Learning how to edit portraits in Lightroom is rewarding and fun. Lightroom is different from other editing software because it involves a non-destructive workflow.
When you make an edit in Lightroom, the actual photo file is never altered. You can always revert to any stage in the editing process.
It does have some limitations, of course. Unlike Photoshop, Lightroom doesn’t support layers. This means that extreme editing, such as head swapping between photos, is not possible. But Lightroom does make editing tasks easy without dumbing it down.
In this article, we’ll walk through the best portrait adjustments to make in Lightroom.
Before You Edit
No software can put information back into a photo that was missing when it was taken. For example, blown-out highlights or out-of-focus areas.
For the best results, capture as much detail and get as much right in-camera as possible. You won’t have to waste time later trying to compensate for basic errors.
So before we look at how to retouch portrait photos, it’s worth reviewing a few tips. See our Complete Guide to Portrait Photography. These tips will help you get the best results straight from the camera.
Organising Your Portrait Photos in Lightroom
As you begin to accumulate more and more photos, it becomes important that you know where to find them. Different people have different ways to organise their photos.Lightroom can adapt to a few different strategies:
If you work with other editing software, you’ll likely have already organised your photos folders. You may even have a folder for portraits. If this is the case, you can import your existing folder(s) into Lightroom from the Folders panel.
When you open the Folders panel, you will see an overview of all the hard drives that Lightroom knows about. In the screenshot above, you can see the computer’s main internal hard drive ‘Macintosh HD’. This contains a folder under Users called ‘Loraine’ that has ‘Desktop’ and ‘ImageMatters’ sub-folders.
You can also see two external drives called ‘Images’ and ‘PHOTOS MAIN’ with their folders. Notice that each drive name has a green light next to it. This indicates that the drive still has plenty of space to hold more photos. As a drive begins to fill up, this light will turn amber and eventually red.
If you don’t see a folder you know should be displayed, click the ‘+’ button in the top right corner and then select ‘Add Folder’. Navigate to the folder you want to add. In the import dialogue make sure you select the ‘Add’ option.
This will add the photos from that folder to your current catalogue without moving or copying them anywhere else. If a folder no longer contains any photos, you can select it and then click the ‘-‘ button to remove it.
Once you have your folders organised, you will no longer need to use Finder or File Explorer to manage them. Lightroom enables you to drag photos from one folder to another. You can rename folders and perform all the housekeeping you need right from the Folders panel.
Clicking on a folder name will display its contents on-screen. To see the contents of more than one folder at a time, command-click (Mac) or CTRL-click (PC) a selection of folders.
Although organising by folders works for some people, it can be restrictive and confusing. Depending on the naming convention used, a given photo may be a candidate for more than one folder. That would mean having to copy a given photo to each folder that might be suitable. This is a bad idea. Not only is it confusing, but it also wastes disk space. You should only duplicate a master photo for backup reasons.
Folders are actual locations on your hard drive. Collections are virtual and far more flexible than folders. Of course, every photo has to be in a folder somewhere on your computer. But collections pull together many photos in a named list or ‘Collection’.
The big advantage of using collections is that you only need one master photo that resides in one folder. That photo can then be in an unlimited number of different collections.
Collections are so flexible they deserve a tutorial of their own. For now, we’ll just consider making a simple ‘Portraits’ collection. You can create a collection using the ‘+’ button on the Collections panel in the Library Module. This will display a pop-up from which you can create one of three kinds of collection.
Select the ‘Create Collection’ option. Name your collection something appropriate such as ‘Portraits’.
TIP: Prepend the collection name by the underscore character as shown below. The collection name will appear towards the top of the alphabetical list of collection names.
You can pre-select some portrait photos before creating the collection. If you tick the ‘Include selected photos’ box, they will be added to the new collection.
Once you’ve made a portraits collection, you can add any other photos to it by dragging them onto the collection.
If you’ve just completed a dedicated portrait shoot, you can specify that photos are added to your portrait collection. Tick the ‘Add to Collection’ box and select the collection in the File Handling section of the import dialogue box:
Another good reason to use collections is that unlike the Folders panel, you can access the Collections panel from the Develop Module. Clicking on a collection will populate the filmstrip with the photos in that collection.
Another way to organise your portrait photos is to give them appropriate keywords—one of which should probably be ‘Portrait’. This is most easily done as part of the import process using the ‘Apply During Import’ panel:
Simply type the keywords into the panel. If you want to add several words, separate them by commas. Be careful to observe the use of upper and lower case. Lightroom will treat ‘portrait’ and ‘Portrait’ as two separate words. To find the photos to which you’ve added keywords, open the ‘Keyword List’ panel and find the keyword you’ve assigned.
The screenshot above shows that 510 photos have the keyword ‘Portrait’. The tick indicates the currently selected photo has this keyword assigned. If you want to add this keyword to another photo, select it and then click the tick box next to the Portrait keyword.
