How to make skin retouching fast and efficient

May 5, 2016   20714 views

Action Photoshop retouching retouch skin

We all know that skin retouching professionals painstakingly work beauty images inch-by-inch for many, many hours to produce the quality demanded by high-end beauty advertisers and magazines.

For photographers like ourselves though, time can be scarce and often there is little or no retouching budget for the work we do.  Despite this our clients still want and expect great looking skin retouch - and we need to deliver them if we want to keep working!

To help me with this challenge I developed a Photoshop action for fast skin retouching called “Blur+Grain”. I’ve been using it successfully for many years now and I’d like to share it with you today in this tutorial.

Before we get started you should know that the settings in this Photoshop action were chosen specifically to reflect my taste, my camera and my computer. Once you are familiar with the technique I recommend that you fine tune these settings so that the results match your own personal style and equipment. Once you’ve worked through the tutorial and understand the action you will hopefully find these settings to suit you.

So, let’s dive straight in by installing the action.....


Here you can download zip file with my .atn action Blur+Grain (Oleg Ti) (to do this just click over the link or click with right button and choose "Download file"). Unzip if you got it as .zip file and then just click over .atn file and find this action in Actions Folder in Photoshop. I have to add that It will work only with 8 bit/channel images, because Grain filter doesn't work with 16 bit/channel files. So just change Image Mode from 16 to 8 bit/channel. 


Once the action is installed you're ready to use it on one of your images so go ahead and load one up.

Step 0

Before we run the action itself there are a couple of preparatory steps before running the Action.

1.    Save the original file
When you run the action it will begin by flattening all of your layers and changing the mode to 8 bits per channel. If you want to preserve your original file make sure you save a separate copy before you begin.
2.    Remove any obvious skin blemishes

Action Photoshop retouching retouch skin action for fast skin retouch

Use the healing brush tool to remove any clearly visible skin blemishes. Remember, retouchers spend hours working on just one image but here we are trying to get things done in just 2-3 minutes. This is enough time to clean obvious skin defects such as roughness, wrinkles, pimples, moles and so on before running the action.

Basic cleaned-up image after healing-tool work:
Action Photoshop skin retouching skin retouch

“Blur+Grain” Action – How it works

OK, so now the prep is done you’re ready to run the action so go ahead and try it out. The following section explains the steps that the Action takes so you can go fine tune it to meet your own requirements.

Step 1 – Gaussian blur

First a Gaussian Blur is run on the flattened 8-bit image. The Gaussian Blur settings should be chosen so that the fine detail of the skin is smoothed out but not so much that the major tonal variations disappear or blend into each other.

For a 30 megapixel image the value of Gaussian Blur should in the region of 30-40 pixels, for a full body picture you need to cut this back to 15-20 pixels. The resulting effect should look something like the image below.

Image with Gaussian Blur applied:
Photoshop action for skin retouch grain

Step 2 - Grain

Next, we add grain over the blurred layer to resemble a consistent skin texture. The action makes a new layer filled with 50% grey and sets the blend mode to “Overlay”.

The Grain filter is then applied to this layer using the “Contrasty” setting. Applying grain to a separate layer filled with grey allows the strength of the effect to be adjusted for taste by adjusting the layer opacity. Note also that the grain is desaturated and applied with a Clipping Mask so the effect applies to the blurred layer only.

I usually have the grain “Intensity” level at 50% and the “Contrast” to 40% - you will need to experiment a little to get the best results for your own setup.

Blurred image with grain applied:
Action Photoshop retouching retouch skin blur grain

Step 3 – Masking the effect

The action now creates a mask on the blurred layer filled with black so it becomes invisible. You need to paint over this mask with a white brush to reveal the skin smoothing effect only it’s needed. I start by filling in the larger areas quickly with a soft brush set to 100% opacity. There will be areas where the effect doesn't need to be so strong (for example any areas where there is no sharp focus due to depth of field settings) and we can use a reduced brush opacity, say 20%, changing the color of brush to increase or decrease the effect as needed in these areas. This stage should only take a minute or so.

Masked image painted to reveal the effect:
Action Photoshop retouching retouch skin blur grain

Action retouching retouch skin blur grain

Step 4 - Adjust the opacity of blurred layer

At this stage, it’s possible the skin may still look very artificial and to fix this we simply adjust the opacity of blurred layer. I usually put the opacity of this layer at around 40% - too much less and the effect disappears, too much more and the image looks artificial.

Opacity of the blurred layer adjusted:
Action Photoshop retouching retouch skin blur grain

retouching retouch skin blur grain

Step 5 - Fine Adjustments

To select the best level of grain I use three adjustments:
1. Every photo will have a different degree of contrast and color saturation which can alter the visibility of the grain. You can choose lower levels of opacity by lowering the Efficiency setting for the Grain filter. When doing this remember that a very low setting will make the skin more “plasticky” and artificial, I usually stay around the 70% opacity.
2.  Remove or reduce the grain in areas that fall from the depth of field. To do this is to add a mask to this layer. Neck, shoulders of model, sides of the face – go over it with a soft black 20% brush to remove unnecessary amount of the grain in that areas. It’s not necessary to remove the noise completely otherwise these areas could appear very artificial and blurred and out of character with the rest of the image.
3.  Dark areas can make the grain more visible so if necessary repeat step 2 for these areas using the black 20% brush.

....and Repeat

If you want you can repeat the action on any areas of the image that you think need it.


Very often a client won’t make great demands for retouching and not all photos will be printed at huge sizes so remember this action when you need to retouch a portrait photo in minutes.

Try it!
Good luck!

P.S. I will post soon an article about using this action with 16bit/channek files and with Photoshop CS6 which doesn't have Grain filter at all.