11 min read

How To Edit Portraits in Lightroom: 7 Basic Steps

11 min read

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editing portraits in lightroom.

How to edit portraits in Lightroom is not as difficult as you might think. Working with a goal in mind and following a series of steps will produce very pleasing results.

The most important thing you can do before you even open Adobe Lightroom is to start with the most interesting, well-exposed portrait you have. Taking photos of people, it’s always good to take a good variety of photos. Even experienced models will move and alter their expressions between frames. So it pays to take plenty and then choose the best.

For the purpose of providing the most helpful information in this article on how to edit portraits in Lightroom, I will demonstrate with an image that’s been well exposed. It’s also a photo that has even lighting and where I was not seeking to create any special effect. It’s simply a natural image of my subject.

There are many more radically different approaches you can use to edit portraits in Lightroom that require other techniques of post-processing photos. I will not go into them here. This article is focused on a more general approach to editing an image.

I am using Adobe Lightroom Classic version 11.2.

Editing Portraits in Lightroom

YouTube video

For the best results when you are editing portraits in Lightroom or any other subject, it’s best to be working on RAW files. They contain more information than jpeg files and are not compressed, so you will end up with a higher-quality image.

Step 1: Choose a Well Exposed, in Focus Portrait to Edit

Starting with a well exposed and properly focused photo is best. 

You can edit portraits in Lightroom that are made with a poor exposure setting, but you will encounter limitations. Look at the histogram of the image to make sure there is no detail lost in the highlights or shadow areas in parts of the image that are most important. The subject’s skin tones should contain detail and be well exposed.

Choose a portrait to work on where the subject’s eyes are both sharp. If the person is not facing directly into the camera, make sure the eye that is closest to the camera is in focus. Don’t kid yourself that you can fix an out-of-focus image during the editing process. Edits can be made to enhance slightly soft areas of an image. But no matter how much editing in Lightroom you do, you will never fix an out-of-focus photo. No matter what your subject is.

unedited portrait of a women.
Unedited portrait.

Step 2: Crop and Straighten Your Portrait Photo

One of the main mistakes many photographers tend to make when taking a portrait is quite simple to avoid. It’s also easy to fix while you are editing portraits in Lightroom.

Don’t leave too much empty space above your portrait subject’s head. This is the most typical mistake people make when taking portrait photos. Thankfully it is easy to remedy when you are editing a portrait in Lightroom.

You can simply use the crop tool in the Develop Module. The keyboard shortcut to get there is ‘D’. You will find this under the histogram and just above the Basic Panel. Select the crop tool and then click and drag from any of the handles on either side of the image or at the top and bottom.

To straighten the image, if it needs to be corrected, hover the mouse pointer near one of the corners of the image. This will then convert the pointer to a curved two-headed arrow. Click and drag slowly and slightly to make adjustments to the straightness of your photo. It’s important at the beginning of your portrait editing to get the image straight.

using the crop tool for editing a portrait in lightroom.
Using the crop tool.

Making Global Adjustments When Editing Portraits in Lightroom

Portrait editing in Lightroom can be done globally or by using the adjustment brush for making local edits to specific areas of a portrait.

Global portrait editing affects every part of the images you are working on. This is all done in the Develop Module in Lightroom. After cropping and straightening, the next step is to begin editing portraits using tools that will have some influence over the whole image. Then you can get more specific and use the adjustment brush. 

The brush tool can be used as a spot removal tool for portraits to remove blemishes. You can also use it for a range of other adjustments, usually to fix shadows around the eyes and to whiten teeth. But first, it is more important to make global adjustments to ensure your portrait editing will look natural.

When editing portraits in Lightroom, I typically start at the top of the Basics Panel and work my way down through the adjustment tool sliders. I will make adjustments to some of the sliders but not will not often move them all when editing a portrait in Lightroom.

Step 3: Adjusting the White Balance Sliders

You can make adjustments to the white balance in Lightroom using the sliders or the eyedropper tool. I usually use the sliders to achieve a more precise adjustment. Using the eyedropper, Lightroom can often produce some extreme edits that look unnatural.

First, check and see if using the eyedropper tool will produce a suitable white balance. If it is too extreme for your liking, you can always use the white balance adjustment sliders to correct it.

using the white balance adjustment.
White balance tool in Lightroom.

