How To Edit Portraits in Lightroom: a Step By Step Guide

As a portrait photographer, I edit a huge number of images for my clients. I realized that I needed a workflow that would allow me to edit images professionally in just a few steps. I tried Photoshop. And although it is one of the best software for portraits,  it was just taking me too much time.  Finally, I found that Lightroom was the solution. In this guide, I will show you how to edit portraits in Lightroom in a few easy steps.

If you are new to importing your photos to Lightroom, you can check the video below. If not, navigate to “Develop” module in Lightroom and jump ahead to step 1!

1. Adjust Your Exposure

I chose this portrait to show you my Lightroom workflow.  It is a nice shot but it can be improved with some editing.

This is the starting image out of the camera (no edits)

The first step in editing portraits in Lightroom is to adjust the Exposure in the Basic panel of the Develop module. If your portrait is either overexposed or underexposed due to tricky lighting conditions, this step can help.

By sliding the Exposure slider to the left or right, you make your photo brighter or darker respectively. This slider is quite sensitive, so with small changes, you will get big effects in the image.

A photo of lightroom develop module highlighting the brightness slider.
Navigate to “Develop” module and locate the “Brightness” slider to adjust the brightness of your image

2. Adjust White Balance

This is an important step especially if you used Auto White Balance (AWB) or White Balance presets of your camera when taking the shot.

With the “Temp” slider you can correct the white balance from blue to yellow.

With “Tint” slider, you can add/remove green and magenta tones of your image.

It is important to move these 2 sliders with caution because If you move them too much, your image will get a color cast. Take some time to play around with them until you like the result.

A portrait photo in lightroom develop module with temperature and tint sliders highlighted
Adjust the white balance of your image using the Tmp and Tint sliders

3. Adjust Contrast

Raw files come out from the camera looking a bit washed. In this step, we are going to liven them up a bit and give the portrait a “pop” using the Contrast slider.

Locate the contrast slider as shown below and move it to the right until you reach the desired contrast level.

A photo showing the lightroom contrast slider
Adding more contrast to your portraits helps to pop/liven them

4. Adjust Highlights and Whites

Now it is time to fine tune the brighter areas of your portrait.

First adjust the White slider to make the white tones in your image, pure white. In order to make the whites whiter, you need to move the white slider towards the right. I like to check how the histogram changes while I move the white slider. I stop when the whites reach the right end of the histogram.

A portrait photo in lightroom develop module with white slider highlighted
Adjusting the whites slider allow you to set the true white pixels

If you pass the right end of the histogram, you will start clipping the whites. This means that you will lose details from the whitest areas in the image.

Activate the Highlight clipping option in Lightroom to display these overblown areas in red as shown below.

a lightroom develop module showing the Histogram and highlight-clipping tool
Use the Histogram and highlight-clipping tool to alert you about overblown areas

If you are not familiar with Histograms, you can check this short Lightroom tutorial to learn the fundamentals:

To recover lost detail in overblown highlights, you can adjust the Highlights slider towards the left. This will allow you to recover some details from these overblown areas.

A lightroom image showing the highlights slider
Use the highlight slider to recover details from overexposed areas

5. Adjust Blacks and Shadows

Once the whites and highlights are adjusted, the next step is to work with the darker areas: blacks and shadows. Use the Black slider to set the dark tones in your image, pure black. Adjusting this slider allows you to add more contrast to the image while giving it a more vibrant colors.

Use the Shadow Clipping option to alert you about the clipped areas (information completely lost) in blue.

With the Shadow slider, you can recover details from the underexposed areas by moving it towards the right.

a lightroom image showing the Shadows slider in develop module.
Use the Shadows slider to bring out details in the underexposed areas

Let’s now use the Lightroom’s compare image feature to check the original and after-adjustment images side by side.

Lightroom image compare button screenshot
Activate the image comparison feature to see before and after

You can see the comparison better by dragging the slider below.

6. Add Radial Filters

Radial filters allow you to select and edit specific parts in your image. I use them mostly for adding extra brightness to make the subject stand out a bit more from the background.  Take care when using these filters because if you exaggerate or you don’t feather them well, the filter will be noticeable and the image will look artificial.

Click on the radial filter tool and place the circle on top of your model (whole body or certain body parts, especially the face). With radial filters, you can edit either the area inside or outside the filter’s boundary. In this case, we want to edit the inside. To do so we must click the checkbox Invert Mask.

A screenshot of the lightroom radial filter in action.

I like feathering the radial filters to the max to get a subtle gradation of the editing effect from the center of the filter towards the outside. Less feathering gives a sharper change between the inside and the outside. Play a bit with it until you find the feathering level you like.

If your radial filter sliders are not at 0, you can reset them at once by clicking twice in the word “Effect”.

With portraits, I usually increase the radial filter exposure a bit to give it a push.

How I use the radial filters will change from one portrait to another. I use them quite a lot to add brightness to the eyes.

For this particular image, I added one radial filter on each eye and increased both exposure and contrast. This will make the eyes look brighter and in high detail.

Here is the before and after comparison of adding radial filters:

Radial filters are really flexible. You can also use them to recover details in the highlights or adjust colors locally.

7. Soften the Skin with the Brush Tool.

I use the brush tool to make the skin look a bit smoother. To do so, select your brush and adjust its size and feathering using either its panel or the keyboard shortcut [ to make it smaller or ] to make it bigger.

A screenshot of the lightroom's brush tool activation and selection

Brush only your model’s skin and make sure to avoid eyes, teeth or any other element you want to keep sharp.

To make sure you brush just what you want, check the box “Show Selected Mask Overlay” and a pink overlay will appear in the brushed area

In case you brush something you don’t want to edit, don’t worry. You can erase it by clicking on “Erase”. Your brush will turn into an eraser. To come back to brush mode, click A.

