How to do Basic Processing on a Portrait in 5 Minutes Using Lightroom

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There’s a Triangle of Service that you may have seen before which goes something like this: You have three options available (cheap, quick, quality) but can only choose two. I first saw this on a sign in an automotive shop years ago, but it applies in almost any professional setting where goods and services are produced for consumption, and is especially true in photography.

As a photographer you don’t have unlimited time, but you and your clients expect quality results, and doing so is not always cheap or easy. Fortunately Lightroom makes it simple to do a basic portrait processing job in only a few minutes, which you can then copy and paste to other similar photos, to make your work even faster.

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-headshot

Before I get too deep into this article I want to make clear that the following steps are a process that works for me, but your unique solution might be a bit different. The important lesson is to find a workflow that is easy to replicate and repeat, so you don’t spent all your time doing the same types of edits over and over.

As you work with any editing program – whether it’s Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, or even a free tool like Photos or Picasa – it’s a good idea to find an editing style that matches your photography style. I know the look I’m going for when I edit a portrait or headshot, which might be entirely different from what you prefer. Knowing how to achieve my particular style has taken me a while, but now I find that my editing is a lot quicker, because I start each photo with a particular set of steps:

  1. White Balance
  2. Tone
  3. Sharpening
  4. Vignette

These steps are quick, usually get me 90% of the way towards a finished image, and will often result in a finished portrait with no additional editing required. Let’s look at each step one by one:

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-step1-import

This original is decent but it needs some tweaks before it’s good enough to give to my client.

Step 1: White Balance

One advantage of shooting in the RAW format is that you can calibrate the White Balance of your images afterwards, whereas shooting in JPG leaves you much less leeway to edit not just White Balance, but most other aspects of the photo as well. Of course, one drawback of shooting in RAW is that calibrating the White Balance can take a lot of time, but much of this can be mitigated by using Lightroom’s eyedropper tool (targeted adjustment tool) instead of fiddling with the sliders on your own.

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-white-balance

To quickly adjust the White Balance, click the eyedropper icon, then find a part of your image that is neutral in color – think slightly gray instead of pure white. The eyedropper tool might not get you the perfect overall color, but it will quickly get you close to your target, after which you can adjust the Temperature and Tint sliders to your liking.

Another tip to speed things up is to click directly on the Temperature and Tint numbers and use the up/down arrows to adjust their values, or hold down the [shift] key while doing so to make larger incremental changes.

Step 2: Tone

After you get your initial White Balance set, it’s time to make some initial adjustments using the rest of the Basic panel in the Develop module. To get my particular look, I almost always start off with the following values. You can change each one quickly by highlighting the numbers, entering new values, and pressing [Tab] to move to the next set of numbers instantly.

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-basic-panel

Exposure 0, Contrast 0. I don’t change these values until I make the following adjustments you see below. Because they are global, and affect the entire image, that is not usually what I want to do right away. If the image is still too light or dark after doing the rest of the basic adjustments, I’ll increase or decrease exposure accordingly, but rarely do I need to adjust contrast and you’ll see why in the steps below.

Highlights -25. This helps even out the bright portions of the portrait so any spots that are a little bright are brought down a bit.

Shadows +20. This is a way of brightening just the dark parts of the portrait to bring out a little more color and definition.

Whites +20, Blacks -25. I use these sliders instead of adjusting the contrast because it gives me more granular control over the look and feel of my portraits. I’m essentially making the whites and blacks more pure, which helps give the portrait a richer look overall. Some people skip this step and make adjustments to the Tone Curve, but it’s all a matter of personal preference, though I usually find the white/black adjustments to be quicker.

Clarity -5. Most people bump up the clarity slider which essentially affects edge contrast mostly in the midtones, but I like a slightly more subdued look so I usually start by lowering it a few notches.

Vibrance 0 (zero). This slider mostly affects colors outside the normal range of human skin, so it can be useful if you shoot outdoors and want to make the nature colors pop. I leave it at zero as a general rule, and then adjust later as necessary.

Saturation +5. I usually like a bit more color to start things off, so I start with a small value increase here, and then go up or down as necessary.

I always start with these adjustments, and then tweak as necessary. The whole process only takes a minute and almost always results in an image that is dramatically improved over the initial import.

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-step2-color

This image is already more vibrant than the initial picture even though most of the adjustments were very basic.

Step 3: Sharpen

After the color and tonal adjustments are finished, I almost always apply some degree of sharpening to the image. With portraits, it’s essential that the eyes be in focus and sharp, so the next thing after Basic adjustments, is to use the Detail panel to get the sharpening you want.

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-step3-sharpen

Click the targeting symbol in the top-left corner and then click on your subject’s eye to get a zoomed in view, then adjust your sharpening accordingly. I usually start with a value of 50 and then tweak additional parameters like Radius or Detail if I need to, but this basic adjustment is quick and usually gets me right near where I want.

