By Crawford Hart.
This is a topic that often falls outside of the concerns of professional photographers; rather than capturing reality and presenting an honest depiction of what one finds there, this endeavor is concerned with... well, lying. At its simplest, it's an effort to help the subject look their best; at its most extreme, we are creating fantasy pure and simple, with results that are never found in the real world. Ever. No one looks like this, not even Tyra Banks. (She comes pretty close, though).
Perfectly smooth skin is a tricky retouching challenge. It's a series of complex gradients moving not only from lights to darks and from one hue to another but in multiple directions as well. It doesn't take much for the eye to fasten on imperfections and the effort to remove them often creates more problems. Until Photoshop 7, the tool of choice for skin work was the cloning tool (No purer manifestation of evil has ever been found.) It was, and remains, woefully inadequate to the task. The combined challenge of maintaining the smoothness of the gradients without losing believable skin texture made many retouchers reconsider their applications to McDonalds. With PS7 the Healing Brush made it's appearance and music and light once more filled the land of retouching.
There are three ways to approach skin retouching. The most common is to think like a plastic surgeon: you graft skin from a healthy area onto the problem spots and hope you can minimize the scars. But imperfections can also take the form of unwanted variations in dark and light areas. Rather than replacing an unwanted area, we dodge or burn the areas, lightening or darkening just enough to bring them into balance. Sometimes the problem is one of mismatched color, and we must find a way to exploit color correction techniques.
These three approaches constitute 90% of the time you will spend on a serious retouching job. None of them requires arcane techniques; they do require finesse, and, most of all, patience. There is no quick fix for skin, not if the desire is to make it look both flawless and real and to hide your own tracks. None of the whiz-bang effects that LAB produces will be found here. Most of the job entails endless repetition of the same simple moves, with results so slight you'll often wonder if you're accomplishing anything. Until you turn your retouching layer on and off. You get your whiz-bang effect at the end of the job when you compare before and after version.
One technique that has been around forever, and which lives to this day, is to create some form of smoothing layer on top of the offending skin and try to blend it into the original without making it look fake. Whether one paints tones in with an air brush, or tries some blurring moves, this approach is roundly scorned by most magazine editors and, when done too obviously, will not only get the job bounced, it will earn those responsible a place on the "Do Not Use" list. Still, the reason it remains a current technique is that, done right, it works. It is to be hoped that we will do it right.
In this section I will address the three approaches to skin work already mentioned. In Part 2, I will deconstruct a couple of jobs, discuss contrast moves, smoothing, sharpening, how to make skin glow, and other fantasies.
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