Once you are happy with the brushed area, you can uncheck the box to get back to the normal view of your image.

To soften the skin, you just need to move the Clarity slider towards the left. Try to find the sweet spot in which the skin is softer but still looks realistic. If you overdo this edit, the skin will look unnatural and plastic-like.

In spots where there are extra wrinkles, you can add extra softening by brushing over the area again with a new brush.

You can modify the brushes at any time by clicking on its edit pin to activate it.

8. Fix Skin Imperfections with the Spot Removal Tool

To work on little imperfections, I recommend you to zoom in on the specific spots you want to check in the image. An easy way to do this is to click on the 1:1 option in the Navigator (left panel).

You can easily move to the area you want by clicking in that area in the navigator preview. You can also click and grab the image with the mouse to change its position.

Once you’ve identified the imperfection, select the Spot removal tool.  It has two options: Clone and Heal.

With the clone option, you copy one part of the image and you put it on top of the imperfection to hide it. However, it can be evident that you made a modification unless the area copied matches perfectly to the area you want to be removed.

On the other hand, heal option blends the selected area with the area you want to fix. The results are more refined and less evident.

You can adjust the clone circle’s feather, size, and opacity using the sliders as shown above.

Then click on the imperfection and Lightroom will automatically select an area to blend from. The area that the Lightroom selected is shown with a circle that connects to the spot fix area that you want to fix.

If you are not happy with Lightroom’s choice, you can drag the circle around the image until you find a spot that works better.

This video might help you to master the spot removal tool:

This is the before and after skin editing, notice how the skin imperfection is gone.

9. Make the Eyes Pop

In most portraits, the eyes are the most important part because eyes convey a lot of emotions and usually tell a story. Take your time editing them.

I usually start by brightening the iris with the brush tool. Zoom in to be more accurate and brush just the iris (make sure to exclude the pupil).

I use a brush with a slightly increased exposure and a slightly higher saturation. Don’t overdo it because you can get really unnatural eyes. In brown eyes, I like to warm them a little moving the temperature slide a little towards the yellows.

If the white part of the eye is a bit red, you can brush it with a new brush (click ‘Done‘ to create a new brush) to decrease the saturation.

Finally, to make the eyes more outstanding, you can go over the outline of the eyes with a brush to makes them both sharper and darker by simply increasing the clarity.

This works especially well if the subject is wearing eye makeup. I tend to not do this adjustment in kids’s photography though. It is a matter of taste, so you can always give it a try and see whether you like the effect or not.

10. Brighten the Hair

Using the brush tool once again, you can add a bit of brightness to the hair. Increase the exposure of the brush a bit. You can try to decrease the shadows too.

If you want the hair of your model to stand out more, you can also increase the sharpness. However, if you increase it too much, the hair might catch all the attention of the viewer and other features such as the eyes might go unnoticed.

11. Enhance the Lips

Brush the lips carefully and increase their saturation. You will see the colors of the lips pop nicely. You can even change the color by moving the temperature and tint sliders of your brush.

If you need to deal with teeth in your photos, you can remove yellow tints by brushing them and decreasing the saturation. Don’t overdo it to keep a natural look (avoid any dentist publicity look).

12. Add Some Vignetting

This step is optional and it depends on your personal preferences. I like darkening the border of the image to guide the viewer’s eye to the brighter part of the image, in this case, your model. You can easily add a vignette using the Post-Crop Vignetting in the Effects panel. The two sliders I use are Amount and Feather.

The Amount slider goes from a 100% black vignette (-100, to the left) to a 100% white (+100, to the right). In this case, you need a black vignette, so you need to slide it towards the left. How much you move will depend on how much vignetting you want to add. I personally like a subtle vignette effect, so I never pass the -15%.

The Feather slider determines how hard or smooth is the vignette´s transition. The more towards the right, the softer and less evident is the transition. I always keep it in a value higher than 50 to have a soft and graduated effect.

A screenshot of the lightroom's post-crop vignetting tool.
Vignetting can help the viewer’s eye to your subject

By now we have done a lot of changes, let’s look at the difference after edit steps 9 to 12:

13. Small Final Adjustments

After finishing all the adjustments, I go over the image one last time to check if I need to do some small general tweaks using the basic panel. In this step I don’t do any dramatic changes, it is just some fine-tuning and retouches in case it’s needed

And that’s all!! Here you have the final Before and After:

You Can’t Fix a Bad Photo!

Editing a portrait can improve it significantly. However, things such as focus, depth of field, or composition can be impossible to fix in Lightroom.

For that reason I recommend you to invest some time and effort when you are taking the photo and get the best possible image straight from the camera.

Shoot in RAW format if you want to get the best out of your portraits using Lightroom. The RAW format contains much more image data than JPEGs. It allows you to get higher quality images and edit them with more flexibility.

Conclusion

Once you get used to these steps it will take you just a few minutes to edit a portrait in Lightroom. Each portrait is different so the edits will need some modifications in each case.

This workflow will give you nice foundations to get familiar with the editing tools and options. If you don’t have Lightroom, don’t worry, you can do most of these edits in Lightroom alternatives too.

Feel free to experiment and adapt this workflow to your images and personal criteria. Have a happy time editing portraits in Lightroom!

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About the author

Sarah Rodríguez-Martínez

I am a self-taught photographer based in a sea-side town close to Barcelona. I love shooting portraits, yoga photography and nature. I have a lot of fun editing in Lightroom, my favorite editing software. Besides photography, I practice yoga, I am a recognized coffeeholic and I hate Mondays. You can contact me easily by both Instagram (@sarahrmphotos) and email ([email protected])

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