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There are some photographers who use Photoshop or plugins such as Portrait Pro to do portrait retouching. There is nothing wrong with this and these programs can do an excellent job, especially if you retouch portraits at a high level.
But you may be surprised at just what an excellent job Lightroom also does at developing portraits. There are compelling reasons to do all of your portrait retouching within Lightroom. Here are some of them:
Whether you buy presets made by other photographers, download freebies from the internet, or make your own, presets can open up new worlds. There are presets that emulate film (such as those from VSCO and Mastin Labs), presets for black and white photography and ones that create just about every type of look you can imagine.
It’s possible to buy or put together an entire preset system – a set of presets that is designed to make developing portraits much faster and simpler than going through the right-hand panels in the Develop module individually.
Another benefit of using Develop Presets in Lightroom is that they make it easy to bulk process your portraits. In any portrait session, it is natural to take lots of photos, possibly hundreds, as you explore a variety of poses, clothing, and settings. If you want to spend as little time on a computer as possible processing those photos, then Develop Presets are the key.
I’m particularly impressed by the SLR Lounge Lightroom Preset System which I’ve seen in action on a Creative Live class. Designed for high volume wedding and portrait photographers it really does make bulk processing easy. It is not difficult for advanced Lightroom users to come up with a similar system themselves.
The main selling point of portrait plugins is that you can use them to make anybody’s skin look beautiful. The danger of these plugins, if overused, is that they remove skin texture and make it look over-processed and plastic.
But what you might not know is that the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom is an excellent tool for portrait retouching. The Soften Skin preset helps you smooth skin while retaining texture when used with the Adjustment Brush tool.
You can reduce the opacity of the brush after you have applied the effect, giving you full control over the strength. Combined with the healing brush tool, which is perfect for eliminating blemishes, you can retouch nearly any portrait.
I always recommend that you do as much work in Lightroom as possible, and only export photos to Photoshop or a plugin when absolutely necessary. The main reasons are hard drive space and workflow.
Every time you export a photo, Lightroom has to convert it from Raw to a file format the program understands. For maximum quality, you should use 16-bit TIFF – a file that is much bigger than Raw. 16-bit TIFF files are very large and rapidly fill your hard drives.
Retouching Raw files in Lightroom is much more space efficient. The workflow is also much smoother when you keep everything within Lightroom.
One of the biggest dangers associated with using Photoshop or plugins is that you can go too far and over-retouch your portraits. It’s common in movie posters, which make the actors almost unrecognizable, and expensive advertisements. The search for perfection results in a lie and realism goes out of the window.
We’ve all seen those epic Photoshop fails, where the retoucher takes a few inches off a waist or thigh, enlarges the model’s eyes or changes the shape of her face. This takes great skill and restraint to do realistically. Most people fail. A model once told me about another photographer who enlarged her eyes and altered the shape of her face in Photoshop. She didn’t like the results at all and felt they were no longer photos of her.
The benefit of Lightroom here is that it doesn’t have the same capability of Photoshop so there is no temptation to use it to distort the shape of the model’s face. Lightroom helps you keep it real and go for the natural look.
What happens when you can’t rely on Photoshop to slim somebody’s face or figure? You have to learn how to do it through lighting and posing. Using Lightroom indirectly helps you become a better portrait photographer.
Photoshop and portrait retouching plugins are powerful tools but Lightroom is just as good, maybe even better as it stops you from over-processing portraits. But what do you think? Do you have a favorite retouching application for your portraits or do you prefer to use Lightroom? Let us know in the comments.
If you’d like to learn more about Lightroom, then please check out my popular Mastering Lightroom ebooks.