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Step-by-Step Frequency Separation Portrait Skin Retouching In Photoshop

If you’re a portrait photographer, you’re probably familiar with some of the Photoshop blurring techniques to soften skin blemishes. Although skin blurring in Photoshop has been around for a long time, there’s been a trend toward a process called Frequency Separation Portrait Skin Retouching.

Many experienced retouchers prefer Frequency Separation because it preserves the skin’s natural texture (such as pores and line detail) while smoothing out blotchiness and highlights. This method separates the texture and tones so that they can be individually processed. The final result is smooth, natural looking skin.

Note: We’ve prepared a Photoshop action to help speed up your workflow – you can find it at the bottom of this page.

Step-by-Step Frequency Separation Portrait Retouching Guide
We will be working on an image I recently captured of Lacie. Although Lacie has beautiful skin, this close up portrait reveals quite a few small blemishes that need to be removed.

Before and After Frequency Separation Technique in Photoshop spacer

Note: Although frequency separation usually provides better results, skin blurring is faster. For quick skin retouching, check out these three skin smoothing techniques.

(1) Create Two Duplicate Background Layers
Start by two copies of the main background layer by clicking Ctrl + J (Windows) or Command + J (Mac). You can also create duplicate layers by going to Layer -> Duplicate Layer. To keep track of your layers, rename the top duplicate layer “Texture” and the layer below it “Tones”.

Frequency Separation Tutorial in Photoshop

Note: If you’ve created several adjustment layers while processing an image, you need to merge them together before using this frequency separation technique. To create a merged copy of all your adjustment layers, click Shift + Ctrl + Alt + E (Windows) or Shift + Command + Option + E (Mac). Now click Ctrl + J (Windows) or Command + J (Mac) to create one more duplicate layer.

(2) Apply Gaussian Blur to the Tones Layer
Next we’re going to apply a Gaussian Blur to the middle Tones layer. Start by turning off the visibility of the top-most Texture layer. Next select the Tones layer (below the Texture layer) and go to Filter -> Blur -> Gaussian Blur. The resolution of the image and area you’re working on will affect the setting you should use. Apply just enough blur to eliminate the texture of the skin.

Step by Step Guide for Frequency Separation Retouching in Photoshop spacer

In this high resolution image of Lacie, I settled on a Gaussian Blur Radius of 6.0:

(3) Subtracting the Skin Texture
Now we need to subtract the skin texture from the top-most Texture layer. Turn the visibility of the top Texture layer back on and make sure it’s selected. Then go to Image -> Apply Image.

In the Apply Image settings box, change the Layer drop down menu to Tones (blur); which is the middle layer in the group. Select Subtract in the Blending menu and leave the Scale at 2 and Offset at 128. Click OK to apply the settings.

How To Use Apply Image For Frequency Separation in Photoshop

Your image should appear grayed out (as seen below). This will look familiar to you if you’ve ever worked with the High Pass filter in Photoshop. Change the Blending Mode (of the top-most Texture layer) to Linear Light.

Learn Frequency Separation for Blurring and Softening Skin in Photoshop spacer

Note: If you’ve never seen this technique before, you may be wondering what’s happening behind the scenes. We just blurred the skin on middle layer. Next we subtracted the texture, and only the texture, from the top layer. This is what makes this technique so amazing! We’re smoothing out blotchiness while preserving the skin’s natural clarity and structure.

Frequency Separation Photoshop Retouching Technique spacer

(4) Setting Up the Lasso Tool Using Quick Mask
At this point, you shouldn’t see any change in the image. Select the Lasso tool and make a small sample selection anywhere on the skin.

Next open the Quick Mask overlay by pressing “Q”. In the top menu, adjust the Feather setting so that the selection has a soft edge (as seen below).

Feather Setting for Frequency Separation in Photoshop

In our image of Lacie, I changed the Feather to 36 pixels. The Feather setting you choose will depend on the resolution of the image and size of the area within the image that you’re work on. Use Quick Mask to adjust the Feather setting so that your selection has a reasonably soft edge.

Once you’ve settled on a soft Feather setting, press the “Q” key to close the Quick Mask overlay.

Quick Mask Selection Feather Setting For Frequency Separation spacer

(5) Retouching the Skin Using Gaussian Blur
This is where the magic happens. With the middle Tones layer selected, make a soft selection around the forehead. Next go to Filter -> Blur -> Gaussian Blur. Zoom in on the area you’re working on and adjust the Radius until the skin texture looks uniform and click OK. In this example I used a Radius of 3.

Note: The changes may appear subtle at first. Be sure to zoom in close to the area you’re retouching so that you can see how the skin is affected. Don’t be afraid to crank up the Radius of the Gaussian Blur when you’re first getting started so that you can easily see the affects of the filter; however be sure to ease back on the filter once you feel comfortable with the process. The goal is to retain the structure and natural detail of the skin while blending away blotchiness.

Repeat this process separately on each area of skin: forehead, cheeks, chin, areas above and below the eyes, area above the lips and neck. Apply the Gaussian Blur filter one section at a time until you’ve retouched all of the skin.

Note: You can use Ctrl + F (Windows) or Command + F (Mac) to quickly apply the last filter setting over and over again as you move through each selection.

(6) Using the Clone Stamp Tool To Remove Blemishes
At this point you should be seeing uniform structure and clarity in all areas of the skin you’ve retouched. The last step is to remove blemishes using the Clone Stamp tool. We’re deliberately saving this step for the end so that we can take advantage of the texture on the top layer. We will use this layer to sample and Clone out imperfections and bumps.

By sampling the top Texture layer with the Clone Stamp tool, we’re ignoring everything else including the highlights and skin tones. This allows us to quickly Clone out blemishes without worrying about which area of skin we’re sampling.

Start by selecting the top Texture layer and the Clone Stamp tool.

Super Important: change the Sample drop down menu to “Current Layer”. When the Clone Stamp tool is selected, you can find this setting in the top menu bar (shown below). Both the Opacity and Flow should be at 100%.

Clone Stamp Tool Set To Current Layer

With the Clone Stamp tool selected, sample unblemished areas of the skin and clone away blemishes. Alt + Mouse Click (Windows) or Option + Mouse Click (Mac) to sample unblemished areas of the skin.

You’re done! Take a look at the final result. Lacie’s skin looks amazing! We’ve blended the tones and highlights while preserving the natural texture of her skin.

How To Use Frequency Separation to Retouch and Smooth Skin spacer

Download the Photoshop Action:
I’ve prepared a Photoshop action to help speed up your workflow. This action automatically prepares a project for processing portraits using this frequency separation technique.

Download the Frequency Separation Photoshop Action

All that’s left after running the action is to selectively apply Gaussian Blur to the areas of the skin you wish to retouch (starting with step #5 on this page).

About the Author: Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for over 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.

Steve owns and manages the F/Stop Spot; a website dedicated to supporting photographers of all skill levels. You can find more of Steve’s work at Paxton Portraits.


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