Editor's note: This month only – Use the code july5 at checkout to buy the 5 Steps to Better Black & White Photography and 5 Steps to Better Exposure ebooks for just $5! Click the links to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew.
Some photographers use Photoshop for retouching portraits, especially if they like the heavily retouched look common in advertising and other high-end forms of commercial photography. Some use plugins – at least partly because plugins are heavily advertised.
But the truth is that if you haven’t used Lightroom for retouching portraits before then you’ll probably be surprised at just how good it is. There are also some workflow related reasons to do as much of your portrait retouching in Lightroom as you can.
Now I’m going to make a bold claim – for all but the most demanding portrait photographers, Lightroom is the only application you’ll ever need for portrait retouching. Let’s look at some of the reasons why.
1. Retouching portraits in Lightroom helps you create a natural look
The biggest problem with using Photoshop or plugins to retouch portraits is that it’s easy to go too far and overdo the effect. Photoshop in particular makes it easy to cross the line from photography to illustration. We’ve all seen the work of photographers who have made the eyes of their models larger, their waists narrower, removed all sign of skin texture or changed the shape of their face.
Human beings are very good at remembering and recognizing people’s faces. Because of this, when we see an over-retouched portrait we automatically know that there is something wrong with it. The search for perfection results in a work of fiction, and we know it.
The advantage of using Lightroom for portrait retouching is that you there are no tools for warping, liquifying or otherwise changing the fundamental proportions of a portrait. There is no temptation to distort a model’s face or make her thinner because it simply isn’t possible.
In other words, Lightroom helps you keep it real and create authentic portraits that capture character as well as likeness.
An interesting thing happens when you don’t use Photoshop to slim somebody’s face or body, or to compensate for poor lighting. You have to learn how to light and pose your model properly. These are skills that portrait (and wedding photographers) have had to learn for decades, and are in danger of being lost to photographers who are over-reliant on Photoshop. Using Lightroom encourages you to learn to be a better portrait photographer.
2. Lightroom helps you create authentic portraits with presets
If authenticity and character are an important part of your portraits then Lightroom is a great tool for developing your portraits. One of the reasons often given for the increase in popularity of film photography is that it’s somehow more organic or authentic than digital.
Another is that it’s better at rendering skin tones and other highlights than digital.
These are interesting ideas, and they do have some validity, but it’s important to note that there are many portraits made using digital cameras that have the same characteristics. Good skin tones and highlights are as much about exposure, lighting and the sliders you adjust in Lightroom as they are about the medium (in this sense, film is one medium for photography, and digital is another).
Lightroom just happens to have a powerful tool for creating authentic portraits with interesting color and tonal treatments. You know this tool as Develop Presets. There are several advantages of using Develop Presets to help you develop portraits.
- Develop Presets help you apply a consistent developing style or color treatment. Once you have created a certain look in Lightroom, you can save it as a preset and apply it to other portraits taken in similar lighting conditions. In this sense, the preset contributes to your style.
- Using Develop Presets created by other photographers helps you explore all of Lightroom’s tools for altering tonal and color values. If you are new to Lightroom it might seem to lack the imaginative options that presets in other applications, or even Instagram filters, give you. Nothing could be further from the truth, once you understand how to use Lightroom’s tools.
- Develop Presets help you develop portraits in bulk. When you do a portrait shoot it is likely that you have anywhere between ten and fifty portraits, maybe even more, that are worth developing in Lightroom. The final figure depends on the exact nature of your portrait shoot, but it’s helpful if you can apply the same settings to all of your portraits to start the developing process. Then you can look at each portrait individually for retouching and tweaking. Develop Presets help you do this. The end result is that they save you a lot of time and effort.
3. Lightroom helps you create powerful black and white portraits
If you like the idea of creating powerful, authentic portraits that capture the model’s character then you are probably drawn to the most authentic medium of all – black and white. The potential of Lightroom when it comes to black and white cannot be understated. You have so much control over tonal values and contrast that it makes using black and white film obsolete. You also have lots of ways you can improve your portraits by making local adjustments. If black and white portraiture is your thing, then digital is where it’s at, and Lightroom is one of the best tools for helping you realize your vision.
4. You can retouch skin quickly and easily in Lightroom
If you have been tempted by adverts for portrait plugins you know their main selling point is that you can use them to make anyone’s skin look beautiful. The downside is that these plugins do this by removing skin texture. The result is that your portraits look over-processed, as devoid of character and interest as a store-front dummy.
Lightroom solves this problem by providing you with the perfect tools for retouching portraits while keeping skin texture and helping you create the natural look. You can use the Spot Removal tool to remove blemishes, and the Adjustment Brush with the Soften Skin preset to smooth skin without losing skin texture. The Adjustment Brush is extremely versatile because you can adjust the strength of the effect just like you can change the opacity of a layer in Photoshop. The Spot Removal tool and Adjustment Brush let you retouch nearly any portrait.
Convinced? I retouched and developed all of the portraits in this article in Lightroom, using Develop Presets that I created myself or bought from other photographers.
If you haven’t considered using Lightroom for developing portraits the next step is to start exploring its portrait retouching tools. Lightroom is an excellent application for creating natural, authentic portraits. That should be good enough reason for most portrait photographers to use it.
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