Thursday, December 8, 2011

Smoothing the Skin Reducing Local Contrast Using Layers

In a previous post in my Lightroom series I took advantage of the Clarity tool to smooth the skin of the model. Nevertheless, the Clarity tool is not available either in Photoshop or The Gimp and many people ask how the same effect can be reproduced in these programs.

I answered this question in a previous post (Clarity Adjustment in Photoshop). The answer, however, was pretty theoretical so that in this post we will use the technique we learnt to smooth the skin in an image.

The original image, once more, is the following:

Original Image (Cropped)

The first thing we're going to do is creating a new layer duplicating the original one. Once we've done it, we use the High Pass filter to detect the transitions. The radius you need to use depends on the image (and corresponds to the amount of local contrast we're going to detect). In this image of 16 megapixels I'll use a radius of 3 pixels:

High Pass Filter - Radius: 3 pixels

We end up with a neutral grey layer where transitions are marked by lighter and darker pixels whose intensity will depend on the corresponding (underlying) pixel:

High Pass Layer

We know from our previous post that the information contained therein can be used both to raise or reduce the local contrast of our image. Since, in this case, we want to reduce it, we have to invert the layer end we end up with:

High Pass Layer - Inverted

If we now set the blending mode to this layer to Overlay the result is the following:

Resulting Image: Lowered Local Contrast

What has happened? The neutral gray pixels leave the underlying pixels unaffected. Lighter ones will screen the underlying pixels and dark ones will multiply the underlying pixels. Since pixels aren't neutral gray only at the point of transitions, we would end up with increased local contrast. However, since we've inverted the high pass layer, the local contrast is reduced.

The skin now looks smoother and you can use the high pass radius to fine tune the smoothness. However, eyes aren't sharp any more and this is something we want to avoid. Now, we have to apply this local contrast reduction only locally. How? Using a layer mask.

A layer mask is literally that: a mask, and it behaves as such. Let's imagine you take a sheet of white paper and you print your original layer over it. Now, you take another sheet of paper and you print the high pass layer over it. If you put this sheet over the other in overlay mode (assuming it would be possible), you end up with the result we just achieved. Now: you take scissors and make a couple of holes in the upper sheet just where the eyes of the model are. What would the result be? Well, the eyes from the inferior layer would be visible and wouldn't be affected by the upper layer.

Layer masks work just like that: the only difference is that you make "holes" using the black color. Layer, moreover, are more sophisticated: you can make "semi-transparent" holes using a shade of grey. Funny, isn't it?

Let's add a layer mask to our inverted high pass layer:

Layer Mask

As you can see, the layer mask is white: this means that the entire layer now contributes to the overlay effect with the lower layer. Let's now take a brush and paint over the left eye and its eyebrow. The result is:

Right Eye and Eyebrow Unmasked

As you can see, the right eye and its eyebrow have recovered all of their local contrast: pixels that we painted with black aren't affected by the upper layer any more. Let's finish painting and we end up with this result:

Final Result

You can also notice how the layer mask icon in the layers palette reflects our mask:

Resulting Mask


Although not available as a standalone tool, you've learnt how you can reduce the local contrast (a negative clarity, in Lightroom jargon) of a selected part of your image.

Layer mask are powerful and you can use the same technique to selectively apply any kind of effects. In this case, you could have chosen to use a blurred layer to smooth the skin, instead of going through the steps described above. Or, you could have used a bigger radius to soften the skin even more, as shown in the following picture. The only limit is your imagination.

Result with High Pass Filter, Inverted, Radius: 5 px 

With the same technique, you can enhance the eyes of the model (as described in the Lightroom tutorial), applying the same adjustments in a new layer and masking out the parts of the image you want to leave unaffected.

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