Updated: Nov 26, 2021
Streamlined Portrait Editing
Years ago, when I started editing in Lightroom, I felt like I’d hit a goldmine! Suddenly I could transform an average (or even poorly exposed) photo into what I considered to be a masterpiece.
Did my editing process take forever with so many panels and options? Yes.
Did my editing style keep evolving as I learned? Yes.
Did I finally streamline both my shooting and editing processes? You guessed it... yes!
At one point, I went through nearly every panel of Lightroom to edit a single image, tweaking this or that. Thankfully those days are behind me, and they can be for you, too.
I’m going to explain the portrait editing process I use today. Polishing a single image used to take a long time; now it only takes 5 minutes... or less!
Everything below is a perfect example of what continuing education can do. I never stop learning ways to improve my photography, and I’m happy to offer my skills to other photographers through mentoring!
Lay the Foundation
Before I walk you through the editing steps, there are two foundational pieces to keep in mind and learn. White balance and trying to get things right while you’re shooting. Efficient editing starts with effective shooting.
I know it’s easy to use auto white balance, especially when you’re first starting out. But when you can, experiment with the white balance a bit. It can speed up your editing time later, by using the proper white balance settings or temperature.
Why do I care about white balance? White balance is the setting that tells my camera what white should look like in the photo. If the camera knows what true white should look like, then your photo will have true-to-life colors. That's especially important for accurate skin tones, which is what portrait photography is all about. And with accurate skin tones straight-out-of-camera, I don't have to spend time correcting errors in my shooting technique.
I shoot with strobe lights in my studio and I use off-camera flash when I’m on location, so my white balance is always set for flash on the Kelvin scale. This saves me from needing to adjust the white balance and temperate during editing and is especially helpful when shooting in multiple outdoor locations.
Get it Right in Camera
When I say “get it right in camera,” I'm not belittling the novice who is trying their best and just learning. We’ve all been there. We’ve all messed up during shoots and had to fix things later in editing. And like everything else, it gets easier with each shoot.
When I mentor fellow photographers or students, I try to explain that “getting it right in camera” is never going to be perfect. But getting it as close to perfect as you can in-camera is going to save so much time when it comes time to edit.
If you see something out of place on a subject, fix it before taking the photo. Look for the stray hair or random thread and adjust it. If there is a distracting object in the frame, move the subject or yourself to get a better angle.
By taking a few extra minutes to fix things before clicking the shutter, you’ll save yourself loads of time when it’s time to edit.
In the end, my goal is to click the shutter and create the photograph that I see in my head. I never want to say to myself, "I'll save this in editing. I can fix it later." That's a waste of time and energy. Instead, create the photo that you see in your mind's eye and then polish it to perfection later.
Editing in Lightroom
After shooting, I cull through the images in Lightroom, using the flag indicators to mark yes or no for the “keepers.”
I crop all images I’m keeping to a 5x7 in the Develop module. This crop size works well for all print sizes, especially for the kinds of prints I deliver to my clients.
I do basic adjustments for exposure, highlights, and shadows. In this step, I’m looking for integrity in skin tones. I want to maintain detail and realistic tone from dark to light.
I edit with my clipping warning “on” in the histogram window to make sure I don’t have pure black or pure white in the image. In doing this, I’m making sure highlights and shadows still have detail.
The last thing I do in Lightroom is to even out any overly light or dark areas by subtly using the gradient tool.
Editing in Photoshop
After the basic adjustments have been made in Lightroom, I open the image from the Lightroom panel directly into Photoshop.
In Photoshop, I start with blemish removal by using the spot healing tool. If it’s a more complicated blemish removal, then I might use the healing brush tool or clone stamp to sample nearby skin.
Next, I move on to dodging and burning. I use the history brush rather than the dodge and burn tool. The regular dodge and burn tools don't always work well with the colors in a photo, so they can make spots look more gray rather than keeping the color integrity.
To dodge, I have my history brush flow setting at 3% and the mode is set to "screen." In most portraits, because of the way our skulls are shaped, the space between the eyebrows and just above the nose is typically a little dark. I like to even that space out by lightly dodging that area. Sometimes I brighten up near the eyebrows, under the eyes, and make a quick pass over the eyes if they’re a little dark.
To tone down some of the brighter areas, I still work with the history brush at 3% flow, but I change the mode to "multiply," which darkens. I make slight adjustments to anything that’s a bit too bright.
Depending on the subject, I might sharpen the eyes and eyelashes. For this, I have an action set for an unsharp mask. It sharpens the whole picture, but then I put an inverse mask over it so that nothing has been sharpened. Then I paint over the areas that I want a little extra sharpening. I typically do this on the eyes and eyelashes, and it’s very subtle.
The last bit of cleanup I might do is with the liquify tool. I use this on occasion if a shirt has creases or fabric needs to be smoothed out or if I need to do a little body-shaping here or there.
From here, I save the image and return it to Lightroom for exporting.
Subtlety is Key
My retouching process from start to finish is simply to polish a portrait. I do this for the level of professionalism I strive for and to help everyone look like their ideal selves.
When you see a loved one, you overlook the slight wrinkles they have on their neck or forehead or the blemish they may have had on a certain day. Since printed photographs last forever, and we stare at them when they’re on display, I do smooth out details someone might not love about themselves.
I never edit to alter someone’s appearance. I simply edit in a way that makes them look like their best self. Subtlety is key.
Want to learn more?
I host photography mentoring classes on Zoom! You can check out my mentoring page here.
You can also watch a video of me editing portraits, two of which are featured in this blog. Just scroll down, and the video will play.
Want to read more?
I also have more educational blogs here.