I have a theory about skin retouching: The only thing worse than an unretouched portrait is an overly retouched portrait. My goal is always to improve the subject’s skin without creating an image that looks fake. That’s the biggest challenge ultimately. Anybody can make skin pretty with diffusion and blur, but retouching skin without obliterating detail requires a different, subtler approach.
After taking the edge off with the Clarity slider, I open the image file in Photoshop for localized skin retouching. I start with the Spot Healing brush and the Clone Stamp to eliminate small blemishes and minimize wrinkles. The Spot Healing brush is particularly useful for removing, well, spots. Simply set the mode to Content Aware and the Spot Healing brush size to slightly larger than the spot, or use a click-and-drag approach to paint with a smaller brush, and the fix will be made automatically. About half the time this one-click process works well. When it doesn’t, or in areas that require a bit more refinement, I undo and turn to the Clone Stamp.
My rule of thumb for retouching with the Clone Stamp is to set it to a fairly low opacity, a 0% hardness and use multiple clicks to build up to a bigger change. This technique falls short in one particular instance, and that’s when you’re cloning any textured or patterned surface. Skin with prominent pores, for instance, won’t hold up well with this approach and instead requires setting the Stamp to 100% opacity and paying close attention to the pores’ positioning. You can always use the Fade tool (in the Edit menu) to reduce the Stamp’s intensity after it’s applied, which can help blend the Stamp more seamlessly. My favorite use of the Clone Stamp at a low opacity is for minimizing crow’s feet and bags under eyes. You can start with the Stamp at 100% opacity (which likely will look obvious and way overdone), then again use the Fade tool to dial back the intensity. For under-eye bags, a very low setting of about 20% will make a huge difference and isn’t likely to trigger those over-retouching alarms. Setting the Stamp’s mode to Color is also helpful for removing under-eye discoloration.