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Yes Please

Editing portraits in Adobe Lightroom is both rewarding and fun; Lightroom is fundamentally different to other editing software in that it involves a totally non-destructive workflow.

This means that when you digitally poke someone in the face to make an edit in Lightroom, the actual photo file is never altered. Instead, as you appear to edit it on-screen, you’re actually just compiling a list of instructions that will be acted upon when you export it in its final format.

In practice, this means you can always revert to any stage in the editing process for any portrait and as there is no concept of having to ‘save’ your images in Lightroom, it’s a very liberating workflow that encourages experimentation.

It does have some limitations, of course—unlike Photoshop, Lightroom doesn’t support layers so extreme editing such as head swapping between photos is not possible but Lightroom does make many of the most common editing tasks very easy without dumbing it down into a one-button ‘fix my portrait’ style of operation.

In this article, we’ll take an example portrait and walk through many of the adjustments you might most commonly want to make using a selection of Lightroom’s tools.

Before You Edit

It’s important to understand that no software can put information back into the photo that was missing when it was taken—for example as a result of blown-out highlights or out-of-focus areas.

For the best results, you should be aiming to capture as much detail and get as much right in-camera as possible so that you don’t have to waste time later trying to compensate for basic errors when you’re sat at the computer. So before we look at how to retouch photos, it’s worth reviewing a few basic tips that will help you get the best results straight from the camera.

Basic Shooting Tips For Portraits

    1. Make sure your subject’s face is in sharp focus. It’s common to use a fairly wide aperture (small f-number) in portrait photography in order to blur the background but at very wide apertures, this can mean that your subject has a sharply focused nose and not-so-sharply focused eyes. Use the centre focus point and place it over one of the subject’s eyes. If you can’t get both eyes in focus at the same time, select the eye nearest to the camera.
    2. If you’re holding the camera, avoid motion blur by using a fast shutter speed. This will be limited by the lighting conditions and the lens you use. If your lens has image stabilisation (Canon) or vibration reduction (Nikon), using it will help you overcome camera shake and get a sharper image, but if your subject is moving (as is sometimes the case in candid shots) a fast shutter speed is often essential. If you’re shooting from a tripod, turn the image stabilisation off. You can use Lightroom to blur a background but you can’t use it to make a blurry image sharp.
    3. Watch out for strong areas of contrast and ugly shadows falling across the face. If possible, move your subject out of strong direct sunlight into the shade. Lightroom can make local adjustments to the brightness of an image using dodge and burn but it’s generally  easier to avoid difficult lighting at the time rather than spending time trying to fix it in post.
    4. Be on the alert for distracting background objects. Lightroom can remove objects you don’t want in the scene if there is enough ‘good’ image from which to clone but it can be a tedious process at times and is therefore best avoided.
    5. Always shoot RAW. Although Lightroom will enable you to edit JPEG images, it’s important to understand that much of the information in the original image has been drastically pared down in order to make a JPEG image and this leaves little headroom to adjust the tones in your image without the danger of introducing banding effects. RAW images have a huge amount of information in them and they are far more forgiving when it comes to editing. JPEG is the end of the workflow—not the start of it.
    6. Don’t crop too tightly when taking the photo. Instead, allow yourself a little room around the edges. This will give you more flexibility when cropping in Lightroom.
    7. Encourage your subjects not to have their shoulders square-on to the camera. You generally want to avoid taking a passport-style portrait.
    8. If possible, set your camera to continuous shooting and take a burst of photos. It’s amazing how many people manage to blink or gurn at the precise instant you expose your sensor.
    9. Avoid using wide-angle lenses close to the subject. Lightroom can make lens distortion corrections but it’s generally better to use a longer focal length further from your subject; you’ll get much less distortion this way.

[For even more tips on setting up and taking portrait photos, see our Complete Guide to Portrait Photography —Ed.]

Organising Your Photos in Lightroom

As you begin to accumulate more and more photos, it becomes increasingly important that you know where to find them. Different people have different ways to organise their photos and Lightroom can easily adapt to a number of different strategies:

Folders

If you have been used to working with other editing software, it’s likely that you’ll have already organised your photos into a number of folders and you may even have a folder especially for portraits. If this is the case, you can simply import your existing folder(s) into Lightroom from the Folders panel.