As you hover your mouse over a keyword, you’ll see a white arrow appear as shown above. If you click this arrow, Lightroom will activate the Library filter to only show photos with this keyword. To see all your photos again, select ‘None’ in the Library Filter at the top of the screen.
The problem with keywording is that it can be tedious. Many people don’t bother to keep their keywords up-to-date. Techniques like keyword hierarchies can help. A better way to handle keywording for portraits is to use Lightroom’s facial recognition feature.
You probably already own a camera that can recognise and track faces. Similar algorithms are now used in Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC to detect faces in photos you’ve already taken. This can be a great time saver if you have thousands of faces in your catalogue. To activate People View, click the face icon in the Library toolbar. If this is not visible, tap the ‘T’ key to show it. You can also activate the People View using the ‘O’ keyboard shortcut.
Lightroom will then ask if you want it to scan for faces in your whole catalogue or only in the folders and collections you select. Scanning your whole catalogue may take a while, but you can continue to work as this is a background task.
The advantage of using People View is that it groups similar looking people so you can name people much faster. It does sometimes find faces in random patterns, but it’s generally good at recognising people. Not every photo found by People View will be ‘portrait material’, but it’s worth trying if you have thousands of faces in your library.
Apart from being able to use your subjects’ names as keywords, you can recall them all. To recall them, click on the ‘People View’ button on the toolbar in the Library Module (shortcut key ‘O’).
Our Guide to Editing Portraits in Lightroom
One overriding guideline in basic photo editing ‘don’t overdo it’. Most people are vain to some extent, and of course, they want to look their best. But be careful not to go too far when it comes to ironing out blemishes.
One problem with editing portraits is that the brain adapts to the newly edited image. It can be difficult to remember how it looked a short while ago. A good tip is to use the backslash key (‘’) to quickly see the ‘before’ and ‘after’ views as you apply adjustments. Alternatively, set the develop view to Before/After, Left/Right.
We’ll start with a reasonably good photo straight from the camera. The subject’s eyes are sharp, the exposure is OK, and the expression is fine. But there’s room for improvement. Before we get down to specific portrait-related edits, we need to assess the image as a whole and make any general adjustments.
Step 1: Check the White Balance
Achieving good skin tones is very important when dealing with portraits. You should never just make colour adjustments until they look right on your monitor.
Remember to calibrate your monitor before you begin. If your monitor hasn’t been profiled, you could be in for a shock when viewing your work on a different device or when you have it printed.
An essential starting point is ensuring that there’s no colour-cast in the image. You can determine and correct this using the White Balance Selector tool. This is the eye-dropper icon at the top of the Basic panel in the Develop Module.
Either click on this or hit the ‘W’ keyboard shortcut to activate the tool. Hover it over an area that should be neutral in colour. Don’t select a very bright white or black area because they may be saturated in one or more channels. This will give a false reading.
In this image, the subject is showing enough of a white t-shirt to make this a good choice. Hovering the tool over this area will show the red, green and blue values for that point as percentages of their greatest values.
If you tick the ‘Show Loupe’ box as shown at the bottom of the image, Lightroom will display a grid of pixels with the sample pixel in the centre. The red, green and blue values will be underneath the grid.
In this example, the RGB values were 82.4, 81.2, and 80.6—all very close to each other. This indicates there is no strong colour cast, but there is a slight red bias. Clicking with the tool on this point will adjust the colours to force the RGB values for this point to become identical.
If you choose a neutral point, the White Balance Selector will adjust the colour temperature and tint well. It will give you a good basis from which to continue editing.
TIP: It can be useful to carry a grey card or an X-rite Colour Passport. Include it in the photo in an area you know you’ll crop out later. This will give you a reliable sample point to ensure your image is properly balanced. Colour checker cards can also be used to calibrate your camera.
Step 2: Check the Tonal Range
You can generally see on-screen if the photo is too dark or too bright. The histogram will show you the distribution of brightness values. With this, you can spot loss of detail in the highlights or shadows, no matter how bad your monitor! The histogram for our example portrait looks like this:
The histogram shows the darkest pixels on the left-hand side, mid-tones in the middle and the brightest pixels on the right.
In this example, there’s a tall peak on the left. This indicates we have quite a lot of dark pixels in our image located in the dark background. Just to the right, a smaller hump shows we have some details in the shadows which come from the subject’s hair. The rest of the histogram shows a good spread of values from the subject’s skin and clothes.
You may want a photo with bright pixels (for example a bride in the snow) or dark pixels (like a black dog in a coal shed). But most photos look best when they have a full range of tones from very dark all the way to almost maximum brightness.
When you begin to adjust the tonal range of your images, there is a danger of losing details. This can happen by bright pixels saturating into blown-out areas of white. It can also happen when details in the shadows are numerically coerced into becoming areas of pure black.
