A year ago, I wrote an article titled 5 Things I Do to All Portrait Shots where I shared some techniques I used on the portrait photos I took. I learned those techniques by going through dozens of articles and many YouTube videos by other photographers, and after many experiments I finally settled on those five. However, although some items on that list still remain true today, there are things that I have either replaced with other techniques or discarded completely.
I use Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom for all my photo-editing needs because they are powerful tools with features specifically designed for photographers. I also have a plug-in called Imagenomic Portraiture Skin Retouching installed for Photoshop. If you are serious about photography, you should, at the very least, get a copy of Photoshop to enjoy the full benefits of shooting with digital cameras. It is not cheap, though and you may need to find ways to acquire it, such as purchasing the student edition if you are an art student.
Before You Shoot…
Position your subject at a place well-lit with soft light; use reflector or flash to help with lighting if ambient light is insufficient. Make sure your shutter speed is fast enough so you don’t blur the subject’s face, and that the aperture is set somewhere between 2.8 and 5.6. This will make the subject clear while creating a nice bokeh in the background. Lastly, never, under any circumstances, put your subject in harsh light or point the flash directly at the subject’s face. These are important to remember because, as powerful as editing software can be, these are things that cannot be fixed and still be expected to look natural. Also, always shoot in RAW so you have more flexibility in editing choices.
#1 Adjust Exposure
The goal here is to make your subject bright enough to draw viewers’ attention. This can be easily done in either Lightroom or Photoshop by moving the exposure slider to the right or specify a number to represent how many times brighter you want it to be. You may also do selective adjustment so only a section of image is brighten up while the rest remain the same. Do not over-adjust or you may end up with subjects so pale that they look like mannequins more than real people.
Soften Retouch Skin
Instead of just “softening” the skin by blurring it and apply noise, I now find it more natural and attractive if we just leave the skin texture in place. To properly retouch a person’s skin, first remove all blemishes on the subject’s skin by using the Healing Brush tool in Photoshop and cover pimples, scars, or undesired dark spots. This step may take a while, but make sure you get everything that you do not want to see on the final image.
The next step is to use the plug-in that was mentioned earlier, Imagenomic Portraiture Skin Retouching. When activated, Photoshop will open another window with several adjustment sliders that can be used to adjust setting. You may experiment with it a little but I just set the fine and medium detail smoothing to below -10 and large details to above +10 while adding a little bit of contrast and sharpness. When you are done adjusting, click the OK button and you will see the changes being applied to the image. This, in my opinion, is way superior than applying Gaussian Blur and noise to the image and removing any texture from the subject’s face. Below are two photos using the two methods I have mentioned, the first one with Gaussian Blur and the second one with Imagenomic plug-in.
A closer look at the skin reveals the difference. As can be seen, Gaussian Blur tends to remove all texture and makes the subject’s skin look plastic-like and unnatural. The Imagenomic plug-in, on the other hand, is able to make the skin to appear smooth, but still retains the details that define human skin.
#3 Whiten Eyes and Teeth
It may be a good idea to brighten the teeth to give your subject a beautiful smile, especially if the shot is close and details, such as the teeth and eyes, are readily visible to the viewers. Use paint brush to select the white areas of the eyes and teeth, then reduce saturation to a point where the eyes and teeth are white but not overly white. Be mindful that, if not done properly, the eyes and teeth may appear a bit gray-ish.
#4 Increase Luminance
Because the face is usually the most important element in a portrait image, making it brighter than the rest of image would help draw viewers’ attention. It also gives viewers the impression that the subject has beautiful, silky-smooth skin that shines with light. To increase luminance, simply use the luminance tool in Lightroom and move the slider for the color orange and red to the right. Do not over-adjust or your subject may appear too pale
The luminance tool is a useful tool, the only downside of it is that when you move the luminance slider, the adjustment will be applied to everything in the image and not just the subject. If you have two subjects with different skin tones, and you want to keep one’s brightness the same and bring the luminance of the other’s up, you will have to use a different tool to accomplish that.
Apply Graduated Filter Adjust Contrast and Highlight
Originally, I would apply graduated filter with a decrease in exposure to the bottom of the image to make it look more stable. I still do that to some portrait shots, but I no longer apply it to every one of them. I have, however, started to adjust contrast and highlight to either bring out or blend in the details to make the subjects more interesting. This can be achieved in Lightroom where you simply move the slider to the right or left to increase or decrease the level of contrast and highlight. The brush tool also helps you selectively apply the change to only certain elements in the image and leaving the rest intact.
There are other things I would do to portrait images, but these are the most common ones I use. I cannot guarantee that your portraits shots will look amazing after these procedures, but it should give you a start from where you can develop your own set of procedures for photo-editings. Should you have any questions or would like to share your ways of editing, feel free to leave comments below.