Example screenshot of the Folders panel in the Library Module of Adobe Lightroom

The Folders panel in the Library Module lets you quickly see all the drives and folders that Lightroom knows about.

When you twirl open the Folders panel, you will be presented with an overview of all the hard drives (internal and external) that Lightroom knows about. In the screenshot above, you can see the computer’s main internal hard drive called ‘Macintosh HD’ which contains a folder under Users called ‘Loraine’ that has sub-folders called ‘Desktop’ and ‘ImageMatters’.

You can also see two external drives called ‘Images’ and ‘PHOTOS MAIN’ together with their folders. Notice that each drive name has a green light next to it. This indicates that the drive still has plenty of space to hold more photos. As a drive begins to fill up, this light will turn amber and eventually red.

To the right of each drive name, you can optionally display more information about the drive. Right-click the drive name and you’ll see an info drop-down box. In this example, the Disk Space option has been selected so that the total capacity and used space can be seen without having to resort to Finder or Windows File Explorer.

If you don’t see a folder you know should be displayed, just click the ‘+’ button in the top right corner and then select ‘Add Folder’. Navigate to the folder you want to add and in the import dialogue make sure you select the ‘Add’ option.

This will add the photos from that folder to your current catalogue without moving or copying them anywhere else. If a folder no longer contains any photos, you can select it and then click the ‘-‘ button to remove it.

Once you have your folders organised in the folders panel, you will no longer need to use Finder or File Explorer to manage them. Lightroom enables you to drag photos from one folder to another, rename folders and perform all the housekeeping you need right from the Folders panel.

Clicking on a folder name will display its contents instantly on screen. To see the contents of more than one folder at a time, command-click (Mac) or CTRL-click (PC) a selection of folders whose photos you wish to see.

Although organising by folders works for some people, it can sometimes be restrictive and confusing. Depending on the naming convention used, a given photo may be a candidate for more than one folder and that would mean having to copy a given photo to each folder that might be considered suitable —this is, of course, a bad idea. Not only is it confusing, it wastes disk space. Duplicating the master photo should only be done for backup reasons.

Collections

Whereas folders are actual locations on your hard drive, collections are virtual and far more flexible than folders. Of course every photo has to be in some folder somewhere on your computer but collections are different in that they just  pull together a number of photos in a named list or ‘Collection’.

The big advantage of using collections is that you only need one master photo that resides in just one folder but that photo can be in an unlimited number of different collections.

Collections are so flexible they really deserve a tutorial of their own but for now, we’ll just consider making a simple ‘Portraits’ collection. Creating a collection is done using the ‘+’ button on the Collections panel in the Library Module. This will display a pop-up from which you can create one of three kinds of collection.

Example screenshot of Collection Sets in Adobe Lightroom

A Collection Set is a container for other collections, a Smart Collection automatically contains photos that meet pre-defined criteria and a Standard Collection is one to which you drag any photos you select.

Select the ‘Create Collection’ option and name your collection something appropriate such as ‘Portraits’.

TIP: If you prepend the collection name by the underscore character as shown below, the collection name will appear towards the top of the alphabetical list of collection names.

Dialogue box for naming Collections in Adobe Lightroom

If you pre-select some of your existing portrait photos prior to creating the collection and you tick the ‘Include selected photos’ box as shown above, they will be automatically added to the new collection.

Once you’ve made a portraits collection, you can add any other photos to it at any time by dragging them onto the collection.

If you’ve just completed a dedicated portrait shoot, you can specify that photos are automatically added to your portrait collection by ticking the ‘Add to Collection’ box and selecting the collection in the File Handling section of the import dialogue box:

Import section of File Handling dialogue box in Adobe Lightroom

Another good reason to use collections is that unlike the Folders panel, the Collections panel is accessible from the Develop Module and clicking on a collection will populate the filmstrip with the photos in that collection.