Click on the eyedropper tool, and then click on a neutral tone in the portrait you are editing. Somewhere that is white but has detail. Or somewhere that is a gray tone. In my example image, I have chosen a spot on the railing that my friend is leaning on.

In my example image, the eyedropper tool has produced an okay result. I then tweaked the Temp slider to add a little more warmth to the light. When I made this portrait in the evening, the light was soft and warm, so I wanted this to look natural in my photos.

You will notice that if you click on an area with any color using the eyedropper, the results will look unnatural.

adjusting white balance of the portrait.
Weird white balance adjustment.

The most important aspect when portrait editing to achieve a natural look is to ensure skin tones look good. Try to get the skin tone of your model looking as close as possible to how it really is. If you apply too much tweaking to the sliders, you can end up with a model whose skin looks sick.

Step 4: Make Editing Adjustments to the Tone Sliders

The sliders in the tone panel are:

  • Exposure
  • Contrast
  • Highlights
  • Shadows
  • Whites
  • Blacks

As with any slider in the Develop Module in Adobe Lightroom, use the exposure slider carefully. Try to avoid pushing it out to the extreme left or right. If you need to do this to get your images looking how you want them to, it may be too much. It would be best to select a different portrait image that has a better exposure. Once you start making adjustments that are too severe, you will encounter technical issues with your image quality.

Aim to adjust the exposure slider so that the skin of the person you have made a portrait of looks nice. If you end up with a skin tone that looks underexposed or overexposed, the result will not be so flattering.

Sometimes it is important to consider who you are making the portrait edit for. If your aim is to please your model, you have to think about how they will perceive the images you have created when portrait editing. Living in Asia and photographing the people here, many of them prefer to have their skin appear lighter in photographs. So using the exposure slider to make their skin look lighter is flattering.

In my example, I have increased the exposure and decreased the contrast. I also strengthened the blacks by pulling the slider to the left. Then I reduced the shadows by moving the shadows slider to the right.

Keep one eye on the histogram as you adjust these sliders. This will guide you and help you to make sure that you are not losing detail in important areas of your images.

portrait tone editing.
Tone adjustments.

Step 5: Work on the ‘Presence’ of Your Lightroom Portrait Edit

Photo editing in Adobe Lightroom is non-destructive, so you can tweak the sliders as much as you like. When you think you have the tone of your image looking just right, move on down to the Presence area of the Basic adjustment panel. But remember that you can always go back and make further photo editing adjustments to fine-tune your photo back in the Tone area.

In the Presence area, you will find the sliders for:

  • Texture
  • Clarity
  • Dehaze
  • Vibrance
  • Saturation

Again, when photo editing with these sliders, be careful not to overdo it. Many photographers are tempted to edit their portraits to make them look too crisp and unnatural. They think it might help them look more in focus, I guess. But the results are usually garish and unpleasant.

Make careful use of the Lightroom texture and clarity slider. Pushing either of these to the extreme left or right can ruin a portrait. It can also cause the background to look weird because it becomes too crisp.

When you use the dehaze slider, look at the background. If there’s any distance behind your subject, the dehaze slider can add clarity and contrast. Look back at the histogram again to check you are not losing detail after you adjust this slider.

There are subtle differences between the effects of the Vibrance slider and the Saturation slider. Both of these work with the intensity of colors in your portrait image. The Saturation slider will increase or decrease all of the colors in your images. The Vibrance slider will affect mainly the colors in the mid-tone areas. So this is usually going to have more impact on skin tone.

presence adjustment sliders in Lightroom.
Presence adjustment sliders.

In My Example

In my example portrait, I have increased the texture slightly. Then I have decreased the Clarity. This has the effect of softening my model’s skin. I don’t know any woman who would not appreciate this! 

Increasing the clarity in a portrait has the effect of emphasizing the pores of a person’s skin and making everything crisper. If there are elements in your portrait you want to enhance in this way, using Lightroom, it’s best to make them using the adjustment brush tool. I’ll get to this soon.

I did not tweak the Vibrance or Saturation for this image because the light was rich and warm, and there was no need to adjust it.

young woman portrait.

