How to Retouch a Portrait with the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom

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How to Retouch a Portrait with the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom

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Portrait retouching Lightroom

You have probably seen several portrait retouching programs advertised in magazines or online, and wondered if they were worth buying. The answer is no. I have tried out quite a few, and the truth is that the Soften Skin preset in Lightroom does just as good a job as any of them. For most photographers Lightroom’s retouching tools all are you will ever need. For high end retouching purposes you can go to Photoshop.

It’s worthwhile taking some time to think about your personal approach to portrait retouching. Some photographers seem to like the airbrushed, almost plastic look of heavy processing. It’s a style you see used a lot in commercial photography or movie posters.

Others will go for a more natural effect, and use the retouching tools with a light touch. That’s definitely my approach, and it fits with my preference for natural light and for creating portraits that capture character.

Either way,the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom can accommodate your needs.

Retouching portraits of women

When retouching portraits of women it is conventional to use a skin smoothing technique to make the portrait look more flattering. There are exceptions of course, sometimes skin smoothing is not necessary, especially if your model has good skin and you shoot in soft light, or use a wide aperture to throw some of the face out of focus.

Portrait retouching LightroomThe first step in portrait retouching is to remove any blemishes with the Spot Removal tool. To do so, click on the Spot Removal tool icon to activate it, adjust the size of the  brush with the square bracket keys on the keyboard, and click on the spot you want to remove.

Lightroom automatically selects another area of the portrait to sample from, healing the blemish. Sometimes Lightroom won’t select the most appropriate area – in this case you can click on the circle representing the sample and move it to a more suitable location.

Portrait retouching Lightroom

Click on a blemish with the Spot Removal tool (left). In this case Lightroom’s healing algorithm worked perfectly, but if it doesn’t then click on the circle representing the sampled area and move it to a location where the skin matches the tone and texture of the area to be healed (right).

Adjustment Brush adjustments

Now it’s time to look closely at the portrait and decide what other retouching is required. It’s important that you have already made the required adjustments to tone and contrast in the Basic panel before you get to this stage. Increasing Contrast and Clarity, for example, will emphasize skin texture, wrinkles and blemishes. On the other hand, you can move the Exposure or Highlights sliders right to brighten the skin, making wrinkles and skin texture less obvious. Retouching with the Adjustment Brush should be left until last, so you know what you’re working with.

I like to start with the area underneath the model’s eyes. The skin here is thinner than the rest of the face which is why people get dark patches there. There may also be wrinkles, and some people have a strong crease along the lower eyelid.

The idea is not to eliminate these completely (unless you’re going for the heavily retouched, airbrushed look) but to minimize them. They’re a natural part of the skin’s texture and it will look unnatural if they are not there.

Portrait retouching LightroomClick on the Adjustment Brush icon to activate it. Select the Soften Skin preset from the Effect menu. Lightroom sets Clarity to -100 and Sharpness to +25. Make sure Feather, Flow and Density are set to 100, use the square bracket keys on the keyboard to adjust the size of the brush and paint over the areas under the eyes. The Soften Skin preset blurs the area that you paint in with the brush.

If the effect is too strong, hover the mouse over the Adjustment Brush pin (a grey circle with a black dot in the middle) until a double arrow icon appears (below). Hold the left mouse button down and move the mouse left. Lightroom reduces the value of the Clarity and Sharpness sliders, effectively lessening the strength of the Soften Skin preset. Stop when it looks about right. You can also reduce shadows by moving the Shadows slider (in the Adjustment Brush sliders) to the right. Every portrait is different so you have to adjust the effect by eye.

Portrait retouching Lightroom

These are the results.

Portrait retouching Lightroom

A. Original, unretouched portrait.
B. Retouched, with Soften Skin preset at full strength.
C. Retouched, with strength of Soften Skin preset reduced and Shadows slider moved to the right (subtle difference only).

Enhancing eyes

You can also use the Adjustment Brush tool to enhance your model’s eyes. This is useful if the eyes are dark due to the lighting. Be careful of overdoing this effect as it may not look natural.

Click New at the top of the Adjustment Brush panel to create a new Adjustment Brush. Set Feather to around 50 and paint in the pupils of the model’s eyes. If you need to, press O (the letter) on the keyboard to see the masked area (it is displayed in red shown below).

Portrait retouching Lightroom

Now set Exposure to around 0.50 and Clarity to 30. The effect will vary depending on the colour of your model’s pupils and the amount of light on them. It’s a good idea to zoom out and look at the entire portrait to see if the effect is too strong. You can see this adjustment on the model’s eyes below, which I think is about right.