Keywords

Another way to organise your portrait photos is to give them appropriate keywords—one of which should probably be ‘Portrait’. This is most easily done as part of the import process using the ‘Apply During Import’ panel:

Example of applying keywords in Apply During Import panel in Adobe Lightroom

Simply type the keywords into the panel. If you want to add several words, separate them by commas. Be careful to observe the use of upper and lower case because Lightroom will treat ‘portrait’ and ‘Portrait’ as two separate words. When you want to find the photos to which you’ve added key words, open the ‘Keyword List’ panel and find the keyword you’ve assigned.

Example of keyword list panel in Adobe Lightroom

The screenshot above shows that there are 510 photos that have the key word ‘Portrait’ and the tick indicates the currently selected photo has this key word assigned. If you want to add this key word to another photo or photos simply select them and then click the tick box next to the Portrait key word.

As you hover your mouse over a key word, you’ll see a white arrow appear as shown above. If you click this arrow, Lightroom will activate the Library filter to only show photos with this key word. To see all your photos again, select ‘None’ in the Library Filter at the top of the screen.

The problem with keywording is that it can be rather tedious and many people don’t bother to keep their keywords up-to-date. Techniques like keyword hierarchies can help but there is a better way to handle keywording for portraits, and that’s to use Lightroom’s facial recognition feature.

People View

You probably already own a camera that can recognise and track faces. Similar algorithms are now used in Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC to detect faces in photos you’ve already taken. This can be a great time saver if you have thousands of faces in your catalogue.

To activate People View, click the face icon in the Library toolbar. If this is not visible, tap the ‘T’ key to show it. You can also activate the People View using the ‘O’ keyboard shortcut.

Example screenshot of library toolbar showing People View button in Adobe Lightroom

In Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC, a new People View button has been added to the library toolbar.

Example of People View in Adobe Lightroom

People View separates photos into named and un-named groups as you put names to faces and automatically stacks photos of the same person together.

Lightroom will then ask you if you want it to scan for faces in your whole catalogue or just in the folders and collections you select. Scanning your whole catalogue may take a while but you can continue to work as this is a background task.

The advantage of using People View is that it groups similar looking people together so you can name people much faster. It does sometimes find faces in random patterns (a phenomenon known as ‘pareidolia’ in humans) but it’s generally very adept at recognising people. Not every photo found by People View will be ‘portrait material’ but it’s certainly worth trying it out if you have thousands of faces in your image library.

Apart from being able to use your subjects’ names as keywords, you can easily recall them all by clicking on the ‘People View’ button on the toolbar in the Library Module (shortcut key ‘O’).

How to Edit Portraits

If there’s one overriding guideline in basic photography editing it’s ‘don’t overdo it’. Most people are vain to some extent, and of course they want to look their best, but be careful not to go too far when it comes to ironing out blemishes.

One problem with editing portraits is that the brain is continually adapting to the newly edited image and it can be difficult to remember how it looked a short while ago. A good tip is to use the backslash key (‘\’) frequently to quickly see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ views as you apply a series of small adjustments. Alternatively, set the develop view to Before/After Left/Right.

We’ll start with a reasonably good photo straight from the camera. The subject’s eyes are sharp, the exposure is generally OK and the expression is fine, but there’s room for improvement. Before we get down to specific portrait-related edits, we need to first assess the image as a whole and make any general adjustments that may be needed.

Portrait photography of a woman with short hair

The initial portrait straight from the camera. The skin tones are good, the eyes are sharp but the hair is ill-defined. EOS 50D; EF24-105mm f/4L IS USM 105mm; 1/100 sec, f/4, ISO400. Natural light.

Step 1: Checking White Balance

Achieving good skin tones is very important when dealing with portraits and you should never simply make colour adjustments until they look right on your monitor.

Remember to calibrate monitor before you begin.If your monitor hasn’t been profiled using a device such as a ColorMunki or Spyder, you could be in for a shock when viewing your work on a different device or when you have it printed

An essential starting point is ensuring that there’s no colour-cast in the image and fortunately, this can be determined and corrected very simply using the White Balance Selector tool (the eye-dropper icon at the top of the Basic panel in the Develop Module).

Either click on this or just hit the ‘W’ keyboard shortcut to activate the tool and then hover it over an area that should be neutral in colour. Don’t select a very bright white or black area because it’s possible they are saturated in one or more channels and this will give a false reading.

