Each time I teach a Photoshop Elements class, the top thing that people want to know how to do is to smooth and soften skin.

There are about 46,000,000 ways to do this in PSE.  Here are 3 of them, along with a comparison.

The first thing I can say is that the softening methods did not compete on the same level as sharpening methods.  You might remember that in my sharpening showdown, there was a clear winner.  Not so much here.

My biggest takeaway from this experiment is that it’s better to over-soften using your filter of choice, and then turn down Layer Opacity to make the effect look natural.

Here is untouched photo I used.

I took this photo of myself.  The eyes are (mostly) in focus and I was using a super large aperture, so the lower half of my face is fading out of focus pretty quickly.  That’s a good thing when it comes to softening skin.

This next photo is post blemish and under-eye circle removing.  I duplicated the Background Layer and then used the clone tool.  The tool itself was set to the Lighten Blend Mode  for the dark circles as well as the red area around my nose, Normal Blend Mode everywhere else.  I finished by reducing the layer opacity to about 85% and flattening my file.  This step helps a lot, but I still want to soften my skin – especially the forehead and pores on my nose.

The photo below shows my favorite method (for this photo anyway).  I duplicated the Background layer, ran a very high Gaussian Blur (95 pixels) and changed the blend mode to Screen and the Layer Opacity to 24%.    (Gaussian Blur is in the Filter Menu under, yes, Blur.)

I love this method because the screen mode brightened up the shadows and helped even out the skin tone.  This would work nicely in a newborn edit.  However, depending on the exposure of the photo, this method might make the skin too bright.  If so, try using the Normal Blend mode or another method of smoothing skin.

This next method is my old standby.  Start by duplicating the Background Layer.  Go to Filter/Other/High Pass.  For this example, I used a radius setting of 4 pixels.  After setting the radius, type control or command and I to invert the filter.   I adjusted the opacity of my layer down to 46%.  The Blend Mode should be Overlay or Soft Light for this method.


This method is subtle and still lets some texture show through, which is key for making a believable image.  And, I could push the layer opacity up just a bit if I wanted more smoothing.

Finally, I used the Smart Blur filter.  Started by duplicating that Background layer one last time.  The Smart Blur is in the Filter Menu, under Blur.  I used a 50% opacity layer at the Normal Blend Mode.  My Smart Blur Settings were:
  • Radius – 68.6 pixels
  • Threshold:  34.6
  • Quality: Low
  • Mode: Normal
I do like the results of this filter, but it is SLOW.  Prohibitively slow, in my opinion, for a quick edit, but worth it maybe for something that’s going to end up above the soft or fireplace.  I do think it is the most natural looking of the 3, at the settings I chose anyway.


A couple of notes about this very un-scientific experiment.  First, there is no way to compare these methods exactly because the options with the settings aren’t the same from filter to filter.


Also, I used a Layer Mask to hide sharpening from parts of the photo that I wanted to be crisp.


Last, you can probably tell from these photos that I would much rather under-edit than over.  I’d rather people think my skin was nearly perfect rather than so obviously unperfect that it needed to be airbrushed.  However, I used a low opacity for each of these methods and the effects could have been strengthened using a higher opacity for more “full coverage.”
And here is my final layers palette so that you can get an idea about how each layer would look.