Why Skin Work Is The Most Important Aspect of Portrait Retouching

I'll preface this today by making it clear that I know very little to nothing about architectural retouching, landscape retouching, or product photography retouching. That said, I've dedicated the last two decades to Adobe Photoshop, and the last seven years specifically to portrait retouching. As such, I've come to realize one key thing: If your skin work is no good, everything else in your retouch just falls apart, if you will, as the basic foundation is already substandard.

But before you scope out my latest vlog on my YouTube channel about this subject (posted above), let's discuss what skin work is, or can be, and how it is interpreted different by different artists working in oftentimes very different genres.

First off, retouching skin varies, plain and simple. To some, minimal to no skin work is just their style of portraiture. They prefer a nearly 100 percent realistic look, and therefore put very little to no effort into enhancing or smoothing skin in their shots. Naturally, there are also photographers who do this style simply because they haven't yet figured out an appropriate skin retouching look they prefer, or can do, so they simply run a quickie plug-in or do no skin work at all.

For others, skin work is integral to their work, perhaps because they work in commercial fashion, including and especially beauty work, or because they enjoy the look and are passionate about creating said look.

And still for others, refining skin in post could go against the very nature of their work. Photojournalism, for one, comes to mind.

But if your goal is commercial, professional looking portraits, almost certainly you're going to have to focus on your skin retouching (if you haven't already). No amount of creative vision, compositing, special effects, or color work is going to help your image if you have shoddy skin work taking away your viewer's attention (honestly, no skin work of any kind beats bad skin work). For one, this means preserving skin's natural textures while still making it look perfect.

Hard light, hazy light, super diffused light — they all lend my skin retouching approach to slightly different approaches. Still, without focusing on skin work (and in my case, as my very first step in post), I wouldn't be happy with my work. I dislike most all of my early portrait work simply because my skin retouching wasn't where I wanted it, and I didn't know then what to do about it. It's a learning process, of course, and evolves as my work does, so "never settle" is my mantra!

So what to do? Well, for many, the go-to option is to purchase a plug-in for Photoshop to get that dirty work out of the way. Sometimes, that's a decent fix. More often, however, it causes more problems than if you had no skin work at all, as I said. This is because it simply isn't wielded properly, mostly due to not understanding what your goals with skin work even are.

Another thing to determine are your own specific goals with your skin work. Do you want to do a hyper-refined beauty look, often seen in the work of Pratik Naik, Julia Kuzmenko McKim, or Obi Grant? If so, then awesome, just prepare yourself to put in the time and practice required to get those techniques down, and ultimately mastered.

Maybe you're not interested in such a refined, hyper-real style. That's perfectly fine, of course, but you still need to explore your own vision, your own style, and determine where you want to be with your skin work, and how you're going to go about getting your retouching skills to the level you want them to be.

Check out my vlog above and see if you agree. And if skin work has been a thorn in your side when it comes to your retouching, be sure to browse around Fstoppers on the matter — I bet you'll learn a thing or ten.

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8 Comments

Pratik Naik's picture

I love you

Nino Batista's picture

Feelings mutual!

David J. Crewe's picture

The bromance! ./jealous >.<

Nino Batista's picture

Ok fine. A threesome it is!

Ralph Hightower's picture

I have CSS: Can't See Shit. Without glasses, people appear as blobs to me; I can recognize loved ones, friends, coworkers by their "blob" without glasses.

The Playboy Centerfolds looked stunning before Photoshop and digital existed.

Surface blur: Barbie doll

Doc Pixel's picture

Because before Photoshop they were painstakingly airbrushed by hand? There's something to be said about the "hands on approach"... but in connection to PB Centerfolds.... I'm not going there(!)

Julia Kuzmenko McKim's picture

Nino, you're mah man :)

Thank you for the shout out! <3