In this case, the subject is showing enough of a white tee-shirt to make this a good choice. Hovering the tool over this area will show the red, green and blue values for that point as percentages of their maximum values.

close up screenshot of the white balance tool

The White Balance Selector tool. Tick ‘Show Loupe’ to see a grid of pixels and the sampled RGB values, adjust the ‘Scale’ slider to show more or fewer pixels in the grid and tick ‘Auto Dismiss’ to automatically stow the tool away again once you’ve sampled your chosen white point.

If you tick the ‘Show Loupe’ box as shown here at the bottom of the image, Lightroom will display a grid of pixels with the sample pixel in the centre and the red, green and blue values displayed underneath the grid.

In this example, the RGB values were 82.4, 81.2, and 80.6—all very close to each other—which indicates there is no strong colour cast. However, there is a slight red bias and clicking with the tool on this point will adjust the colours to force the RGB values for this point to become identical.

Provided you choose a neutral point, the White Balance Selector will do a good job at automatically adjusting the colour temperature and tint and give you a good basis from which to continue editing.

TIP: It can be useful to carry a grey card or an X-rite Colour Passport and include it in the photo in an area you know you’ll crop out later. This will give you a reliable sample point to ensure your image is properly balanced. Colour checker cards can also be used to calibrate your camera.

a color checker on white background

The X-Rite Colour Checker Passport can be included in your photos to give you a proper neutral tone you can use with the White Balance tool if your photo has no neutral tones.

Step 2: Check the Tonal Range

You can generally see on-screen if the photo is too dark or too bright although a poorly adjusted monitor can prevent you from seeing some shadow or highlight details. The histogram, on the other hand, will show you the distribution of brightness values so that you can spot loss of detail in the highlights or shadows, no matter how bad your monitor! The histogram for our example portrait looks like this:

The histogram shows the darkest pixels on the left hand side, mid-tones in the middle and the brightest pixels on the right hand side.

In this example, there’s a tall peak on the left which indicates we have quite a lot of very dark pixels in our image most of which will be located in the dark background. Just to the right, a smaller hump shows we have some details in the shadows which come from the subject’s hair. The rest of the histogram shows a good spread of values from the subject’s skin and clothes.

Unless you’re deliberately trying to obtain a photo with mainly bright pixels (for example a bride in the snow) or mainly dark pixels (like a black dog in a coal shed), most photos look best when they have a full range of tones from very dark all the way to almost maximum brightness.

When you begin to adjust the tonal range of your images, there is a danger of losing details either by bright pixels saturating into blown-out areas of white or by details in the shadows being numerically coerced into becoming areas of pure black.

To alert you to this danger, Lightroom provides a warning system you can turn on or off using the ‘J’ keyboard shortcut. When activated, two boxes will appear at the top of the histogram display—a shadow clipping box in the top left corner and a highlight clipping box in the top right corner.

In the example above, the shadow clipping box has a white triangle in it. If you look very carefully at the left peak in the histogram, you’ll see there is a tiny gap to the left of it which shows that although there are many very dark pixels in this image, none of them has yet become pure black. The warning triangle is indicating that some pixels are in the ‘danger zone’ towards becoming pure black.

When shadow/highlight clipping warnings are active, pixels that are pure black will be exhibit a bright blue overlay on-screen (not when printed) and those pixels that have blown out to pure white will exhibit a bright red overlay. By way of demonstration on this image, adjusting the exposure slider to either extreme would produce the following results:

Example of visual clipping warnings in Adobe Lightroom

When clipping warnings are activated, pixels that are pure black will be shown as blue and those that are blown-out will be marked in red.

Step 3: Adjusting the Tonal Distribution

The top two sliders in the ‘Tone’ section of the Basic panel are Exposure and Contrast so it’s not surprising that many people reach for these sliders first when they want to adjust the brightness and contrast in their photos.

However, unless your image is seriously over- or underexposed, the exposure slider is not generally the best control to adjust first. The reason for this is that the exposure slider effectively multiplies every RGB value of every pixel by the same amount so the larger the value, the bigger the change will be.

