Home How-To Tip Of The Week Simple Skin Retouching With The Red Channel—06/11/12
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Monday, June 11, 2012

Simple Skin Retouching With The Red Channel—06/11/12

Photoshop’s Channels palette can help create beautiful, luminous skin very easily

This Article Features Photo Zoom

I make portraits for a living. That means my ability to create realistic, believably retouched photographs is crucial if I want to continue eating. But that's in tension with my clients, who want to look absolutely perfect all the time. Do I err on the side of believability, or on the side of a perfect looking, perfectly happy client? With red channel retouching, I do a little bit of both. It's fairly quick, and fairly painless, and here's how it works.

First, open a portrait in Photoshop and make the traditional "spotting" repairs you would normally make to eliminate blemishes and wrinkles. With an improved image in hand, you're ready to make it sing. Be sure you're working on an RGB image (and if not, convert the mode accordingly), then open the Channels palette and click on the red channel. Your image will now look black and white, and quite bright. That's good. Select the entire canvas (CTRL-A) and copy it (CTRL-C), then click on the top channel in the Channels palette, labeled RGB, to return to the composite color image.

Paste your copied red channel as a new layer (CTRL-V) and change its opacity to Luminosity in the Layers palette. Suddenly your image goes from color, to black & white, and finally to a brighter, slightly desaturated color image. This, again, is good. It's right where you want to be. You can already see how great and glowing the skin looks, although it's a little bit intense in most cases.

Toggling the Luminosity layer on and off will show you just how dramatic and beautiful this effect can be. But you'll also notice that it doesn't have the best effect on eyes and hair and lips and teeth and backgrounds. This is where layer masking and subtle opacity adjustments come in.

You could simply create a layer mask and use a paintbrush to paint in areas you want to hide and reveal on this luminous layer, but there's a better way. You're going to select an entire range of skin tones, using the Color Range tool in the Select menu. Click on a cheek and watch the preview in black and white reveal how much of the face is selected. CTRL-clicking on additional areas of the face will add to the selected color range, and OPT-clicking will subtract. Do this until you're happy that you've got most, if not all, of the skin tones selected, and not too much else. Then click Okay. Here you can subtly feather your selection if you'd like, and I do. I think it softens the transition and helps eliminate strangely pixelated edges after the next step. Try a feather of 15 pixels or so and then continue.

That next step is to create the layer mask on the luminous skin layer. With the layer selected in the Layers palette, click the Add Layer Mask icon at the bottom of the window—represented by a rectangle with a white circle inside. The resulting mask will automatically conform to the selected color range you just created, masking the luminosity off of hair and eyes and background elements that don't benefit from the adjustment.

The last step is to decide whether the effect is still too strong. If so, simply scale back the opacity until the layer looks perfect, your subject's skin looks lovely and luminous, and you're a happy photographic genius. When you are totally happy, flatten the layers and save a copy to deliver to what is bound to be a very happy customer.

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