Five Tips for Photographing Skin: Prerequisites to Retouching

"How did you retouch that?" This is the common question I see most when I post my images online. Unfortunately, answering that question directly won't get photographers any closer to being able to replicate that style on their own. In order to broaden the dialog here are five things you must understand if you want to get skin looking beautiful in your portraits.

Before I begin, I'll be using the terms "model" and "subject" interchangeably. I say these words to mean a human person that you are photographing. I am also assuming that you are always shooting in raw, as it gives you the most flexibility to work with an image in post. 

The Importance of Makeup

Makeup that has been improperly applied is terribly difficult to fix in postproduction, and is one of the top ways people ruin their photographs. Consideration must be given to the model's skin condition (whether dry or oily), and the proper type of makeup has to be applied given those needs. There have been times in the past where a powder foundation was applied to a model's face and it only amplified the imperfections on their face (pimples, scars, etc.). Properly applied makeup should help to conceal those things so that when you get into postproduction you'll only have basic cleanup to take care of. If you're wanting to get great skin in your photographs, find a makeup artist that is willing to collaborate with you and you'll quickly learn they are worth their weight in gold.

Lighting Can Make or Break Your Image

When I first started photographing beauty portraits I went out and purchased a beauty dish. After all, the word "beauty" is right there in the name of the modifier, so clearly that's the right type of light shaper, right? If you go down that road like I did you'll quickly learn that on some people it does an awesome job, and on others it makes your work in post grueling. The general rule of thumb that I go by when selecting which type of light shaper to use boils down to how well the makeup was applied, as well as the subject's skin health. If a person has really oily skin, or has acne, then I tend to select larger, soft light modifiers like an octa or softbox. If they have great skin, I can enhance the look and texture by using a hard light shaper like a beauty dish or silver interior umbrella. If you photograph someone with poor lighting, it will enhance all of the imperfections of their skin. At this point, no matter what retouching method you choose to employ (cloning, frequency separation, etc.) it will typically lead to a final image with skin that doesn't look natural. This is why my default my go-to lighting modifier is a 5-foot octa. It provides a soft, beautiful light that can be made into a high contrast (harder) light source by taking off the outer diffusion. As you try photographing people with different light shapers, you'll quickly learn what you'll need for any given situation. Experience is key. 

The Lens You Choose Matters

Early on in my photography career, I would read about how photographers always rated sharpness in a lens above all. If a lens wasn't sharp, it was deemed to be unsuitable for portrait work. Since macro lenses are generally some of the sharpest lenses around, I picked one up and began using it for all of my portrait and beauty shoots. As I found when using a beauty dish exclusively for my work, it wasn't the best option in every scenario. If you choose a lens like a macro to photograph someone who doesn't have great skin, all you'll end up with is a sharp image of imperfect skin. If you compound this issue with the wrong choice of light and makeup that hasn't been applied properly, it's easy to see why there are so many poorly retouched photos out there in the world. Just as a handyman would bring a variety of tools to a job, we as photographers have to employ a variety of different lenses to use given the situation. I have a set of three lenses that are my go-to lenses. The first is what I call "forgivably sharp," which is an 85mm f/1.4 (or f/1.8) prime lens. It is a great, all-purpose lens for getting great skin texture but not so sharp to the point that it can't be used widely. The second lens I use is a mid-range sharpness lens, which in my case is the Sony FE 100mm f/2.8 STF GM lens. It's visibly sharper than the 85mm lens, but not as sharp as my sharpest lens which happens to be a 90mm macro. Depending on what brand you shoot, that macro may be a 90mm, 100mm, 105mm, or 150mm. In any case, these are the sharpest lenses out there that you should generally reach for in those scenarios where your model has great skin and all of the other factors we're discussing here are on point.

