How to Create a Dramatic Cinematic Style Portrait Using Photoshop Color Grading

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Cinematic style portraits are personally one of my favourites. What I like the most about them are the desaturated colours and the dramatic ambience.

Before we start the tutorial on colour grading, I will give you some of my best tips to achieve this cinematic look:

  • Use a large aperture, something between f/1.4 and f/2.0. If you have a long lens then you can also use that. The idea is to have a nice background bokeh (when things in the background are blurred). You also want to have nice separation between the model and the background.

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  • If you’re shooting outside, the I recommend shooting right after sunset. You will get nice soft light on the model’s face, and you will also have city lights behind them, to really get a cinematic feel. This only works with a large aperture, and it adds another point of interest.

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  • Your model should have a strong expression on their face, especially if it’s a male. Cute smiling images do not really work that well with this style.
  • Leave some space in the frame. You do not want your model to take up the whole frame, so leave some space around them, to add context to your image. You can get better results if the viewer is able to locate the spatiotemporal context of your image.

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  • Your model should not wear something too flashy (something like pink or yellow), limit their clothes to sombre, subdued colours.
  • Try to use complementary colours as much as possible, it creates nice depth to your images. Usually in movies, the actor is either in blue and the background in yellow/orange, or vice versa. Try to keep your actor in a range of cold colours and your background in warm colours, it works the best. The opposite also gives you good results.

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  • The most important thing is that your model should look like a character. Try to add accessories, clothes, or poses that make the character look credible. You can discuss with the model or stylist before the session, the look you want to give to your images, and have a look together at the wardrobe.
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Color Grading in Photoshop

For the colour grading tutorial I am going to work on this image:

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This image was taken on a Canon 6D, with an aperture of f/1.8, on a 50mm lens. This was taken during a short film where I was the photographer. There was a lighting behind the window aiming at the model, we added some fog to create this 1945 look.

What we’re going to do with this image is bring it back to life, by enhancing the contrast between the yellows in the highlights, and the greens in the shadows. We’re going to have a colour scheme based on analogous colours, going from green to yellow.

Let’s start with some basic exposure correction on Lightroom, this will depend on your image, so adjust accordingly.

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Do basic adjustments in Lightroom, or your program of choice, first.

After the basics are done let’s move the image over to Photoshop to start our colour grading. If you are using Lightroom just right click and choose Edit in Photoshop.

First, duplicate the layer in Photoshop so that you won’t do any destructive editing. You can always go back to the original layer if you don’t like the results.

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Make a duplicate layer.

The first thing we’re going to do is to create a new layer adjustment, go to: Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Color Lookup…

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Pick filmstock_50.3dl and reduce the opacity of the layer to around 20%. You need to reduce the opacity otherwise the effect is going to be too strong.

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Next thing we’re going to do is create a curves layer and redo the contrast. This will really depend on your image, so adjust according to your taste.

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Adjustment layer Curves to add contrast.

Then create another curves layer, go to the blue curve and lower the top right extreme of the layer. This will add yellow to your highlights.

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Add yellow to the highlight areas using this curve adjustment

Next step is to play around with the colour balance (make another new adjustment layer) to enhance to greens in the midtones and the yellows in the highlights. Once again just the sliders to add green and yellow to both the highlights and the midtowns.

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Select Midtones from the pull-down menu and add green and yellow.

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Select Highlights from the pull-down menu and add green and yellow.

Right now, we are basically done with colour grading. Lastly is to quickly dodge and burn, to enhance the light coming from the window, and to darken the image and the background. We are basically doing a manual vignette.

To lighten up the image, create a curves layer, make it brighter, and add a black layer mask (CMD/CNTRL+I to invert the layer mask). Call the layer Dodge, and paint with a white brush (because the mask is black) in the spots where you want to brighten up the image. Pick a brush with an opacity around 40% with and edge hardest of 0%

To create a dark layer, we will basically do the same thing but darken up the curves layer and paint over the spots in the image we want darker.

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This Curves adjustment layer is for dodging or lightening areas of the image.

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This Curves adjustment layer is for burning or darkening areas of the image.

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Rename your layers to identify them easier.

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This is the final result:

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Conclusion

Cinematic portraits rely heavily on great colour grading – but the lighting, model, camera settings and ambience should not be neglected. It all starts with a great image and ends with Photoshop to enhance your vision.

Enjoy the art !

Read more from our Post Production category

Yacine Bessekhouad

is a young student who is currently living in France. What attracts him the most to photography is the technical and aesthetic feel. He loves talking and writing about photography and also makes weekly photography and post production tutorials on his YouTube channel. He shares most of his work on his Instagram account.

  • xplorr

    Don’t see much improvements on an already great picture, besides that it looks a bit greener.

  • Yacine Bessekhouad

    I understand your point, but the tutorial is about color grading – The only thing we’re going to do is change the amount of colours in the image to create an ambience. The straight out of the camera image was very flat – We added greens to the shadows because his costume is green and yellows in the highlights because it matches his skin tone. The point here is to create color depth to complement the image and give it this very old feel. Color Grading itself doesn’t transform an image, it’s just a group of few adjustments to make the image look better by creating an ambience.

  • Yacine Bessekhouad

    Hello everyone! There is a slight mistake: When I drag the blue curves down on the top right. It adds YELLOWS to the HIGHLIGHTS not the shadows. I made a small mistake while typing it, I hope this doesn’t get too confusing. Thanks!

  • Anthony N

    Beautiful sample images in this informative article.

  • Fixed

  • Yacine Bessekhouad

    Thanks ! 🙂

  • Yacine Bessekhouad

    Thank you ! Glad I could help.

  • Paul Söderholm

    Would this be possible to achieve in Lightroom only, by adding split toning to the color image (yellow in the highlights, green in the shadows)?

    Nowadays you can adjust the tone curve channel wise, and you can dodge and burn with the adjustment brush, so no need to jump to Photoshop for that – it’s only the color grading left to do, and I have made similar effects before with split toning. When you find the right “color grade” you can save it as a preset for similar works.

    The reason I ask is that I always try to find the simplest way to do things (it’s a time management thing), and I just wonder what the big differense would be if you do it all in LR instead of PS.

  • TruLife Acrylic

    The ambience in the shots are fantastic! Great work. 🙂

  • Thanks for the tutorial. It would have been more helpful if you have picked one of the portrait images to work with at the start of this tutorial. In the start you gave list of tips to use to first get the image such as using large aperture, using complementary colors etc etc and some stunning examples and then you picked the image to work that breaks all these rules/tips.

  • TravelBug

    Hi Darlene, good article choice. The results will vary with each person doing the adjustments and on which photo. Sorry for asking here but can I ask you to consider adding articles using Affinity Photo now available on all Macs and Windows systems. Affinity Photo has become extremely popular since Adobe changed to ‘subscription’ mode and upset a lot of it’s long term users (yes I understand subscription mode doesn’t affect everyone the same way – especially for businesses and claiming on tax). I find Affinity Photo does some amazing things to offer that I have not seen in Photoshop.

  • Hi @TravelBug – the issue is that none of our writers use it. If you wish to propose a guest article to me I’d be happy to entertain it. https://digital-photography-school.com/contact-digital-photography-school/

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