Looking at high street magazine racks, you might be forgiven for believing in a race of perfect beings, with flawless skin, bright eyes and shiny hair.  But looking good isn’t just down to early nights, punishing gym regimes and carrot juice – it’s also down to Photoshop.

We could all do with a bit of cosmetic help sometimes, and our aim in this tutorial is to help you get more realistic results when retouching portraits.  We’ll show you how to smooth skin, add make-up and get rid of dark circles under the eyes so you can use on your own photos the same techniques magazines use to make people look picture perfect.  It’s up to you how much ‘work’ you have done.

Preparing the source image Start Photoshop and open the source image “before.tif” from the tutorial folder on the cover disc. The photo is a little out of focus, so we’ll start by sharpening it up a touch. Select the main layer and go to Filters➝Sharpen➝Unsharp Mask.

Unsharp mask In the dialog box that appears you’ll see three sliders. The top one controls the amount of sharpening, the second controls pixel radius, the third sets a threshold at which the image is sharpened. We found a sharpen setting of 150%, radius of 3 and threshold of 4 was about right.

Fade filter When you’ve sharpened the image, adjust the effect by going to Edit➝Fade Unsharp Mask. Choosing Luminosity will make the effect more subtle, softening blown out areas and leaving darker detail sharp. One reason we start by sharpening is that it can highlight areas you’ll want to retouch.

Removing small blemishes Choose the Spot Healing Brush tool, set the brush size to about 50 pixels and click on any skin blemishes – spots, moles or veins. The Spot Healing Brush samples the area around the cursor, so there’s no need to look for a clean part of the image to clone.

Fix wrinkles and pores The Healing Brush tool works much like the Clone tool. Choose the tool from the flyout (hit J to quick select the active tool in the toolbar), sample an area of blemish free skin and paint over the area using a soft-edged brush. This can quickly even out areas with visible pores or wrinkles.

Create even skin tone The next trick is a quick and easy method of creating an even skin tone. Use the Magnetic Lasso tool to make a rough selection around the face, making sure you include the entire facial area. Go to the Layer menu and select New ➝Layer via Copy.  

Blurring reality With the new layer selected go to the Filter menu and choose Blur. Now choose between Gaussian Blur for a nice, soft result, or Surface Blur for the kind of ‘smoothed out’ effect you see in celebrity magazines. Pick whichever gives you the result you’re after and experiment with the sliders, then apply.

Adding back detail To add realism, set the Layer Blend to Lighten so that skin features show through, or bring down the layer’s opacity. To add sharp details back to the face, select the Eraser tool and, with your brush set to around 100, work on the ‘skin blur’ layer to remove the blur effect from the facial contours.

Isolating eye shadows Next, go to Layer➝Flatten Image. Create a new layer named “left eye shadow”. Use the Eye Dropper tool to select a light area of skin next to the dark area under the model’s left eye, then select the Brush tool. Set the size to about 90 pixels.

Painting away dark circles Set brush opacity to around 20%, keep a soft edge and turn down the flow to 60-70%. Now carefully paint out the shadows under the model’s left eye. This is a delicate job requiring a bit of patience and a quick use of c-Z to undo any heavy strokes.

Adding some slap Create a new layer named “right eye shadow” and repeat the technique to get rid of dark circles below the right eye. We use two layers so we have individual control over layer opacity and colouring. A variation of this technique was used in our final image to add ‘make-up’ to our model!

Brighten the eyes To brighten up eyes, many retouchers simply select the white area of the eye and paint it in. A more subtle approach is to use Photoshop’s Dodge tool. Zoom in close on the eye, select the Dodge tool and lighten the eye with a soft brush, being careful not to make it too white.

Colour correction You can target specific colours in the image by going to Image➝Adjustments➝Hue/Saturation. To take some of the red out of the skin, select the main image layer, pick Reds from the main dialogue and bring down the saturation a little. Alternatively, use the eyedropper to select specific colours.

Clean up and crop Finally, zoom in and use the Healing Brush tool to clone out any stray hairs, dust or scratches in the image. Zoom back out and use the Crop tool to recompose the image and centre your subject. Our example had a lot of space at the top of the picture that was removed at the last stage.