How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

How to Retouch Portraits in Lightroom

In our earlier article Four Reasons For Retouching Portraits in Lightroom we looked at why you can use Lightroom for developing authentic, natural portraits that capture character. That article (which you can catch up on using the link above) covers the theory – this one shows you how to put these ideas into practice.

Before we start, it’s worth thinking about the style in which you’d like to retouch your portraits. Do you prefer the slick, airbrushed look common in a lot of commercial photography? Or you prefer a more natural, authentic look? If it’s the latter you’re in luck – Lightroom’s tools are perfect for this style of portrait retouching.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

Portrait retouching workflow

I divide the task of retouching portraits into three steps.

1. Retouch blemishes. This is simple, and as long as your model doesn’t have bad skin, doesn’t take long.

2. Stylize the portrait. This is where you decide what look to apply to the portrait. You might use Develop Presets for this.

3. Make local adjustments with the Adjustment Brush (including skin smoothing). I save this until last as not all portraits need local adjustments. You only know for sure after making tonal adjustments. For example, increasing Contrast or Clarity emphasizes skin texture which then means you need to apply stronger skin smoothing.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

In some ways retouching portraits of women is restrictive because it’s conventional to use skin smoothing to remove blemishes and wrinkles. The danger of this approach is that you also remove signs of character. The trick is to find the middle approach that lets you bring the best out of your models.

With portraits of men, on the other hand, you can go the other way, increasing Clarity to emphasize skin texture. You have more freedom, especially if working in black and white.

Let’s take a closer look at the retouching process with a portrait of a woman.

Step 1: Remove blemishes with the Spot Removal tool

The Spot Removal tool is for removing blemishes. The healing algorithms used by Lightroom preserve skin texture. Here’s how you do it.

1. Click on the Spot Removal tool icon to activate it. Make sure it is set to Heal rather than Clone.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

2. Adjust the size of the brush using the square bracket keys (‘[‘ and ‘]’) on the keyboard.

3. Click on the blemish you want to remove. Lightroom automatically selects another part of the portrait to sample and heals the blemish.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

4. If Lightroom doesn’t pick a good area to sample from, click and drag the circle showing the sample area (marked with an arrow, below) to an area of unblemished skin.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

Step 2: Stylize the portrait

In this case I stylized the portrait by making some adjustments in the Basic, Tone Curve and Effects panels. The idea was to create a natural looking portrait with subdued color and good skin tones. Every portrait is different, but for those of you who are interested the screenshots below show the settings I used for this portrait.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

This is the result.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

You can learn more about stylizing portraits with Develop Presets in my article How to Develop Portraits in Lightroom With the Vintage Portrait Presets.

Step 3: Local adjustments using the Adjustment Brush

Now you can look closely at the portrait to see what other retouching, if any, is required. We wait until this stage as it’s important to know what you’re working with. For example, you may have moved the Exposure or Highlights sliders right to make the model’s skin brighter, which in turn means less skin smoothing is required. Or, as mentioned earlier, you may have increased Clarity and as a result need stronger skin smoothing.

Skin smoothing in Lightroom

The key to successful skin smoothing is to use the Soften Skin preset from the Effect menu. This is how you do it.

1. Click on the Adjustment Brush icon to activate it.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

2. Select the Soften Skin preset from the Effect menu. When you do this Lightroom sets Clarity to -100 and Sharpness to +25. Or you can move the sliders to these settings yourself – the Soften Skin preset is just a shortcut that makes it easier.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

3. Set Feather to around 75, and Flow and Density to 100.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

4. Use the square bracket keys on the keyboard to adjust the size of the brush.

5. Press the ‘O’ keyboard shortcut (or tick the Show Selected Mask Overlay) in the Toolbar so that Lightroom displays an overlay to show you the area covered by the mask.

6. Paint over the model’s face with the Adjustment Brush. You may need to adjust the size of the brush (use the square bracket keys) to accurately mask the face. Leave the hair, lips, tip of the nose, eyes and eyebrows free – you want these areas to remain sharp. You can either work around them with the Adjustment Brush, or mask the entire face and use the Erase brush to remove the mask from these areas.

Either way, you will end up with something like this:

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

Now, press ‘O’ to hide the mask overlay. You’ll see something like the screenshot below. Remember, the Soften Skin preset is at its maximum strength so it has a strong effect on the photo.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

If you’re producing a poster for a Hollywood movie you’d probably be happy with that result. Everybody else can reduce the strength of the effect following these steps.

7. Hover the mouse over the Adjustment Brush pin (a grey circle with a black dot in the middle) until a double arrow icon appears (below).

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

8. Hold the left mouse button down and move the mouse left. Lightroom reduces the value of the Clarity and Sharpness sliders proportionately, keeping the 1:4 ratio between them. This lessens the strength of the Soften Skin preset.

9. Stop when it looks about right. In this example, the final settings are Clarity -16, Sharpness 4, giving a subtle skin smoothing effect.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

Enhancing eyes with the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom

You can also enhance your model’s eyes with the Adjustment Brush tool. Be careful of overdoing this as it won’t look natural if you model’s eyes are too bright.

1. Click New at the top of the Adjustment Brush panel to create a new Adjustment Brush.

2. Select Clarity from the Effect menu. This effectively resets all the Adjustment Brush sliders to zero.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

3. Set Feather to around 60 and paint in the pupils of the model’s eyes. If you need to, press ‘O’ on the keyboard to see the masked area.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

4. Now set Exposure to around 0.50 and Clarity to 30. The best settings vary depending on the color of your model’s pupils and the amount of light on them. It’s a good idea to zoom out and look at the entire portrait to see if the effect is too strong.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

You can see this adjustment on the model’s eyes below, which I think is about right.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

Don’t forget you can adjust the settings using the technique described above. Hover over the Adjustment Brush pin until the double arrow icon appears, move the mouse left to make the effect weaker, and right to make it stronger. Or you can also just drag the sliders one by one to change the settings.

Here are the before and after versions of the portrait that I’ve developed and retouched for this article.

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

How to retouch portraits in Lightroom

Next steps

Free Creative Fade presets for LightroomIf you’d like to have a go at stylizing portraits with presets then I suggest you download our free Creative Fade presets for Lightroom. There are 21 presets in the collection plus a PDF guide that shows you how to use and install them.

You may also like to sign up for our free Mastering Lightroom email course. Just enter your details below to do so.

Further reading

Four Reasons For Retouching Portraits in Lightroom

How to Develop Portraits in Lightroom With the Vintage Portrait Presets

Create Better Black and White Portraits with UltraBlack Develop Presets

Vintage Portrait Presets for Lightroom

Our Vintage Portrait Presets for Lightroom are designed to help you create beautiful, authentic portraits. I use them to develop my own portraits and I know you will find them useful as sell. Just click here to learn more about the Vintage Portrait Presets.

Vintage Portrait Presets

About Andrew S. Gibson

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, publisher, traveler, workshop leader and photographer based in the UK. He started writing about photography while traveling in Bolivia, and has been published in many prestigious photography magazines including EOS magazine, where he worked as a Writer and Technical Editor for two years. He is inspired by meeting new people, seeing new places and having new experiences. Check out his photography ebooks here.

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