This is why increasing the exposure slider smears the whole distribution to the right in the histogram. In our example, the subject’s hair needs to stand out more from the dark background so we need to be able to increase the shadow values without affecting the mid-tones and highlights.

To optimise the dynamic range, we first need to adjust the shadows and highlights independently of the other tones and only then think about a small exposure adjustment if it’s still needed.

Working Smarter

If instead of increasing the exposure until large parts of the image turn red with highlight clipping warnings, you leave the exposure slider alone and adjust the Whites slider, you’re effectively setting the upper limit and making your brightest pixel just scrape in at full brightness.

It may be difficult to notice this (particularly if there is already a lot red in the photo) so an alternative method is to hold down the ALT key on your keyboard while dragging the Whites slider from left to right.

At first, the image will appear to be totally black but as you slide the Whites control further right, you’ll begin to see some pixels appear. As soon as you notice this happening, back off until the display returns to black only. You’ve now made sure your brightest pixel is just on the limit and no details will be blown-out in the highlights.

Whereas blown-out highlights should be avoided at all costs, the other end of the tonal range is not such an issue. Many photos have areas of pure black. In this example, much of the background is already very dark and is on the verge of becoming pure black.

Since the background contains no important details we can allow some of it to turn pure black if needed. However, if your image is shot against a lighter background, you may want to check and set the black end of your dynamic range in a similar way to that of the whites.

To set the black end, again, hold down the ALT key and this time, drag the Blacks slider. You will see a largely white screen this time and as you move the Blacks slider to the left, dark pixels will begin to appear. Stop at this point and back off until the screen is fully white.

When you release the mouse button, your image dynamic range will be just right. You can then adjust the tonal distribution within that range.

In our example, moving the shadows slider fully right amplifies the values of the pixels in the hair without bringing out noise in the background or blowing out the highlights. Setting the Before/After drop-down control at the bottom of the screen to Left/Right allows us to see the effects of these basic preliminary adjustments:

Example of global adjustments to white balance and tonal distribution in Adobe Lightroom

A few global adjustments to the white balance and tonal distribution have prepared this image for more selective editing. Note also that the histogram has become more spread-out in the shadows area.

Step 4: Cropping

Generally cropping is one of those operations that are carried out towards the end of an editing workflow but since all adjustments in Lightroom are non-destructive, we don’t have to be dogmatic about it.

In this case, tonal adjustments have revealed some distracting background details. This could be fixed by using the adjustment brush but we’ll reserve that tool for more interesting edits. For now, a little cropping and rotating will eliminate the distractions and make the subject fill the frame better.

Example of crop tool in Adobe Lightroom

The crop tool enjoys the prime position on the dedicated toolbar just beneath the histogram—either click this icon or hit the ‘R’ keyboard shortcut to activate it.

Click the padlock to lock or unlock the aspect ratio. Click and drag to define your chosen crop. In this example, the ‘Tool Overlays’ drop-down box has been set to ‘Always’ in order to superimpose some guides. Hit the ‘O’ keyboard shortcut key to cycle through the seven available layout patterns.

As you drag with a fixed aspect ratio, Lightroom will switch between landscape and portrait orientations automatically but it sometimes settles for the wrong choice—if this happens to you, just hit the ‘X’ key to flip it back.

Moving the cursor outside the rectangle will turn it into a rotate tool and clicking and dragging within the rectangle will shift the image around inside the rectangle.

Click the crop icon, or press ‘R’ or just hit the enter key to accept the crop.

How to Retouch Photos

Up to this point, we’ve really only made the kind of preliminary edits that might be applied to any photo but it’s an important preparation. We will now consider cosmetic enhancements in detail, starting with skin blemishes.

To start zapping spots, select the Spot Removal Tool by clicking its icon (to the right of the crop tool) or just hit the ‘Q’ keyboard shortcut.

The name ‘Spot Removal Tool’ is a carry-over from earlier versions of Lightroom when the tool could only clone spots but as we shall see, it’s now capable of dealing with much more. The basic principle hasn’t changed—bad areas are still overwritten by a good area but the way in which this is done has been refined and streamlined in later versions.

