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How to Edit RAW Portraits in Lightroom

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What’s the best way to edit RAW portraits in Lightroom? Is there one correct way to do this?

As with many aspects of photography, there is no right or wrong way. What is most important is being intentional with the edits you do make. Start with a clear idea of what you want the completed photo to look like.

You want to feel satisfied when you’re done. You’ll also want your subject to appreciate the portraits you’ve taken of them.

In this article, I’ll walk you through some Lightroom techniques to help you create well post-processed portraits from your RAW files

Young Thai woman traditional dancer
© Kevin Landwer-Johan. Nikon D800, 105mm f/2.8, 1/400 sec, f/3, ISO 400, Manual Mode, Pattern Metering.

Know what you want – a realistic look or not

Whenever you start to edit RAW portraits you must decide first the style of photo you want to end up with. RAW files from modern cameras contain a huge amount of data. This data can be manipulated extensively in Lightroom to alter the appearance of the photo. 

It’s up to you how you edit. You can aim to work on the RAW file to get the photo looking as realistic as possible. Or you can alter it in such a way it’s transformed into a very different-looking image from the unedited RAW file.

Your intention will guide you to achieve the look you want. If you’re not sure how you want the finished photo to look, you can waste a lot of time messing around.

Keeping in the style of how you lit and composed the portrait is the easiest approach to take. 

To edit RAW portraits created with soft light and a warm feeling, you’ll often want to retain the feeling of the photo when you make your adjustments. It would the same for a portrait lit with hard lighting with a more dramatic look. 

Editing in Lightroom, you have the opportunity to alter the image to achieve the look you want. Knowing what you want is a good first step – even before you open Lightroom.

To illustrate the process I use, I will aim to produce a natural-looking edit of this portrait.

RAW file image for article edit RAW portraits

White balance for correct skin tone

Most of the time, I have my camera’s white balance set to Auto. I find this setting produces photos with correct colors most of the time.

With RAW files, it’s easy to correct the white balance when it’s a little off. I will start with the eyedropper tool and click it in a neutral area. If there’s not suitable white in the photo, I’ll pick a grey area.

In this photo, I needed to adjust the Temp slider towards the left because the eyedropper overcompensated for the slightly cool tone of the original. I have made the adjustment so her skin tone looks as natural as possible.

for edit RAW portraits article

Crop and straighten

Next, I crop and straighten the photo. I prefer to crop my portraits early in the editing process, so I only see what I want.

This portrait needed very little cropping. There was a bright area on the left that was distracting. I have cropped this out and, in doing so, the model’s right eye is closer to the one-third guideline on the right of the image.

When I crop, I am looking to eliminate parts of the photo that don’t add to it. I also look to improve the shape of the composition.

Crop image example for edit RAW portraits article

Correct highlights and shadows

Portraits taken outdoors in the shade, as this one is, often have a limited tone range. They do not contain much difference in tone value between the brightest and darkest areas. This makes them easier to work with than portraits made in hard light.

My model’s hair is very black, but it looks dull. Moving the black slider to the left darkens her hair a little too much. I then use the Shadows adjustment slider and move it to the right. This brings back some of the detail while retaining the blacks.

When you edit RAW portraits, you must consider how the brightest areas of the photo look as well. In this picture, I am happy with the look of the highlights, so I have not made any adjustments to them.

Highlights can be challenging to adjust and keep them looking clean. If you have very overexposed highlights and attempt to adjust them with the Highlights and/or Whites sliders, take care they do not end up looking grey. It’s best only to make adjustments when there is actually detail in those areas.

adjust the shadows for article on edit RAW portraits

Removing spots and blemishes

This young woman has beautiful skin and applies her make up very well. There’s not much post-processing required. Often this is not the case. People will often have small blemishes on their skin. Removing them will not change the feel of the portrait, but it will help your subject feel better about themselves.

When I edit RAW portraits in Lightroom, I use the Spot Removal tool and zoom into my photo to the area I want to work on. Adjust the size of the tool so it’s a little larger than the spot you want to remove. Simply click on the spot and Lightroom removes it. 

Check to see the area you edit blends well. On smooth skin, Lightroom usually does a great job of this. Sometimes there will be some noticeable contrast in the area you apply the brush too. If it’s too obvious, undo that step, adjust the brush size a little, and try again.

Close up example for spot removal

Fine-tune with the adjustment brush

The Adjustment Brush is a powerful tool to use when you edit RAW portraits. You can use it to diminish or remove wrinkles, enhance eyes, whiten teeth and a whole lot more. Here I’ll show you how I use it in some of these ways.

Soften dark bags under eyes

As I begin to paint with the Adjustment Brush, I push the Exposure slider to the far left or right. This allows me to see clearly the area that I am painting over. 

Adjustment brush example for edit RAW portraits article

Once I have the part of the image painted that I want to work on, it looks pretty terrible, as in this example.

Now, I’ll work with the various sliders to bring up the dark parts I’ve painted over so there’s not so much contrast. Doing this, be careful not to overcompensate and make these shadows look unnaturally light.

Adjustment brush close up example

Whitening teeth

Paint over the teeth with the adjustment brush. Be as precise as possible and not cover any of the lips or gums.

To make the teeth look clean and white, I use a combination of sliders. I start with the Exposure Slider as it will often make the teeth look good. You can also make use of the Dehaze and Temp sliders. Dehaze will lighten and soften dark areas. Moving the Temp slider to the left will reduce yellowing.

Close up of teeth

Brightening eyes

It’s important to edit RAW portraits so your subject’s eyes look right. Too much editing, or not being careful enough when you do edit eyes, can ruin a portrait. 

In my example portrait, I have made minimal changes. There are so many tutorials available about editing eyes that I will not go into detail for this article. 

All I have done on this portrait is to brighten the whites of her eyes using the Adjustment Brush. I have painted the whites of her eyes and boosted the exposure slightly. This was enough. 

Dark-colored eyes are more challenging to manipulate than lighter colored eyes. With light eyes, you can alter the color of the iris and control the way the eyes look more than with dark eyes.

close up of eyes

Conclusion

The possibilities when you edit RAW portraits are almost limitless. Knowing the look you want helps you keep on track and saves you time.

Duplicating a file in Lightroom allows you to make copies to experiment with. Right-click the photo and choose Create Virtual Copy. Now you’re free to experiment with a completely different look and feel for your photo.

Being intentional as you edit and not pushing any slider to it’s extreme will help you create better-looking portraits in Lightroom.

Do you have any other tips for editing RAW portraits in Lightroom that you’d like to share? Perhaps you’d like to share your resulting images with us? Please do so in the comments!

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Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

is a professional photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience.

Kevin is offering DPS readers a FREE copy of his new e-book Photographing People – A Guide For Shy Photographers. To enjoy more of his photography and writing, please visit his website.