Step by Step Portrait Processing in Lightroom

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Portrait processing in Lightroom

The story

When you are photographing someone who enjoys being in front of the camera, take advantage of it. This was a simple portrait to take and its strength comes from the model’s spirit, not fancy technique. I’ve worked with her before and know that she is good at creating different facial expressions. I asked her to give me a series and every time she changed her expression I took another photo. Experienced models will pose, pause until you take the photo, and then move onto the next one, making your job as a portrait photographer much easier.

You can’t see it in this photo but the model was holding a silver reflector slightly beneath her shoulders. The reflected daylight created a wonderful clean lighting effect that made processing the portrait much easier.

First steps

Here’s the original portrait as it appeared straight out of the camera. It was taken with an 85mm lens set to f/1.8, throwing the background out of focus.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

I knew from the start that I wanted the model’s expression to be the focal point of the portrait. The use of a short telephoto lens and a wide aperture has partly achieved that, but the photo required more work. The first task was to tackle the background. Although out of focus, its brightness was a big distraction. My main job here was to make the background darker so the viewer’s eye goes straight to the model.

My hope today is that by following this tutorial and applying the techniques I used to your own photos, you will learn how to create better portraits in Lightroom.

Step 1: Basic adjustments

I prepared the photo by going to the Camera Calibration panel and setting Profile to Camera Portrait. Next I went to the Lens Corrections panel and enabled Chromatic Aberration removal and Profile Corrections, setting Vignetting to zero.

I wanted clean, neutral skin tones, so I went to the Basic panel and moved the Temp slider slightly (from 4850 to 4520) to remove the warm tint.

Step 2: Add a vignette using the Radial Filter

Next I used the Radial Filter tool to make the background darker. I placed the filter so that the top half surrounded the model’s face and shoulders. In this position the Radial Filter can be used to make the area either side and above the model darker, without affecting the bottom part of the portrait. I set Exposure to -4.0 to see the area affected by the adjustment.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

When I was happy with the position of the Radial Filter I reset Exposure to zero, then reduced it until the background went quite dark. I also set Saturation to -70 to remove colour from the background. How much you push the Exposure slider in this situation is always subjective. Some of you will want to retain a fair amount of detail in the background, others will be content to make it go completely black.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

Note: Radial filters are new to Lightroom 5. In earlier versions the best way to achieve a similar effect would be to place a Graduated Filter on either side of the model, and use Adjustment Brush adjustments to fill in the gaps. An alternative technique is to use the Post-Crop Vignetting tool, and lighten any areas that are too dark (such as the model’s shoulders in this example) with the Adjustment Brush tool.

Step 3: Refine the vignette with the Adjustment Brush

While the Radial Filter is an excellent tool for making backgrounds darker, it’s not perfect. The feathering required for a gradual transition may leave some areas of the background close to the subject too light. In this case there were still areas around the hood that were a little bright.

So I used the Adjustment Brush tool to select those areas and reduced Exposure (to -0.65) to make them darker. I didn’t have to be precise with the placement of the Adjustment Brush as the background was already quite dark and out of focus.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

Tip: If you find that the use of the Adjustment Brush is obvious, try setting Feather to 100 and Flow to 50%. This lets you build up the effect little by little instead of doing it all in one brush stroke.

Step 4: Retouching with the Adjustment Brush

This portrait didn’t need much retouching, but there were still a couple of things I wanted to do. The first was to minimize the lines under the model’s eyes. Note that I didn’t want to get rid of them completely, as they are a natural part of her expression. The lines were created by her smile and winking action, and removing them would look unnatural.

I used the Adjustment Brush tool (zoomed in), and carefully painted over the lines under her eyes. I kept the brush size small so as not to affect the neighbouring areas.

Then I selected the Soften Skin preset from the Effect menu. Lightroom applied the skin smoothing effect at full strength by setting Clarity to -100 and Sharpness to +25. This was too strong. To reduce it, I clicked on the pin that marked the Adjustment Brush, held the left mouse button down and dragged the mouse left. Lightroom reduced the intensity of the effect by moving the Clarity and Sharpness sliders in proportion (this technique works with any setting from the Effect menu). I stopped when it looked right (Clarity -45, Sharpness +11).

Portrait processing in Lightroom

I created a new Adjustment Brush to cover the model’s eyes, mouth and eyebrows. I pushed the Clarity slider to +40 to bring a bit of extra sharpness and contrast to those areas. The screen shot shows the areas covered by the Adjustment Brush.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

Step 5: Framing the portrait

The model’s hood creates a natural frame for her face and is an essential part of the composition. I decided to emphasize it by using Clarity to bring out the texture of the fur.

I created another selection using the Adjustment Brush tool and increased Clarity (to 56), Contrast (to 22) and Exposure (to 0.26). The hood is a frame that draw the viewer’s eye to the centre of the frame, and these adjustments help to emphasize it. I needed to find the balance between emphasis and distraction; highlighting the beautiful texture of the fur lined hood without pulling too much attention away from the model’s expression. This screen shot shows the area covered by the Adjustment Brush.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

Next I went to the Basic panel and reduced Vibrance to -14 to de-emphasize the colours a little more. Finally, I used a small Adjustment Brush to lighten the edge of the model’s right shoulder, which had been darkened by the Radial Filter adjustment earlier. The area covered by the Adjustment Brush is shown in the screen shot.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

Comparing before and after results

Here are the original and final versions together so you can compare them.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

What do you think of these processing techniques? There’s more than one way to process most photos – do you have any suggestions for an alternative interpretation of the original Raw file? Please let me know in the comments.

