This article will walk you through some tips for how to set up a basic portrait post-processing workflow that can help you save time and stay organized.
When you’re new to photography, everything is exciting. Every time you come home with a full memory card, it’s a mad rush to the computer to see what you have captured. You’re eager to see every image and each one is treated as a separate entity with every technique you’ve come across. This is great. That excitement is what will keep you moving forward with photography and it is how you rapidly learn and grow as a photographer. That’s how it was with me, at any rate.
What happens, however, as you start taking more and more images? For example, regular portrait sessions a couple times a week can lead to an overwhelming amount of photographs. Approaching every frame as an individual becomes time-consuming and inefficient. If you’re not careful, you’ll have a backlog of images going back months and months. Often, many of your photos will be forgotten at the wayside.
The solution to this problem is to develop a portrait post-processing workflow.
In the simplest terms possible, a workflow is a checklist of repeatable actions that you work through as you go through a task. If it helps, in business the equivalent be would systems and in manufacturing, it could be compared to an assembly line.
You can have a workflow for any part of the photographic process, from planning and coordinating sessions to setting up and tearing down equipment and finally the post-processing stage.
This article will outline the steps of the post-processing workflow that I’ve been using on my portraits for a few years.
Because every photographer has their own way of importing, organizing and editing their images in Lightroom (and other software), this article starts at the beginning of the post-processing stage for individual images. It assumes you will have already imported your photos into Lightroom and you have already edited (culled) down to the keepers.
This workflow uses both Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Each program offers its own strengths. To take advantage of them, consider using both with the Adobe Photographer membership.
The first step is to conduct any color corrections to your image. I do this in one of two ways. The first involves a ColorChecker Passport. If you don’t have one, just skip past it (or purchase one here on Amazon.com and follow along).
Xrite ColorChecker Passport
In your Lightroom catalog, find the photo you took with the ColorChecker Passport in it. Go to File>Export and export the image as a DNG to a folder where you can find it.
Now open the software that came with your Xrite ColorChecker Passport, and import the DNG you just exported into it.
The software does a pretty good job of aligning the photo to the ColorChecker, but if it fails, just follow the instructions on the screen.
Press the Create Profile button and give it a name that has something to do with the images you are going to be working on. For example, if you’re working on portraits of Jane Doe in a wedding dress which you took on April 15th of 2017, you could name the profile: JaneDoeWeddingDress041517. That’s optional, of course, but it will help you should you decide to revisit these photos in six months time.
Now, reopen Lightroom, find the image of the ColorChecker Passport, and open it in the Develop Module. Scroll down the panels on the right until you find the Calibration tab.
At the top, there will be the word Profile followed by Adobe Standard. Click there and choose the profile name that you just made in the external software (in the example below I called it “PortraitWorkflow”.
This process has built a custom color profile, individual to the lighting present in the scene. This is a vital step if you want to get the most accurate colors in your photographs.
White balance with the ColorChecker Passport
In the right-hand panel, scroll back up to the top basic panel. Select the eyedropper. To correct the white balance in your image, click in any of the white or gray boxes on the ColorChecker in your image. That will correct your white balance automatically. Each box will have a different effect on your images, so feel free to go through them all to see which works best, or which you prefer.
Press CTRL/CMD+Shift+C and in the dialog box click the Check None box. Tick off only the boxes for Calibration and White Balance, and then click Copy.
With your settings copied, you can go back to the Library Module and select all of the photos that you want these settings applied to. Select them and press CTRL/CMD+Shift+V to do this.
Make sure you deselect the group of images afterwards by pressing CTRL/CMD+D.
White balance in Lightroom
If you don’t have a ColorChecker Passport, you can set your white balance manually by using the eyedropper (click on something neutral in the image) and sliders at the top of the Basic tab. Once you’re done, you can copy and paste the settings to the other images in your set as described above.
The next step is to find the Lens Corrections tab and click both the Enable Profile Corrections box and the Remove Chromatic Aberration box.
Doing this will correct any distortion caused by your lenses and it will usually deal with any chromatic aberrations. It’s a simple step, but it can make a world of difference to your final images.
Before you move on, however, always zoom in and move around your image looking for any chromatic aberrations (look at the edges of the image) the software failed to correct. It’s usually very good, but sometimes it will fail in tricky lighting situations where there’s a lot of backlighting. For portraits, pay close attention to catch lights in the eyes. If you find any chromatic aberrations there, simply go to the Manual section of the Lens Correction tab, choose the eyedropper and click into any color halos that you find.
For portraits, I try to keep my basic adjustments at this stage to a minimum. I will use the exposure slider as needed, the White and Black sliders minimally, keep the Clarity slider between +15 and -15, and often reduce the Vibrance to -10.
The reason for keeping these adjustments minimal is that they are global adjustments (apply to the entire image). I prefer to work with local adjustments in Photoshop, which give you much more control over the image. But, it is also possible to do local adjustments in Lightroom using the Adjustment Brush, Radial Filter and Graduated Filter if you would prefer.
NOTE: When working on proofs to send to clients so they can make their final image selections, this is where I usually stop. There is little need to spend up to an hour retouching a photo that will never see the light of day. Colour corrections and maybe a few small contrast adjustments are almost always enough at this point.
