Smooth Operator: Make More Flattering Portraits

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If you watch old movies, you've probably seen the moment where the camera cuts to a close-up of a famous leading lady, and everything on-screen gets a little soft and dreamy. This is because many of those leading ladies insisted on being shot in the most flattering manner possible, so cinematographers filmed through gauze or other diffusing material to smooth skin texture.

When you shoot still portraits today, you can use digital equivalents of these same techniques to flatter skin tones and add a bit of glamour. I'll cover two approaches. The first is a manual technique you can use in Photoshop or another image editor. The second, more automated, technique relies on Imagenomic's Portraiture 2.0, an excellent Photoshop-compatible plug-in.

Improving Skin Tones with Selective Blurring
One of the easiest ways to soften an image is to digitally mimic the old cinematographer trick: Simply blur your image to improve skin tones.

Figure 1. The skin tones are softer in this image. Unfortunately, so is everything else.

Obviously, this technique leaves something to be desired, as the entire image looks out of focus. However, notice how many of the pores and other skin textures have been smeared into even gradients. This is the effect you want, but it should be localized to only the skin tones.

For this example, I'll perform my edits in Photoshop CS4, but you can use any version of Photoshop or Photoshop Elements, as long as it provides support for layers. If you don't use Photoshop or Elements, you might still be able to use this technique. I'll explain how later.

Prepare Your Image
No matter how expert your post-production skills, a good portrait begins with a quality shot. Good lighting is essential, and I'll discuss portrait lighting in a separate tutorial. Because my example image is well-lit, I don't have to worry about shadows and can focus on skin texture. (To remove blemishes, try Photoshop's Spot Healing Brush Tool, but do so before you start blurring.)

In Photoshop, I make sure the Layers palette is visible (Window > Layers). The Layers palette contains a single layer, which holds the image. I'm going to create a duplicate of this layer, blur it, and then use a Layer Mask to constrain that blurring to only the areas I want to be diffuse.

In the Layer's palette, I drag the Background layer to the Create a New Layer button at the bottom of the palette.

Figure 2. You can duplicate a layer in Photoshop by dragging it to the Create New Layer button at the bottom of the Layers palette.

A duplicate of the background layer appears in the Layer stack. Now I'm ready to start blurring.

Add the Blur
First, I click on the new layer to select it, then choose Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur. The best blur amount depends largely on how many pixels are in an image -- an image with lots of pixels needs a higher blur value. Blur amount is also determined by personal preference. You may not want to completely blur out all skin texture. For this 12-megapixel image, I used a value of 2.

Figure 3. There are no hard and fast rules for how much blurring to use on an image. Be guided by personal taste and experience.

The entire image is now blurry, just like the example you saw earlier.

Next, I'll create a Layer Mask, which will help me constrain the effects of the blur. With the blurred layer selected, I choose Layer > Layer Mask > Hide All. In the Layers palette, a Layer Mask appears next to the image thumbnail of the second layer. The Layer Mask is filled with black, indicating that none of the second layer is visible. The image now appears sharp because only the lower, unblurred image is visible.

Figure 4. Here, you can see that the top layer has a Layer Mask. Because it's filled with black, none of the blurry layer is visible, and only the bottom, unblurred layer can be seen.

Next I click on the Layer Mask in the Layers palette to ensure it's selected, set my foreground color to white, and choose the Brush tool. By brushing into the Layer Mask with white, I punch a hole in the mask, allowing the blurred layer to be seen. In this way, I can show select parts of the blurred image. For this operation, it's best to zoom to 100%.

Figure 5. By painting into the Layer Mask with white paint, I punch a hole in the mask and reveal those parts of the associated layer. The practical upshot is that I can make some parts of the blurred image visible. The effect is that I'm "painting in" blur.

I'm leaving the eyes and mouth uncovered, as well as the eyebrows and any hair, so that those details remain sharp. I'm also leaving some skin texture intact. If I hide it all, the image might appear too retouched.

At any time, you can paint black into the Layer Mask to hide that part of the image. In this way, you can easily fix any painting errors you might make.

Just as white completely reveals the blurred layer, and black completely hides it, painting with a shade of gray partially obscures the layer. I chose to leave some of the tone beneath her eyes unblurred, but it looks a little conspicuous. By painting with a middle-gray into the mask, I allow some of the blurred layer to blend in.

Figure 6. If you look closely, just below the eyes, you can see that the skin texture has been softened a little bit. Click on the image to see a larger version.

