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If you’re wondering how to match skin tones using Photoshop, you’ve come to the right place.
In this tutorial, I will explain WHEN and WHY you may need to match skin tones in your photos and then show you HOW to match skin tones in Photoshop using three different methods.
Each works slightly differently, so make sure to try each method to achieve the best results.
Let’s get started:
Matching skin tones in Photoshop might sound like an uncommon edit, and you may even wonder why you would ever need to do this. Well, it’s more common than you might think.
Take a close look at the two images below. It’s the same model in the same setting - but her skin tone looks completely different!
This often happens when you are photographing someone outdoors. For example, every time a cloud passes, it can affect and vary your white balance between photos, which in turn, will affect your subject's skin tone.
Skin tones can vary EVEN MORE when photographing a session that spans from typical daylight into the warmer, more diffuse lighting that occurs during golden hour.
You may also want to match skin tones WITHIN the same image, especially when the skin tone of your subject's face and the body appear different. This can easily happen due to makeup, lighting, or color reflection from adjacent objects.
Whatever the reason, skin tone variation can easily be fixed in Photoshop using one of these three methods:
Using Photoshop's Match Color feature is the easiest method. But it doesn’t work with all images.
For this method to work properly, the images need to be from the same set or photoshoot and generally have the same colors and characteristics.
If this is the case for you, open your target and reference images in Photoshop. Then, while you are in the tab of your target image, go to the top menu and select Image>Adjustments>Match Color to open the Match Color dialog box.
When the dialog box opens, you will see an option to open the Source menu, where you can select your reference image. This is located towards the bottom of the dialog box (see image below). Make sure "Preview" is enabled so you can see how the adjustment looks before you actually apply it to your target image.
Keep in mind that you can fine-tune this adjustment using the sliders, but Photoshop's Match Color usually does an excellent job on its own.
Once you’re happy with the results, click OK. That's how easy it is!
Remember that the automated Match Color tool doesn’t work perfectly in every instance, especially under more challenging conditions. So if you are not achieving the desired results, try using the next method detailed below.
Matching skin tones manually is the second method to try. This will require you to see what color adjustments need to be made to more closely match the skin tones, and if you are a new photographer, this may be difficult for you. But the more you look at images and learn about color and white balance, the better you will become at this.
I recommend opening both images in the same document so you can compare them as you edit. To do this, simply open the reference photo and use the move tool to drag and drop it (the reference image) onto the image tab of the target image. Then resize the image as needed.
Alternatively, you can open each photo in its own tab and then use Photoshop's Arrange feature to place them side by side. To do this, go to Window>Arrange>Tile All Vertically.
Start by matching the luminosity or brightness of the image. To do this, we will use a Curves Adjustment Layer. To add a Curves adjustment layer, go to Image>Adjustment>Curves.
In this example, the highlights were much brighter in the target image (right) than in the reference image (left) - so I started with adjusting the highlights by pulling down the upper-right corner of the curve. Then I continued to fine-tune the overall image by adjusting other areas of the curve.
Next, we will match the color using a Hue/Saturation Layer. To add a Hue/Saturation adjustment layer, go to Image>Adjustment>Hue/Saturation.
In the Properties Panel of the Hue/Saturation panel that opens, use the drop-down menu next to the hand icon to select any color you want to adjust. Once you choose a specific color to target, the eyedropper tool will be available to select a specific color range to target. If you leave the drop-down menu set to "Master," the eyedropper won't be available to select.
Once the eyedropper is enabled, grab the left-most dropper and click on the subject's skin from the target image to sample the color. Notice how marks between the two color bars at the bottom of the Properties panel moved when you took the color sample. You can use these marks to fine-tune your color sample.
Use the sliders to adjust the saturation or lightness of the color. You can even adjust the hue BUT move this slider very sparingly. If you are unsure how the sliders work, try making some extreme adjustments, so the changes are noticeable in the area you are targeting. Just remember to reset the slider back to 0 after you experiment and are ready to make real changes.
