Portraits are among the most common images that photographers work with and are often times the most butchered images in post processing. In this article I’ll share some tips on how to edit portraits that flatter both your subject and you as the photographer!
Before we get started, I want to share a few quick tips that will form the foundation of basic portrait editing. Before you can edit a good picture you have to take one, so keep these things in mind.
1. Always shoot in whatever your highest RAW setting is for your camera. It gives you the most flexibility when editing images.
2. Always focus on your subjects eyes. If the eyes are blurry, no matter how epic the shot might be it’s not going to be a keeper. No amount of editing will fix a blurry shot.
3. Be sure to select the most flattering images of your subject to edit. While portraits allow you to flex your editing skills, nothing screams “amateur” louder than a highly stylized shot with a subject sporting a “deer in the headlights” look.
With these things in mind let me take you through a basic portrait retouch. I use a combination of Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop for all of my work and recommend you do too if high quality portrait edits are what you’re searching for. Here is the RAW, straight out of the camera image we’ll be working with.
Step 1. Basic editing in Lightroom
I mainly use Lightroom to select the images I want to edit (culling) and correcting the exposure to my particular tastes. If you have a series of similar images, only select the best one to spend your time editing. I typically only adjust Exposure, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, and very minute adjustments to the Presence category (no more than + 12 for any of those sliders). One of the things I also like to do is to zoom in on the subject’s eye to make sure I nailed the focus. In the image below you can see that the eye, eye lashes, and brows are all in sharp focus.
Once I get the exposure looking the way I want it I then right click on the photo and edit it with adjustments in Photoshop. Below is an example of what I would consider to be an acceptable edit in Lightroom and one that is way overdone.
Step 2: Removing Blemishes in Photoshop
Now that we have a nice, clean image to work with we can begin taking care of blemishes. This would include any stray hairs, spots on clothing, etc etc. I do this primarily with the spot healing brush, sampling areas that are nearby and similar in texture. Always make a copy of your main layer (background layer) and apply adjustments to it. In this way you can always go back to the original image if you mess up. Sometimes I make a blank layer and make notes as to what I want to clean up just for reference. You can see an example of that below.
Using the spot healing brush, I sample areas of skin close to the areas that I am editing. I pay particular attention to select areas of skin that have texture, since I want to retain as much skin texture as possible. Here is the before and after using just the spot healing brush.
Step 3: Add Some Style
At this point we have a nice, clean edit. I would be perfectly happy delivering an image like this to a client, but there are still some things you can do to stylize your image. One way is to apply a color balance adjustment layer and tweak the colors. You can see the result of some minor changes to the sliders below.
Lastly, I apply a selective color adjustment layer to make my final tweaks.
And here is our final image.
In portraiture maintaining skin texture is very important. Far too often I see portraits where the photographer has “overcooked” the image and blurred the skin so much that they no longer look human. You may look at my edit here and say “it doesn’t look much different than when you started”, and that’s exactly what I want! I don’t want someone to look at a portrait I took and say “nice edit”. I want them to say “nice image”. Note the difference. As a photographer I want my edits to be as natural and unnoticeable as possible. The other thing that I hope you noticed is that the RAW image looked fairly good right out of the camera. A few basic tweaks in Lightroom could potentially produce an image that would look just fine as a small print.
Hopefully I’ve demonstrated that you don’t necessarily need plugins, actions, etc to make a nice portrait. If you’re just starting out master the basics first, and as your work progresses you’ll learn additional techniques that will help you achieve better images. If you only take away one point from this article, let it be the fact that in portrait editing less is more.