Photoshop tutorial: Fix blown skin highlights

This post is written by RedCrown, believe me it is a powerful trick try it out it might save you some pics

Blown skin highlights is an unfortunate but common problem on portraits that are otherwise well exposed. I’ve read and tried many techniques with mixed results. So I developed this technique, using the best steps I’ve found in the work of others. Would appreciate feedback and improvements.

The process uses three common techniques. First it targets “blown” highlights using the Threshold adjustment. Then it changes that target area to a light neutral gray using Levels and Hue/Sat. Finally it paints color over the target area.

  1. First step is to find the blown highlights.
    • Add a New Adjustment Layer/Threshold and set the Threshold Level between 225 and 230. Start with 225.
    • Select/Color Range and from the top drop down menu choose “Highlights”
    • Delete the Threshold layer, no longer needed. The selection remains active and ready for the next step.
  2. Next create a layer group to hold the following adjustments and apply the selection as a mask to the group level so it applies to all adjustments.
    • Layer/New/Group.
    • Add a Layer Mask to the Layer Group. The active selection from step 1 will automatically become the layer mask.
    • But that mask has a hard edge, so apply a Gaussian Blur to it. The radius of the Gaussian Blur will depend on your image and its resolution. Start with a radius between 15 and 20 and experiment.
    • You might need to modify the mask by hand if there are areas outside of the skin that are also over the 225 to 230 level. Watch out for the whites of the eyes. Just paint those areas on the mask with black.
  3. Now we need to lower the level of the blown highlights. Later (in step 4) we will apply color to the area, but the color layer will not apply well to pure white, so we want to make the area a light gray.
    • With the Layer Group selected, add a Levels adjustment layer and set its opacity to 50%. In the Levels dialogue box, do not adjust the “Input Levels” sliders as you normally do. Instead, adjust the “Output Levels.” Change the high output level from 255 to the same level you used to create the Threshold Mask in Step 1, which was between 225 and 230.
    • Now add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer to the group, and set the Saturation to -100 to desaturate the area. Making the area neutral gray allows the color painting that follows to work a little better.
  4. Now we are ready to fill the area with color.
    • Add a new blank layer to the Layer Group with Layer/New/Layer, and set the blending mode to “Color”.
    • Use the Eyedropper tool and click somewhere on the face to choose a color. Click on a point outside of the adjustment area but close to it.
    • Fill the layer with this color, using Edit/Fill or the Paint Bucket tool. If you don’t like what you see, choose a different color point and re-fill the layer. Experiment until you are satisfied.
    • As an alternative to a solid fill, you can paint by hand. Select a soft round brush. Alt-Click near, but outside the edge of the adjustment area to pick a color. Then brush over the area. Keep working around the edge, reselecting the color and painting until you have filled the entire area. You can even do both. First, fill the entire area as in step 4D, then paint by hand around the edges to touch up.
  5. These steps will restore tone and color. But there may be no texture to the skin. No pores, no blemishes, probably a bit too smooth. You can add some noise with this optional step for more realistic looking skin.
    • Layer/New/Layer. Select Mode:Soft Light and check “Fill with soft-light-neutral color”
    • Filter/Noise/Add Noise. Use a low Amount, between 5 and 10. Uncheck the “monochrome” box, and play with “uniform” vs. “gaussian.” I think “uniform” works best.
  6. In spite of the Gaussian Blur on the Threshold mask, the edges may still be a bit too distinct for you. If so, you can clean them up with the Clone or Healing Brush tools.

N.B.: Note, this process was developed primarily for skin tones and was tested on high resolution images (4000 by 2700 pixels). If might work well for other types of blown highlights. For lower resolution images you may want to reduce the amount of Gaussian Blur and Noise levels.

Here are three images showing before, during, and after. The “during” image shows the light gray target area ready for painting. (make sure to click on image for high resolution)

fix skin highlightsfix skin highlightsfix skin highlights

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