After completing this step, the skin tone on the target image should match the skin tone from the reference image.
On occasion, the background or other parts of the image can be affected by the adjustments. If this happens, use a layer mask to limit the affected areas. You can do this in the Curves Adjustment Layer AND the Hue/Saturation Adjustment Layer by highlighting the layer mask and simply painting with a black brush over the areas where you want the adjustments hidden.
That’s it! You're done, and you can now discard the layer containing your reference image by dragging it to the trash can at the bottom of the layers panel.
The process of matching skin tones manually is quite simple but, as I mentioned previously, can take some getting used to as you train your eye to view and achieve a good color match between images quickly.
If you struggle to match skin tones using the manual method, move on to the third and final method described below.
In this third and final method, we will adjust output values in Photoshop to match skin tones.
Once again, I recommend opening your reference and target images in the same document for comparison purposes or opening each photo in its own tab and then using Photoshop's Arrange feature to place them side by side.
Once your images are arranged, select an area of skin from the target image using the Rectangular marquee tool. Once you select an area, use the keyboard shortcut "Ctrl/Cmd + J" to copy the selection to its own separate layer. In this example, I selected an area from the subject's forehead.
Next, highlight the layer you just created, and then go to the menu and select Filter>Blur>Blur. This will blend the pixels together, so when we use the color sampler in the next step, it will best represent the skin tone.
Repeat these same two steps on the reference image so that you will end up with a swatch of both skin tones—each on a separate layer.
Disable the visibility of both images and leave only the two color swatches active. You can quickly do this by clicking on the small eyeball to the left of each image layer.
Next, we will add a Curves adjustment layer (Image>Adjustment>Curves) and put it ON TOP of all the other layers. Don’t change anything for now. Just make sure this Curves layer is selected when you do the next step.
Open the Info Panel of the Curves layer. If you can’t see it, enable it by going to Windows>Panel.
Then, grab the Color Sampler Tool from the toolbox (it’s nested inside the eyedropper tool).
With the Color Sampler active, click on top of the color swatch from the reference image. Then, hold down the "Alt" key (on PC) or "Option" key (on Mac) and click on the color swatch from the target image. Each click will create a sample in the Info Panel that shows the input and output values of the clicked pixel.
You should now have the RGB values from sample number one (the reference skin tone) and sample number two (the target skin tone).
We want the values from the target image (sample number two) to match the values from the reference image (sample number one).
To do this, click back to the Properties tab of the Curves adjustment layer. Enable the "On Image Adjustment" Tool (the one with the pointing fingers icon on top of all the eyedroppers). Once enabled, hold down "Ctrl + Shift" (PC) or "Cmd + Shift" (Mac) and click on the color swatch of the target image.
Next, open the channel drop-down menu and go to the Red channel. In the Output box - which currently shows the same value as the Input, type the value of the Red channel from the reference image's color swatch. Repeat the process for the Green and Blue channels.
You may notice that the colors keep changing but still don’t match. Don’t worry; this is because the Curves Adjustment Layer is currently on top, affecting the colors of all the other layers below.
Once you have changed the output values on each channel, you can drag the Curves adjustment tool in between the sample layers, and you will see how they actually do match.
To complete the process, delete or disable the layers containing your swatch samples and re-enable the visibility of your images. Finally, select the mask on the Curves Adjustment Layer and paint with a black brush on the areas of the image where you don't want these adjustments to show.
And don’t forget about the luminosity. You can use a Brightness/Saturation adjustment layer to make the final retouches to match the skin tone on your photos.
Do you have any questions or comments about How to Match Skin Tones in Photoshop? Just leave us a comment below - we would LOVE to hear from you. And PLEASE SHARE this post using the social sharing buttons (we really appreciate it)!
Ana Mireles is a Mexican photographer and researcher with a passion for writing and teaching. She’s collaborated in artistic and cultural projects in Mexico, Italy, and the Netherlands.