How-To Edit Portraits

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I spill all my secrets in this post! I have been wanting to make an editing tutorial for a while now. It seemed inappropriate to post one however, due to the nature of revealing a photograph step by step through the editing process. Like I am going to do here, I will show you the before and after. The before photograph will make anyone look terrible in comparison to the finished product. I didn’t want to do that to one of my clients.

So I made an example of myself! I set my camera up on my tripod, set it to self timer, and here is the picture I got strait off the camera. It is a bit underexposed:

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Looks pretty different from the finished photo above it, right?

So the editing process takes more than five steps, but for the purpose of this tutorial, I am going to group my edits into five steps or categories. Some of the intermediate photos will look fairly similar, which is okay. Every little element does add up, as you can see by the finished photograph above, versus the raw photograph. I do 85% of my post-production in Lightroom, using Photoshop only to remove serious distractions. For this example, I edited everything in Lightroom. Granted, I glamorized it quite a bit for this tutorial. I don’t always go this far with portraits, keep in mind. So without further ado, here is my general process.:


1. Bring Photo to Neutral

Bringing the photo to a neutral state requires one of a few things. Fixing the exposure, highlights and lowlights, cropping, and fixing any white balance issues. For this example, you will see that I upped the exposure, to about +1.15, cropped the picture to the composition I wanted, then put it in black and white.

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2. Add Creative Effects

I have a Lightroom Preset I created that I like to apply to the photograph early on. Some people prefer to do this later, but I like to see how everything will look together before digitally manipulating the photograph further. Especially for facial touch-ups. For this preset, I upped the contrast to +90.  I bumped the exposure up an additional +.15, brought the highlights down -35, brought the shadows up +57, and the whites +30. I also gave a split tone to the photograph, warming up the highlights and adding a purple hue to the shadows. Then I sharpened the photograph. Then I maxed out the “Grain” setting. Grain gives texture to the photo. I typically don’t use it, but I like the vintage look to this picture, and I think it fits nicely.

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Now, I think that this is a great photo. Many people will stop here. Not me. I wanted to feel like a fashion model and get my faced touched up (we all know that the real models do).


3. Digital Facial Contouring

I like to think that I coined this term. Probably not though. In this step, I smoothed out my skin by lowering the clarity, just to areas of exposed skin, including my face, shoulders, arms, neck, etc. By doing this, you “flatten” your face. It looks unnatural, (in my opinion) to leave it this way. So I digitally apply highlights and shadows, similar to how you apply makeup, in order to restore depth and angles to the face. When applying makeup, you use a bronzer for under your cheekbones and around the sides of your face. Then you apply highlighter to your cheekbones, forehead, bridge of nose, and chin. If you look closely, you can see that I did that with the paintbrush tool in Lightroom. I Burned and Dodged the areas, respectively. I also darkened my lips.

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4. Glamorize

I call this step glamorize, because that is essentially what I am doing. I Burned my eyeliner and eyelashes, making them darker, using the paintbrush tool in Lightroom. I also increased the highlights on my cheekbones. Then I darkened my hair a bit more. After that, I realized my hair looked unnaturally dark, so I went back and highlighted (again, using the paintbrush tool), individual curls in order to define them. I enhanced the irises too. I also applied a vignette in this stage, which can be done at any stage really. A vignette keeps the eye on the subject, by darkening the edges of the photograph. Take a look:

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5. Eliminate Distractors/ Last minute Touch-Ups

So this last photograph is so similar to the previous one in step four. I am going to share why I did all these small minute details, when the picture in step four is fine. I realized I didn’t care for the lines in my backdrop, so I cloned those out. Normally, I think it is appropriate to do that earlier on, but it was a detail that almost slipped by me. I cloned those out using the spot removal tool.

Next, I highlighted my shoulders because I felt like my face was the only thing with “light” on it. That was courtesy of the vignette for darkening the rest of my shoulders. I added highlights to them to help encourage the eye to move all around the image. Our eyes are naturally drawn to areas of light, and avoid the dark. I didn’t want my shoulders to disappear visually. While I was highlighting, I added one spot to my cheekbone. I think it makes my cheeks look more symmetrical.

Lastly, and this is a very odd thing that I did, but I widened my pupils. I darkened the area ever so slightly, which diminishes some of the catchlights (the light spots in the eye). Studies have shown that when we are attracted to someone, or when we view something of particular interest to us, our eyes dilate. Fashion photographers will widen models’ pupils often times because we, as viewers, look at the picture and subconsciously feel attracted-to due to this phenomenon. Does this make sense? It essentially makes you like the picture more. Anyway. Like I mentioned earlier, I wanted to feel like the model in this photograph, which isn’t something I get to do often, seeing as how I am usually the one behind the camera taking the pictures.

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And VOILA! The picture is finished. And this my friends, is how easy it is to manipulate photographs. With the right programs, even a simple one like Lightroom, you can dramatically alter an image. So if you feel bad about yourself after viewing a gorgeous model in a magazine, just know that they HAVE been digitally alters with programs like Photoshop. Take a look at the before and after again:







One Comment on “How-To Edit Portraits

  1. Nice post. And great tip on widening the pupils. I never would have thought of that. Now I’m going to glamorize all images of myself.