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How to Add a Grunge Effect to Your Portraits Using Lightroom

Grunge Main 600

All images copyright Gina Milicia – Model credits from left to right: Jess Kenneally, Nathan Kennedy, Firass Dirani.

Gina has a new dPS ebook just released – Portraits: After the Shot – check out out!

The style of side lighting (in the image below) is a great way to enhance muscle definition, and the post-production technique complements the lighting style. You can see that it appears as if Nathan has far better muscle definition in his after shot. I love using this post-production technique in character portraits for the entertainment industry, advertising and editorial shoots. It deliberately gives the skin a hard, detailed, gritty look, which is perfectly suited to character-style portraits.

Nathan Kennedy for ML Denim

Model credit: Nathan Kennedy for ML Denim. In this image I used fill flash from my Elinchrom Quadra lights with a Rotolux Deep Octabox camera left, which is lighting Nathan from a 45-degree angle.

If you want to see a full tutorial on my favourite lighting style for this type of effect, check out: How to Create this “Fight Club” Inspired Portrait using One Light.

It’s not the most flattering technique for skin post-production, so I’m selective about which projects I use it on and tend to avoid using it on female skin tones. There are very few women who will say, “Wow, I love how detailed and large my pores look.”
Don’t forget my overnight rule. After you’ve edited your image, try not to look at it for a minimum of 12 hours. When you look at it again with fresh eyes, you should trust your gut instinct on how it looks. If your first reaction is “Ewww”, then you may have gone too far!

Here’s my step-by-step recipe for adding a grunge effect to your portraits using Lightroom:


Note: Every lighting style is going to give you a slightly different result. I suggest you use my recipe as a rough guide only, tweaking your images until you get the results that best suit your image and personal style.

LW Grunge 2

Find a neutral area of your image and use it to correct white balance. In this case I’ve selected a very light gray section of the white shirt the model is wearing.

Step 1. Import the file into Lightroom and in the Develop module, use the eyedropper tool (A.) and do a custom white balance (B.). This is achieved by finding a neutral area on your image (gray or white works best) then using your eyedropper tool (A) click on this (Neutral area) and Lightroom will automatically adjust your white balance.

The best and most accurate technique to achieve a good white balance is to ask your model to hold a gray card in front of their face for the first frame. This gives you an accurate neutral gray to select from for your white balance.

The third option to achieve white balance is to use Lightroom’s auto white balance. Test them all if you can and see which option best suits your shooting style.

I like working with a combination of gray card and finding neutral areas. I will use Lightroom’s auto function if I am shooting television stills or theatre productions where I need to color correct images that were shot under tungsten lights.


Step 2. As a starting point, increase shadows (+81) and decrease highlights (-60). The image starts to look a little wrong, but stay with me.


Step 3. Switch on clipping mask (A.) by clicking on little triangles above the histogram.

Move the blacks slider to the left until your image gets a good black tone. The areas in blue highlight loss of detail in the shadows, and areas highlighted in red indicate loss of detail in highlights.

Purists will probably start twitching at this point because I am crunching my black tones (B.) and blowing my highlights (C.). I believe this gives the image a more realistic feel because we don’t always see detail in shadow areas with our naked eye.

I personally like my images to look good overall, and if that means losing some detail in the shadows to gain good contrast across the whole image, I’ll do it. Just because Lightroom gives us the technology to see the entire gray scale doesn’t mean we have to.


Step 4. In the next step, I increase the mid-tone contrast or clarity) (A.). I also decrease saturation to counter the digital orange glow the skin tone tends to take on in Step 3. Then I increase vibrance to bring some tone back to the muted tones.


Step 5. The next step is to add a vignette from the Effects menu (A.). This is optional, but I feel it finishes the image off nicely and draws our eye to the hero of the shot, Jesse.


Step 6. Finally, I enhance the eyes slightly using my eye-enhancing technique for Lightroom.

If you’d like to try it, you can check it out here: 3 Simple Ways to Create Stunning Eyes in Your Portrait Photography.


Behind the scenes on my air shoot with actor Jess Kenneally and my MacGyver-inspired lighting boom.

  • Canon 1DS MK3 ISO 100, F/5.6, 1/125th, 70-200mm IS zoom @ 200mm.
  • Jess has been lit using a Canon 580EX Speedlite and a medium softbox.

How do you create a grungy, gritty look to your portraits? Should we keep detail in the blacks and highlights, or is it okay to crunch and blow out to create the right vibe? I’d love to hear what you think.

Gina is the author of four dPS eBooks including:

You can buy one for $19.99 or grab the whole bundle for only $49.99 (save 38%) from any of the links above.

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Gina Milicia
Gina Milicia

has been a professional photographer for more than 25 years. She has photographed some of the world’s most high-profile people including royalty, billionaires and A-list celebrities. Often travelling the world, Gina also runs photography workshops and private mentoring sessions. You can sign up for her free ebook on “Portrait and Post Production Essentials” and see more of her work here. Check out her podcast “So you want to be a photographer” on iTunes.

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