Advanced Photoshop: Controlling Skin Tones

Managing skin tones in Photoshop can be an ordeal.  Subtle color shifts can make even the most perfect-toned model look sick or unnatural.  Overly shiny skin is just as unappealing.  Using proper technique, however, can help bring these problems under control.  There are two key Photoshop tools to assist you in these adjustments: select color range and blending modes.  Using a deft hand, some subtle opacities, and the color and luminosity blending modes, you can have a significant amount of control over skin tonality.

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The original, unedited image

First, identify what the problems are with the image.  In this image, the highlights create too much sheen in the skin, and the skin color within the highlights is not ideal.  A mask is now needed to be able to control those areas.  Using Select - Color Range, use the sampled colors picker to select the areas of highlights within the skin.  In this case, the optimal point for selection is the highlight area on the left side of the face.  Adjust fuzziness until the right amount of skin highlight areas are selected.  Do not worry about other areas being selected as well just yet.  Be sure not to mistake fuzziness for feathering, this selection will still have to be feathered.  Once you have completed the color range selection, it is now time to create the layers for adjustment.

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Setting up the color range selection

Create a new blank layer, and add a mask to it while the color range selection is active.  Click the "add mask" icon on the bottom of the layers palette.  Now, alt-click on the mask and begin to remove areas that you do not want adjusted.  In this image, the skin highlights are all that is needed, so the shirt, background, and hair areas will be brushed out with a black brush.  Once the mask is ideal, do a slight Gaussian blur on the mask, with a radius of about 2.0.  Set the blending mode of the layer to luminosity.  The blending mode is found at the top of the layers palette, by default, it is set at "normal."  

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What the final mask looks like for this image

Return to the background layer, and use the eyedropper to select an area of skin tone that represents an approximate average of the overall skin.  Be sure the sample size of the picker is at least 5 by 5 average.  To change the sample size, once the eyedropper tool is active, go to the tool options bar at the top of the screen, to the sample size drop down menu.  Now, select the optimal tone, looking only at the brightness of the skin, not at the color.  The objective is to obtain a skin tonality where the brightness is about average for the face.  In this case, the skin tone on the forehead is most ideal. 

After choosing your skin tone (remembering to be on the background layer for that), go back to the new blank layer you created.  Be sure that the layer itself, not the mask is active, by clicking on the layer content icon (right next to the eyeball icon).  You will now see the layer content icon bordered by a white box.  Fill the layer (using either the paint bucket or the shift-delete shortcut) with the foreground color.  It will not look right at first; this is where the opacity slider comes into play.  For this technique, a low opacity is all that is needed, somewhere between 10-30%.  You will notice the once offensive highlights in the skin are now under control.  

To change the color of the affected skin areas from the previous adjustment, duplicate the layer.  Change the blending mode to "color."  Return to the background layer, and select using the eyedropper the ideal color for the highlight areas of the skin.  In this case, a slightly warmer color has been selected.  Fill this new layer with that color, and adjust opacity accordingly.  
If you find that the mask is not "strong" enough to make a significant change to your liking, there is a trick to help with that.  Usually the problem results from the initial use of color range; often times the mask will have not fully active (gray, instead of white) areas.  "Alt key-left click" on the mask to bring up mask view, then "apple key-L key" to bring up a levels dialogue on the mask.  Adjust the contrast of the mask itself by dragging the right most (white point) slider to the left.  This will make more of the mask active, and therefore increase the strength of the adjustments.  Be sure to do this on both the tone and the color masks.
Using the color range tool, some paintbrush adjustments, and the right combination of blending modes, you are able to critically control areas of skin, both in terms of density and color.  This technique has a large range of possibilities, for controlling overall skin tones, specific highlight or shadow areas, or color-sensitive areas like teeth or lips.  

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The end result.  The difference is subtle, as it should be when adjusting skin tones.

jf.gifJoshua Lehrer | Website
Josh is a recent graduate of the Advertising Photography program at the Rochester Institute of Technology.  His career started in the NJ/NYC area where he worked as a freelance photographer, writer, and consultant.  He also worked as marketing coordinator for a large photography retailer.  He currently resides in South Florida, where he continues to be heavily involved in the photography industry.