Monday, October 10, 2011

Why I rarely use skin-processing techniques anymore...

100% crop of a full-length image I am currently working on. Courtney from Next Models. H3DII/HC 80. 1/250th f/2.8 ISO 200. No skin techniques applied.

Had a conversation with a fellow photographer yesterday and I realized a few things about skin-processing techniques that I wasn't consciously aware of.

Imagenomics Portraiture, frequency-separation, high-pass, even Gaussian Blur all do the same thing... they attempt to make skin more evenly toned through blurring.

This is true of every technique above. Even though you might not know what's happening in Portraiture, it's really just automating the frequency-separation technique and that includes blurring (I use the Surface Blur with frequency-separation).

But what each of these techniques fails to accomplish is to discriminately attack the problem areas. What it does is provides you a more even skin tone across the board (face). And therefore by definition these techniques behave indiscriminately.

One will argue "But then we can mask in only the effects where we want them"

That will make your overall image better but it doesn't change the fact that these techniques are blurring luminosity differences without consideration to content. It doesn't know (or care) that the problem skin is right next to the fragile details of the eyeball and (depending on the parameters) can very well blur the details of the eyeball into the skin. What now?

"Well we can always set more specific parameters"

You sure can, but with those parameters now it's not nearly as effective with larger patches of problem skin.

"But we can do 2 passes on the blurs one for more detail and one for less detail"

The band-aid arguments go on and on...

Don't get me wrong. These techniques have their place in the workplace. With careful manipulation they can allow you to retouch more images with less time assuming the "effect" is not detrimental to the image and the client is tolerant of the results. Furthermore if you "clean up" the skin before applying these techniques you can apply extremely stringent parameters and achieve amazing results. But regardless of the parameters, what always ends up happening (to various degrees) is that the middle frequency of skin tones disappears. You get great overall skin tone (and great pore detail if you use frequency-separation or Portraiture) but the local skin tones (middle frequency) get lost.

It's something of a conundrum really. It's exactly why until programmers develop an "intelligent blur" that understands the human face, retouchers will always have a place in this industry. The decisions I make when I'm dodging/burning, healing, or clone-stamping are all dependent on the area of the face I'm working on. I operate on the "conditionals" provided by the way the light interacts with that particular human face (and bone structure) so I can intelligently manipulate uneven skin tones. Thus I am incredibly discriminate. I darken what should be darkened and lighten what should be lightened. I don't apply an "average" across the board.

Plus I don't shoot as much beauty anymore but even when I do, skin-techniques such as the above are the last thing I reach for in my bag of tricks!


  1. How about the other details: hair, lips, neck, nails, different tones on limbs?
    I have seen many times high-end retouchers works in leading magazines (Vogue, Elle, Harper's, Marie Claire) where the model's limbs and face have same tones although in the real life our hand's tone never matches with our face but on a beauty advert where the model plays around with her face could be distracting.
    Shall we sacrifice the truth and real(ity) for the final, idealistic picture? I know fashion photography is not NatGeo.
    I am really confused: I am a beginner, I had given up my architect career and started to build my photographer portfolio but I always make mistakes because of my past. I look at woman like I did with 3D designs: I always go for flawless results, spending 4-6 hours with D&B, rebuilding hair, etc and get lifeless mannequins.
    And the worst thing is among others, my 'customers' expect this result...

    (I hate 'auto-retouch' softwares and I cannot respect who uses them...)

  2. And a solution to get back or keep the 'middle tones' during HP/LP cleaning:

  3. there is no reason for skin retouching on the photo you posted. it is 'perfect' as is. no blotchiness, no blemishes, no bumps, etc.

  4. Glad I could help provide some fodder for the blog :)

  5. Anonymous, that image is actually already edited from its original form ;)

    Cheers Joseph! :)

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