Read more from our Post Production category

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.

  • I like the darkening of the background as it else would have been too disturbing for the photo in my opinion. But I think changing the color temperature to a cooler one took away some of the natural skin tones of the model and makes her now look a little pale and – strangely enough – almost a little over exposed on her chin and cheek. Now your model gives almost an impression of being the ice queen of some Russian fairy tale (forgot the title of the fairy tale). So I wonder how would the finished photo look like, if that change of color temperature was not made…

  • Keith Starkey

    I have to agree with Lillie; the skin tone is to gray. But hey, “Ice Queen” works! Hail, Snow Whi…wrong fairy tale!

    Seriously, though, a bit more warmth would make the photo, in my opinion.

  • Ed McDowell

    I would say that you nailed it, Andrew!

  • Original is better, imo.

  • Matt

    Nice retouch!

    Id say everyone would have agreed if they have read what author wrote:

    “I wanted clean, neutral skin tones, so I went to the Basic panel and moved the Tempslider slightly (from 4850 to 4520) to remove the warm tint.”

    Great tutorial, thanks.

  • JM Pascal

    Thank you!

  • Karen Quist

    This is one of the best articles I’ve read on Lightroom techniques for portraiture. There are some tools and tips here that I wasn’t aware of. Unfortunately I’m stuck with LR4 as my operating system doesn’t support newer versions, but it’s pretty comprehensive. Thanks so much, Andrew!

  • Grodin

    The Original looks better. The negative clarity makes sense so.

  • Thanks for your comments everybody. I find it difficult to be objective about my photos so it has been interesting reading what everybody says about the two photos that have appeared in these articles.

  • Photography by James

    I guess the reactions underline the fact that, whilst there is a lot of science and technique in creating an image, the end result is art and as such its appreciation is subjective. Great case study Andrew. Regardless of one’s opinion of the final result the important thing here is the techniques you have imparted which we can all benefit from to make our own images look how we want them to. Good luck with the book.

  • Claude B.

    It could be better if DPS could give us the opportunity to enlarge the pictures to see better détails in those photos! Note: This is for ALL DPS articles.

  • Yes that’s the one! Thanks, Daniel.

  • While I often disagree with Andrew’s artistic choices, his tips and tutorials are always top notch, and that’s what we are here for, aren’t we?

  • Lupu David

    imo, he shouldn’t have darkened the bakground
    but the rest of the editing is good
    that’s just my opinion

  • Dean

    i still not yet understanding about lightroom .. 😀 . why not photoshop? .. i’d love it when background be dark and blur ….

    http://creativemobilephotography.blogspot.com – if you want make macro with your smartphone, visit .. thank you

  • LoisDTewksbury

    my Aunty Aaliyah got a twelve month old Hyundai Sonata Hybrid Sedan from only workin parttime on a computer. navigate to this website googlesproject.com

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    great article.. recently, i do all stuff in photoshop, lightroom is a bit hard to get great result.

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Lightroom is not a good program as it adds local contrast overrides my control. And the worst, it causes “unsharp” effect. That’s explain why i always get unsharp images when i use lightroom for my images. Then i use the nikon original software to open them, they are tark sharp.. a few hundred percent better images than open / convert in lightroom

  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Look at the color rendering and sharpness.. i always get “Blur” and “noise” from lightroom

  • Alicia

    Regardless of what people think of the photo, its the techniques that are highlighted here in this article. I am new to Lightroom so I have learned new techniques that I can apply to my photos. Thank you!

  • mackyy

    I am also Hampshire wedding photographer. Hampshire is a beautiful
    place with lots of traditions. It is real fun to capture all those in my
    camera. Being a Hampshire wedding photographer facilitates me to get all
    traditions caught in my camera.

    I am a Surrey wedding photographer as well, Surrey is another place I love to
    capture. Surrey wedding photographer, enjoys the wedding at surrey and its fun
    to be with the people of Surrey and enjoy their life events.

    I am a destination wedding photographer. Being a destination wedding
    photographer is a lovely job as I really enjoy the moments I spend capturing
    with people.

    surrey wedding photographer

  • cc

    I like the original much better. — The new one is so soft.

  • Michael

    Thanks! Lightroom is great and Lightgram is even better!

    give it a try: http://www.lightgram.com/freebies-lightroom-presets/

  • ipaco
  • Susie in Sarasota

    Andrew, great tutorial, but I can’t seem to make your tip work (LR 6.1 on Windows). Here’s what you said: “To reduce it, I clicked on the pin that marked the Adjustment Brush, held the left mouse button down and dragged the mouse left. Lightroom reduced the intensity of the effect by moving the Clarity and Sharpness sliders in proportion (this technique works with any setting from the Effect menu).”

    Here’s what I did – maybe you can point out what I missed:

    1) I applied a skin softening preset adjustment to my image with the Adjustment Brush.
    2) I closed the Adjustment Brush.
    3) I re-opened the Adj. Brush and clicked on the pin that represented the skin softening adjustment.
    4) I tried to left-click+drag on the pin. That simply moved the adjustment to a different location in the image.
    5) I tried to left-click+drag to the left or right on each of the sliders (Clarity or Sharpness – I tried both), but the other slider did not change at all.

  • Titas Ghosh

    the original has distracting background compared to the processed one imo

  • Colin Christopher

    I prefer the original

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