The Ultimate Portrait Retouching Toolkit

What the hell is frequency separation?

I’m glad you asked. The simple fact that you’ve arrived at this post means you’re well on the way to making significantly better decisions in the retouching world.

Frequency separation is the process of separating colour and texture in photoshop. It sounds really fancy but it just isn’t. It’s literally that simple. I’m going to explain each step of the process because I believe understanding every step is critical to using the technique to its full potential, but if you’re just here for the free download, proceed directly to the bottom of the page. Enjoy!

Why this is the only real way to retouch skin

Working at a studio gave me real insight into how ignorant most photographers really are to modern retouching methods. It stunned me to realise that literally none of the photographers I encountered were aware of how it worked, while the younger photographers that so many professionals view with such contempt were outstripping them in every aspect of their trade!

When you work with colour and texture seperately, the benefits are huge. You can reduce or remove blotchiness without sacrificing skin texture; pull the speculars out of a cheek without destroying the dimensionality of it, and make adjustments that look anywhere between natural and porcelain in just a few clicks.

The reason why these so-called experienced photographers hate frequency separation is simple – they don’t understand it, they never will understand it, and they don’t want to understand it. And that terrifies them.

Excuses that people make to explain their poor technique

One thing that I’ve learned from the hundreds of portraits I’ve retouched is that the clone tool is really dangerous. Most people I’ve seen use it from the worst case scenario, destructively, to the marginally better scenario, non-destructively.

The clone tool is as good or as bad as the way you use it

The clone tool decimates texture when used with soft edges, and looks absurd when used with hard edges. The aspect of this process that makes the clone tool so instrumental is that we don’t need to worry about colour!

When we use the clone tool on our texture layer, we can do so with a hard edge, retaining critical texture detail – without creating crazy colour inconsistencies.

What about the supposedly non-destructive “clone to new layer” method? Well, it really screws up your texture. And it makes your images look pretty stupid.

The mixer brush is actually really easy to use

This is where most people fall off the wagon. They click the mixer brush, and are presented with a staggering amount of adjustments. None of the presets work. What the hell are you supposed to do?

Now, this might seem condescending, but the easiest way to learn how to use the mixer brush is to try it out and see what happens. Create a hard edge – black to white – on one layer, and brush it with the mixer brush, changing settings as you go. You’ll quickly learn how these settings are beneficial to the colour layer of your separated image.

The Process Explained

About the Action and it’s dependencies

You’ll find a couple of files inside the download. There’s a few actions and brushes to get you started – if you want the really good stuff, you can pay what you wish for the extras.

The first action is the main component of this package. It contains a layer setup action that creates all of the different layers and groups that make frequency separation possible. It assumes a standard, rasterized background layer, although more advanced smart object workflows can be obtained through add-ons packages.

The remaining actions are shortcuts that make rapid switching between basic brush and clone functionality possible. We recommend you bind them to function keys to make it super fast, and utilize the File > Batch function to perform actions across all open files.

For all of these actions to work, you’ll need to load the toolkit brushes as well – they provide customized brushes that give the best results for your images without going through the setup every single time you use them.

Add-on kits provide advanced functionality for clipping, masking, smart object utilization for truly adaptive workflows – and more will be added as they are developed!

What the setup action is doing

The fundamentals of the process are relatively simple. Firstly, you duplicate the background layer. You blur the lower layer to a point where fine details are no longer visible – on a modern camera, this is usually a Gaussian blur at a 12-pixel radius. The upper layer is then selected and, through the “apply image” function, is used to calculate the textural content via the subtract method. According to my interpretation, when set to a level 128 offset and a scale of 2, the apply image alogrithm finds everything missing from the blurred layer – and sets the midpoint at 50% grey. Once this is complete, the layers are set to blend with linear light, and the image will again look normal.

My process is slightly different. The vulnerability of the aforementioned procedure is that it leaves no recourse should something be overly manipulated or need to be blended for any other reason. Instead of creating simple layers, I create two of each, group them, and blend them as a group – and with the add-on actions, these can be automatically adjusted to various blend levels to deliver a natural look across multiple files in an instant.

Mix, clone and blend

This is the fun part – and you can do more than just remove blemishes. By using the mixer brush and the clone stamp, you can reshape light, smooth skin tones and create shadows. Exercise caution, however – less is more, and many retouchers are let down by being too agressive while mixing or cloning.. There is an artistic, painterly aspect to this technique, and it is best to use the mixer brush as if it is a paintbrush – visualising the light and working with the natural direction of it is the best way to acheive natural results.

The free toolkit download

The download isn’t quite ready yet! Check back in a few days to access this download.

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