As much as I enjoy the act of taking photos, it’s the editing that slows me down, saps my inspiration, and turns this exceedingly creative endeavor into a chore that I have occasionally come to resent. To put it simply, I would much rather be out on location with clients than sitting at my computer while clicking buttons and sliders. However, when doing portrait photography, you can’t really have one without the other – until now.
Lightroom’s new AI-powered tools can dramatically speed up the editing process, and with the right approach, you can get very impressive results. In other words, the Lightroom AI tools give you the best of both worlds, so that editing portraits is almost as fun as taking them.
Below, I delve into the AI features that Lightroom offers. I explain what they are and how they can supercharge your editing workflow, then I close with a step-by-step example so you can understand exactly what I mean (and how you can do the same with your own photos!).
What are Lightroom’s AI tools?
Artificial intelligence is rapidly being integrated into almost every element of modern photography. Mobile phones use AI to calculate exposure, create beautiful HDR images, and capture blur-free photos even in low light. Luminar and other editing programs harness AI to remove blemishes, replace skies, and reshape faces. Photoshop is embracing generative AI in a way that allows anyone to create objects and artwork from nothing at all – using just a few descriptive keywords.
Lightroom does things a little differently. It uses AI not as an editing tool in and of itself; instead, it puts the power of artificial intelligence in your hands to make your editing easier and more effective. Lightroom doesn’t use AI to make skin smoother or teeth whiter, but Lightroom’s AI will help you make skin smoother and teeth whiter, and it’ll help you do it for lots of photos all at once.
It almost seems too good to be true. After using Lightroom’s AI tools to retouch your portraits, you won’t want to go back to the old way of editing ever again.
Using Lightroom’s AI tools to speed up your editing
I love taking photos for clients. It’s so much fun meeting them, getting to know them during the session, and finding creative ways to capture timeless images that will be shared with others or printed and framed for posterity.
What I don’t like are the days spent in Lightroom after a photo session is over, poring over hundreds of shots so I can find – and then edit – the best ones. While Lightroom’s AI tools can’t speed up the culling process (though I wouldn’t be surprised if it happens at some point in the near future!), they can reduce hours of complex editing tasks down to mere minutes.
The key to all of this is Lightroom’s AI-powered masking options, coupled with the ability to synchronize the masks across many images at once. Lightroom uses artificial intelligence models to identify and mask facial features such as teeth, lips, and hair. The program can even mask individual parts of the eye, such as the iris and the sclera (i.e., the white element around the iris). You can then make edits to any or all of the AI-created masks, which by itself ensures a massive increase in speed compared to conventional manual masking and editing approaches.
You see, before the introduction of Lightroom’s AI masking tools, all of this work had to be done by hand. I remember using the Lightroom Brush tool to carefully select elements of my portraits one by one – and after all the work was done on a single image, I had to start all over again on the next image because the edits never quite lined up from one photo to the next.
The process slowed editing to a crawl and even led some photographers to farm out editing to third parties, paying other people to edit images so they didn’t have to. But now, with Lightroom’s AI tools, all of this can be done in seconds.
How to speed up portrait editing using Lightroom’s AI tools: A step-by-step example
The best way to illustrate how Lightroom’s AI tools can save enormous amounts of time in your editing process is to share an example from a real portrait session. I spent an hour by the lake with a young man while capturing his high school senior portraits, and we had a phenomenal time talking, walking around, and looking for great photo opportunities.
He happily posed, smiled, and walked from one place to another while I took hundreds of pictures. It was lighthearted and easygoing, and we got some outstanding photos for him to give to the yearbook advisor and share with his friends.
Then, thanks to the combination of Lightroom and artificial intelligence, post-processing was a breeze. Let me explain how:
Step 1: Create an AI mask
Take a look at the thumbnails above. Even though the photos are different in many ways, they share a lot of characteristics. The light is relatively similar, the young man is facing the camera, and he’s got a bright smile on his face.
Therefore, some edits, such as exposure and white balance, don’t need artificial intelligence at all; they can be quickly and easily synced from one photo to many others using the Sync button in Lightroom’s Develop module.
Other edits, however, can benefit from some AI-powered masking. To get started, select the Masking option in the Develop module, then wait for Lightroom to detect a person. Next, click the person (usually labeled “Person 1” unless there are multiple people in the photo) and choose the mask you want to create. You can select from options such as facial skin, eyebrows, teeth, hair, and even clothes:
For this example, I will start with a Teeth mask, but you can select multiple checkboxes to create a mask that includes more than one feature. (I generally don’t work with multiple features at once because the edits I apply to one portion of the face – such as teeth – aren’t the same as the edits I apply to other features – such as hair or eyes). Once you select a box, a Create Mask button will appear. Click it, and you’ll be able to edit the mask.
