Frequency Separation & Dodge and Burn

There is a ton of controversy in the photography/retouch industry about the debate between “Frequency Separation” and “Dodge & Burn” or more specifically “Micro Dodge & Burn” when it comes to retouching skin textures and colors. A lot of higher end retouchers will swear that going strictly with Dodge & Burn (DNB) is the way to go; that Frequency Separation (FS) is necessarily inadequate and won’t achieve the same clean aesthetic that DNB will. I DISAGREE! I think that DNB and FS, when pleasantly married and used wisely in tandem with each other, can give you the same clean, natural aesthetic as DNB while also using the efficiency and rapidity of DNB. 

I will begin my workflow with of course importing my photo (either from LR with corrections or straight from my Hard Drive) into Photoshop. I will do all “liquify” at the beginning before I touch anything else. If I have already retouched a similar photo or another photo from the set, I will use that completed photo’s .psd file to copy/paste the color toning over to my new photo. Then I dive into my skin retouch! My first step is to create a blank layer and do all of my cloning. I will usually address lipstick and correcting the lip line, correcting edges on eyeliner (winged eyeliner especially), touching out red capillaries in the eyes, and other areas that are both texture and color issues simultaneously. The reason I address these type issues BEFORE I dive into my FS is because FS creates 2 separate layers for color (low frequency layer) and texture (high frequency layer). If I were to try and correct glaring issues that affect both texture and color in FS, I would essentially have to touch the same areas at least twice in order to address both the color and texture of the problem. So its much more time efficient to touch these areas before you create the FS layers. 

After having finished this initial cloning its time to go ahead and create my FS layers. I personally use a panel (Ultimate Retouch Panel). I have an older version but I wanna say that the newer versions function essentially the same as my version. I select a FS Radius, usually 10 or 15, and apply it to my image. If you dont have the panel or another panel, its extremely easy to create FS low and high layers, and there are plenty of follow-along tutorials on Youtube.

I can thereafter begin with my retouch. I always start with my high freq. layer which specifically affects my textures. I use cloning to go through and address any rough areas. I think this step is where people start to go a little left. In my opinion, there are good/favorable textures and there are not so favorable textures. Good textures include some softer hairs/some peach fuzz, freckles, prominent/distinctive moles, some lip textures, purposeful textures in the makeup (splashes of paint, dewy skin or eyes, glitter etc.) and other textures that add a dimensional and natural feel to the face. Not so favorable textures that I will touch are pimples/acne, excessive stray hairs or dark peach fuzz, deep facial lines and lip lines (often caused by dryness in the skin or makeup), errant makeup or glitter, ragged nail lines and poorly applied nail polish, things of this nature. 

The video above is an example of how I may go about retouching a beauty image. This particular photo of course had a ton of texture due to the “barely there” base as well as all of the pigments. I also shot this image quite sharp in camera so there was plenty of texture before I did any additional sharpening. This photo didnt need as much dodge and burn as it did cloning and texture clean up. Of course my workflow varies slightly photo to photo based on what the individual requires. Different photos need different approaches so I assess what needs to be done at the beginning, create a plan (see my Workflow Blog) and dive in! 

The struggle I used to have when strictly using FS was over processing the skin and losing all of my “good” textures. The textures would also become extremely uniform, which is not natural. Even on the face there are multiple “good” textures that you want to show the variation in. I would also really distort and mistreat the color variation in peoples natural skin tones. So, what I ended up doing was creating my own pleasant blend of FS and DNB. After having addressed some of the more prominent textures and color variations using clone and (mostly) mixer brush, I create a soft light 50% grey layer for DNB. This layer I will place between my Low/Color Layer and my High/Texture Layer. I do all of my broad spectrum DNB here. So basically this includes highlight and contour for the face and body to add some dimension and depth to the persons form. I will also go and deepen any dark areas (eye creases, nose shape, lash lines, lip shadows etc) and brighten any lighter areas (high points of the face and body, cupids boy, fingernails, irises etc) Its also important to work by building layers. I can have several broad spectrum DNB layers and go back and forth between them so that one layer doesnt contain all my work. It is much easier to lower the layers opacity, in my opinion, than having to mask out over processed areas. 

After Im done with my broad spectrum DNB, I group and close my FS layers. I will then create a new DNB layer to address any last textures (smile lines, tiny little but bright pores) that I couldn’t for whatever reason clone out. Often times its because there was not enough clean skin near the affected area for me to clone onto the texture without blurring the skin or erasing the good textures. As shown above, this is also a good time to color correct those areas as you go. DNB alone can often create a greyish or washed out hue to the touched areas, especially in deeper skin tones. This is because white and black are not, in themselves, undertones, so when you use white or black to lighten or darken an area it does not always translate well into realistic skin tones. So it is necessary to add back in some color. The image above is a combination of both a blank layer with my color corrections as well as my DNB layer. Ive also done some cloning in this area as after having done the DNB I found I could switch back to clone, which in my opinion is a little more time efficient but delivers the same clean fresh results as strictly using DNB.


Above, I have an example showing a unprocessed (1st) vs processed (2nd) photo. The differences are quite subtle but make a massive difference in the effect of the photo. The colors in the photo I didnt want to touch so much as perfect and refine the minute textures in the different aspects in the photo. I thus did a lot of cloning and healing. Other than in areas with clear skin, I didnt really manipulate the colors at all. 

I have found that the time difference between using this technique of fusing FS with DNB can significantly cut down on retouch time. And, if done sparingly and wisely, can effectively render the same clean fresh results as if one had used strictly DNB (with color corrections to bring back undertones). That is to say, if I had used DNB alone, the photo above may have taken say 3 hours vs the 1.5 hours with my preferred technique of FS + DNB. 

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