If you want to take your portraits to the next level, you must master editing – but getting started with portrait edits can be overwhelming and confusing, especially for a beginner.
That’s where this article comes in handy.
You see, I’ve spent plenty of time learning how to edit portraits in Lightroom, and I’ve developed a simple, 11-step process for beautiful results. Below, I’ve shared my entire system, which will take your photos from “Before” to “After”:
Now, you don’t absolutely need Lightroom to edit your portraits. Any full-fledged editing software will work, including Capture One, ON1 PhotoRAW, ACDSee, Luminar, and more. Lightroom is my personal favorite program, and I do recommend it for beginners, but you should be able to follow along with my instructions regardless of your software.
One more thing: Every photo is different, and while I’ve selected a standard portrait shot as an example, you may need to make tweaks to my editing process as you go along. That’s absolutely okay! Just bear in mind that, even where your technique changes, the overall step-by-step process should remain the same. Make sense?
Step 1: Import your portrait for editing
Start by importing your image into Lightroom (or your post-processing program of choice).
I often apply a sharpening preset upon import, which gives my RAW images a bit of extra pop and cuts down my editing time significantly when I’m working with a large number of images at once. In case you’re interested in trying out my portrait sharpening preset for yourself, here are the details:
(To apply a preset on import, go to the righthand panel in Lightroom and find the Apply During Import tab. Go to Develop Settings>User Presets, then click on the preset you wish to apply.)
Once you have imported your file, go to the Lightroom Develop module.
Step 2: Adjust the white balance
Every photo features a slightly different tint and temperature, which depends on the color of the light and the shooting location. Unless you custom-set your white balance using a gray card before each shoot, your image will likely need a bit of color correction.
Fortunately, color correction is simple. One method is to find a neutral surface in the image (i.e., an area that should be pure white or gray), then select it with the White Balance Eyedropper tool. Another option is to simply adjust the Temperature and Tint sliders until you get a result you like.
In my example image, the temperature is a bit cold (i.e., blue), so I need to warm it up. There doesn’t appear to be a neutral surface, so I’ll adjust the white balance sliders to give the image more warmth:
Step 3: Adjust exposure, highlights, and shadows
The next step in Lightroom portrait editing? Exposure and tonal adjustments.
If you’ve taken your shot correctly, you should have a relatively well-exposed shot, but it always pays to check the histogram to be sure; you should have zero peaks pressed up against the walls of the graph, and unless the image is meant to feature lots of darks and/or lights, the curve should be balanced throughout the histogram.
If your image is overexposed, simply drop the Exposure slider (and if the image is underexposed, do the reverse!).
Then take a careful look at your portrait subject’s skin tones, hair, and background. I recommend adjusting the Highlights and Shadows sliders until you get a nice result. Go ahead and experiment, though a common adjustment is to boost the shadows while dropping the highlights. (Also, play with the whites and blacks, as well!)
For my example portrait edit, the overall exposure is decent, but my model’s skin tone is a little too light, and her hair and the background are too dark. So I pulled back the highlights and lightened the shadows (a common edit, remember?):
Step 4: Increase the vibrance and saturation
At this point, you’ll want to liven up your portrait with a bit of color. You can use Lightroom’s Saturation slider, but don’t go overboard; the Vibrance slider is a bit more subtle, and a bit smarter, too.
You can also increase the Whites slider, if you haven’t already. The goal here is (generally) to push the whitest whites in the image up against the edge of the histogram, so make sure to pay it careful attention.
By the way: After you’ve made your vibrance and saturation adjustments, I recommend toggling the before and after view (hit the “\” key). Make sure skin tones are natural, not garish and unpleasant.
I’d say that my example portrait still looks a little dull and fake without some saturation, so I’ll boost the Vibrance slider, the Saturation slider, and even the Whites. Note that all the adjustments are very subtle, and give my model natural-looking skin tones:
Step 5: Crop your image
Technically, you can crop your images at any stage. Some photographers crop early in their portrait edit workflow, whereas others like to do it at the end. I, on the other hand, do my cropping in the middle, once I’ve made my basic adjustments, but haven’t really started in on any facial features.
