Editor’s note: The Vintage Portrait Presets are available now to buy from The Creative Photographer store. Click the link to learn more.
Have you ever tried to develop portraits in Lightroom and been disappointed with the results? A common complaint about photos made with digital cameras is that the results look artificial or plastic. Comparisons are often made with photos made using film cameras, which are said to be more realistic or natural.
But given that there are lots of photographers who create beautiful, natural portraits with digital cameras, it’s safe to say that the answer lies in the processing rather than the cameras themselves. If your usual approach to developing portraits is to set Profile in the Camera Calibration panel to Portrait (or whatever option is relevant to your camera) then you are locking yourself into the color profile that your camera manufacturer thinks is ideal for your camera. You’re not taking advantage of Lightroom’s full range of color tools. That’s a shame, because Lightroom’s treatment of color is one of its strengths.
The Vintage Portrait Presets solve that problem. They give you 31 different looks that you can apply to your portraits with a single mouse-click. From there you can tweak your portraits using the sliders in the right-hand panels in the Develop module. It’s an easy, and fun, way of working.
These presets emphasize the natural look, although I have thrown in a couple of high contrast options for fun! But, what is natural? What is vintage? There are a few characteristics of each that I have tried to incorporate into all 31 presets.
Vintage means faded colors, or faded blacks. It emulates the look of photos taken with film, although not necessarily with grain. Colors are muted, rather than bright or saturated. This is my personal interpretation of the word vintage as it applies to photography. Of course it may represent something different to other photographers.
Natural means taken in natural light, without flash. Or, if flash is used, that it’s there to imitate or enhance natural light.
Natural also means that there is no Clarity. Film may have contrast, but it doesn’t look anything like the type of contrast that is created by increasing Clarity. As a result, Clarity is set to zero in all these presets. Heavy handed application of Clarity and Sharpening are two reasons why portraits looked over-processed.
Increasing Clarity sometimes works with portraits of women, and often works with portraits of men. But you need to assess it on a case by case basis, and add Clarity yourself if your portrait requires it.
Another reason for setting Clarity to zero is that many portraits are taken with telephoto lenses at wide apertures to blur the background. In this case applying Clarity to the blurred background spoils the out of focus look and does strange things to the quality of the bokeh. The best approach is to use an Adjustment Brush to apply Clarity locally to the model’s face, without affecting the background.
Natural also means that delicate highlights are preserved. Another sign of heavy handed processing is skin tones that are too bright. The Highlights slider has a negative value in most of the Vintage Presets in order to preserve skin tone.
The portrait below has all these characteristics. I developed it using the Vintage 14 preset.
How to develop portraits in Lightroom with the Vintage Portrait Presets
Today I’m going to show you how to use the Vintage Portrait Presets to develop your portraits in Lightroom. This will help you see how useful presets can be in Lightroom.
All of the information in this tutorial is included in the 28 page PDF guide that comes with the presets.
1. Select the portrait you want to work on and go to the Develop module. You’ll find it easiest to work with the right and left panels visible (see below). Make sure the Presets panel on the left is open, and that you can see the Vintage Portrait Presets folder. In this example, you can see the portrait as it came out of the camera, without any retouching.
2. Hover the mouse over the list of presets. As you do so, Lightroom shows a preview of what your photo looks like with the preset applied in the Navigator panel.
3. If you like a preset, click on it to apply it to your photo. Feel free to click on as many presets as you need to find the one you like best.
The screenshot below shows the result of applying the Vintage 14 preset.
In practice, and depending upon the photo you are developing, you’ll probably find that between five and ten of the presets work well, and that the rest probably won’t. This is normal and nothing to worry about.
Tweaking the settings
Now you’ve selected a preset, then what? The Vintage Portrait Presets are designed to give good results with a single click, but realistically there may still be some work to do to get the best out of your portrait.
For example, you might find that you like the color treatment of a particular preset, but the image is too dark. In that case, just increase Exposure or move the Shadows slider to right.
Or you might find that you like a preset but the skin tones are too dark or light. Try moving the Highlights slider to adjust the brightness of your model’s skin.
You can also experiment with Contrast, to see how your portraits look when more or less of it is applied.
For example, I applied the Vintage 1 preset to this portrait, but the background is very dark thanks to the Shadows -100 setting.
I like the color treatment of this preset as it brings out the model’s beautiful skin color. But as it’s too dark, I set Shadows to +30 to make the background lighter. Now you can see more detail in the model’s hair and the dark background.
These simple tweaks will help you get more out of the Vintage Portrait Presets. They also teach you how to use Lightroom’s sliders to control the tones in your portraits.
Skin retouching for women
Once you’ve selected the preset you want to use the next step is to carry out some skin retouching if it’s needed.
The best way to retouch skin is to apply Clarity locally with an Adjustment Brush. The screenshot below shows the Adjustment Brush mask I created for the earlier portrait in red. As you can see, I have left the model’s eyes, lips and the tip of her nose uncovered. These areas need to stay unsoftened for the effect to be realistic.
