Tutorial: Retouching Skin with Lightroom

NOTE: This tutorial was posted in 2011 using Lightroom 3. Current versions of Lightroom have Skin Smooth tools, not the Soften Skin tool, in addition to a few other changes to the interface and tool functions. The basic retouching principals still apply, however, and you may find this tutorial useful even if you’re using a newer version of Lightroom. If you are having trouble locating your adjustment tools, check out this link. XO – Anne

Everyone thinks of Photoshop when they think of heavy-duty skin retouching, but Photoshop’s tools are pretty complex, and can be TOO advanced for quick and easy use — at least for the average photographer.  Even if you’re fairly comfortable in Photoshop, if you’re doing most of your image editing and toning in Lightroom, it just adds an extra step to then have to open a series of images up in Photoshop just to retouch a few blemishes!

Now, I’m lucky enough to be married to (who I consider to be) a Photoshop master.  I can hand him just about anything and say “fix this” — and he will.  And you won’t ever know it needed fixin’!  But it’s not practical for me to always rely on Dan for basic skin retouching, so I was REALLY excited when Lightroom introduce its skin retouching tools.  They’re really fantastic, and are good for more than just “basic” retouching, i.e. the lone blemish or small scar.

Take this picture, for example.  I LOVE this little family!

Here’s the original image, right out of Lightroom.

The littlest one was only a couple weeks old when I took this, and the poor little guy had the worst case of baby acne I have ever seen!  This is a really common condition that almost all babies get sometime after birth, and it goes away on it’s own.  But rescheduling wasn’t really an option in this case, so we couldn’t wait for his face to clear up.

So how did I get from Before to After?

It’s REALLY important to me to avoid filters and anything that would make someone’s skin look plasticky or fake.  I know a lot of photographers like that super-flat look for skin, but it doesn’t really mesh well with my style.  So I try to approach my retouching with this in mind.  In this case, I needed to eliminate the baby’s blemishes without making him look like a flat, painted cutout of a person.

Now, a LITTLE bit of flatness was inevitable because of the extent of his blemishes.  But airbrushing (where you paint a color over the skin to cover blemishes) is the biggest culprit of plastic-looking skin.  So I knew I wasn’t going to airbrush!

Before I even touched his skin, though, I got the image as close to print-ready as possible pre-retouching.  First step?  Adjust the exposure and white balance:

Next I selected my Adjustment Brush tool (on the far right), and selected “Soften Skin”:

In most of my portraits, I’ll do a faint Soften Skin brush over people’s t-zones.  The Soften Skin tool helps to even out skin tone, soften the appearance of fine lines, and cut down on shine.  (It’s also helpful at disguising smudges on a busy little boy’s face!)

Here you can see where I applied the Soften Skin tool.  Notice that I didn’t brush the baby’s face at all at this point.  (Sorry about that ginormous red arrow.  Maybe I’m not as comfy with Photoshop as I thought.)  ;)

Now that the photo is good-to-go aside from the baby’s skin, I can focus on his face.

I select the Spot Removal tool (second from the left), and choose the Heal option.  “Clone” is a literal cloning tool, duplicating a selected part of the image.  “Heal”, on the other hand, allows you to select the area you want to cover, then select another area to use for that covering.  Then the two selections are blended, so that (if done properly) you can’t tell any retouching was done.

Because the baby’s acne is so pronounced, I set the opacity to 100 for full coverage.

In the next few photos, I’ve darkened the image so you can see the little circles where I’ve used the Heal tool to cover blemishes.

I started out on the baby’s forehead for two reason: 1) his forehead is the least blemished, and therefore the easiest to repair, and 2) I need to have a wide path of skin that I can use to duplicate onto the blemished areas.  By ensuring that his forehead is as clear as possible, I can use that skin to patch sections of his cheeks later on.

Here’s a close-up of the forehead retouching (with some nifty arrows, because arrows are awesome):

I continued building onto the repair, starting on the edges of the bigger breakouts and working my way inward toward larger areas.  By selecting sections of similar skin to patch with, I can make the repair nearly invisible.

When I was done with the Heal tool, I had patched all the skin inside the white circles below:

Here’s the same section of the image at normal exposure:

Even with careful use of the Heal tool, skin can still look a tad bit blotchy when you’ve done a ton of retouching.  Therefore, my final step is to use the Soften Skin tool ALL over little buddy’s face, to smooth out any remaining imperfections:

In the end, there is still a touch of redness around the baby’s eyes, and the side of his right cheek could possibly be made a bit smoother with Photoshop and a Wacom tablet.  But here’s the final image, full toned and retouched in Lightroom:

So, that’s A-Z on a color image.  But how about with black and white?  It can actually be a LOT simpler to do this kind of skin retouching on a black and white photo!  Here’s an example:

On a close-up shot like this, where SO much detail is evident, I knew I would need to make the image black and white to get realistic retouching accomplished in Lightroom.  So I did a basic black and white conversion, then I used my White Balance tool to adjust the color temperature and tint toward the warm side.

If you were using black and white film, you could put a red filter on your camera lens, photograph a red rose, and the rose would look white when you printed the film.

I’m using the same concept here: filtering out some of the yellow and magenta from the image.

So here’s a start:

To further make use of this filtering concept, I scrolled down to my B&W Panel in Lightroom, and bump up the Red and Orange sliders, to filter out even more of these colors.  (Depending on your image, you might also try bumping up your purples and magenta sliders.)

Now THIS is what I’m working with!  Big improvement, huh?

Now the steps are the same as described for the color image.  (I’ve darkened the photo again so you can see where I used the Heal tool.)  I started on his forehead, then worked my way from clearer areas to more heavily blemished areas, using the clear areas as patches to cover the blemishes.

Now adjust the exposure and contrast…

Apply the Soften Skin Adjustment Brush…

And here’s the finished photo:

So, if you can’t afford Photoshop, or just flat-out don’t know how to use it, DON’T STRESS!  You can totally do even heavy-duty skin retouching all from the comfort of Lightroom.  :)

Note: There are always several paths to the same place!  This is just how *I* retouch with Lightroom.  You might find a way cooler way to accomplish the same thing!  If you do, please make a tutorial and tell me about it. ;D

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  1. I’m a Lightroom newbie and this really helped! Thanks so much

  2. Thanks for posting this!! I am a Photoshop junkie but since I don’t have my laptop with me, I have to rely on Lightroom and I was lost lol. This really helps! :)

  3. Great tutorial! Thanks for taking the time to show the healing process all the way down to your area selections.

  4. Excellent tutorial!!! Thanks for taking the time to help the “New-to-Lightroomers”. It’s extremely helpful for me to see the before and after pictures during the process, while reading the words rather than watching someone else perform the same actions in a video. This is very helpful.
    Thanks again

  5. Wow Anne. A very helpful post and with before and after pictures. So Cool.!!!! Thanks a bunch.

  6. Which version of Lightroom is this b/c I have LR 4 but the adjustment brush tool doesn’t seem to have the same options when I click on it (teeth whitening, soften skin, iris enhance)?

  7. I was’t able to find the “soften skin” tool, even when I searched Help. What version of Lightroom were you using at the time of this tutorial? Thank you!

    • Cecile, I’ve added some information to the top of the blog post to clarify this! :)

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