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A Guide To Easy Portrait Softening In Photoshop

This tutorial will walk you through some really easy portrait softening techniques that can be applied in Photoshop or Photoshop Elements. There are lots of skin softening techniques that you can learn, some more elaborate than others. But, for the majority of images, this is something that you should be able to quickly and effectively.

So, let's get started. I've used an image from RGB stock, which you can download here and follow the tutorial using the exact same picture.

The clone tool has already been used to help reduce skin detail and blemishes slightly.

I have made a few other edits to the image already, to prepare it for this stage (colour correction, cloning, curves, dodging and burning). Now here's how I go about softening the skin:

1. With the image open in Photoshop, hit Ctrl/Cmd + J to duplicate the background layer. Doing this is a good rule of thumb before starting most edits. It allows you to be 'non-destructive', and gives you a cool before/after snapshot at the end.

2. With the new layer selected in the Layers Palette, go up to the Filter menu and select Blur>Surface Blur. Another option would be to go for Gaussian blur, but I much prefer Surface blur because it leaves the detail around edges (e.g. eyes, mouth, hair etc) much more intact. Gaussian blur softens the entire image indiscriminately.

Choose the amount of blur you wish to use. Err on the side of over doing it at this stage. We can use the opacity slider later to reign in the effect. I've selected a radius of 15 and threshold of 10. Hit OK.

3. Add a layer mask to the new softened layer (if you're in Elements, create a Levels adjustment layer with no adjustments, and link it with the blurred layer. This will effectively be a normal layer mask). The layer mask will, by default, be filled white.

4. Now select the brush tool and soften the edge by holding Shift and tapping [ a few times. Although Surface Blur preserves edge detail to a certain extent, it does still blur some parts of the image we want to be sharp. So we're going to paint the background layer back in. Select black as your foreground colour.

5. Zoom in to 100% on the eyes and carefully paint over them to bring back the full sharpness from the background layer.

I like the way softening skin in Photoshop both softens the skin and, by way of contrast, effectively sharpens the eyes - without doing any actual sharpening! We also want the lips to be nice and sharp, so paint over them too. Do the same with the eyebrows, hair, nostrils and jawline, so that everything looks crisp, but the skin is still nice and soft.

6. Hit Cmd/Ctrl + 0 to zoom back out and assess the adjustments. At this stage I almost always reduce the opacity of the softened layer quite a bit. Bring it down so that some of the natural skin texture begins to emerge, but not so much that the benefit of softening is lost. Here I've set the opacity to 75%.

7. That's it - easy portrait softening in Photoshop. You can now go on to sharpen the eyes, which will be all the more effective for having softened the surrounding skin. Click on the little eye symbol in your softened layer to see the before/after comparison.

Let's take a quick look at the before/after images (quite subtle in this example):

Before softening

After softening

I recommend this little digital book if you like simple, effective, easy to follow Photoshop techniques: "Photo Nuts and Post".

Where Next?

Photoshop sharpening techniques

Create a pop-art mosaic in Photoshop

How to use the clone-stamp tool

Return to Photography Art Cafe home

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