Zoom into the photo at 1:1 so you can see the offending details.

Example of Spot Removal Tool used in Adobe Lightroom retouching

The cursor shows two concentric circles—the inner circle is the area where pixels will be copied at the currently set opacity from the selected source and the outer circle shows the distance over which those pixels will fade to full transparency in order to feather the selection into its intended location without any ugly boundaries showing.

You can control the size and amount of feathering using the Size and Feather sliders or you can use the square bracket shortcut keys. Use ‘[’ to reduce the size, ‘]‘ to increase it and hold down Shift with these keys to control the size of the feathering. Adjust the size to be just a little larger than the spot as shown above.

When you click on the spot, Lightroom will select a nearby area to use as the source and will show two circles connected by a line—one being the location you just clicked and the other being the suggested source area. If you can’t see these, go to the Tool Overlay drop-down box and select ‘Always’.

The spot area will show a preview of how the area will look when patched with pixels from the source. Usually Lightroom will make a fairly good suggestion but if you want to adjust it manually, just drag the centre of the source to move it to another position or drag the edge of the circle to re-size the source or destination areas.

Early versions of Lightroom only copied pixels and then pasted them onto the target area—a process known as ‘cloning’. Notice that there are two options at the top of the Spot Edit panel—Clone and Heal. Clone makes a simple copy of the source and patches it over the destination area but the ‘Heal’ option is rather more sophisticated.

When you select ‘Heal’, Lightroom will select the texture of the source and blend it with the colours at the destination to produce a better quality edit. In general, I’d recommend you leave the Spot Removal tool set to ‘Heal’ most of the time and only select ‘Clone’ when you really want to clone (as you might when giving someone extra pimples).

Reducing Lines and Wrinkles

If instead of just clicking a spot, you click and drag, you’ll define an area that can be useful for tackling crease lines, wrinkles and bags under the eyes. Lightroom will select an area of skin from which to patch and you can modify its position in the same way you can with a spot sample.

In order not to make the edit too extreme, set the Opacity slider to around 50% so the folds of skin are reduced rather than miraculously expunged.

Example of using Spot Removal Tool to retouch under-eye bags in Adobe Lightroom

Using the Spot Removal Tool, click and drag along folds of skin you want to improve and set the Opacity to around 50% for a more subtle effect.

This technique is also useful to deal with stubborn shiny patches from oily skin such as the forehead or the tip of the nose.

Using the Adjustment Brush to Selectively Edit Portraits

At this stage, we’ve worked our way through basic global adjustments, removed or cropped out distractions, and metaphorically lanced the odd boil in the process. But we now need to turn our attention to specific parts of the image using the power of the Adjustment Brush.

This is effectively a mask that determines where on the image your adjustments will be made. In our case, we want to target the skin to reduce the texture from the pores but at the same time, we don’t want to affect eyes, eyebrows, the rim of the nostrils (I expect you’ve removed any visible nasal hair already), teeth, the lipstick line, or any jewellery.

To activate the Adjustment Brush, click its icon on the far right of the panel beneath the histogram or just hit the ‘K’ shortcut key.

In order to see which areas of your photo will be affected by the settings you dial into the Adjustment Brush, tick the ‘Show Selected Mask Overlay’ box. As you click and drag over the image in the areas you want to edit, Lightroom will overlay a red mask to show you exactly where your edits will be applied.

The Adjustment Brush control panel should contain 19 sliders as shown below. If you don’t see the full range, click on the down arrow at the top of the Adjustment Brush panel to expand it. You should see something like this:

Example of mask overlay used in retouching in Adobe Lightroom

Use the mask overlay to check you haven’t missed any important areas or painted in the wrong places.

This panel gives you a choice of switching between two brushes labeled ‘A’ and ‘B’. Select one of them and adjust the size and feather using the sliders or the more convenient square bracket keys. If you tick the ‘Auto Mask’ box, Lightroom will try to keep the mask painting from crossing over any high contrast edges—if the mask is not painting smoothly where you want it, untick the Auto Mask option.

