The tools that Photoshop comes with are great for removing obvious flaws but they don’t tend to give a perfect complexion. There are plug-ins available to do just that but the results can look too overdone, leaving a plastic-looking finish. We’ll show you how to clean up the blemishes as usual, and then smooth out the skin tones while still leaving surface texture, so it looks like skin and not clingfilm. That said, there’s a level of flexibility in this process so you can tweak it easily for a more natural look or a more super-model look. The main tools used are the Spot Healing Brush, the Clone Stamp tool, Surface Blur and a grain fill.
Step 1: Select the tools
First, duplicate the Background layer and name it as the Blemish removal layer. Select the Spot Healing Brush and click on Content-Aware as the type. This usually does a slightly better job than Proximity Match, which can clone in other flaws nearby. However, be prepared to swap between these types.
Step 2: Remove blemishes
Make sure the brush size isn’t too large and then dab on the blemishes like spots and moles. Check to make sure there isn’t a strange-looking pattern as a result. If there is press Cmd-Z to undo and check Create Texture is not ticked. Swap between Content-Aware and Proximity Match if necessary.
Step 3: Finish first stage
Don’t be tempted to make large swipes across the skin. Move on to blemishes in the skin. Watch out around the edges to the skin as it’s possible to pick up detail from outside this area. Either reduce the brush size and keep as far away from the edge as possible, or leave it for the next steps.
Step 4: Channel select
Once blemishes have been removed, duplicate the Blemish removal layer and name it as the Surface blur layer. Doing this on a separate layer lets you tweak the effect and let more surface detail back in by reducing the layer Opacity. Click on the Channels tab and click on the Red channel to select it.
Step 5: Blur the red
Go to Filter > Blur > Surface Blur. Accept values of Radius: 5 and Threshold: 15. It looks fairly strong but it’s modified by the other two channels, which we aren’t touching, so the end result is subtle. Click OK and then click on RGB to see the combined channel. Click back onto the Layers tab.
Step 6: Block out features
This softens the entire image so add a layer mask to the Surface blur layer. Select the Paintbrush with colour black at 50% Opacity. Ensure the brush has 0% Hardness so it has a soft edge and paint on the mask over the hair, eyebrows, eyelids, lips and pupils – leave the whites as they are.
Step 7: Prepare to smooth
Right-click on the layer mask on the Surface blur layer and select Apply Layer Mask. This knocks out those areas that were masked from the entire layer. Duplicate this layer and call it the Smooth finish layer. This is where we’re going to smooth out the skin textures but can now blend back in if required.
Step 8: Start cloning
Zoom in more than 100% so you have plenty of area to work with. Select the Clone Stamp tool and set the Blend mode to Normal. Set the Opacity to 20%. Ensure the brush is reasonably large yet small enough to get up to the edges of features. It needs to have a 0% Hardness setting for a soft edge.
Step 9: Smoothing out
Start with the forehead where it’s brighter than the rest of the head. Sample from the side of the brush and then paint. After around four brush strokes, change the sample location. Do this each time. As you move to the right, sample from the left. At the top, sample underneath, at the bottom, sample above.
Step 10: Blend in nearby areas
The idea is to gently smooth out areas, not blitz them. Don’t clone and paint into the darker area of the forehead. Move to that area and clone and paint there, then brush the two areas into each other with a 10% Opacity brush so there’s a gradual change. Otherwise you get one continuous, flat area.
Step 11: Nose and eyes
When smoothing out the nose try to treat it as too halves – a dark side and a light one. Stick to cloning from the same side, not over the top. For the join with the forehead use the 10% Opacity brush. Then move on to under the eyes with the 20% Opacity brush. Clone from the cheekbones upwards.
Step 12: On the chin
The chin has a bright spot and also shadow down one side, so tackle this next. Keep within the light area when sampling and cloning over the highlights here. Sample within the dark area for the shadow area. It’s worth using a 10% Opacity brush because there’s a lot of variation in a small area.
Step 13: Around the mouth
The final area to smooth is the lower cheek which joins to the mouth, goes up to the cheekbone, and down and left to the chin. The right side is easy because it’s all one shade. A 20% brush will do it quickly. The left side is much harder and requires a 10% brush and more care.
Step 14: Add grain
Now we have a nice smooth finish. If you’ve had to really go to town on the image because the subject is older you’ll need this next step. If you want a really smooth result you can stop now. Otherwise, click on Channels in the Layers palette and select the Red one. Go to Filter > Texture > Grain.
Step 15: Finish it off
Enter an Intensity value of 10 for a noticeable effect or 5 for a subtle one. Apply this, then click back on the RGB channel and then on the Layers tab itself. You can now reduce the Opacity of this smooth layer and the Surface blur layer to show more skin texture if required. Otherwise, flatten to finish.