Photo retouching and skin smoothing. How much is too much?

Quality skin smoothing should enhance, not replace makeup

I am often asked by clients, both portrait and wedding alike – “can you airbrush me?” The answer of course is “yes, but do you really want me to?”

When it comes to the controversial topic of photo editing – specifically skin smoothing known as ‘airbrushing’ it can be difficult to tell what is acceptable in the fast moving media industry.

Do a quick search for “airbushing” and you’ll be met with a volley of opinions both in support of, and rallying against this well established technique. First it is important to note the difference between the different levels of photo enhancements ranging from simple blemish removal to full shape-changing manipulation.
For top models and celebrities, airbrushing is just another part of the daily routine with some even employing full time photo editors to ensure continuity from one shoot to the next. For clients looking for a casual photo shoot it can be used to enhance the natural look and provide that little extra to provide images you’ll want to treasure forever. Many models walking into the studio are basing their expectations on magazine work, with hours of professional hair and makeup, some minor tweaks in the editing can make a huge difference to the end result.

Here’s how I catagorise the different levels of editing.

  1. Blemish removal – This is practiced by virtually every photographer. The aim is to remove only temporary blemishes such as spots or scratches. Easily achievable with a variety of software this does not change the overall look or texture of the skin.
  2. Asymmetry removal – This is a dangerous area, referring to any marks or blemishes that are a permanent feature. Photographers must be very careful when removing moles or scars. It’s easy to cause offense by removing something you think the client wants rid of before asking.

    Here the lines have been smoothed only slightly to remove the pinching caused by tight fitting lingerie.
  3. Light skin smoothing – This method uses a simple blur filter and some photoshop masks to produce a texture free skin. This method tends not to stand up to close inspection and is easy to spot. ‘Smooth’ and ‘blur’ are not the same but it can be achieved quickly to give a client a good overall impression of airbrushing results.
  4. Complex skin smoothing – Using a variety of techniques such as channel mixer, high pass, layer styles, masks and much more (I don’t want to give up the secret recipe in it’s entirety) skin can be made smoother but retain the texture giving a look of high quality make up rather than photo manipulation. This is my preferred choice as it is more flattering and less noticeable. If I am smoothing skin for a beauty shoot, I don’t want people thinking ‘look at that editing’. I want them to think ‘look at that model’
  5. Post process lighting – This is an interesting one. By adding highlights and shadows to your images you can change the way a model looks. By lightening the area under the eyes and darkening the cheeks you give the appearance of high cheekbones for example. Again this is a dangerous game as you risk changing the look of your model too much. A little can go a long way here…
  6. Manipulating shape – This is the part that really fuels the media frenzy. Changing the shape of a model to ‘enhance’ features by shrinking some parts while enlarging others, giving celebrities the unachievable figure made so fashionable by the glamour and music industry. This is done (often very obviously) by using tools such as ‘liquify’ or ‘puppet warp’ and should be approached only with the full consent of your model. Changing someone’s shape because you think it could be better is not a always a good enough reason. That said there are times when minor adjustments can make a huge difference – smoothing out the lines where clothes pinch against skin can reduce distractions in your picture or remove creases in material that would otherwise pull attention away from your model.

And now I ought to come to some concluding point that says ‘do it this way and you’re safe’. Unfortunately no such method exists. The key is to be sensitive to the needs of your client. I make sure that models and clients know exactly what they want from their finished shots and where they are heading. For a beauty shoot destined for facebook, the aim may be to make the client look the way people think models ‘should’ look. Typically this means a little smoother, towards the controversial end of the scale. For acting head shots however it is important to show the client in their best light, but without removing any features that would impact upon a role once cast.

If you are starting out down this road maybe these pointers will help.

  • Save your work continuously, keep a copy of the original shot to hand for reference. If your model looks like a different person, you’ve gone several steps too far.
  • Know how your images will be viewed. A full body shot on facebook will never be viewed at 100%, so editing at this level will go largely unseen.
  • Conversely, if your images are for large format print, every detail will come out so watch out for transitions between smoothed skin and fine details.
  • Be honest and open with your model. Explain the options and provide examples if available. A simple question like, ‘would you like me to do any enhancements’ is much better than ‘do you want me to fix this?’

If you would like to learn more about post processing using Adobe’s creative suite, get in touch for photographic tuition from Jon Hall. Sessions can be conducted in the studio with everything to hand from camera to print or in the home with your setup to make the best of what is available to you.
If you would like to have your say, leave a comment on this post. How much is too much?

4 thoughts on “Photo retouching and skin smoothing. How much is too much?”

  1. Really great article. Had a look around the site and your work looks amazing. Keep it up!!

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    that I’m completely confused .. Any recommendations? Thanks!

    1. Hello and thanks for the comments. My advice is to start with a free platform such as wordpress as it’s a great way to get everything in order and if you choose to upgrade to a paid option for more hosting options it’s available whenever you want. When you do start up, leave a link and I’ll check it out. Thanks for visiting.

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