Step 2: Edit the AI mask
After creating an AI mask, a pop-out panel will appear that contains some basic information. You can click and drag the panel to another part of the screen, and/or you can use the >> symbol in the top-right corner to collapse it so it’s small and out of the way. The default title of your mask will simply be “Mask 1,” but you can click the three-dot icon to change its name, and you can also show and hide the mask by clicking the eye icon.
Below the mask name, you can see information about what components the mask actually contains. Because the example here is an AI mask of the person’s teeth, Lightroom calls that portion of the mask “Person 1 – Teeth.” You can add to – or subtract from – the mask, and you can also change the color of the mask overlay, but I generally just leave all of these options alone. While they can be useful, I find that they’re often a distraction. And since the goal is speed, I keep things pretty basic.
You can use the sliders in the corresponding adjustment panel to modify parameters like Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Color, Sharpness, and more. In this case, all I want to do is whiten the subject’s teeth, so I select the “Teeth Whitening” preset. It does a great job (though I did do a little tweaking to the white balance).
Step 3: Add another mask
Portrait editing rarely involves using only one mask, and once again, Lightroom’s AI-powered tools can help you. Click the Create New Mask button at the top of the Masks pop-out panel, then choose the Select People option; this will let you select individual elements of the person once again.
For this example, I created a mask for the young man’s facial skin, and you can see that the AI-powered masking tool selected exactly the right portion of the image. This kind of selection would have taken me significantly longer if I had done it manually – it would have involved lots of precise work with the Brush tool – but Lightroom did it in less than a second.
After creating the second mask, you can repeat the same process discussed in the previous step; simply click the mask, then use the sliders on the right-hand side to adjust as you see fit.
I applied the Skin Smoothing preset to make the young man’s face just a bit smoother. Not too much, mind you – a series of subtle edits are often more effective – but enough to be noticeable.
I find it helpful at this point to give each of my masks a name, which will come in handy when the masks are synced to other photos later on. If they’re simply called “Mask 1,” “Mask 2,” and so on, it’s difficult to know exactly what they are and what you are synchronizing.
Step 4: Repeat as needed
Repeat this process as much as you want, and make edits to features that need a bit of tweaking. You might end up with a dozen masks, or maybe you’ll use just a couple; either way, it won’t take long for the benefits of these AI masking tools to become readily apparent.
As you can see, this process uses a mix of artificial intelligence and manual intervention, and the results are just as good and certainly much faster than if I were to create all the masks myself. Lightroom isn’t actually editing anything for me, and at no point in the process do you relinquish control over your editing to the program. Rather, Lightroom uses AI to add a boost of speed and flexibility to your own editing process. As a result, your workflow can speed up dramatically.
Step 5: Synchronize your edits
This is where the fun begins. In days gone by, you might have spent precious minutes poring over a single image, creating masks by hand and tweaking them to get everything just right, only to have to do it all over again for each additional photo. Fortunately, those days are long gone, and if you’re a portrait photographer, your life will never be the same.
Use the filmstrip at the bottom of the Develop panel to select the image you just edited. Then hold down the Shift or Ctrl keys and select all the images to which you want to apply your edits. You can select one image, one hundred images, or as many as you need.
Click the Sync… button in the lower-right corner. Then, when prompted, select the masks you want to synchronize.
Note: This step when mask naming comes in handy. If you’ve taken the time to give descriptive names to each of your masks, you’ll know exactly what you are synchronizing – which can help ensure that Lightroom is doing exactly what you want and nothing more.
Once you’re ready, click the Synchronize button and watch the magic happen.
Lightroom now uses artificial intelligence to create new masks for all the images you’ve selected for syncing. Then the program applies the same edits to the new images as your original image.
The process might take a minute or two depending on the speed of your computer, but it would’ve taken hours in my early days of image editing. After the operation is finished, you can edit individual masks on any of your images, and you can even sync those new edits to other images, too.
AI editing in Lightroom: final words
Lightroom has been at the core of my photography workflow for a decade, and in that time, I have seen a great deal of tweaks, improvements, and revisions to its tools. None have had such a dramatic impact on my post-processing as the AI masking tools, and I can hardly imagine doing a portrait session without them.
Lightroom harnesses the power of artificial intelligence to help you. The program doesn’t actually edit for you, and this practical, pragmatic approach is ideal for portrait photography. If you haven’t tried the Lightroom AI tools yet, you might be pleasantly surprised by how well they work and how much time they can save you.
Now over to you:
Have you tried Lightroom’s AI-powered masking tools? What did you think? Share your thoughts in the comments below!