"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!).
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.