You know, I adore taking portraits of people. I enjoy using light to shape my subjects, then working with them to bring out their best features before finally immortalising them in pixels. Almost always, despite how much effort I put into lighting, they require some retouching. I adore Photoshop retouching, but I don’t want to spend the entire day doing it. Fortunately, it is not difficult to accomplish. If it were feasible, I would be even happier than I already am if I could shoot and retouch many more faces in a day since I love making money and I like making a lot of it. The method I use to streamline facial retouching without sacrificing quality for speed is described here. The term “Frequency Separation” refers to this method. Frequency Separation sounds like a mental illness audiophiles would experience after spending too much time away from their stereos, but thankfully for us and for them, it is not.

Frequency Separation allows retouchers to work on texture and detail independently from colour and tone and vice versa, making the majority of day-to-day retouching much simpler. This is accomplished by separating the high frequency pixel information from the low frequency pixel information in images and making edits to each separately. When you stop to consider it, if you completely eliminate a wrinkle from a person using the Clone tool or one of the Healing tools, that person begins to seem fake and plastic. I don’t like that appearance; I prefer my subjects to be realistic-looking, but I still try to soften wrinkles and eliminate transient flaws to avoid drawing the viewer’s attention to them. It’s about removing distractions so that we can focus on the person’s core, as expert retoucher Robb Carr puts it.

When dealing with deep wrinkles, for example (see Image_02), Frequency Separation lets me to go in and maintain some texture and detail for authenticity while decreasing the toning that makes the wrinkle appear so deep and distracting.

Alternatively, I can entirely remove blackheads from a nose by using the clone tool to go over the troubled area and eliminate just these blemishes (see Image_03) without changing the colour or tone. Or, in a matter of seconds, I can quickly restore detail to a burned-out area (see Image_04).

To unlock the magic of Frequency Separation you need to geek out for a bit and follow my recipe below.


With an image file open in Photoshop duplicate the background layer by typing Cmd/Ctrl-J

Name this duplicate layer “Detail & Texture”, this will be the top layer of the layer stack – the high frequency layer – click on this layer’s visibility eyeball to temporarily turn its visibility off.


Rename the Background layer to “Colour & Tone”, this will be the low frequency layer.

Right click on the Colour & Tone layer and select “Convert to Smart Object”.


With the Colour & Tone bottom layer still selected, go to the Filter menu and select: Blur > Guassian Blur > Radius: 2.0 pixels (that’s the amount I like to use). The result you are looking for is a radius that lightly blurs all the fine detail.


Name the new layer “Retouch Colour & Tone” and press Cmd/Ctrl-Shift-N to build it atop the bottom layer.


Click on the visibility eyeball of the Detail & Texture layer (the top layer) to enable visibility.

Choosing “Apply Image…” from the Image menu.

Make the necessary adjustments for an 8 bit image or a 16 bit image in the Apply Image window that appears.


In spite of the fact that the image now appears to be a strange grey line drawing, clicking the “OK” button will apply the “Apply Image” settings to your image, giving you detail and texture settings apart from colour and tone.

Go to the Layers Palette’s upper left corner, click on the Blend Mode field, which by default says Normal, and change it to “Linear Light” while the Detail and Texture layer is still selected. Observe how your odd grey image has suddenly returned to looking regular, only this time it is sharp. The finished layer stack should resemble this.


The next stage is to even out the skin tone of the subject, i.e., lighten “glare” spots or make wrinkles less obvious by making them less dark.

Now that Frequency Separation is set up and prepared, it may be used to tone the skin, smoothen out rough patches, make wrinkles less black and less obvious, and tone down “glare” areas. I like to do it like this:


Use the Healing Brush tool or the Clone Stamp tool to cover creases and blotches after selecting the “Retouch Colour & Tone” layer. Make sure the “Sample:” field is set to “Current & Below” in the Tools’ Option Bar at the top of the open window to avoid selecting any pixel data from the top layer.


“Detail and Texture” layer should be selected.

Setting the “Sample:” field to “Current” in the Tools’ Option Bar at the top of the open window is crucial.

Remove unwanted sharp detail like blackheads and rough skin texture, or use this layer to seamlessly clone detail back into burned out areas, using the Clone Stamp Tool set to 100% Opacity and Flow.


Now I hope the recipe above didn’t make your head ache trying to follow it, I know I got lost several times while proof reading the above and I wrote it! The problem here is trying to learn visual concepts from written word, actually seeing it demonstrated first hand or better still in a video, which you can play it over and over again, makes comprehension so much easier. To avoid “Frequency Separation Frustration”, I suggest that you apply the steps of this recipe to an image while reading it, this will make it much easier to understand, and I also suggest that you should record the steps listed above as an Action so you never ever have to do them ever ever again!

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