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Tuesday, May 11, 2010

How to Make Your Portrait Photos POP Using Lightroom

Hello and welcome to another episode of Masterpiece Theater. Today, we will continue our discussion about how to make your Portrait Photos really POP using Lightroom. Check out the first post if you missed it.

Our example today comes courtesy of the fabulous Meaghan from Weddings Made Splendid. She's a wedding planner that I got to know yesterday. In order to show her a couple things in Lightroom I ended up taking a couple quick photos outside. Meaghan has such a warm smile and captivating blue eyes so it was easy to get a great capture of her!  I wanted to use this photo for my example because I felt like it was a great shot of HER.  Unfortunately, it wasn't MY best shot.  Fortunately, Lightroom has a bunch of tricks up its sleeve to come to the rescue! 

Because I was just taking a few quick pics I didn't take the time to find some better quality light.  Also, I somewhat underexposed the shot.  As a result she is a little too dark, her eye sockets have a little more shadow than they should, and there isn't quite as much pop.

On the left you can see the before straight out of the camera, unprocessed version.  And on the right is the after. 

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - before/after

When editing a photo, there are a sequence of steps to follow. And the first thing to do is to get the foundation setup right. Leon Sandoval runs the post-processing shop, Colorati, and this is his recommended workflow (ps - I started using them for all my event post-processing and they are AMAZING).

In order of execution, there are four key things to adjust: 
  1. White Balance
  2. Highlights (White Point)
  3. Shadows (Black Point)
  4. Mid Tones 
Before you do anything else, it is important to set these properly. Once you have these foundation elements in place you can then play with all the other fancy/artistic/improvement techniques. I am going to breeze through these four very quickly so if anyone has questions please feel free to post a comment or email me.

Here's our original photo:
Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - before

First up: let's set the White Balance. For this shot I'm just going to use the "Daylight" preset.  For a normal shoot I'll go through and set a custom white balance to ensure the most accurate color (well, technically Colorati does that now) but doing that is a whole series in and of itself...

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - white balance

Second thing we'll do is dial in the highlights. Another way to explaining this is that we want to adjust the photo so our whites are as white as possible without "clipping". To do this we'll use the Exposure slider. One really cool trick is that while you're adjusting the slider, if you hold down the ALT key you'll see a version of your image that shows where your highlights are being clipped. In this photo, you can see that I've increased the exposure a little too much.

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - exposure

I'll bring down the Exposure slider slightly just until I don't see any clipped highlights.

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - exposure

To adjust your shadows, or black point, you do the same thing but with the Black slider. You have the same ALT key trick available to help you see the clipped low lights. For this photo, I didn't need to adjust anything.

Finally, I'm going to lighten the mid-tones slightly by increasing the Brightness slider.

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - brightness

OK. So now we have a foundationally sound photo. From here, we can start making our tweaks.  First thing I'm going to do is bump up the contrast slightly from the default of 25 to 50.  This will give a little more pop to the photo.  (You should note that our foundation adjustments already increased the contrast to a nice level already)  The next thing I'll do is boost the colors with the Vibrance slider.  I use this instead of the Saturation slider.  Saturation adjusts ALL of the colors equally.  Vibrance adjusts the color saturation on a sliding scale basis.  For those colors that are already rich, it leaves them more or less alone.  For colors that are lacking in saturation, it will boost those more.  This results in a much more pleasing and "normal" photo. 

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - vibrance/contrast

At this point, many photographers will stop and call it a day. But if you have a photo that wasn't taken quite as good as it could have been there are a few simple tricks to help them out.

The tool that we'll use now is the Adjustment Brush. After clicking on the Adjustment Brush I zoom in on the image to see her eyes better. 

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - adjustment brush

What I'm going to do is lighten her eyes but setting the brush to increase the brightness. Then I'll "paint" over her eyes to lighten them. Even though the sockets of the eyes still might not be receiving as much light as they should, the brightened eyes trick the eyes into thinking they're lit better. And because eyes are one of the first thing people notice when they look at a face, it really helps make the photo.

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - vibrance/contrast

For extra credit, you can even use an adjustment brush to increase the exposure over the catch lights. Catch lights are what really put life into the eyes and portraits.

The last thing I'm going to do is apply a slight vignette to really bring the attention inward to Meaghan.  This is a technique that has become quite trendy and as such, I won't use it on things like canvases or albums because I want those things to be timeless.  However, for a slide show or blog post sometimes I'll do this as a quick and easy trick to give a photo an extra something. 

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - vignette

Ohhh wait. Just kidding. I've got one more trick for you. If you look at Meaghan's jacket you'll see that we don't quite have as much detail in the white as we'd want. If you want to go another extra mile on your photo here is a way to bring that detail back.

We'll use the adjustment brush again. To bring out the detail we'll decrease the exposure and increase the Clarity and Sharpness. In the screen cap below, you can see how I'm painting on with the adjustment brush.

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - adjustment brush

Here again is the final photo. Thanks again Meaghan for being my unknowing model!

Lightroom Tutorial - how to make your portrait photos pop - final


  1. Great tutorial! Thanks for posting.

    Lexington, KY

  2. Very nice... always looking for a "pop" method I'm happy with.



  3. I think that Lightroom is much better for most photo touch up, Photoshop is good if you have a lot of major editing to do.

    I always use it!


  4. It is a great things for eyes .So thanks for post.


  5. Many thanks! Very helpful!

  6. Good and a 'spot-on' post. Thanks!

  7. Awesome and good working and very much helpful for me thanks a lot...


  8. Glad to see that you are using Lightroom.
    I loved to see more work from you. Thank for sharing this beautiful work of yours.

    If you have a time to visit our website,
    you can visit it on www.photoeditingcompany.com

  9. Great article, thanks so much for sharing. I like to make portrait photos, if somebody wants to attempt to create some use this photo editing app https://macphun.com/intensify it's exclusively for the MAC users help you to create amazing portrait photos, a little practice and you'll do it like a pro.

  10. Great tutorial. But, why not remove the blemishes? ;)