I also apply a mask to the sharpening so it doesn’t apply to areas like faces. This helps keep the eyes sharp without adding unwanted texture to people’s skin. If you hold down the ALT key while you click the Masking slider you will see something like this (below). The white areas are where sharpening will be applied, the black areas will not. Use this to decide how far you want to take the masking on your portrait.

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-step3-sharpen-mask

Step 4: Vignette

This one is a bit controversial – some people like vignettes, and some think they are an abomination unto modern photography, but as I said in the beginning this is all about finding a style and workflow that works for you. I usually add a slight vignette to my portraits, but if that’s not your thing then you can skip this step altogether. It’s not part of everyone’s five-minute workflow but it fits neatly in with mine, which is why I’m including it here. I only use a little bit of highlight priority, dark vignette, and try to keep the effect subtle.

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-step3-vignette

That’s it – finished

Doing these four steps won’t always lead you to a finished portrait, but as the title of this article implies, you can usually get to a very nicely-edited portrait in under five minutes with these simple steps. You might have additional adjustments like adjustment brushes, spot removal, or red-eye corrections to do afterwards, but this will get most of the essentials out of the way.

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-step1-import

Before

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-step3-vignette

After – subtle but you can see the differences

Save your settings as a Preset

One final way to speed things up even more is to create a preset based on your workflow, which you can then apply to all photos on import.

five-minute-lightroom-portrait-processing-new-preset

If you take this angle, be sure to err on the side of caution and be a bit more conservative with your edits when creating the preset. You probably won’t want want to apply the same dramatic alterations to every single photo, but if you do find yourself reusing the same workflow over and over it might be worth your time to do an import preset.

Alternatively, you can create a preset and apply it at will after import by right-clicking on any photo in the Develop module, and choosing your preset from the “Develop Presets” shortcut (or find it in the Develop Presets panel on the left side panel of Lightroom).

What quick portrait processing tips work for you? Are there any specific actions you have found that save you a great deal of time? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and any example images of what your finished portraits look like are always welcome.

Read more from our Post Production category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him at sringsmuth.

  • Dewan Demmer

    Nice little article and an excellent starting point.
    I do like that at the beginning you mention how it is your unique portrait method. Simply because each step can changed a lot by environment or a place where you sacrifice prefect light for the creative or perhaps it is a time or situation.
    I think the white balance for me is the most interesting, the dropper can make everything so quick, however it can also get it wrong just as often when the balance is influenced by the environment ( (e.g. an all wood panelled room )
    I find it interesting how my tone settings of choice are actually quite similar, although with my own variance to taste. I do find that tone choice can cover most situations and environments with a little tweaking on occasion.
    The vignette is a constant battle for me, to much to little or none at all … currently I have settled for a very small bit of dark vignetting as standard.
    I thought of an instance where I used a lot of the same tone settings but white balance selection was constantly changing, from a bright area, to a yellow bus interior and onto a lovely wood panelled hall … http://www.dewandemmer.com/a-greenwich-summer-wedding-at-the-hall-park-place/

  • Paddy

    Thanks, the before and after are striking.

  • BMitchell

    This is a wonderful, informative and well-written guide. Thank you. I find the white tab on subject’s vest to be distracting and would tone it down, though not sure how to do that.

  • I’m glad you mentioned that, because I thought it was distracting too. I went in to Photoshop and removed it in one photo, but doing that sort of thing sets a dangerous precedent: if the tab is removed in one image, it needs to be removed in all images or else the client would clearly see that something is awry. In this case I made a judgement call to leave the tab intact because, to be honest, it was the client’s decision to wear that jacket and it was not worth my time to remove it from several dozen photos. If this were a wedding shoot and I was being paid several thousand dollars I would probably have taken a different approach.

  • Cynthia Chalmers Davis

    Hi, Simon. As with your post on switching heads, I found your info to be very helpful as I am learning Lightroom and haven’t created any of my own presets. So I have a quick question, please. Can you do the White Balance eyedropper as a preset? Will it ask you for placement of the eyedropper and then continue with the other adjustments? Or how will that work? It seems like having the preset done upon import would be fantastically helpful. Even though I’ve been doing LR only a few months, I’m finding that my adjustments are usually within the same range, with just a little “tweaking” to fit my style. Thanks again for your wonderful post.

  • Michael

    Thank you Simon! I usually do the same thing in post-processing Light Room adjustment. However, the Vibrance and Saturation adjustments are apposite to what you do. I always read that the Vibrance should be adjusted in the positive values giving some punch to the colors without effecting the skin tones and the Saturation is a brutal adjustment that should be left alone at 0 as it skews the skin tone. In addition, I never use the Contrast adjustment and rather use light Curve adjustment to give addition contrast to my images. I also use Clarity in the positive values (around +25) except if I shoot babies and women portraits where my Clarity is adjusted in the negative values. Thank you again! Love your postings.

