Some photographers consider Photoshop an essential tool for retouching portraits. But I take a different approach and believe that most photographers can do all the portrait retouching they need to in Lightroom.
The advantages of this are many – you save hard drive space (as you don’t need to convert your Raw files to 16 bit TIFFs to edit them in Photoshop), your workflow is simpler, you can copy and paste Develop Settings where required (saving time), you can create Develop Presets (also saving time) and even apply them to your portraits when you import your photos into Lightroom (saving even more time).
Photoshop is for high-end retouching, of the sort you may see in a magazine, an advertising campaign or a movie poster. Often this is a heavy-handed, commercial style that is of little relevance to the hobbyist photographer.
There are plugins you can use instead of Photoshop (or in combination with Lightroom or Photoshop) that are designed to smooth skin and eliminate blemishes. I’ve tried several and found them all to be too heavy-handed, with the exception of OnOne Software’s Perfect Portrait (now part of On1 Photo Raw).
Two types of portraits
Then there’s the question of just how much retouching is appropriate.
Broadly speaking there are two types of portrait. The first is the type where you try to make somebody look as good as possible. Photographers who make portraits of members of the public for a living, and wedding photographers, naturally want to make their subjects look beautiful. Photographers who photograph models with the intention of making the kinds of images you might see in a fashion or editorial magazine are also doing this.
This is the type of portrait where the photographer may be tempted to go into Photoshop (or a plugin) to remove wrinkles and smooth skin. Take it too far and the model’s skin looks more like plastic (with no texture), go to an extreme and you end up with the highly stylized and over-processed look common in movie posters.
This portrait falls into this category.
The second type is one where you are more interested in the model’s character than you are in making them look beautiful. For me, this is about capturing real people rather than creating portraits that conform to some type of ideal regarding beauty. Portraits that have staying power, capture the human condition, are in this category. They tend to be more memorable, more powerful, more interesting, more natural.
This portrait falls into the second category.
The type of portrait you are trying to create influences the amount of post-processing you want to do. I tend to go for a very natural look in my portraits, and the tools in Lightroom suit this style of working very well. Even when my aim is to make the model look beautiful, rather than capture character, I prefer a light-touch, natural style of post-processing.
Retouching portraits in Lightroom with Develop Presets
Regardless of what type of portrait you prefer to make, and how far you like to go with the processing, it’s a good idea to learn how to make the most out of Lightroom so you can do as much work as possible in it before moving onto other software.
With this all said there’s no doubt that it takes time to learn how to use Lightroom’s portrait retouching tools properly (although it’s arguably much simpler than using Photoshop). But you can take a shortcut by using Lightroom Develop Presets to speed up your workflow.
The biggest advantage of using presets is that you benefit from somebody else’s knowledge and hard work.
Another advantage is that you can look at the settings used in each preset to learn more about how Lightroom’s tools work. As you do so you’ll learn techniques that you can apply yourself.
Strike A Pose Presets from Sleeklens
In this article I’m going to take a look at the Strike A Pose presets from Sleeklens.
The feature that sets these presets apart from others is that they include a set of custom Adjustment Brushes designed to help you retouch portraits.
Some of the Strike A Pose presets are shown on the right. To start, you have 25 All in One presets and 15 Base presets. I’m not quite sure what the difference is, but all are one-click presets that you can apply to your portraits.
A one-click preset, if you are new to this term, is one that you click just once to apply the effect. Each preset is completely independent of the others. Click on another one-click preset and it undoes the work of the first and applies a new effect.
One-click presets tend to be a little hit or miss. They either work or they don’t, depending on your style of portrait and personal taste.
Most of the presets are color, a few are black and white. Out of the 40 one-click presets in this collection I tend to find between four and ten of them work well with the portraits I tested.
The rest of the presets (I counted 30) are for fine tuning the result of the one-click preset. They let you do things like adjust exposure, add a vignette, improve skin tones and make colors pop. These are stackable presets – when you click on a new one it adds to the earlier effect rather than undo it.
You can also go over to the right-hand panels and push sliders around yourself to fine tune the effects.
Here is a portrait along with five of the results obtained using one-click presets.
Custom Adjustment Brushes
The custom Adjustment Brushes (see right) are where the Strike A Pose presets start to get interesting. They are something you rarely see included with presets.
Lightroom gives you the Soften Skin Adjustment Brush preset which you can use for portrait retouching – the Strike A Pose brushes give you 60 or so additional tools.
Most of the brushes are for retouching skin, hair, teeth and eyes. The others are color and lighting effects. I haven’t tried them all yet, but I can see that there are some very useful brushes. It is easily the best thought out part of the package.
This diagram shows the Portrait – Hair – Add Punch custom Adjustment Brush in action. The brush uses four sliders (Contrast, Highlights, Shadows and Clarity) to achieve the effect. You can control the strength of the effect using the Flow slider. You can also adjust the sliders if you need to.
Hopefully this help you see how using the custom brushes teaches you how to use Lightroom better!
If you are struggling to get the best from your portraits in Lightroom, then you will find the Strike A Pose presets very useful. They give you a good starting point for processing portraits. They are also a great way to learn as you can analyze the settings that each preset (and brush) uses to achieve the effect.
The presets also come with a PDF file that shows some sample before and after photos and which presets and brushes were used to do the editing. These recipes are for you to follow as you learn to use the presets.
The presets aren’t perfect. Forty one-click presets is not a bad number, but I’d like to see more options and a bit more thought put into the stackable presets used to fine tune the results. But – bottom line – the presets work, and work well.
The custom Adjustment Brushes are a really nice touch that greatly add to the usability of the presets. It’s a lot easier to use these brushes than it is to go into Photoshop or a plug-in. And that brings us back neatly to the main benefit of using Develop Presets for portrait retouching – it allows you to stay within Lightroom, saving both time and hard drive space.
Click here to learn more about the Strike a Pose portrait retouching presets from Sleeklens. There are some good videos on the page that show you how to use them.
Note: Sleeklens kindly provided the presets for me to review. As always, the views in this article are my own and I only write about products that I am happy to recommend to my readers.
What to read next
Read these articles next to learn more about using the Develop module in Lightroom.
If you liked this article then please take a look at my Mastering Lightroom ebooks. They show you how to get the most out of Lightroom and cover your entire workflow. Click the link to learn more.