Wider Apertures Blur Skin, Narrow Apertures Enhance Skin

Another big factor in getting skin to look good is the camera settings that you choose; specifically, the aperture you select. Many photographers are in love with the idea of getting "creamy bokeh," but the reality is that shooting at wider apertures will cause a natural blur to the skin thereby minimizing texture and detail. This would be fine if you have a subject that doesn't have healthy skin, but it gives you blurry skin that could look better if their skin was lit right with the right lens and proper makeup (see how this situation is more involved than just a simple retouching technique?). Whether I'm shooting in studio or in natural light, I tend to aim for higher apertures (f/8 and up) when I'm able to control the other factors discussed in this article. This will often lead to portraits that have more of a "high definition" look to it. Try varying your aperture during your next portrait session and you'll see how much better skin can look using different apertures.

Choosing the Right Photo

In my lectures and workshops I am constantly telling people "you can't polish a turd." I say this to mean that if you select a photo that didn't have the elements discussed above there will be no amount of retouching, techniques, or methods that will yield a great final image. This is one of the top things I run into with new photographers, as it takes time and experience to discipline your eyes to tell the differences between a good and bad photo. As your eyes get better and more discerning, you'll find you will be more critical when selecting an image to work on and show the world. If you take 100 photos during a session and believe 95 of them are keepers, then you've likely got some more to learn. Take the time to learn the differences between a good and bad image, and then when you get to Photoshop you'll really be able to enhance a good photo and make it even better (dare I say, perfect!). 

Final Thoughts

We live in an age where everyone wants a shortcut, a hack, a secret technique to getting great results. The fact of the matter in regards to photographing skin is that you have to start off with a great raw image in camera. Do this, and you'll see that even the simplest retouching techniques will yield massive results. 

If you're wanting to learn more about photographing skin, be sure to subscribe to my YouTube channel. I am planning on doing some more videos discussing this topic and attempting to answer any questions that are left in the comments for the video.

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55 Comments

I agree with all of this AND it would have been highly relevant to post the details about each of the photos in order to highlight the points that were made. Which photos were taken with the 90mm Macro? Which were shot at f/8 vs. 1.8? Which were shot with soft vs. hard light? If you can already identify those characteristics by looking at these pictures then you didn't need this article, so if this article is relevant so are the details about each photo.

The man photo has no exif.
All woman photos were shoot wiht 100mm, execpt the blond with red light, it was an 85mm.

Wonder Woman's picture

"You can't polish a turd", but you can sure frequency separate the hell out of it to make it look like one of these peoples' faces.

Miguel Quiles's picture

Troll on troll baby, troll on ;)

Wonder Woman's picture

You can't frequency separate other people's opinions.

And don't call me baby.

Miguel Quiles's picture

I just did though, I frequency separated the stuffing out of your rude comment. On a serious note, there's a way to share your opinions, and a way to be an internet dick. I'm sharing my opinion that your comment happily resides on the latter. If you don't have something nice, or intelligent to add to the conversation then move along.

Wonder Woman's picture

Are you ok? You seem really upset that I called you out for overdoing the frequency separation on these people's faces.

If you dialed back the frequency separation, as well as the frequency separation on your seemingly paper thin skin, maybe you wouldn't be 'attacked' as much.

You posted an article online, if you only expect pats on the back for a job well done, well then you should turn comments off.

Miguel Quiles's picture

I could care less what your opinion is on my work. I do however take offense when someone says my friend's faces look like turds. There's a right and wrong way to say something so again, if you can't say it respectfully then don't expect to get a respectful response in return.

Wonder Woman's picture

You're the one that used that term.

Miguel Quiles's picture

I wasn't talking about a person's face when I used that phrase....

Wonder Woman's picture

But you were talking about photos, which could in fact contain a face.

Miguel Quiles's picture

And you can't tell the difference between classifying a poorly taken photo as a turd versus saying their faces look like turds? Cmon now....

Wonder Woman's picture

frequency separation

Miguel Quiles's picture

If your BFF didn't mean it that way, then maybe he/she should have chosen a different way of saying it. Again, I don't care if people like my images or not, but there's a right and wrong way to say things. Being behind a computer doesn't give you the right to be a jerk and not get called out on it.

"Are you ok? You seem really upset that I called you out for overdoing the frequency separation on these people's faces.

If you dialed back the frequency separation, as well as the frequency separation on your seemingly paper thin skin, maybe you wouldn't be 'attacked' as much.