  • I don’t know of a way to do that Cynthia, though I believe it might be possible to add a specific white balance value to your presets (i.e. 4500K, tint +5) but I would advise against this since white balance is so dependent on factors unique to each photo. I like your idea of doing a WB eyedropper preset that would essentially ask you where to click the eyedropper and then continue with the rest of the adjustments, but I don’t think it’s possible in Lightroom.

    My biggest advice, which I failed to mention in the article, is to shoot in RAW which will give you the most possible flexibility when adjusting not only white balance but all the other parameters as well.

  • Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Michael, and it’s always interesting to find out how other photographers handle their adjustments and presets. One nice thing about these types of adjustments is how subjective they are: I wouldn’t use Clarity +25 on portraits as a general rule, but if you or anyone else wants to then I say go for it! As long as you find a style that works for you, then who am I (or anyone else) to say you shouldn’t do it 🙂

  • Cynthia Chalmers Davis

    Yes, I learned the RAW thing the hard way when on vacation, somehow the camera settings got switched back and all my beautiful pix of New Mexico were in jpg. Boo hoo. I’lll probably set white balance and then try a preset of the tone. Sounds like the sharpen might be better handled individually, too. Again, thanks for your advice.

  • Michael

    I would like to recommend the ultimate white balance solution. I am a little colorblind (according to my wife at least), so for me it’s not easy to get right colors in my photos while I am in LR. The problem with eyedropper is to find that really neutral gray in your photo. I have solved that problem by using 14″ Pocket Digital Calibration Target by Photovision. All you have to do is to take a picture of this target and make sure you get right exposure of it. Next use this target photo for your camera Custom White Balance before you do your photo-shoot. I presume we all are shooting in RAW format only and when you are in LR use this target photo to fine-tune your white balance using the eyedropper tool. Then synchronize all your photos with the this white balance and forget about it. You will be guaranteed with the most accurate colors in all your photos. I am inserting the photo of this Digital Calibration Target.
    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/8a8bc069129e1991d6d3600561dcadda5bd97b02fd4d488ff0f9d2ed84738d7e.jpg

  • A tool like this is certainly quite handy (you can also wrap some duct tape around a piece of cardboard, which is almost the same 18% gray and much cheaper than a WB calibration target) but it’s difficult to use in a family portrait setting where there is so much going on. Still, if you are able to get something like this it would help create a much better White Balance in Lightroom in a very short amount of time. Thanks for the tip, Michael!

  • Michael

    You welcome, Simon! The WB Calibrated Target does not cost much, as far as I remember I paid around $35.00 from B&H photo but it comes with the explanation DVD. You see, the advantage of it is you have white and black areas too so using Histogram you can precisely get your exposure using the highlights to the right rule. If your camera Highlight Alert is on, the white area will blink if it’s overexposed in the review screen and it will be clipped. So you know that you have to step down your exposure just enough to the point when no more blinking. If you look at your Histogram, the right most peak should be just touching the right edge of the Histogram area. That will guaranty you hit absolutely right exposure and your WB target is ready to use for your custom WB. I always have this Calibrated Target screen with me as it can be folded in a small pouch. I always use it whenever I shoot inside with the flash or without and sometimes outside on a location where the light condition is mostly the same throughout the shooting event.

  • That sounds really cool, Michael. Is this it?

    http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/429982-REG/Photovision_DT14010_14_Pocket_One_Shot.html

    If so, the reverse doubles as a mini reflector which is always nice to have. Seems like it’s well worth the $35!

  • Michael

    Yes it is, Simon! That’s exactly what I bought from them about 3 years ago. I rarely use the silver reflector as it’s a little too small to be effective.

  • MyTwoCents

    Great article, and very useful. An additional step that works for me is to first look at the photos in a light table view, and to pick one that looks more or less typical of a group of pictures from the same location and time of day. I will then adjust the white balance, tone, black and and white on that picture and save a preset. You can then select the cluster of images from the same series and apply the preset. Often, I need no further adjustments.

  • You can do that as a preset or just select them all with the one you worked on highlighted and click “sync” it will apply all the same settings to all of them without making a preset every time.

  • Exactly what Simon said. I keep clarity under 15 for people most of the time unless I want drama ad grunge. I do tend to keep saturation at 0 and almost never push vibrance up either. I use the white and black sliders to add contrast first – making sure my image has pure black with some clipped and pure white (none clipped).

  • I would probably NOT tone it down on the images on the first run of processing which is just to prepare them for the client to see. Once they selected their faves I’d likely tone it down (not remove it) using the healing brush tool. You can do that in LR too and it’s much better in LR5 and newer. Just lower the opacity to 30% or so and stamp over it from the black on the jacket. OR just use an adjustment brush to paint over it lowering the highlights slider a bit.

  • Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

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