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Thursday, December 8, 2011

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Tutorial - Part XIV - Using Presence Controls to Smooth the Skin

Part I - Index and Introduction
Part XV - Speeding Up Your Workflow Using Presets and the Painter Tool

Local Contrast to Make Softer or Rougher Surfaces

In a couple of previous posts (see here and here) we learned about local contrast and how this effect can be easily achieved in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Local contrast, or Clarity in Lightroom's jargon, literally refers to the amount of contrast that's present locally in areas of colors and tones transitions of your image. Local contrast allows you to tweak your image without modifying the overall contrast and the tonal scale of your image:
  • Increasing the local contrast "sharpens" transitions and gives rougher surfaces. 
  • Decreasing the local contrast gives smoother surfaces.
Although clarity can be adjusted at the image level (I often raise it a bit to get punchier images) by its own nature local contrast is an adjustment that you often want to brush into your image.

Smoothing the Skin

One of the uses of a negative clarity is skin smoothing. Skin isn't so smooth a surface and unless your model has got a perfect one and your lighting conditions are optimal, his skin won't appear as smooth as we'd like. Here, we're not talking about skin imperfections (you're going to manually remove those with other brushes) but skin texture.

Depending on the image you'd like to get, you may need to correct the skin texture somehow. If you want to give your portrait a "dreamy" and "diffused" look and feel, this is a way to achieve it. As usual, there are plenty of way of doing it in Photoshop but this post will focus on the clarity (local contrast) adjustment. One of the good things of this adjustment is that it's really easy to use and it usually gives very good results with little effort.

To have an idea of what you're going to achieve, you can lower overall clarity of a portrait and see what happens. The reduced local contrast is going to take away sharpness to your model skin and smooth its surface. But unless you're happy with this result, you'd better take a brush and apply clarity locally.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom ships with a Soften Skin brush since version 3. This brush is defined as follows:

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom - Soften Skin Brush

As you can see, this brush applies a negative Clarity adjustment of -100 (the minimum) and raises the Sharpness a bit to balance the extreme smoothing effect. There's no silver bullet here: you've got to try and tweak the brush parameters yourself until you get the result you expect.

Personally, I don't like this brush: it's too "extreme". I'd rather use a Clarity adjustment in the [-50,-60] range and adjust sharpness and saturation according to my taste.

A personal suggestion: in portraits where you're looking for a really smooth skin, try to desaturate the skin a bit. I find the results are more natural.

A Test Image

This is a crop from an image in which I want to brush in some negative clarity to smooth the skin of the model. This image was taken with bounce flash in a small room: the flash was bounced with an angle close to 80 degrees and the light hasn't lit evenly the face of the model. Remember: photography is all about light and you should try to get the results you want right out of the camera. Unfortunately, sometimes we cannot prepare the setup we need to get the right shot and that's when it's right to fix things in post production.

Original Image (Cropped)

Look at the original image. This is a cropped section of a shot a took by surprise: the model wasn't even wearing any make up. Besides having to remove some skin imperfections, I really don't like the overall texture of the skin. Also, the bounce flash hasn't properly lit the eyes and the skin underneath them. That's what I'm trying to fix with a negative clarity adjustment: I'll try to reduce the local contrast without affecting too much the overall texture of the skin or completely removing those shadows ending up with an unnaturally flat image.

Final Image (Cropped)

This is the result after brushing in some negative clarity (-70) and some sharpness. The result is much smoother but it's not yet unnatural. Since it's not a studio image and I want to preserve the overall look of the shot, I don't want to go any further.

In this image I also tweaked the eyes as explained in the previous post.

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