Before cropping, ask yourself:
- What is my photo about?
- How can I emphasize the main subject?
- Have I cut off my subject’s limbs in natural places?
- How is the overall compositional balance of the portrait?
Check out my example, where I’ve cropped for a tighter, better-balanced headshot (there was too much empty space above and to the left):
Step 6: Soften the skin
Now it’s time to really dive into the portrait-specific Lightroom edits, starting with the skin. No, you won’t always need to do significant skin editing – it depends on the subject – but you should at least consider a little skin softening before moving on to the next step.
Select the Brush mask. Here are my starting skin-softening settings:
- Clarity: -35 to -40
- Contrast: +35
- Highlights: +15
- Sharpness: 0 to +20
The specifics will vary according to your subject’s skin and the kind of effect you want to achieve. My skin softening effect just evens out the skin tones and gives the subject a soft, glowing appearance. An older person photographed in stronger light, however, may require a different treatment.
Note that the lower the Clarity value, the softer the skin will appear, though for a grungy look, you can always boost the Clarity in the opposite direction.
(I’ve also increased the contrast and the highlights; dropping the Clarity tends to flatten out the image, but boosting the contrast and the highlights will help counteract this.)
Keep the Brush Feather and Flow at 100%, increase the Brush Size, apply all over the subject’s face.
In my example image, the model is very young with almost flawless skin. Usually I wouldn’t do much to such a portrait, but for the purposes of this exercise, I’ll add a bit of softening:
Step 7: Fine tune your skin adjustments
After you’ve finished applying your skin-softening effect to the model, make sure the Show Overlay box is checked in the Masks panel, so you can see exactly where you’ve painted.
If you’ve covered the eyes, eyebrows, mouth, or nostrils, or hair, I recommend hitting the Subtract button, and using a second Brush to get rid of any offending areas. You want your Brush effect to look just the like the one below:
Once you’ve confident you’ve nailed the skin softening, you can hit Done and see the result:
Step 8: Brighten the eyes
Once again, zoom in close – then use a Brush to add sparkle to the eyes. Here, I’d just recommend boosting the Clarity a bit. You might also consider boosting the Whites and/or the Exposure slider, because by increasing the Clarity, you’ll make the affected part of the image slightly darker.
I generally do my portrait eye edits in two steps. First I adjust the eye outline:
Then I adjust the iris:
This allows you to increase the saturation of the iris and even lift it slightly with an increased Whites adjustment – though be subtle. Make sure you avoid an unnatural effect!
Step 9: Add color to the mouth
Some models need mouth adjustments, whereas others are fine as is. Always zoom in and take a careful look. If you decide the mouth looks a bit colorless, here’s what you do:
- Grab a Brush and apply it all across the lips
- Add a bit of Clarity (for pop) and increase the Saturation slider (for color)
For my example photo, I also adjusted the Temperature and Tint slider to warm the subject’s lips:
Step 10: Whiten the teeth
This one’s another common portrait editing step, though depending on your subject’s teeth, you may need to do very little – or quite a lot.
To lighten your subject’s teeth, grab a Brush, then drop the saturation and increase the exposure. As with the eye adjustments discussed above, keep the adjustments subtle!
Step 11: Lighten the hair and background
My final portrait edit step is more optional. Simply review your portrait and ask yourself: Does the subject pop off the background? Or could it use a bit of separation?
If the subject-background separation is sufficient, that’s good news, and you’re done! If you need to emphasize the subject, however, simply lighten the hair or the background using a Brush with an exposure adjustment.
For my example image, I lightened both the hair and the background to create separation:
You can see the final result, which improves significantly on the original:
Lightroom portrait editing: final words
Well, there you have it:
A simple process to edit portraits in Lightroom.
You should now be able to confidently improve your images with a bit of post-processing magic, so why not grab a portrait and practice? Portrait edits are necessary, plus they can be a lot of fun!
Now over to you:
What do you think of this portrait editing system? Do you have any tips or tricks? Share your thoughts in the comments below!
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES
- 11 Steps for Basic Portrait Editing in Lightroom – A Beginner’s Guide