshop, but these are the ones that I use the most often.

If you’re new to these techniques, you now (hopefully) have a few tips to help you figure out how to make the very most out of them.

Of course, with techniques like these, there are always more ways to do things. If you have any tips of your own on retouching skin in Photoshop, please feel free to share them below.

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John McIntire
John McIntire

is a portrait photographer currently living in the UK. He studied commercial photography and is always looking to improve. Admittedly a lighting nerd through and through, John offers lighting workshops and one-to-one tuition to photographers of all skill levels in Yorkshire.

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