Magic Skin Tutorial

In this tutorial I am going to take you through the process of several portrait photography enhancement techniques — particularly as they relate to enhancing the appearance of skin. This tutorial is a companion to my Magic Skin Action Set, which I will be referring to throughout the tutorial. Before we get started, let’s examine the image we will be working with during this tutorial.

The original image wihout modifications
The original image wihout modifications


This is a candid photo I took for a friend’s wedding. As you can see, the composition is decent, and the image is focused well. However, a little help from Photoshop can go a long way in enhancing this shot. We’re going to enhance and adjust the colors a bit, correct obvious blemishes, smooth out the skin, give the picture a soft focus effect, and apply a vignette. So let’s get started!

Step 1 – Keep your original safe before you begin editing!

One of the very first things I do when editing an image is Duplicate the image (Image: Duplicate). Then I close the original and begin work on the duplicate so I still have my original, untouched image safe on disk. Also, I never touch the background, even on the duplicated image. To prepare to begin making adjustments, I create a duplicate layer (Layer: Duplicate Layer). This way, if I ever want to return to the original image, I can always go to the background, duplicate it again, and I’m ready to go again!

Step 2 – Tweak the color

Before I start getting into more advanced adjustments, I like to apply basic color corrections or adjustments to images. There are several tools you could use, however one of my favorites is Selective Color (Image: Adjustments: Selective Color). This tool allows you to isolate individual colors and adjust each. You can also choose Whites, Neutrals, or Blacks, and then adjust the colors in each of those ranges.

In this image, I chose to make the largest adjustment to the reds. I brought up the yellow somewhat and the magenta just slightly. This helps to warm the reds (including skin tones). I also made very slight adjustments to the yellows and neutrals.

Making adjustments using "Selective Color"
Making adjustments using "Selective Color"

Step 3 – Remove unwanted shininess from the skin

At this point, we’re ready to take advantage of the Magic Skin Action Set. As I was working through this image, I did not use the actions themselves (I did the steps manually), however, use of the “Grease and Shine Removal” action is in order here. The process basically involves airbrushing in a more neutral color adjustment over the shiny areas. In the case of this image, we’re going to even out the color of the forehead, cheek, bridge of the nose, and ear in particular.

I would recommend running the action on your current top layer, and then after you’re satisfied with the results, merge the “Adjust to Suit…” and “Shine Removal 1” (the top 2) Layers. This way, we move throughout our process, leaving each set of adjustments in their own layer. At this point our image looks like this:

Image and layers after shine removal and merging

Step 4 – Remove blatant blemishes and defects

Before I applied the techniques used in the “Skin Smoothing” action, I took a couple moments to manually airbrush out some of the most glaring issues in the image. Her skin isn’t really that bad to begin with, but we can still make improvement! I focused on some of the areas in the image which would benefit the most by some retouching, like the lines on the neck and the highlight and shadow lines caused by the glasses. The skin by no means has to look completely smooth at this point, but smoothing out a few of the larger problem areas helps the skin smoothing process in the next step complete the job.

I’d recommend duplicating your top layer again, and doing your adjustments on the copied layer. You can use either the stamp or healing brush tools for this type of work — whichever works best for your particular image.

Step 5 – Smooth out the skin

Now we’re ready to use the second half of the Magic Skin Action Set. The Skin Smoothing action applies basically the steps found in the tutorial by Mizuno. You’ll need to airbrush in the smooth skin and then you can adjust the layer opacity to suit your preferences. Once again, merge your top 2 layers, and then duplicate for the next step.

Magic Skin, Step 5
Image after skin smoothing has been applied

Step 6 – Apply a soft glow effect

Our skin is actually looking great now — however, there’s still more we can do to make this image pop. At this point, you could go about this in 2 ways. You can create the soft effect yourself, or you can download my Photo Filters Action Set, and apply the “Soft Filter (Subdued)” action. If you do it yourself, apply a Gaussian Blur to your top layer (enough that all the edges in the image are quite fuzzy). Then change the Blending mode to Soft Light. Go to Image: Adjust: Hue/Saturation, and take the saturation down about 25-35%. Finally, whichever method you’ve chosen, reduce the layer opacity to around 70%.

Now the soft glow is really making the photo pop
Now the soft glow is really making the photo pop

Step 7 – Add a vignette

As a finishing touch to our image, we’ll add a soft border vignette. Again, you can create one yourself, or have it automatically applied in just a few seconds by purchasing the FinesseFX Vignette Set, consisting of 56 vignette actions. I used the Rectangle Simple Color Vignette from the set.

If you wish to add your own vignette, begin by creating a new layer (not a duplicate this time!) on top of your other layers. Fill this with black (or the color of your choice). Then create a layer mask. At this point you still have a black screen. Now make a selection on your layer mask with the rectangular or elliptical marquee tool. Fill that selection with black and you’ll see your image reappear. Now deselect and apply a Gaussian Blur to get the soft vignette edge. Using a layer mask will enable you to now fill the layer itself with whatever color you desire for the vignette.


By taking just a few minutes (with the help of the time-saving actions) we’ve dramatically changed and improved this image! The great thing about this process is that it can be applied to a wide range of portraits. I hope this tutorial has inspired you, given you a greater insight into Photoshop, and helped you understand the way actions can become a useful part of your workflow.

...And here's the finished product!
...And here's the finished product!
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