electroluminescent skin with razor sharp eyes and eyelashes and made a presentation (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) on how to edit portraits for pleasing and plausible results. I have also challenged PSA to be more diligent on what they promote, implicitly or explicitly. Poor technique, when accepted by a large number of people can give the illusion of being right or being a new “trend”. However, a close inspection of the photographs and what the master portrait editors, like David Cuerdon, do to edit their model photographs will make it abundantly clear that texture-free skin is a fallacy. Like its logical cousin, it may actually appear quite logical or acceptable in the absence of sound foundation logic, or sound photo editing workflow. One has to apply clear reasoning to avoid falling victim to fallacies and use better tools to yield better photographs. To see some samples of this sort of portrait editing see the PSA exhibition acceptances, medal winners this year, last year, and quite likely next year.
Take a look at the following patches, they are taken from two separate photographs after enlarging them 10 times. Do they look like someone’s skin to you? Do you see any skin texture, which at this magnification should look like Lunar surface?
The practice of selecting the model’s skin and applying a heavy dose of Gaussian Blur may give the illusion of an “angelic face.” But even angel skin has texture! Look at some paintings by Da Vinci, Caravaggio, and others. I know, they are paintings and not modern.
Forget the ancient, let’s take a look at a similar section of facial skin from a sample photo edited by David Cuerdon, one of the instructors on KelbyTraining.com and a professional portrait retoucher. Compare this fragment to those above and decide which one looks beautiful, sensual, touchable, plausible, and convincing.
So, where does this “trend” come from? Before the advent of digital photography photographers used other tools to enhance the look of the models, celebrities they photographed. These tools ranged from careful lighting to nylon women’s hosiery stretched over the lens. Those who could afford used dedicated soft focus lenses that provided a gauzy look to the photograph diminishing major details but never totally eliminating. Of course, there were filters used in front of normal lenses that provided similar results.
After the advent of digital photography, things got a bit out of hand. Those with some skills in editing software like Photoshop started using layers that combined a slightly blurred layer with a normal photograph to imitate the look of the soft focus lenses or filters. When used properly, this method can still provide compelling results but one must have the vision and the patience to learn and apply the tools. Or, one can buy a “filter” plugin for Photoshop and let it decide what to do. One such filter was made by Kodak and at the request of a friend, I tested it and got horrified by the results. The filter indiscriminately selects the skin and blurs it to the nth degree, creating what I started calling electroluminescent plasma skin. With the blessing of competition judges, the use of this kind of filters and home-brew variations gradually increased to the point that some now consider it “normal”. Friends, there is nothing normal about it at all. It is not only not normal, but it also is not photographic. I have no problem with extensive editing of photographs, so my position is not one of a purist. However, the misuse or even abuse of the tool, no matter how much practice it does not make it the new normal. Calling this a new trend ignores the qualities of photographs and remains indifferent to below par use of the tools.
To illustrate what the origins of this misunderstood and often misused “skin softening” I borrowed a Canon 135mm f/2.8 Soft Focus lens from Canon and photographed a person and a bunch of flowers. Canon 135mm Soft Focus lens has settings that provide no softening, and level 1 and level 2 softening. Additionally, the softness is most pronounced at the wide open f-stop and it progressively diminishes as the diaphragm is closed. I photographed the person (my patient wife) and the flowers (Coreopsis in our front yard) at the widest f-stop and in the same sequence, no softening, level 1, and level 2. Then I cropped an enlarged portion of each image to provide even more detail. There is no amount of sharpening added to any of the photographs and they are as they came from the camera except for reducing the image size for Web use. Take a look at these photographs and continue reading below. I think the amount of softening is a bit excessive but I wanted to show the maximum effect to compare against the digital counterpart of it. Even then, the maximum softness does not provide results similar to the blurred skin.
Now, several things should be easy to observe:
- None of the photographs using any of the settings is “blurred”, I would probably characterize the result as “veiled”
- The skin retains the texture, wrinkles, and other major blemishes
- The result does not even remotely resemble Gaussian Blur which parametrically averages pixels to smooth the differences and results in a plastic look
- Whereas the desired result is “de-emphasized differences”
- Soft focus lens does not discriminate eyes, they get veiled too
- Similar results can be obtained in Photoshop with a little more care
My principle reason for this series of writings is not to interfere with anyone’s artistic freedom. However, not mentioning the misuse of tools and the sacrificed photographic principles would have bothered me more than the flak I may get in response to my posts. After I wrote the earlier post about PSA being an enabler in this practice I realized I had not provided sufficient explanation of why I considered these ill-conceived practices. So, this installment should provide enough historical, technical, and aesthetic material to explain my position and hope that the portrait and model photographers take what I have presented to heart and reconsider their practices.
In the hope of helping the transformation, I have created a tutorial document, Photoshop is a Girl’s Best Friend. If you like to purchase a copy, contact me. Buy it, read it, use it, think about it, and hopefully adopt the working principles in your photography. Below are the before and after results of editing that I created. They are a little more than I would have done had it not been for the demonstration of different tools.
Good photography does not need gimmicks.