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How to do Basic Processing on a Portrait in 5 Minutes Using Lightroom

There’s a Triangle of Service that you may have seen before which goes something like this: You have three options available (cheap, quick, quality) but can only choose two. I first saw this on a sign in an automotive shop years ago, but it applies in almost any professional setting where goods and services are produced for consumption, and is especially true in photography.

As a photographer you don’t have unlimited time, but you and your clients expect quality results, and doing so is not always cheap or easy. Fortunately Lightroom makes it simple to do a basic portrait processing job in only a few minutes, which you can then copy and paste to other similar photos, to make your work even faster.


Before I get too deep into this article I want to make clear that the following steps are a process that works for me, but your unique solution might be a bit different. The important lesson is to find a workflow that is easy to replicate and repeat, so you don’t spent all your time doing the same types of edits over and over.

As you work with any editing program – whether it’s Lightroom, Photoshop, Capture One, or even a free tool like Photos or Picasa – it’s a good idea to find an editing style that matches your photography style. I know the look I’m going for when I edit a portrait or headshot, which might be entirely different from what you prefer. Knowing how to achieve my particular style has taken me a while, but now I find that my editing is a lot quicker, because I start each photo with a particular set of steps:

  1. White Balance
  2. Tone
  3. Sharpening
  4. Vignette

These steps are quick, usually get me 90% of the way towards a finished image, and will often result in a finished portrait with no additional editing required. Let’s look at each step one by one:


This original is decent but it needs some tweaks before it’s good enough to give to my client.

Step 1: White Balance

One advantage of shooting in the RAW format is that you can calibrate the White Balance of your images afterwards, whereas shooting in JPG leaves you much less leeway to edit not just White Balance, but most other aspects of the photo as well. Of course, one drawback of shooting in RAW is that calibrating the White Balance can take a lot of time, but much of this can be mitigated by using Lightroom’s eyedropper tool (targeted adjustment tool) instead of fiddling with the sliders on your own.


To quickly adjust the White Balance, click the eyedropper icon, then find a part of your image that is neutral in color – think slightly gray instead of pure white. The eyedropper tool might not get you the perfect overall color, but it will quickly get you close to your target, after which you can adjust the Temperature and Tint sliders to your liking.

Another tip to speed things up is to click directly on the Temperature and Tint numbers and use the up/down arrows to adjust their values, or hold down the [shift] key while doing so to make larger incremental changes.

Step 2: Tone

After you get your initial White Balance set, it’s time to make some initial adjustments using the rest of the Basic panel in the Develop module. To get my particular look, I almost always start off with the following values. You can change each one quickly by highlighting the numbers, entering new values, and pressing [Tab] to move to the next set of numbers instantly.


Exposure 0, Contrast 0. I don’t change these values until I make the following adjustments you see below. Because they are global, and affect the entire image, that is not usually what I want to do right away. If the image is still too light or dark after doing the rest of the basic adjustments, I’ll increase or decrease exposure accordingly, but rarely do I need to adjust contrast and you’ll see why in the steps below.

Highlights -25. This helps even out the bright portions of the portrait so any spots that are a little bright are brought down a bit.

Shadows +20. This is a way of brightening just the dark parts of the portrait to bring out a little more color and definition.

Whites +20, Blacks -25. I use these sliders instead of adjusting the contrast because it gives me more granular control over the look and feel of my portraits. I’m essentially making the whites and blacks more pure, which helps give the portrait a richer look overall. Some people skip this step and make adjustments to the Tone Curve, but it’s all a matter of personal preference, though I usually find the white/black adjustments to be quicker.

Clarity -5. Most people bump up the clarity slider which essentially affects edge contrast mostly in the midtones, but I like a slightly more subdued look so I usually start by lowering it a few notches.

Vibrance 0 (zero). This slider mostly affects colors outside the normal range of human skin, so it can be useful if you shoot outdoors and want to make the nature colors pop. I leave it at zero as a general rule, and then adjust later as necessary.

Saturation +5. I usually like a bit more color to start things off, so I start with a small value increase here, and then go up or down as necessary.

I always start with these adjustments, and then tweak as necessary. The whole process only takes a minute and almost always results in an image that is dramatically improved over the initial import.


This image is already more vibrant than the initial picture even though most of the adjustments were very basic.

Step 3: Sharpen

After the color and tonal adjustments are finished, I almost always apply some degree of sharpening to the image. With portraits, it’s essential that the eyes be in focus and sharp, so the next thing after Basic adjustments, is to use the Detail panel to get the sharpening you want.


Click the targeting symbol in the top-left corner and then click on your subject’s eye to get a zoomed in view, then adjust your sharpening accordingly. I usually start with a value of 50 and then tweak additional parameters like Radius or Detail if I need to, but this basic adjustment is quick and usually gets me right near where I want.

I also apply a mask to the sharpening so it doesn’t apply to areas like faces. This helps keep the eyes sharp without adding unwanted texture to people’s skin. If you hold down the ALT key while you click the Masking slider you will see something like this (below). The white areas are where sharpening will be applied, the black areas will not. Use this to decide how far you want to take the masking on your portrait.


Step 4: Vignette

This one is a bit controversial – some people like vignettes, and some think they are an abomination unto modern photography, but as I said in the beginning this is all about finding a style and workflow that works for you. I usually add a slight vignette to my portraits, but if that’s not your thing then you can skip this step altogether. It’s not part of everyone’s five-minute workflow but it fits neatly in with mine, which is why I’m including it here. I only use a little bit of highlight priority, dark vignette, and try to keep the effect subtle.


That’s it – finished

Doing these four steps won’t always lead you to a finished portrait, but as the title of this article implies, you can usually get to a very nicely-edited portrait in under five minutes with these simple steps. You might have additional adjustments like adjustment brushes, spot removal, or red-eye corrections to do afterwards, but this will get most of the essentials out of the way.




After – subtle but you can see the differences

Save your settings as a Preset

One final way to speed things up even more is to create a preset based on your workflow, which you can then apply to all photos on import.


If you take this angle, be sure to err on the side of caution and be a bit more conservative with your edits when creating the preset. You probably won’t want want to apply the same dramatic alterations to every single photo, but if you do find yourself reusing the same workflow over and over it might be worth your time to do an import preset.

Alternatively, you can create a preset and apply it at will after import by right-clicking on any photo in the Develop module, and choosing your preset from the “Develop Presets” shortcut (or find it in the Develop Presets panel on the left side panel of Lightroom).

What quick portrait processing tips work for you? Are there any specific actions you have found that save you a great deal of time? Share your thoughts in the comments below, and any example images of what your finished portraits look like are always welcome.

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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