Adobe Camera Raw has long included a Clarity slider, which gives a dark outline to edges to make an image really jump off the screen. In the latest incarnations of Camera Raw, the Clarity slider can actually be dragged left, to negative settings, to add a soft-focus effect.
It works very well for smoothing out skin tones, without affecting underlying detail in the way that, say, a Gaussian Blur might do. Applying it to the entire image, however, doesn’t look that great; we need a way of focusing it on just the skin areas.
While we could focus our efforts on using the Adjustment Brush in Camera Raw, masking is always easier done in the main editing window of Photoshop. So the solution is to process two versions of the same image: one with the Clarity smoothing the skin tones and another without.
Then we can simply combine the two versions using layers and masks to ensure that the Clarity smoothing isn’t applied to details like hair, eyes and lips.
And as if this little smoothing trick wasn’t enough, we’ll show you an interesting way of improving skin colour, too.
How to improve skin tone with Adobe Camera Raw
Step 1: Open the RAW image
Open your original image in Photoshop CS and the Camera Raw editor will launch. The image is a little under-exposed, so let’s start by dragging the Exposure slider to the right.
A setting of +1.35 should be about right. We want a bit more surrounding detail to show up too, so push Fill Light to 35 to reveal detail in those darker tones.
Step 2: Set the white balance
The white balance is looking a touch on the warm side too, so select the White Balance tool from the options bar at the top, zoom in, and click in the whites of the eye, which provides us with a neutral tone (for more, learn how to get perfect white balance in-camera using a colour chart).
The White Balance is reset, but is a little on the cool side, so push the Temperature slider up to 4500 (to learn more about colour temperature, download this handy cheat sheet explaining some of the common white balance presets).
Step 3: Adjust the Clarity slider
Click the Open Image button and the edited image will launch in Photoshop. Ignore this for now and open the RAW file again, so that it opens in Adobe Camera Raw. Now drag the Clarity slider downwards to -100. You’ll see the image take on a smooth, soft focus effect. Click Open Image again.
Step 4: Combine the shots
You should now have two versions of the image open in Photoshop; one with the Clarity smoothing effect and one without it. Select the Clarity version and press Ctrl+A to select the entire image, then Ctrl+C to copy it. Next, select the unsmoothed version and press Ctrl+V to paste the smoothed version as a new layer on top of the unsmoothed one.
Step 5: Hide All
Select the top (smoothed) layer in the layer stack you’ve just created, and then add a layer mask by holding down the Alt key and clicking on the Add Layer Mask icon.
This adds a black mask, effectively blocking out the smoothed layer to reveal the unsmoothed layer below. Grab a soft-edged brush of 200-300 pixels and set Opacity to 100%. Ensuring the layer mask is selected, set foreground colour to white by pressing D.
Step 6: Paint over the skin
Zoom in on the face using Ctrl and +, then use the Brush tool to paint over the areas of skin, ignoring details like hair, eyes, mouth, nose and eyebrows, as well as any edge detail such as the sides of the face or bridge of the nose. Be sure to paint over the hands, too.
Step 7: Set Blending Options
You can see that the face is now nicely diffused, but we’ve lost the highlights around the face that help give a sense of three-dimensionality – they’ve turned a little greyish. The solution lies in the Blending Options. Click the FX button in the Layers palette and select Blending Options.
Step 8: ‘Blend If’ for highlights
Focus on the Blend If section of the dialog. Hold down Alt and click the white triangle on the This Layer ramp (top) to split it in two. Now drag the left half leftwards, until the highlight edge reappears.
Don’t go too far for fear of removing the effect from the midtones. We settled at 155. Click OK to finish.
Step 9: Selective Colour
Click on the Add New Adjustment Layer icon at bottom of your Layers palette and choose Selective Colour from the drop-down menu. We’re going to use this adjustment layer to improve the skin colour a little.
Firstly, change the Layer Blending Mode from Normal to Colour, so the image isn’t made lighter or darker, then make sure Reds are selected in the adjustment Colours menu.
Step 10: Neutralise the skin
We can neutralise some of the pinkness in the model’s face by setting Magenta to -20% and then dragging Yellows to -20% (to tone down the corresponding increase in the greens). Turn the layer mask black by selecting it and pressing Ctrl+I.
Finally, repeat Steps 5 and 6 to paint over areas of skin that you want to tone down.
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