How to Change Skin Tones in Photoshop

by May 21, 2021Free Tutorials, Resources

tanning skin with photoshop

Image copyright Getty Images

This tutorial only deals with skin tones CORRECTIONS and not changing skin color ENTIRELY.

Skin tone corrections are always tricky. However, Photoshop CC has a few neat tools that make the job significantly easier. We can achieve some pretty good results with a little application of color theory and a little creativity.

In summary, the process to correct skin tones involves selecting the skin tones within the image, making some corrections using photoshop tools, and then manually fixing any errors that may have occurred. This way, we use the Photoshop tools to do about 90% of the work for us, with only the cleanup being left for us to do.

I am going to for a fake tan look in this tutorial. You may want a different look, but all the steps remain the same, so follow along nonetheless.

Let’s begin. You should already have the image opened up in Photoshop. If you would like to know how that’s done, click here.

And before you start anything, if you’re a total beginner with Photoshop, I advise you to check this article that will help you jump start with this amazing creative software.

Here’s a quick overview of the different steps to follow in order to Apply Skin Tone Corrections in Photoshop:

  1. Duplicate the Background Layer
  2. Select the Skin Tones you want to modify
  3. Refine your Selection (better selection = better results)
  4. Apply the Skin Tone Corrections
  5. Final Touches
  6. Final Result

Finally, if you’re more used to follow along with a video tutorial, you can click here to directly jump to the 2 Youtube video tutorials available to correct your skin tones.

Photoshop CC 2019 open with one layer

Step 1: Duplicating the background layer

We need to duplicate the background layer to make any edits to it. This is a very common Photoshop step. 

Go the Layers pane and click and drag the layer Background to the Create New Layer icon. This will create a new layer called Background copy.

Duplicate background layer in Photoshop
duplicated layer in Photoshop cc 2019

Step 2: Selecting skin tones

Since we want to work on the skin, we need to isolate it. To do this we will use the Color Range tool.

Go the menu bar and click on Select > Color Range.

Photoshop select a color range tool

This is the menu that will open up.

Photoshop select a color range tool

Normally, we would have to manually select the color range using this tool. However, Photoshop has given us a little hidden feature that will make our work easier.

In the drop-down menu at the top, select Skin Tones from the options. Now, the software will automatically select skin tones from the image, without us having to do so manually.

Photoshop select skin tones

In the Selection Preview menu at the bottom, select White Matte. This will allow us to precisely see what is being selected.

Photoshop select white matte option

This is what your image should now look like.

white mate result image photoshop

Now, go ahead and play around with the Fuzziness slider. We want only skin tones and no hair and clothing, but it isn’t a big deal if they make it into the selection at this stage.

Photoshop select color range with skin tones option

This is what our selection will now look like.

result with skin tones selected in photoshop

Step 3: Refining the selection.

Now we are going to smooth out the rough edges in our selection, to make the results more natural. For this we will use a tool called Refine Edge. If you are in an older version of Photoshop, then you can find this tool directly in the Select drop down menu. However, in Photoshop CC 2019, it is hidden. 

To access it, hold down the Shift key and go to the menu bar and click on Select > Select and Mask.

Find the refine edge in photoshop 2019

This will open up the Refine Edge menu.

Refine edge tools in photoshop 2019

In Refine Edge, play with the radius and edge settings. Your results may vary from mine, but we’re trying to get a selection as smooth as possible.

Refine edge tool in Photoshop cc 2019

This is what your selection should now look like.

Selection after refine edge tool photoshop

Step 4: Apply the skin tone corrections

We now have a smooth selection of only the skin tones in the image. 

I will try now to simulate the look of a tan. To do this, I am going to use three tools: Exposure, Brightness/Contrast, and Hue/Saturation

You may want a different look from your skin tones, but these are the three tools you will need to achieve it. 

With your skin tones still selected, go and click on Adjustments above the Layer menu.

Adjustements layer section Photoshop

This will open up all the adjustment tools.

Adjustements window photoshop cc 2019

First, click on the Exposure tool . This tool is useful for lightening or darkening the skin. Today, we are going to be darkening for my fake tan. 

In the menu, lower the exposure a little, until the skin looks a little darker. This must be done visually. 

When lowering the exposure, we will inevitably lose a little detail from the image. To counter this, increase the Gamma Correction by a small amount.

Photoshop exposure tool

The image now looks like this.

Portrait under exposed Photoshop

In the Layers pane, this is what your Exposure layer should look like.

white mate result image photoshop

While holding down Ctrl [Windows] Cmd [Mac], click on the black mask in the Exposure layer. This will reselect the skin tone region in the image.

Now, go back to the Adjustments pane and select Hue/Saturation

We increase the Saturation to bring a little life back into the skin tones.

Hue and Saturation ajustements tools Photoshop cc 2019

The image now looks like this.

result with skin tones selected in photoshop

The Hue/Saturation tool lets us make color changes. If you wish to change a person’s skin color to, say, green, this is the tool to do it. 

We are getting close now. 

Again, hold down Ctrl [Windows] or Cmd [Mac] and click on the mask in the Layers pane to reselect the skin tones.

Hue and Saturation Layer with mask in Photoshop

Go back to the Adjustments menu and select Brightness/Contrast.

In the menu, increase both the Brightness and the Contrast to bring a little pop back into the image.

Brightness and Contrast ajustement tool window photoshop

We are nearly done now. This is what the image should look like.

Portrait underexposed photoshop grey background

Step 5: Final touches

We now only need to remove some dullness from the image and clean up our selection. 

Some areas of the image may not have been selected in our first steps. To select them, we must manually paint them with a brush. 

To do this, click on the black mask in the Exposure layer. Now, select the Brush tool.

Brush Tool Photoshop

Make sure the color selected is white. This is important since we will be masking in unnecessary portions of the image. If we were masking out, for example to make any masking corrections, we would select black.

foreground and background color in adobe photoshop

Using the [ and the ] keys to increase or decrease the brush size. 

Now, zoom into the image, and paint in any areas that have not already been selected. Usually, this will be the edges of the skin near the hair and clothing.

forehead with hair
forehead with hair

Finally, we will now remove any dullness and give our image a sense of realism. We will do this by brightening parts of the image manually. 

To do this, select the Background copy layer.

select the background copy layer in Photoshop

Now, select the Dodge tool from the tool bar.

Dodge tool adobe Photoshop

In the menu on top, select Highlights in Range, and change Exposure to any value below 30%. Make sure Protect Tones is unchecked – this will give the impression of a shine.

dodge tool settings adobe photoshop

Now, using the Dodge tool, paint over any bright areas in the image, such as the white hairs in the beard, shiny parts of the skin, and the center of the eyes. This is subjective and must be done visually. 

That’s it! We now have a wonderful fake tan.

Final Result

Tanned man portrait with grey background


If you’re still not satisfied with the result, you can also check these two Youtube tutorials. They could help you obtain what you’re looking for.

About the Author Betchphoto

Martin is an amateur photographer and digital marketer who has more than 15 years of experience with Adobe Photoshop. Check his about page here