Post Processing a Portrait in Lightroom

I willingly admit that I am not the best photographer in the world. Sadly I still make a ton of mistakes. Mostly technical ones when switching from indoor to outdoor shooting and vice versa. Too many times I’ll pop off a photo only to realize that I had the metering set wrong, and I’ll end up with a photo like the one below.


Original Image

The camera – which was set to Matrix metering – thinks that this shot is exposed correctly. That’s because of all the bright area of light coming from the window. However it left the person in the image under exposed. Aside from that major problem there’s also a person’s cut off arm in the shot and the picture just looks dull in general. But I liked the subject’s posture and pose, and wanted to try and salvage this image. Mercifully we live in a time when software can make up for a lot of shortcomings. A good photo processing program, like Adobe’s Lightroom, can turn an image like the one above into something like the one below in a matter of minutes and I want to step you through how I took this image from the one above to the one below.


Finished Image
There is a general work flow that I tend to follow when post processing images like this and it goes like this.

  1. Crop – cut out the parts of the image that don’t work in the image, and try to trim the image to help balance out the composition. For this image I wanted to cut out the phantom arm from the right side, and then drop down the top of the image to frame the picture up a little better. I debated about cutting out the window frame and some of the clutter on the left side of the image – but decided that I liked having the window frame edge in the picture to help establish the size of the window that she’s sitting next to. But the image could also have been trimmed a little tighter and probably been okay, maybe better depending on your own style.
  2. Correct the exposure. Even though the camera thinks the image is right, the person is too dark so I needed to go in and brighten up the whole image to get the person closer to a normal lighting level. I had to be careful not to go too high or else everything outside of the window would get over-exposed and go to detail-less white. An increase of about 1.2 stops did the trick.
  3. Adjust the Highlights – Since the window area was nearly overblown after upping the exposure – dropping the highlights down all the way helped bring back some of the detail lost from raising the exposure.
  4. Adjust the Shadows – I wanted to play with the Shadows slider to try and brighten up the area of her jacket to try and bring out some of the detail of the folds of the jacket without making the image look to gray and flat. A setting of +40 looked good to my eye.
  5. Adjust the Whiteness – Admittedly playing with this slider didn’t really seem to make much difference to me in this image. I picked a value of +17 or so and went with that.
  6. Adjust the Blacks – Ben Willmore teaches a tactic of adjusting the blacks to where you just start to crush part of the image down into the black range where detail starts to get lost. To do this you can hold down the Alt key on Windows (Command key on Mac I think) and then adjust the slider until you just start to see part of the white overlay turn to black. This is the area where you’re starting to lose detail. In this image I adjusted the Blacks down to -29 and the area between the two glasses on the table start to go totally black. But since there’s nothing to see there anyway, there’s nothing lost in the image.
  7. Adjust the Vibrance setting – In this image I wanted to bring out more of the purple color in the jacket but I didn’t want to push it too far and have it look too saturated. I wanted to leave a little of the dinginess in the color to account for the fact that it’s a purple fabric. If it had been a smooth surface like metal – maybe I could have pushed the colors harder. But I chose to keep them around +67
  8. Adjust the White Balance – After having tuned the other colors I wanted to go back and warm up the whole image just a little bit to make the natural light look a little more yellow so I increased the yellow coloring of the white balance by a very small amount.

All of these adjustments can be made in literally a matter of a minute or two and if I stopped right there I would end up with an image that looks like the one below.

Getting there…

At this point I could stop and have a much improved image over the one I started with, but there are a few more tweaks that can be done to make this image better.

9. Remove spots and blemishes from the skin -Zooming in on the subject’s face and using the spot removal tool I selected small blemishes and spots on her cheek and neck and let the software copy in cleaned up areas from other areas in the image that match in tone. The trick to this is to use the smallest brush possible so as to not end up with big round obvious splotches everywhere.