If you're using an image editor without layers, you can still create this kind of effect by using selection tools to apply constrained blurs. For example, you could use a lasso tool to select a cheek, feather the selection to create a smooth transition along its edges, and then apply a blur to the selected area.

While adding this type of blurring is very effective, you might want a speedier solution if you shoot a lot of portraits.

Imagenomic Portraiture 2.0
Portraiture is a plug-in for Photoshop that's designed specifically to make portraits look better.

The $199 Portraiture is compatible with the Mac and Windows versions of Photoshop CS2, CS3, and CS4, and with Photoshop Elements 4 through 7.

The program offers a single, resizable dialog box with a fairly simple set of tools, and a large preview area you can split to show before-and-after images side-by-side.

Figure 7 shows Portraiture's default correction of the image I've been working on.

Figure 7. Portraiture 2.0's default settings yield excellent results with no additional tweaking. Click on the image to see a larger version.

As you can see, Portraiture did a very nice job of smoothing skin tones while preserving detail in the eyes, hair, and teeth. The skin doesn't look like plastic, and there are no visible color bands or artifacts. The transitions from the smooth areas to the unsmoothed areas are very natural. Portraiture also automatically removed larger blemishes.

What's more, Portraiture is fast. Even on a high-res image, it generates results almost instantly.

Portraiture comes with presets for different levels of softening, and it automatically adjusts the amount of effect depending on the pixel count of the image.

If Imagenomic had stopped right there, I'd call it worth the money. Happily, the company added a fine degree of manual control.

Using simple sliders, you can control how much smoothing Portraiture applies to fine, medium, and large details. Depending on your image, these sliders may not have a tremendous effect. However, the Threshold slider will increase or decrease the overall effect of all three, making it simple to dial in more or less adjustment.

Figure 8. Here, I've dialed back the previous settings so that the resulting image isn't as smooth. Click on the image to see a larger version.

One of the reasons Portraiture works so well is that it automatically builds a mask for its edits, which constrains the adjustments to skin tones. This mask is based on color sampling. The plug-in looks for specific skin color tones and builds a mask based on those. While the automatic masking settings are good, the program includes extensive controls for customizing and refining the mask. These tools (eyedroppers for sampling skin tones and sliders for controlling opacity and feathering) are fairly simple to use. Basically, after selecting the skin tones, you can use the sliders to control and define the edge of the mask.

More than Diffusion
In addition to smoothing out flesh tones and eliminating blemishes, Portraiture has a few adjustments that can add even more oomph to your portraits.

Sliders for controlling Sharpness, Softness, Warmth, Tint, Brightness, and Contrast let you create effects that once required lens filters. Figure 9 shows the Portraiture Glamour preset in action.

Figure 9. Portraiture can make additional edits to an image to achieve other effects that were traditionally created with lens filters. Click on the image to see a larger version.

The smoothing settings in Figure 9 are the same as my previous examples, but the Glamour preset sharpens the eyelashes and eyebrows and diffuses highlight areas to create a soft glow around them. This is especially noticeable in her teeth. The Glamour preset also increases brightness, which whitens her teeth and eyes, and increases Contrast, which darkens the shadows and brighten her facial highlights.

Portraiture has a lot of depth if you dig into it, but you'll probably find that its default settings do very well for most images. If you do dig deeper to achieve a particular look, you can easily save those settings as a preset, for speedy workflow next time.

Once you've finally concocted the settings you want, Portraiture gives you a finished result. Then, using a simple pop-up menu, you can specify if you want the edited result to affect the original layer, be added to the document as a new layer, or be placed in an entirely new document. This makes it easy to work completely non-destructively with Portraiture.

Well-Made Interface
Portraiture's interface is thoughtfully designed. For instance, if you choose a split-screen preview and then zoom in, both sides zoom to the same place. Panning one pans them both so that you can easily compare the same areas.

Another example: A bracketing feature automatically generates multiple samples of an image, each with a slight variation to a specific parameter. This lets you try a range of smoothness settings, for example, or zero in on exactly how much softness an image needs. I wish more Photoshop filters had bracketing ability.

Just like the Pros
Once you start playing with smoothing and cleaning up, you'll begin to realize how much editing has been applied to the portraits we see in the mass media. In fact, you'll probably be able to look at images and magazines and deconstruct what changes have been made. This can be a great way to learn how to improve your retouching skills, no matter what program you use. But if you do a lot of portraits, Portaiture 2.0 can give you results that would be difficult to achieve on your own without spending hours in front of your computer. And wouldn't you rather be out shooting more photos?

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