If you do paint accidentally in the wrong area, you can click on ‘Erase’ to summon a mask eraser brush but it’s much more convenient to simply hold down the ALT key to turn the current brush temporarily into an eraser (the cursor will change from a circle with a + to a circle with a -). Hit the ‘Z’ key to zoom in and out of the photo to ensure your mask is covering your intended areas accurately.

Note that masks don’t have to be an all-or-nothing tool. If the density setting is reduced from 100 to a lower value, the masking effect is also reduced in proportion. If you decide you want your adjustments to be applied less in some areas of the mask than others, you can paint over those areas again with a reduced density setting. If you like to build up your mask gradually, set the flow value to less than 100 and you can build up the mask density by a number of successive brush strokes.

Next, we’ll turn off the distracting sunburn effect by un-ticking the ‘Show Selected Mask Overlay’ box and slide the Clarity slider to the left. This has the effect of reducing the local contrast and thus smoothing out skin texture in the masked-out areas.

While the Adjustment Brush panel is open, you can adjust any of the other sliders in a unique combination of adjustments and you can of course go back to adjustments at any time to refine them by re-selecting the Adjustment Brush and clicking on its control point (which in our example looks like a reversed bindi on the subject’s forehead). If you can’t see the control point, check that the ‘Show Edit Pins’ is set to ‘Always’.

A fact that’s often missed by people new to using the Adjustment Brush is that when you click the arrow in the top right of the panel, it collapses into a single ‘Effects’ slider. This enables you to control the combined effect of all the sliders you might have adjusted as part of your recent Adjustment Brush edit so if you think you went a little too far with your edit, you can simply back the whole effect off until it looks right.

In addition to controlling a group of masked edits, you can also name and save a set of edits for later use. Lightroom already has some handy edit sets and we’ll examine those next.

Retouching The Eyes

Eyes are all important in a portrait and the Adjustment Brush can make some significant enhancements in that respect.

Make sure the area around the eyes is not in dark shadow as is sometimes the case for photos taken in direct sunlight. It can be difficult to work on the details of the eyes themselves if they’re in deep shadow and any attempt to brighten them without  first tackling the surrounding area will only make your subject appear to have creepy glowing orbs for eyes.

The example we’ve used so far has a well-lit face so we’ll switch to another mugshot that demonstrates ‘panda eyes’ and see what can be done using the Adjustment Brush to help even out the illumination:

  1. Select the Adjustment Brush as before and collapse the panel using the arrow in the top right corner.
  2. Just above the ‘Amount’ slider is the name of the current effect. It will probably just say ‘Custom’ but if you’ve used it with another setting, it will be named according to the last used effect. Click the effect title and you’ll see a list of effects that are really just stored presets relating to the slider values you see when you expand the panel.
  3. Select the ‘Dodge (Lighten)’ effect and start painting over the shadow areas in the eyes. Remember to also paint under the nose, lips and chin (if your subject has one) otherwise the effect will look unnatural. You’re not aiming to eliminate all the shadows but rather to soften them.

Here’s a before/after example:

Example of Adjustment Brush in Adobe Lightroom used to retouch shadows and tones

If your subject has strong shadows, use the Adjustment Brush and select the Dodge preset. Then simply paint over all the shadows to even out the tones.

You can also use the Burn (darken) setting to add depth in light shadow area to build up definition—it all depends on the subject but feel free to experiment because you can always go back in history to any previous edit in Lightroom.

Lightroom TIP: A typical portrait edit can have hundreds of small adjustments so it can be difficult to find a particular edit in the long history list. It’s often useful to click the ‘+’ button on the Snapshots panel and name it to correspond with the sequence of edits you’ve just finished. That way you can quickly jump around to different edit points named ‘eyes’, ‘lips’, ‘teeth’, ‘skin’ etc.

Young eyes are generally bright and clean but older subjects can exhibit red capillaries or yellow patches caused by high cholesterol. In such cases, zoom in 1:1 and use the spot removal tool to clean up what you can.

Now select the Adjustment Brush again and select the ‘Iris Enhance’ option from the list. This preset makes a slight increase in exposure, increases the clarity and boosts the saturation to enhance the patterns in the iris. Simply brush the iris to add the effect or hold down the ALT key as before in order to subtract from it.