Black and White (optional)
If you intend to work in black and white and you like doing your conversions in Lightroom, this is the stage where I do the conversion process using the black and white sliders.
If you intend or prefer to do your conversion in Photoshop, then skip this part and make it the first step once your image is opened inside Photoshop.
With the Raw processing complete, it’s time to export (or open) your image into Photoshop. Press CTRL/CMC+Shift+E to bring up the Export dialogue box. Choose a location and name appropriate to your own organizational system and export the image as a TIF or PSD (either of those formats will retain all your layers when you save your work). Close Lightroom and open your image in Photoshop.
NOTE: Alternatively you can open your RAW file directly from Lightroom into Photoshop by right-clicking the image and selecting: Edit In > Edit in Adobe Photoshop – OR – Edit In > Open as Smart Object in Photoshop.
The first step of this workflow in Photoshop is to remove temporary blemishes from your subject’s skin. Create a new empty layer by pressing CTRL/CMD+Shift+N and pressing OK.
You can use either the Spot Healing Brush Tool or the Healing Brush Tool, or a combination of both. Once you’ve selected your tool, ensure that the All Layers option is selected in the drop-down menu labeled Sample. Also, ensure that you are working on the new empty layer (you just created above) in order to keep things non-destructive.
While using the healing brushes, zoom in to at least 200% on your image and use a brush that is only slightly larger than the blemish you are trying to remove. If you are using the Healing Brush tool, take a new sample after every click by pressing Alt/Option+Click to ensure the best results.
How far you go is going to be a matter of personal preference. I like to limit this step to only temporary blemishes and leave scars and beauty marks unless I’m asked to remove them by the subject.
Note: It is possible to remove blemishes in Lightroom, but it is a time consuming and awkward process compared to Photoshop in my opinion. If Lightroom works better for you, go ahead and use it.
Although we already covered color corrections in the first step, I like to revisit it at this stage. For example, in this image, the background is still too warm for my taste. Create a new Hue/Saturation adjustment layer.
In the Properties tab, find the icon that looks like a pointing hand. Click it and then find a place in the image you want to adjust the colors. In this image, it’s in the background.
Now adjust the sliders in the Hue/Saturation Layer until it has the desired effect on the color you are trying to change.
In this image, the background and the subject shared a lot of the same warmth. To keep them separate, use a layer mask. Click into the layer mask on your Hue/Saturation layer and press CTRL/CMD+I to invert it (hide all).
Now select the Brush tool (B) and set your foreground color to white and your opacity and flow to 100%. Paint into the areas (on the mask not the layer) you want to be affected by your Hue/Saturation layer. If you mess up, just switch your foreground color to black and paint over the mistake.
Dodging and burning
The next step is to deal with contrast. Instead of using the contrast sliders at the raw processing stage, it is best to use a technique like dodging and burning for small, local adjustments to get the most control over your images. There are a lot of different methods for dodging and burning, but I prefer the gray layer method.
By using multiple layers, you can obtain really fine control over the contrast and the tones in specific parts of your image with little effort. For example, you can have a set of layers for skin tones, another set for the clothes, a set for hair, and another set for eyes all independently adjusted. You can learn how to dodge and burn here.
High Pass Filter
The last step of my workflow before saving is to use a High Pass filter to sharpen things up a bit. To use the High Pass filter, merge all of your existing layers into a new one by pressing CTRL/CMD+alt+Shift+E. Zoom into 100%, select the layer that was just created, and go to Filter>Other> High Pass.
As long as you are working with a high-resolution file, set the radius between two and five. If you’re working with a smaller file, move the slider to the left until the preview image looks like a faint outline of your original image (as seen below). Press OK.
On the Layer Palette, change the blending mode to Soft Light or Overlay. This is more personal preference than anything, but Overlay will give a far more pronounced effect than Soft Light. I prefer Soft Light for portraits and Overlay for other subjects. The last step is to reduce the opacity of the High Pass layer. Zoom into 100% and move the opacity slider to the left until you can barely see the effect.
Saving your image
When the image is finished it’s time to save it. This will different for everyone depending on your own organizational system, but I prefer to save files as 16-bit TIFFs with layers intact. Doing this means that you can go back and adjust any part post-processing at any time. It also means you can go back to your full resolution file at any time to create smaller images for web use and the like without potentially losing them. The downside to this is that 16-bit TIFF files can get very large and they do take up a fair amount of hard drive space, but to me, the peace of mind is worth it.
In the end
The amount of time it takes to get through this workflow varies from image to image. Some photos take five minutes, others take closer to an hour. Overall, having a workflow like this will save you countless hours of work. Knowing exactly what steps you’re going to take before you sit down removes a lot of guesswork and saves time. This is invaluable when you start doing sessions a couple times a week.
Obviously, this exact workflow may not be for you. However, I encourage giving it a try and then developing your own workflow that fits in with your style and existing skills.
Table of contents
- ADVANCED GUIDES
- CREATIVE TECHNIQUES
- Basic Portrait Post-Processing Workflow Tips to Help You Save Time and Stay Organized