Portrait retouching Lightroom

You can make the effect stronger or weaker on your photo using the technique described above. Hover over the Adjustment Brush pin until the double arrow icon appears, move the mouse left to make the effect weaker, and right to make it stronger (you can also just drag the sliders one by one to change the settings)

The final step is to apply gentle skin softening to the rest of the face. Create another Adjustment Brush, set Feather to 100 and paint the entire face (use the O keyboard shortcut to display the red overlay). Then select Erase in the Adjustment brush panel, set Feather to 50 and erase the eyebrows, mouth and eyes. The idea is that you only want to soften the skin, not these parts of the face. It should look something like the mask below.

Portrait retouching Lightroom

Go to the Effect menu and select the Soften Skin preset. Press O to hide the mask overlay and you will see something like the screenshot below. Remember, this is the Soften Skin preset at maximum strength so it has a strong effect on the photo.

Portrait retouching Lightroom

Use the technique we learned earlier to reduce the strength of the effect. How far you go is up to you. I like to apply the Soften Skin preset subtly to retain as much skin texture as possible. Here’s the result with Clarity reduced to -20 and Sharpness to +5.

Portrait retouching Lightroom

This video shows how I retouched another portrait, using the Adjustment Brush tool to enhance the model’s eyes and facial hair.

I’ve only touched on the number of ways you can use Adjustment Brushes in Lightroom for portrait retouching. What techniques do you use? Please let us know in the comments.


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Andrew S. Gibson is a writer and photographer living in New Zealand. He is the author of over twenty photography ebooks – please join his monthly newsletter to receive complimentary copies of The Creative Image and Use Lightroom Better.

  • Very informative article. Thank you gonna try this.

  • Great video Andrew. I do have one curious question in regards to the LR preset (burn, dodge, iris enhance…ect). I do not have those basic presets available and I was sure those were part of the basic brush adjustment presets? Running 5.7 ver on Windows and I have even went into my preference folder under local adjustment presets and that is an empty folder. Have you ever heard of them being located elsewhere in any other folders?

  • Justin

    Patrick – try this – when you first click on the adjustment brush to get the dropdown menu, you should get a list of adjustments (exposure, highlights, etc followed by the list of presets further down- labelled ‘soften skin’, ‘iris enhance’ etc – when you click on them you’ll see the adjustment sliders change. Can be a bit confusing if you’re used to the ‘other’ presets.

  • Hi Justin, thank you for your response. The issue that I have is after I hit “effect” I just get the regular actions to control; exp, higlights, contrast, shadows ect… the “iris enhance, dodge, burn, soften skin, teeth whitening ect” are not even listed as an option like they dont even exist. I have tried to research as to why and yet to find an answer. I am making it along without them and have been for quite some time, it’s just presets make a quick base template to start with and would love to have them available. I included a quick screen shot to show what I mean.

  • Never mind! I just remembered I made a copy of LR before switching to the 5.7 version onto my external. I just copied the files from there and relaunched LR, Voila’ solved!

  • Ron

    I had the same thing happen to me. I couldn’t find the extra presets. I realized that I was working on a photo that was in the catalog from a prior version of lightroom. If you see a small lighting bolt on the right side of screen below the histogram just click on it and convert your photo or filmstrip to the current version. When that is done the complete menu will be there with the presets. If you don’t have the lighting bolt showing go to camera calibration and make sure you are using the current version, it should be 2012. Hope this helps.

  • Great article and so easy to do! Thanks!

  • Davide De Luca

    You have probably seen Lightroom advertised in magazines or online, and
    wondered if it was worth buying. The answer is no. I have tried out
    quite a few, and the truth is that the Clone Tool preset in GIMP does just as good a job as it…

  • Pro Photographer

    I don’t need Lightroom. I own Photoshop CS6.
    Gimp. Is not powerful. On the other hand, it’s free.

  • Davide De Luca

    That’s my point. I’m not a professional photographer and I won’t be, but I’m an engineer and I studied the mathematics behind the digital processing tools. Then, if I have a fixed budget for photography, I prefer to invest it in a better equipment, rather than waste it with Adobe or (even worse) Apple products.

  • Pro Photographer

    I was a graphic designer before photography, and was very proficient hence why I don’t see a need for Lightroom. I don’t care about maths, I just want the tools to do a job, and there is no better than photoshop.

    Gimp is poor in comparison, for versatility and power. There is no way gimp is on the same green, let alone on par.

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  • Hi Patrick, glad you figured it out, I’ve been away for a couple of weeks otherwise would have answered earlier.

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    Oh my God! This is one of the best tutorial I ever watched!!!!

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