How to Retouch Portraits Without Losing Skin Texture with Frequency Separation

Here’s a great introductory retouching tutorial by photographer Sara Kiesling, who writes,

Basic skin retouching using frequency separation and dodging & burning. I use this process on every photo that I do, and I usually spend about 4-5 minutes on headshots like this (and less time on full body shots when there is obviously less detail in the face). This is not intended to be a high-end retouching tutorial, but techniques that can help people who want to do natural-looking retouching while maintaining most of the natural skin texture!

Frequency separation is a technique that allows you to give skin a smooth-yet-sharp look.

Here’s an explanation by retoucher Ben Secret for his tutorial “Retouch images with frequency separation“:

[Frequency separation is] a technique that enables you to selectively process not only different areas of an image, but also different detail levels. Frequency separation involves creating a high detail (high spatial frequency) layer and a low detail layer from a source image […] Using this technique enables you to smooth and rework rough and fine details independently, and opens up some very high-quality and non-destructive methods with which to sharpen your images.

Julia Kuzmenko McKim has a great text-based tutorial as well, titled, “Skin Retouching – Frequency Separation Technique.” Her page also includes a number of before-and-after examples that you can switch between by dragging a slider.

You can find the finished version of the photo in Kiesling’s video here.

(via Fstoppers)

  • Kallwas

    Good tutorial, easy to follow if you have some backgroundknowledge with Photoshop. Thank you. But why are you killing all the lines in the face? Some of them are important and create personality. I don’t like it if people flaten out faces too much. Retouching blemishes is okay, but well, I think some of the things you did here destroyed the natural face structrues and made the face extremly flat and look fake (e.g. The line beneath the lips or eyes).

  • Trap

    Dear world: Please. Stop. Retouching. Faces.

  • fast eddie

    This is an overly complicated way to retouch an image. I can get better, more realistic results, and way faster turnaround time in Lightroom with the heal brush set to 65-75%.

    Retouching faces to the point where they look surreal/plastic is getting out of hand.

  • DavidC

    I can see both sides of the argument with retouching and I am probably somewhere in the middle of the sliding scale. If you shot is for artistic purposes, retouching will probably be relied on more. If it is for documentary or to represent the person in the photo specifically, then less retouching should be used.

    Just like using bokeh…it is about what you want to emphasize; the look or the person.

  • Neoracer Xox

    Thats great if you have someone with perfectly smooth skin to start with, I’ve had to deal with a zitfest and the heal brush just wont cut it, this did. So for extreme cases its a very good technique.

  • Skoduh

    1. Sometimes people want this glamour shot, magazine cover style of image.
    2. This is not generally used in “art” image making as the way you make an image for art is subjective depending on what you’re trying to communicate with the photograph.

  • Albert Zablit

    Did you watch the video?

  • fast eddie

    I skimmed through it, and only commented on the imperfection of skin retouching. A lot of character was Photoshopped out of her face, lke someone else has mentioned.

    My concern, and maybe it only applies to me, is that the method used in the video is easier and quicker to do in Lightroom without having to create layers and blending modes in Photoshop. It’s making more work.

  • ThePope2012

    the tutorial is rather bad.
    i mean…. we have seen cloning and patching skin irritations away a million times … not?
    and the only interesting part … the splitting of the image in LOW and HIGH frequency… is not really explained.

    how she does it is only the right way for 8 BIT images.
    for 16 bit images you should use other settings for “apply image”.

    so no… i don´t think the tutorial is a good one….sorry.

  • ThePope2012

    so you want to see big pimples on billboards?
    i am not!!

  • ThePope2012

    no it is not possible to do THIS in LR…. no matter how often you say it.
    in LR you do not seperate the color from the luminance/texture information.

    what you say about doing it in LR …. is just like cloning in PS with a reduced opacity clone stamp.

    this LOW/HIGH frequency technique is better… it´s not about speed.

  • eraserhead12

    If you’re making an ad to sell your product–say, mascara–you don’t want the lovely model’s zits and bumps distracting from the focal point.

    Ads are in no way about the models, they’re about the product. If you booked a portrait session for your daughter who has cystic acne, that’s a separate issue. But for advertising, any bumps or discoloration or scars or large pores would only serve to distract.

  • Joe Gunawan

    I’ve had experience with professional retouchers in the fashion and commercial industry. Trust me, frequency separation is used all the time. Many high-end retouchers I know use this as their primary method of skin retouching. You have to understand that the power of this is that you can heal/clone on the texture (high freq) layer without messing up color, and you can color correct on the color (low freq) layer without messing up texture.

    You may not know/use this before, but a lot of professional retouchers know and use this technique. And so do I.