Use a negative Clarity value to smooth out skin texture. Select the Soften Skin preset which sets Clarity to -100 and Sharpness to +25.
Here’s the result.
As you can see the effect is very strong. At full strength (Clarity -100 / Sharpness + 25) the softening effect is usually overdone.
But it’s easily corrected. Hover the mouse over the pin that represents the active Adjustment brush and hold the Option [PC: Alt] key down. The mouse pointer changes to an icon with a vertical line and two horizontal arrows.
Hold the left mouse button down and move the mouse left. Lightroom moves both the Clarity and Sharpness sliders proportionally towards zero. Stop when you are pleased with the result. In this example the final settings are Clarity -53 and Sharpness +13. As you can see, the result is much more subtle.
Using the Vintage Portrait Presets with men
The Vintage Portrait Presets are also suitable for portraits of men. Here’s an example of a portrait I developed using the Vintage 25 preset.
As you know, these presets don’t apply Clarity adjustments as they are not suitable for every portrait. Unlike portraits of women, with men you can usually apply Clarity to emphasize skin texture. The best way is with an Adjustment Brush mask. The idea is to apply Clarity to the sharp parts of the image, and to leave the soft parts untouched.
Here’s the Adjustment Brush mask I created for this portrait (shown in red).
I increased Clarity to +46. I also had to move the Shadows slider right (to +31 in this case) to compensate for the natural tendency of Clarity to make shadows darker. The optimal values for your portraits depend on the color of the model’s skin and the lighting.
Here’s the result.
Which settings do the Vintage Portrait Presets affect?
Now you know how to apply the Vintage Portrait Presets lets take a look at what they actually do to your photos. This is quite important to understand because the presets do leave some of the creative decisions to you. Your photos will be made under a wide variety of lighting conditions and it’s impossible for a single preset to do everything.
The screenshot below shows the New Develop Preset window. This is where you get to decide which settings should be included in any new Develop Presets you create. As you can see, I have left several boxes unticked.
These are the settings you should adjust yourself, and why.
How warm or cool do you like your colors? It’s largely a matter of personal taste, although when it comes to portraits you can’t go wrong with warm tones. If in doubt, start by selecting Auto from the WB menu in the Basic panel.
Auto isn’t foolproof – for example, if you make a portrait of somebody against a red wall then it will overcompensate and apply a blue cast. But it’s usually close enough. You can tweak the settings by moving the Temp slider left or right to cool down or warm up the photo.
Exposure is not included for the simple reason that it is up to you how bright or dark you want your portrait to be. Leaving the Exposure setting to the user also lets you compensate for under- or over-exposed images.
Sharpening is best left at Lightroom’s default settings. Any adjustments to Sharpening setting should be made with care. For example, you could use the Adjustment Brush to apply Sharpening to the model’s eyes. But it’s easy to go to far and lose the natural look that these presets give you.
This is another setting best left to the Lightroom defaults (which vary according to the ISO used). Personally I’ve never felt the need to adjust Noise Reduction settings. Lightroom’s default settings do a great job.
Lens Corrections & Transform panels
I’ve left the settings in these panels up to you. Photos from some cameras, such as most Fujifilm cameras, don’t require Lens Corrections to be activated as the camera embeds a lens correction profile in the Raw file that Lightroom uses. If you apply Lens Corrections to your photos I recommend that you set Vignetting to zero. The natural vignetting that takes place at wide apertures works well with most portraits.
Note: Lens Corrections and Transform panels are combined in Lightroom CC 2015.6 onwards.
Grain and Dehaze
There is no need to use Dehaze in portraits, but some photographers apply grain to emulate the look of film. I don’t like to do that but I appreciate some people do. It’s just a matter of taste. As I don’t want to force grain on people who don’t want it in their portraits, I’ve added five presets that apply different patterns of grain without affecting any other settings. Another application of grain is that it can obscure noise on photos taken at high ISOs. You can experiment with the grain presets on high ISO portraits to see if they make a difference to the feel.
Using the presets with subjects other than portraits
I designed the Vintage Portrait Presets primarily for developing portraits, but there is no reason why you can’t use them with other subjects as well. Feel free to play and see how they can be useful to you. The examples below will hopefully inspire you!
Arlington Row, part of the ancient village of Bibury, is known as one of the most picturesque scenes in England. Developed with the Vintage 18 preset.
A mill in Derbyshire, England. Developed with the Vintage 26 preset.
Sheepstor, a rocky outcrop of granite on Dartmoor, England. Developed with the Vintage 2 preset.
A still life developed with the Vintage 26 preset.
Hopefully this tutorial gives you a good introduction to the Vintage Portrait Presets. They are a powerful tool once you understand how they work and use them properly.
If you have any questions about the presets, or any aspect of retouching portraits in Lightroom, please let us know in the comments.