If you want to know how to soften skin in Lightroom, you’ve come to the right place. Because today I want to share my 3-step approach to editing portraits, including skin smoothing and softening.
You probably noticed the photos you take of your family members are very different from the ones you see in the magazines. There are a lot of o reasons for that. The most obvious ones are the right lighting and makeup. But the most significant impact on producing the professional-looking captures is retouching.
Typically, the retouching part of professional portrait and fashion workflow is long and tedious. The professional retouchers can spend hours working on a single photograph. It is common that photographing and retouching are performed by different people.
But since I do not take portraits professionally and my models are mostly family members, I can not afford to spend hours working on a single photo. Instead, I developed a simplified portrait editing process where the central part is to clean up my model’s skin and make it smooth and soft.
How to Smooth Skin in Lightroom
No matter if I need to retouch environmental or indoor portraits, I always follow the same simple workflow.
- First, you remove the visible skin imperfections.
- Second, you reduce wrinkles, mostly under the eyes and on the forehead.
- Third, you smooth and soften skin where it is supposed to be smooth.
It can all be done in Lightroom in a matter of minutes.
For today’s demonstration, I used a photo of my family member. The photo never intended to be more than a simple vacation photo.
I took the photo around noon with the California sun blasting from the zenith. The harsh sun amplified the skin imperfections, and I knew well in advance that I would have to address it.
And here is the final result after I applied my 3-step retouching workflow.
Let’s see how it was done.
Step One: Removing Skin Imperfections
The skin imperfections can be in different forms. The most common are blemishes and pimples caused by acne.
The general rule of portrait retouching is not to remove natural and permanent features such as birthmarks and scars. But since pimples and blemishes are temporary anomalies, we can remove them unapologetically.
1. Zoom to 100%
When editing landscapes, you often want to see the entire image and occasionally zoom in on a specific area. In portrait retouching, it is different. To make sure you can identify even small imperfections, you have to work at high magnification levels.
I find that even 50% of magnification is not enough for evaluation and editing.
100% magnification works the best.
2. Set Up the Spot Removal Tool
Select the Spot Removal Tool.
For the editing mode, select the HEAL option.
The Heal mode works the best for retouching because, by design, it matches the texture, lighting, and shading of the sampled area to the selected region. And the CLONE option uses a sample area info without adjustments for lighting and texture.
Keep Feather option at 55% and Opacity at 100%.
3. Remove Skin Imperfections in Heal Mode
Now, for a faster and more efficient workflow, you need to know a few keyboard shortcuts.
Brush Size Shortcut
Use “]” and “[“ keyboard shortcuts to increase or reduce the size of the Spot Removal Brush. Potentially you can adjust the brush size fast for every skin imperfection you want to remove.
Hide Brush Outline Shortcut
Use the shortcut “H” to hide the brush outline for an undistracted view. By hitting “H” again makes the Spot Removal outline visible again.
Sampling Area Shortcut
When you click on the skin defect you want to remove with the Spot Removal Brush, the program automatically selects the sampling area and uses its information to mask the defect. In 90% of cases, Lightroom gets it right, but in some cases, you need to tell Lightroom that the sampling area it selected is wrong. Use the shortcut “/” to force the program to choose another sampling area. You can do multiple times.
On rare occasions, when Lightroom still can not find the right sampling area, you can manually move the selection by clicking on it and repositioning it to the correct location. But it rarely happens to me.
And now, you start stamping the skin imperfections and on the fly adjusting brush size by using the shortcuts.
It is fast, simple, and fun.
Step Two: Removing Wrinkles
The wrinkles are natural and permanent features, and we need to deal with them differently.
The wrinkles are an acceptable feature of portraits; it keeps our photography more real.
But in some cases, especially when shooting environmental portraits, the harsh light from above can amplify the wrinkles, making the person look older with more uneven and ragged skin. In such cases, we need to reduce wrinkles prominence.
1. Select Spot Removal Tool
To reduce wrinkles, you are going to use the Spot Removal Tool again, but with different settings.
Use HEAL mode and set Opacity to 55% and Feather to 55%
2. Remove Wrinkles With the Longer Strokes
Once again, you are going to use the shortcuts I listed above:
- “]” and “[“ to change the size of the Spot Removal Brush
- “H” to hide and unhide the Spot Removal outlines
- “/” shortcut to force Lightroom to change sampling area.
The main difference between removing imperfections and wrinkles is that the area of the face you will affect is much larger.
Instead of stamping, you will use longer strokes to cover a single wrinkle in one go. As a result, Lightroom’s sampling area needs to be much bigger. Since it is a more complex task than single stamping, Lightroom fails more often by choosing the wrong area from where it acquires healing info. It means you will have to interfere more often.
You can still use the “/” shortcut to force Lightroom to resample, but I find that the most effective way to use the right source for healing is to reposition the sampling area manually. Click on the sampled area outline and drag it to the correct location.
Extra Tip. Let’s say you stroke over the wrinkle with the Spot Removal brush, and you feel that result is not what you expected. Don’t worry; you can adjust it after the fact.
If you removed too much texture or the wrinkle still looks too prominent, you can boost or reduce the healing effect by changing the Opacity value. Make sure to hit the “H” shortcut to perform fine-tuning without any obstructions.
Step Three: Smooth The Skin with Adjustment Brush
Finally, you are ready to apply the most effective feature of portrait retouching, soften, and smoothing of the skin. It is important to do it in the last step; otherwise, you will end up with smudges caused by blurred wrinkles and blemishes.
1. Zoom to 50%
Now you need to zoom out by one step to make sure you can assess the larger area of the face for smoothing effect.
2. Select The Adjustment Brush Tool
Select the Adjustment Brush tool and use the following setting:
You do not have to worry about using the wrong settings; after you finished brushing, you can alter every parameter.
3. Apply the Soften Skin Effect
Now you can start brushing over the area of the skin that requires smoothing and softening.
Once again, use the “]” and “[“ shortcuts to change the brush size.
Use the “O” shortcut to visualize the area affected by the smoothing effect.
Make sure you do not brush over the areas that have to stay sharp, such as hair, lips, nostrils, eyebrows.
If you brush over the area that is not supposed to be soften, do not worry. Hit the “ALT” / “OPT” key to change the Brush tool to an Eraser. Erase the unwanted effect by brushing over it, and when you finished, release the “ALT” / “OPT” key.
When you are done, hit the “O” shortcut key one more time to visualize the affected area.
4. Fine Tune the Soften/Smooth Effect
If you are unhappy with the level of softening or smoothing, you can modify it at the end.
Make sure you select the Adjustment Brush Pin by clicking on it. Turn off the color overlay preview if it is still on by using the shortcut “O.”
Now you can dial up or dial down the smoothing effect by moving the Clarity slider to the left or right.
And that is it.
Optional Step: Lightroom Rapid Editing
And when I am done with skin smoothing, I move to Lightroom Rapid Editing, where I use my standard preset based workflow.
I applied the Meadow preset from my Travel Pro Kit collection first, and in the end, I use the TOOLKIT Adjustment presets to fine-tune the image.
Before & After Transformation
How to Smooth Skin in Lightroom: Final Thoughts
I hope my simple walkthrough will help you to take portrait editing under control. This simple 3 step approach is most effective with environmental portraits taken outdoors where we can not control the lighting.