As always, check the ‘Amount’ slider when you’ve finished and back it off or increase it until the eyes look improved but not alien. Here’s a typical before/after using the iris enhance settings:

Example of using Adjustment Brush Iris Enhance in Adobe Lightroom

Use the Adjustment Brush set to ‘Iris Enhance’ to bring out details in the iris.

TIP: If you’re working with a fairly large monitor and you have plenty of screen space, consider working in the Before/After mode when in the Develop Module. This will help you keep track of the extent of your edits in real time.

Retouching The Mouth

Most people have less than perfect teeth so some ability to do virtual dental work is a definite plus when it comes to editing portraits.

You could, in theory, straighten wonky teeth in Lightroom if a suitable clone source were available but since Lightroom doesn’t allow you to transform clone samples, this is really the domain of Photoshop. However, Lightroom can be used to fix that common problem of yellowish teeth.

In our example, most of the teeth look fine as they are but the subject’s upper left cuspid was slightly yellow.

To fix this, we again select the Adjustment Brush and this time opt for the ‘Teeth Whitening’ preset and just paint away the yellowing on the teeth that need it.

If your subject is wearing lipstick, you can finish the mouth area by using the Adjustment Brush to boost the saturation in the lips. Zooming right in may also allow you to fix any less than perfect lip liner using the Spot Removal tool in Clone mode. Here’s the nearly finished result:

Example portrait photo after lip retouching in Adobe Lightroom

Adding Make-up to Portraits

Enhancing details that already exist and eliminating details that shouldn’t exist is all well and good but there’s a further step you can take in Lightroom and it’s not for the faint-hearted. That step is adding make-up. Normally this would be the domain of Photoshop but it is possible to add blusher and eye-shadow in Lightroom and it’s applied, as you probably guessed, using the Adjustment Brush.

This time, there’s no preset for adding make-up so we need to set up a new slider combination. Set all fifteen sliders to their central position so they have no effect. Then set the Flow to 80 and set the Density to 15 as a starting point. Next click on the box at the bottom of the panel to pop out a colour picker as shown here:

Adobe Lightroom Adjustment Brush colour overlay example

Using the Adjustment Brush to paint a colour overlay.

Selecting the colour

The eye-dropper tool will allow you to pick a colour for the ‘make-up’ you want to apply from the colour selection box but if you move outside the colour picker box, the eye-dropper tool will vanish—which is frustrating if you want to pick a colour from the photo rather than guess its position in the colour picker box.

However, there is a trick—click any colour in the colour picker dialogue box and keep the mouse button pressed down as you drag out of the colour picker box and the eye-dropper tool will remain active. Move it over the colour you want to use from the photo and release the mouse button.

Now simply paint on the image and watch the colour overlay appear. If you like the effect, close the Adjustment Brush panel, click as before to get the adjustment drop-down box and select ‘Save Current Settings as New Preset’. Give it a meaningful name such as Pink Eye Shadow. Here’s the before and after comparison:

Portrait photography of a woman with short hair Before Adjustment Brush colour overlay applied in Adobe Lightroom

Editing Portraits In Lightroom: After Adjustment Brush colour overlay applied in Adobe Lightroom

It takes practice to get used to the adjustment brush, but you can find more simple tips to get started here.

A Final Word On Lightroom Retouching

We’ve come a long way on this image and it’s a good point to stop and think about whether we’ve over-edited our subject. The temptation is to keep going but the aim of this tutorial has not been to create a perfect portrait but just to give you a few Lightroom tips and demonstrate how Lightroom can be used to perform a variety of useful adjustments without recourse to Photoshop. As far as the artistic merit is concerned, the only opinion that really counts is that of the subject.

A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:

Thank you for reading...

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David Baxter

Dave is a photographer and writer based in Oxfordshire, England. He has a science and engineering background and has been taking photographs for over 40 years. His broad experience includes computer graphics, image processing, studio, landscape, macro, architectural, and panoramic photography. He is an Adobe Certified Expert in Photoshop Lightroom and has published numerous technical articles for a Canon based photography magazine. He now runs photography workshops in Oxfordshire and is currently working on a new Lightroom book.

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