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Getting Great Skin Without Photoshop

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Read Time: 8 mins
This post is part of a series called How to Shoot Perfect Portraits.
20 Fast Tips for Portrait Photography
Quick Tip: 3 Types of Eye Contact in Photography

Whenever photographers hear “flawless skin,” they immediate think of Photoshop, assuming that is the only path to pleasant skin texture and tones. Of course, Photoshop can be very time consuming. It would be really nice if it were possible to achieve pleasant skin tones while you're shooting. The truth is that you can, you just need to know how to take the photo correctly.

Get It Right In-Camera

Don’t believe me that it’s possible to photograph a great portrait with nearly perfect skin without any work in Photoshop? Check out the image below of these seven ladies. You can only see a few imperfections, but for the most part their skin looks nearly perfect. Is this because they are all models and beauty queens? Not at all, these are regular people.

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Most skin imperfections can be “fixed” before shooting by applying makeup. This seems very obvious, but surprisingly photographers do not put enough emphasis on it. On top of that many people believe that no matter what their skin looks like, their photographer will “fix it in Photoshop." Of course no photographer wants to spend countless hours behind a computer screen fixing something that could have easily been covered up with makeup.

Not All Makeup is the Same

There is a reason why professional makeup artists have jobs. They know how to make their client’s face and skin look really pleasant. If you are shooting an important photo session, it is crucial that the makeup is done as well as possible.

Sometimes this means hiring a professional, and other times it means asking a friend who is good at makeup to help out. In any case, the most important thing you can do is tell your subject that the makeup is really important and they should do it as well as possible. This tip alone can save you hours in post processing later.

To demonstrate this point, I took a photo of my friend without makeup, and then with professional makeup two hours later. There has been no post processing done and no blemishes retouched. A big window was used to light the subject. No off camera flashes were used.

Without make up.
Without makeup.
With make up.
With makeup.
100% crop with make up.
100% crop with makeup.
100% crop with make up.
100% crop with makeup.

Light Direction

Light is by far the most important part of what the photographer can control to make sure the subject’s skin looks good. If you learn to understand how light behaves and interacts with the skin, you will know how to take a great looking portrait.

Light Has Direction

First, let’s discuss the direction of light. Light is not just “in the air” without a specific direction. The direction can sometimes be obvious. On a sunny day at noon, the light comes from directly above. On that same day around sunset, the light comes from the horizon where the sun is setting.

On other days it is a bit more tricky. For example, where does the light come from on a cloudy day two hours before sunset? Well, it really depends on where on earth you are and how thick the clouds are. The easiest test to know the direction of light is to look at a person’s eye sockets. If you see shadows, then the direction of the light is coming from that direction. If the shadows are on the left side, then the light is coming from the left.

Light and Skin

How does this relate to our conversation about skin? Well, light casts shadows, and with shadows you can emphasize certain parts of the face, including skin texture. As a rule, light that comes from above is bad, and the light that comes in straight on is good. The reason is that when light comes from above, it does not hit every part of the face evenly, casting shadows where the skin is not perfectly smooth. This puts emphasis on the imperfections and draws the viewer’s eye to them.

To demonstrate this point, I took two pictures of a rough cement block. Besides the rough texture that the block has, I also took several pieces of gum to create “bumps” which could represent acne on a face.

Light coming from above.
Light coming from above.
Light coming from a flash right next to my camera.
Light coming from a flash right next to my camera.

Clearly the texture looks a lot rougher in the top image. It’s the lighting that is doing the emphasizing.

Same concept applies for human skin. Light from extreme directions like directly above or directly to the right or left will emphasize flaws. Light more straight-on angles helps to “conceal” the rough spots.

Below is the same skin lit two different ways.

Skin lit from above.
Skin lit from above.
The same skin lit from a more direct angle.
The same skin lit from a more direct angle.

Light Color

Besides smooth texture of the skin, an even pigmentation is also considered to be “beautiful.” A face that has even color across the whole surface is viewed as healthy and attractive, unless that color is green, of course!

First things first, avoid the obvious pitfalls. Avoid red noses because it’s cold outside, sun burns after a vacation, and anything else you can see with the naked eye. Those are all going to show up on the photographs big time. Do all you can to avoid these. If it means rescheduling the shoot, do it.

Dirty Light

Now, the not so obvious, avoid dirty light. “Dirty” light is any light that consists of several sources that are different colors. One obvious example is shooting a subject where part of the face is lit with natural light (which can appear as blue to the camera), and the other part of the face lit with tungsten light bulbs (which can appear as yellow to the camera). The face will not have a uniform pigmentation in this case. It will look weird.

Light can also change color when it bounces off something with a color. The simplest example is grass. When taking pictures in or around lots of trees and grass, some of the light will bounce off of the grass and come back to the subject’s face as green. This will give a green tint primarily to the lower part of the face. Here’s an example:

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You can see that the neck and chin area are very green/yellow.

Green grass is not the only enemy. Colorful buildings (especially the red brick kind) are the second most common color casting objects. The easiest way to avoid this problem is stay around lots of gray cement that doesn’t cast any color.

Distance to Subject

Another obvious strategy to de-emphasizing the blemishes of the skin is to simply not take shots that are super up close. That way the skin will be a much smaller part of the image and will appear much smoother. Here are 3 images:

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Obviously seeing the imperfections in the top image is much easier than in the middle image or the image on the bottom. Of course, you shouldn’t take all images from far away, but at the same time don’t take all of the photographs up close because if the lighting is a little off, it will be easy to see the blemishes.

Blurring the Skin

Blurring the skin in camera can be another effective way to make the skin appear smoother. There are two types of lens blurs you can use. The first type is achieved by using a shallow depth of field. By opening up the aperture, only a small slice of space will be in focus. If some of the skin is outside that space then some of that skin will be pretty blurry. This will hide any imperfections there are.

In the following images, you can see this effect in action. In the top photo, I used a deep depth of field. In the bottom image, most of the skin in the bottom half of the frame is out of focus due to the shallow depth of field.

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Another way of blurring the skin is using a tilt shift lens. This is effective when the face has nice skin, but legs or arms do not. Here, you are able to keep the face in focus, but blur the photo horizontally, which leaves the lower part of the body blurred, along with the legs and arms. Here’s an example:

Taken with a 45mm
Taken with a Canon 45mm tilt-shift lens.

Putting It All Together

Now it’s time to put all these techniques together. Let’s say we’re doing a shoot just for fun and a friend volunteered to model. How should we approach this? Well, first we learned that the makeup needs to be done well. That means we should pay for professional makeup or ask a friend to help out.

Second, we know that we don’t want light coming from extreme side angle like directly above, and we don’t want it to reflect off of trees and grass.

When should we schedule the shoot? Well, the best light to photograph is going to be on a sunny day an hour or so before sunset. At this time the sun will be really low and our light can be coming from a subtle angle behind our backs as we shoot.

Then, we know that we won’t take too many up close shots so as not to emphasize the blemishes. And finally, we’ll use wide apertures to try to blur troublesome areas of the skin.

Using these techniques and not spending any time in Photoshop, we will be able to achieve results likes this.

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