Step 6: Further Global Adjustments in Adobe Lightroom

You can keep working your way through the panels below the Basic panel. Here you’ll find tools in this editing software for retouching things like the tone and color in your images. Most of these you will have sufficiently edited if you have followed the tips and steps up until this point. This is especially so if your intent is to create natural-looking photography.

If you like photography that has more obvious edits, you can experiment with the HSL Panel, Color Grading, and others. 

If the image you are working on has been made using a high ISO setting, it may contain too much digital noise. You can use the tools in the Detail Panel to reduce unwanted noise. Be aware not to overdo this as it has the side effect of softening the image.

details adjustments in Lightroom.
Details adjustments.

Step 7: Retouching with Local Edits in Lightroom

Above the Basic Panel in Adobe Lightroom, next to the crop tool, you’ll find three helpful tools for making local adjustments. These are:

  • The Spot Removal Tool
  • The Red Eye Correction Tool
  • The Masking Tool

As the name suggests, the spot removal tool is used to remove spots and blemishes in your images. I find that this tool is best used to remove small spots, like moles or pimples. Any larger cloning editing is best done using Photoshop. 

In the Adobe Photoshop editing software, the clone tools are much more powerful. You can easily be more precise with them when editing portraits and any images. Photoshop also has the advantage of being able to use layers, so this can also help with retouching skin, hair, and other aspects of your portraits.

I can’t remember the last time I needed to use the red eye correction tool as this is not such a common problem these days.

masking tool in Lightroom Classic.
Masking Tool in Lightroom 11.2.

The tool I love the most in Lightroom for making local edits is the Adjustment Brush Tool. To find this, you need to click on the Masking Tool Icon. Here you can find a diverse selection of tools to use when you need to adjust a specific area in your image.

Two New Tools

There are two new tools in the Masking Tools panel. These are the Select Subject and Select Sky tools. They are great when you have a well-defined subject or sky area that you want to work on. Once selected, you can also add or subtract from the selections if Lightroom has selected outside the areas you want to edit.

Using the Select Subject Tool for editing portraits.
Using the Select Subject Tool.
Inverted Select Subject.
Inverted Select Subject.

Using the Brush Tool

With the Brush tool, you can paint areas of your images that you wish to make local editing adjustments on. You can use the square bracket keys to increase or decrease the brush size. Once you have painted over the area, you can then make edits using the tools in the Brush Panel. 

You can paint any area you want and make it any size you like. If you paint ‘outside the lines’, you can even go back and erase where you have made mistakes. As you paint, Lightroom will show a selected mask overlay. This can be altered in the floating Masks panel. You can also add more masks by clicking on the plus (+) icon at the top of this panel.

When you’ve finished painting and start moving the sliders, the mask color will disappear. You can now see the effects of the changes you are making. If you want to turn the mask color on again, you can click the Show Overlay box in the Masks box.

masking portraits with the Brush tool.
Masking with the Brush tool.

In My Example

In my example, I have chosen to work on the background. I have desaturated it and increased the exposure. I also decreased the Texture and Clarity significantly to help make the background look even softer.

To show the different ways to mask an image, I first painted out the background areas I wanted to work on. Then I used the Select Subject tool and inverted it, so I was only working on the background. This also included the railing, which I did not want to be included. To avoid this being affected, I selected Subtract from this mask layer and painted it over the railing area.

edited portrait in Lightroom.
Finished Lightroom edit © Kevin Landwer-Johan.

Conclusion: There are Endless Possibilities

Using the masking tools in Lightroom, there are endless editing possibilities. You can soften the skin or whiten the teeth. You can increase or decrease things like saturation and exposure in certain masked areas. It’s up to you. The main thing to keep in mind is what you intend each portrait you work on.

To go into more detail on specifics of things like whitening teeth or how to soften the skin is beyond the scope of this article. These are topics you can best learn by reading more in-depth tutorials on how each one works.

Take your time and experiment. The key is knowing what you want and how you would like your finished portrait to look.

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Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.
Kevin bought his first camera in the early 1980s and started working in the photography department of a daily newspaper a few years later. His whole career is focused on photography and he’s covered a multitude of subjects. He loves to photograph people the most. During the past decade, Kevin has begun to teach and write more, sharing his passion for photography with anyone who’s willing to learn.

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