To alert you of this danger, Lightroom provides a warning system. You can turn this on or off using the ‘J’ keyboard shortcut. When activated, two boxes will appear at the top of the histogram display. There will be a shadow clipping box in the top left corner and a highlight clipping box in the top right corner.
In the example above, the shadow clipping box has a white triangle in it. If you look at the left peak in the histogram, you’ll see there is a tiny gap to the left of it. This shows that although there are many very dark pixels in this image, none of them has yet become pure black. The warning triangle is indicating that some pixels are in the ‘danger zone’ towards becoming pure black.
When shadow/highlight clipping warnings are active, pure black pixels will show a bright blue overlay on-screen. Those pixels that have blown out to pure white will exhibit a bright red overlay. On this image, adjusting the exposure slider to either extreme would produce the following results:
Step 3: Adjusting the Tonal Distribution
The top two sliders in the ‘Tone’ section of the Basic panel are Exposure and Contrast. Many people reach for these sliders first when they want to adjust the brightness and contrast.
But, unless your image is very over- or underexposed, the exposure slider is not the best control to adjust first. The exposure slider multiplies every RGB value of every pixel by the same amount.
This is why increasing the exposure slider smears the whole distribution to the right in the histogram. In our example, the subject’s hair needs to stand out more from the dark background. We need to be able to increase the shadow values without affecting the mid-tones and highlights. To optimise the dynamic range, we first need to adjust the shadows and highlights separate from the other tones. After this, you can think about a small exposure adjustment if it’s still needed.
If you leave the exposure slider alone and adjust the Whites slider, you’re effectively setting the upper limit. This makes your brightest pixel scrape in at full brightness.
It may be difficult to notice this (particularly if there is already a lot red in the photo). An alternative method is to hold down the ALT key on your keyboard while dragging the Whites slider from left to right.
At first, the image will appear to be black. As you slide the Whites control further right, you’ll begin to see some pixels appear. As soon as you notice this happening, back off until the display returns to black only. You’ve now made sure your brightest pixel is on the limit, and no details will be blown-out in the highlights.
Whereas blown-out highlights should be avoided, the other end of the tonal range is not such an issue. Many photos have areas of pure black. In this example, much of the background is already very dark and is on the verge of becoming pure black.
Since the background contains no essential details, we can allow some of it to turn pure black if needed. If your image is shot against a lighter background, you may want to check and set the black end of your dynamic range in a similar way to the whites.
To set the black end, again, hold down the ALT key (PC) or OPTION key (Mac) and this time, drag the Blacks slider. You will see a largely white screen this time. As you move the Blacks slider to the left, dark pixels will begin to appear. Stop at this point and back off until the screen is all white.
When you release the mouse button, your image dynamic range will be just right. You can then adjust the tonal distribution within that range.
In our example, moving the shadows slider to the right amplifies the values of the pixels in the hair. It does this without bringing out noise in the background or blowing out the highlights. Setting the Before/After drop-down control at the bottom of the screen to Left/Right allows us to see the effects of these adjustments:
Step 4: Cropping
Cropping is one of those operations that tends to come towards the end of an editing workflow. But since all adjustments in Lightroom are non-destructive, we don’t have to be dogmatic about it.
In this case, tonal adjustments have revealed some distracting background details. A little cropping and rotating will remove the distractions and make the subject fill the frame better.
The crop tool enjoys a prime position on the dedicated toolbar beneath the histogram. Click this icon or hit the ‘R’ keyboard shortcut to activate it.
Click the padlock to lock or unlock the aspect ratio. Click and drag to define your chosen crop. In this example, the ‘Tool Overlays’ drop-down box has been set to ‘Always’ to superimpose some guides. Hit the ‘O’ keyboard shortcut key to cycle through the seven available layout patterns.
As you drag with a fixed aspect rati
o, Lightroom will switch between landscape and portrait automatically. But it sometimes settles for the wrong choice—if this happens to you, hit the ‘X’ key to flip it back.
Moving the cursor outside the rectangle will turn it into a rotate tool. Clicking and dragging within the rectangle will shift the image around inside the rectangle. Click the crop icon, or press ‘R’ or hit the enter key to accept the crop.
How to Retouch Portrait Photos
Up to this point, we’ve only made the kind of preliminary edits that might be applied to any photo. We will now consider cosmetic enhancements in detail, starting with skin blemishes. To start zapping spots, select the Spot Removal Tool. Click its icon (to the right of the crop tool) or hit the ‘Q’ keyboard shortcut.
In earlier versions of Lightroom, the tool could only clone spots. It’s now capable of dealing with much more. The basic principle hasn’t changed—a good area still overwrites bad areas, but how this is done has been refined.
Zoom into the photo at 1:1 so you can see the offending details.