  • Joe Gunawan

    Totally agree! People who never used this technique don’t really understand the power of frequency separation

  • Sara Kiesling

    In the case of a video tutorial especially, it’s one of those things where if you don’t retouch EVERYTHING, you’ll get tons of comments from people being negative for the sake of being negative saying, “Why didn’t you fix that??” When the entire process and the before/after is visible, the few “flaws” that you may skip will be more obvious to everyone else, whereas under normal circumstances for standard portraiture, it might be best to keep the retouching to a minimum. I know that one can never please everybody on the internet, though.

    The most valuable part of using the frequency separation technique, in my opinion, is being able to even out skin tone, reduce/remove redness, etc., without actually SMOOTHING anything (maintaining the texture). A lot of people think that smooth skin is what makes it look flawless, when in reality, it’s the color/evenness of it that makes a bigger difference.

  • Sara Kiesling

    I just mentioned this in another comment, but I think the biggest benefit to using this technique when retouching is the ability to isolate the actual skin tone and be able to even it out, remove redness, etc. Blemishes can be easily removed using LR, or in PS using just the clone stamp, heal brush, etc., but what do you do when someone has a very uneven skin tone, bad makeup, worn off/fading makeup, if it’s really cold and their nose and cheeks get excessively red? That’s where this technique comes in especially handy! :)

  • Jeff Roberts

    Because nobody retouched anything when it was film.


  • Albert Zablit

    You should view it in its entirety, I found it pretty thoughtful in its approach.
    Nowhere did I feel that “surreal/plastic” look you condemned it with, nor did I think the comparison to Lightroom to be fair.

  • Jeff Roberts

    You’re right. And she should’ve explained all of the shortcuts for mac, win, and linux. And should’ve talked about compatibility on Win98. And discussed how to do this with an israeli keyboard. And discussed what the toolbar is. And what a layer is. And what layer blending modes mean. And what opacity is. And what a face is.

    This is meant to be a tutorial. Not a full rundown of why and how for every little bit. There’s this amazing thing called “google,” where one can find the supplemental information that they need.

    Instead of bashing a tutorial for not giving every piece of information you desire, go track down that information for yourself (and if you’re so inclined, share it on here rather than just complaining about the lack thereof). Tutorials like this are a service to those learning retouching…and should be valued as such.

  • fast eddie

    I’ll concede the point because I didn’t even try to explain my process at all beyond using spot healing.

    I use a few preset brushes in LR that I created for combating discoloration in skin caused by sunburn, drunkenness, liver spots, rosacea, hives, etc. and a few others for different applications. I use them after spot healing. I get excellent results. Very even coloration in mids, shadows and highlights.

  • fast eddie

    I was using too many generalizations in my first post. I get the same results in a totally different way with different software is all I’m trying to say. Didn’t realize people would get so bent out of shape about it, but there you go. Can’t really take it back now.

  • fast eddie

    I use custom brushes all the time. I shoot a lot of weddings, and had to figure out a good way to incorporate fixing blemishes and maintaining skin tone without going outside of Lightroom, and be able to do it quickly.

    I shot a wedding in Poland back in August (I live in the US) and the bride was stressed about some family issues and broke out into hives during her hair appointment the morning of the wedding. The hives lasted all day and into the night. I totally fixed it in Lightroom.

  • JosephRT

    What is the deal with everyone being so picky all the time. I can’t tell you how many comments I’ve seen lately on a whole manner of things reading somewhat like this: It’s too much, it’s not enough, I would have done this, she should have done that, Why didn’t he just use this, Why is he using that. Take it for what it is people

  • Julia Kuzmenko McKim

    Kallwas, there are many different types of people photography: Portrait, Beauty, Fashion, Advertising, etc. If you are a Portrait photographer you may want to leave lines, moles, freckles, any irregularities and characteristic features intact in your photos, which is (in most cases) unacceptable in Beauty, Fashion or Advertising photography. Frequency Separation is an amazing technique for any of these types.

  • Julia Kuzmenko McKim

    So true.

  • Julia Kuzmenko McKim

    zitfest, lol – that’s especially true for photographers who do Seniors sessions.

  • eraserhead12

    if you have a comments section, people will express their opinions. lots of disgruntled “I coulda/woulda/shoulda done better” though lol

  • Cassie Sue

    Sara I freaking love you. This just changed my life completely. All i knew about was dodging and burning and the patch tool.. none of this changing layer nonsense and stuff! Ugh you’re a god.

  • Jay

    you sound so cute ^_____^

  • MRAAlternate

    95% of beauty to anyone who appreciates nature is imperfection in natural beauty.