This question is asked a lot. "How can I get that creamy skin?" There are a few very important aspects to consider:
1. Understand that you’re comparing somebody’s web-size image with your full-size one
Photos always look better on the internet, especially when you know exactly how to do it right (size, format, sharpening). Don’t make the mistake of looking at skin in somebody else’s photo at its small web size, then at your own photo at full zoom – that’ll drive you batty. Be reasonable.
Be especially aware that skillful web sharpening, which makes eyes and hair razor sharp but leaves skin alone, enhances the illusion of “creaminess” of skin.
2. Understand that you’re looking at the end result of somebody’s hard work
Don’t upload your photos straight from the camera, and immediately throw up your hands because the skin ain’t creamy. Quality takes skill, time and effort.
3. Accept that the other photographer has probably been doing this longer than you
Nobody starts perfect. They work at it.
4. For heaven’s sake compare apples with apples
If theirs is a studio photo, don’t compare it with your outdoor photo. Or whatever. Be practical.
5. Don’t expect editing to be the key – it’s 90% in the photography
This is the crux of it. You have to get the shot right long before it arrives on your computer. Principally, it’s about the light. Good light = good images. Dodgy light = way more editing time, for poorer results.
You have to be able to honestly and painfully critique your own shots, when comparing them to those ones you love in your news feed. Look at their light, and look at yours. Look at the direction of their light, and how beautifully soft it is. Look at the shadows in yours, and the shadows in theirs. Wait … can’t see shadows in theirs? That’s right, you can’t. Learn from this.
Also look for the less obvious things. Look at the colours of fabrics they choose, that flatter the skin. Look at where they’ve used dark backgrounds, whereas yours are light, or vice versa. If outdoors, look at how they’ve positioned their subjects in front of trees that aren’t being blown out by the blazing sun. These things all count towards the perception of "creamy" skin.
And of course, consider the equipment they have (camera, lens and lighting); and at this point, it might be necessary to admit that you are still saving for the lens that will give you that amazing aperture, or that enormous softbox, or whatever. Gear isn’t everything, but it counts.
6. Remember this:
It’s astonishing how often I have to trot that link out. Even if you’ve nailed the shot in camera, with the perfect light and everything, don’t bloody dive straight into skintones as soon as your ass hits your office chair. Get the important things right first.
7. Also this:
Seriously. Simple but vital.
8. Yes, Portraiture.
When everything else is right, finally you can think about the editing of skin. And a lot of people agree that Portraiture is an excellent tool. There is also PortraitPro, and Pro Retouch. I haven’t used any of them personally, but plenty of people have, and if you search the forum, you’ll find many relevant discussions. Don’t expect the programs to be magic bullets, though – they have learning curves of their own, which will take time to master.
9. Other methods within Photoshop
There are manual methods for doing everything in Photoshop, of course, though often more time-consuming. Frequency Separation is immensely popular, and there are various actions available for skin smoothing too. YouTube is rich with tutorials for traditional high-end skin retouching using Dodge and Burn methods, if that is your interest. If you do it that way, though, you’re either an actual advertising retoucher, or you’re the kind of person who listens to music on vinyl instead of digitally. There are also methods involving Surface Blur or Gaussian Blur, which you’ll find abundantly if you google for them.
If you have a question about this article, please feel free to post it in Ask Damien.