You posted an article online, if you only expect pats on the back for a job well done, well then you should turn comments of"

.And that my friends is how your opinion should have been delivered in the first place. I completely agree with what Miguel is saying. You were being a troll not by your own opinion but how you said it. I like the way he did his frequency separation. @Bob Brady and @Wonder Woman don't and that's ok but you guys seem ok with delivering your opinion in a rude way. Be polite

Wonder Woman's picture

Noted.

However judging by the way Miguel responds to even polite opinions, I really don't think he knows how to deal with criticism.

Miguel Quiles's picture

Where do you see a "polite" opinion that I didn't deal with politely? I'm pretty sure I've been saying all along that you're entitled to critique all you like. Just be respectful about it. If you sound like you're trolling with your comment then expect to be called out on it.

David T's picture

The only hack is hiring a gorgeous model with perfect skin. Always ask for polas before shooting.

Miguel Quiles's picture

It definitely helps, but if you only wait to shoot someone with perfect skin imagine how bare the portfolio would be 😀✌️

Chad Andreo's picture

Is it just me, or is there something about most beauty and tight photos from the Sony A7R/S series that just looks unrealistic?
I will say, the photo of the lady with the white top does look amazing.

Wonder Woman's picture

It's the editing technique called 'frequency separation'. When overused, it removes all blemishes and skin takes on this plastic look.

Kirk Darling's picture

You mean back in the days of soft light and Softar filters? Or even further back in the days when a finished portrait had as much graphite than silver on the negative?

Miguel Quiles's picture

It's a high resolution tiff file of one of the shots above.

Took the time and bandwidth to download your subpar photo, and yeah, looks like a real person who had his skin replaced with cheap vegan leather. Nice try though.

Samuel Flores Sanchez's picture

In fact, when I was learning retouching, Frequency Separation was to me like a super fun technique to use, especially loved painting in the low-freq layer because I was a tattoo artist before and loved to paint.
But the retouchers I learned from, Natalia Taffarel, Pratik Naik, Michael Woloszynowicz, Julia Kuzmenko McKim... all they said they use it little or even never. They were doing everything with D&B. I thought "oh, I always going to use FS, is so fun..." Guess what, one year later more or less, I was doing everything with D&B, and today I have FS completely removed from my workflow.
Is not like is a bad technique. When you use it properly, you have good results, but if you work in your lighting and you look for a good natural looking photography, D&B is the way.

This, Frequency Separation is pretty rare to see in retouching studios.

Miguel Quiles's picture

Typically when people incorrectly use FS it obliterates texture and pores in the skin. I'm not about that with my portraits. If you want to see what one of these files looks like on your own monitor, download this TIFF file of one of the shots here and see for yourself> https://drive.google.com/open?id=1eveOuhaDI1tQVAWJhUd1cp_Nm8j6Itq-

Feel free to reply back and let me know if you think it looks CGI.

Plastic has texture. Porcelain less so, sure, but plastic still has texture and still looks plastic. No, that particular image does not look CGI, but the ones of the women do. You picked the one image where you left in large pores and wrinkles and didn't overly smooth out the face.

First thing's first: its a nicely written article. You touch on some things that are genuinely important to consider when it comes to skin. Since that was the point, I was going to let the the next point slide, but since this is the direction the discussion has gone...

2) Your photos of the women look very CGI and you should know it. The fact that the article opens with "'How did you retouch that?' This is the common question I see most when I post my images online." should make it VERY obvious that your photos look fake and people know it. For reference, people honestly believe Ansel Adams work was straight out of camera, completely untouched. Fact is it was processed to the extreme. The difference between that kind of processing and yours is that his was believable, and yours isn't. There's nothing wrong with going for a look - your photos all convey a similar visual style that is very popular right now, ESPECIALLY here on FStoppers and 500px. But you HAVE to know that people's skin doesn't look like that. Even absolutely perfect skin doesn't look like that. And despite what some people here are saying, frequency separation isn't the culprit - D&B can look equally fake, if not worse in some cases when people overdo it. Again, if that is the look you're going for, by all means, have at it. But if you want natural looking skin, the photos you posted of the women aren't it.

Again, it is a very good article.

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