10 Smooth the skin – Using the Adjustment brush tool, select the brush type as a Clarity adjustment and set it down to a negative number to have the brush smooth details not enhance them. I used a value of -100 in this image. When you paint over an area of the image with the brush, the image underneath will be smoothed or blurred and you can use this technique to make skin look clearer and more creamy. (There are other methods in Photoshop that do a much better job than this – but for a quick and dirty photo editing job like this it does alright.) As you paint it can be hard to see what areas are being affected. If you toggle the ‘O’ as in ‘O’ctopus key you can see a red overlay that shows what areas are painted and will be adjusted. Invariably while painting in an adjustment you will color outside the lines. Sometimes it doesn’t make a difference – but when it does there is an ‘Erase’ brush that lets you un-paint areas. I typically go in and over paint without too much regard for the boundaries, and then use the eraser to clean up the edges afterward. No inherent good cause for doing it that way.

One thing to be careful about while smoothing the skin is to not paint over the eyes, nostrils, lips, inner ear areas, and the hairline. If you paint over these areas you lose the fine details that help people recognize and define a face.

This step is usually the longest step in the entire process and can take several minutes to much longer depending on how detail oriented you are.

11. Don’t forget to do the hands and arms. (I did forget the first time through this exercise and had to go back and do it again.)

12. Add some color to the lips. – Using a new adjustment brush set for ‘Saturation’ go in and paint the area around the lips. Once you have it painted in, adjust the slider to bring out the reds in the lips. For this image I pushed the reds further than I might normally because I wanted to get her lips to match more closely with the purple in the jacket. (There are other ways to do this, but this method got me passably close with minimal work.)

13. Brighten the eyes – Use another adjustment brush set to ‘Iris Whitening’ and go in and paint in the subject’s eyes. Since this image is already kind of dark I toned down the ‘exposure’ setting on this brush so as to not make the eyes look too bright. The best thing to do is to paint in the eyes and then play with the sliders to get the look that works best for your image.

14. Whiten Teeth – Luckily this photo doesn’t need this. Most photos do. It’s another adjustment brush set for ‘Teeth Whitening’ and again paint over the teeth and then adjust the sliders to get a look you like. For me the default always looks too white for regular people. I usually don’t de-saturate as much, and I tend to not set the exposure up as high. If I was always shooting models with perfect teeth the default might work, but for regular folks too bright of teeth is a dead giveaway that the image has been ‘Photoshopped’ too much.

For most photos this is where I stop. I have an image that has a good exposure, a subject with smooth skin, bright eyes, brighter teeth, and the colors are looking pretty good. Typically this take a total of 5 to 10 minutes per picture depending on how much work the skin needs to remover blemishes and to smooth.

For this image I added two additional steps that wouldn’t apply to every image.

15. Saturate the color of the wall behind the subject. With the subjects skin tone and the wall color both being somewhat similar I went in with another adjustment brush and set the saturation to +100. Using this brush I painted over the wall area behind the subject. This adds more color to that side of the image drawing the eye in the direction they’re looking. It also adds some warmth to the image, but more importantly it helps add some separation from the subject and the wall behind them making them stand out a little better.

16. Increase the contrast in the subjects hair to bring out some of the detail. Since the subjects head is being sidelit and the light from the window was nearly blown out from increasing the exposure I wanted to bring back some of the darkness and detail in the subject’s hair. Using a final adjustment brush set to +100 Contrast I went in and painted the area around her hair.

The final result, shown here again, is this.



Total time spent processing this image was less than 10 minutes total. I know because for proof I recorded the process as I went through it.

Steps 1 through 8 took a little over a minute and a half.

Steps 9 through 14 took about 6 minutes to do.

Steps 15 and 16 took about 2 minutes.

There’s a link to the actual video of this image being processed below for those who may want to see this process done in real time. I recommend watching it in high quality if you do view it so you can see the details better. In several places I intentionally exaggerate the slider changes to show the impact they have on the image.

There’s no music or narration – I may add that later – but I wanted to demonstrate just how quickly a so-so image can be post-processed into a usable image.