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Step by Step Portrait Processing in Lightroom

Portrait processing in Lightroom

The story

When you are photographing someone who enjoys being in front of the camera, take advantage of it. This was a simple portrait to take and its strength comes from the model’s spirit, not fancy technique. I’ve worked with her before and know that she is good at creating different facial expressions. I asked her to give me a series and every time she changed her expression I took another photo. Experienced models will pose, pause until you take the photo, and then move onto the next one, making your job as a portrait photographer much easier.

You can’t see it in this photo but the model was holding a silver reflector slightly beneath her shoulders. The reflected daylight created a wonderful clean lighting effect that made processing the portrait much easier.

First steps

Here’s the original portrait as it appeared straight out of the camera. It was taken with an 85mm lens set to f/1.8, throwing the background out of focus.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

I knew from the start that I wanted the model’s expression to be the focal point of the portrait. The use of a short telephoto lens and a wide aperture has partly achieved that, but the photo required more work. The first task was to tackle the background. Although out of focus, its brightness was a big distraction. My main job here was to make the background darker so the viewer’s eye goes straight to the model.

My hope today is that by following this tutorial and applying the techniques I used to your own photos, you will learn how to create better portraits in Lightroom.

Step 1: Basic adjustments

I prepared the photo by going to the Camera Calibration panel and setting Profile to Camera Portrait. Next I went to the Lens Corrections panel and enabled Chromatic Aberration removal and Profile Corrections, setting Vignetting to zero.

I wanted clean, neutral skin tones, so I went to the Basic panel and moved the Temp slider slightly (from 4850 to 4520) to remove the warm tint.

Step 2: Add a vignette using the Radial Filter

Next I used the Radial Filter tool to make the background darker. I placed the filter so that the top half surrounded the model’s face and shoulders. In this position the Radial Filter can be used to make the area either side and above the model darker, without affecting the bottom part of the portrait. I set Exposure to -4.0 to see the area affected by the adjustment.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

When I was happy with the position of the Radial Filter I reset Exposure to zero, then reduced it until the background went quite dark. I also set Saturation to -70 to remove colour from the background. How much you push the Exposure slider in this situation is always subjective. Some of you will want to retain a fair amount of detail in the background, others will be content to make it go completely black.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

Note: Radial filters are new to Lightroom 5. In earlier versions the best way to achieve a similar effect would be to place a Graduated Filter on either side of the model, and use Adjustment Brush adjustments to fill in the gaps. An alternative technique is to use the Post-Crop Vignetting tool, and lighten any areas that are too dark (such as the model’s shoulders in this example) with the Adjustment Brush tool.

Step 3: Refine the vignette with the Adjustment Brush

While the Radial Filter is an excellent tool for making backgrounds darker, it’s not perfect. The feathering required for a gradual transition may leave some areas of the background close to the subject too light. In this case there were still areas around the hood that were a little bright.

So I used the Adjustment Brush tool to select those areas and reduced Exposure (to -0.65) to make them darker. I didn’t have to be precise with the placement of the Adjustment Brush as the background was already quite dark and out of focus.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

Tip: If you find that the use of the Adjustment Brush is obvious, try setting Feather to 100 and Flow to 50%. This lets you build up the effect little by little instead of doing it all in one brush stroke.

Step 4: Retouching with the Adjustment Brush

This portrait didn’t need much retouching, but there were still a couple of things I wanted to do. The first was to minimize the lines under the model’s eyes. Note that I didn’t want to get rid of them completely, as they are a natural part of her expression. The lines were created by her smile and winking action, and removing them would look unnatural.

I used the Adjustment Brush tool (zoomed in), and carefully painted over the lines under her eyes. I kept the brush size small so as not to affect the neighbouring areas.

Then I selected the Soften Skin preset from the Effect menu. Lightroom applied the skin smoothing effect at full strength by setting Clarity to -100 and Sharpness to +25. This was too strong. To reduce it, I clicked on the pin that marked the Adjustment Brush, held the left mouse button down and dragged the mouse left. Lightroom reduced the intensity of the effect by moving the Clarity and Sharpness sliders in proportion (this technique works with any setting from the Effect menu). I stopped when it looked right (Clarity -45, Sharpness +11).

Portrait processing in Lightroom

I created a new Adjustment Brush to cover the model’s eyes, mouth and eyebrows. I pushed the Clarity slider to +40 to bring a bit of extra sharpness and contrast to those areas. The screen shot shows the areas covered by the Adjustment Brush.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

Step 5: Framing the portrait

The model’s hood creates a natural frame for her face and is an essential part of the composition. I decided to emphasize it by using Clarity to bring out the texture of the fur.

I created another selection using the Adjustment Brush tool and increased Clarity (to 56), Contrast (to 22) and Exposure (to 0.26). The hood is a frame that draw the viewer’s eye to the centre of the frame, and these adjustments help to emphasize it. I needed to find the balance between emphasis and distraction; highlighting the beautiful texture of the fur lined hood without pulling too much attention away from the model’s expression. This screen shot shows the area covered by the Adjustment Brush.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

Next I went to the Basic panel and reduced Vibrance to -14 to de-emphasize the colours a little more. Finally, I used a small Adjustment Brush to lighten the edge of the model’s right shoulder, which had been darkened by the Radial Filter adjustment earlier. The area covered by the Adjustment Brush is shown in the screen shot.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

Comparing before and after results

Here are the original and final versions together so you can compare them.

Portrait processing in Lightroom

What do you think of these processing techniques? There’s more than one way to process most photos – do you have any suggestions for an alternative interpretation of the original Raw file? Please let me know in the comments.

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Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!