Post Processing Portraits

“A portrait that is post processed properly, won’t look like it’s been post processed at all.”  

Ok, I confess, that’s my own quote. But I think it’s a great philosophy to follow regarding post processing photos – portraits in particular.

All too often I see portraits were the subject has “plastic” skin, blazing white teeth, and eyes that look like they could cut through steel – I.E. they don’t look real at all…  Now…  If the plastic skin, laser eye look is what you’re deliberately going for, then great – you’re doing it on purpose, and art after all is a very subjective thing.  However, I don’t think every photographer does it with that artistic intent. They make their edits rather quickly and then publish their work!  They don’t know, or have forgotten that when post processing portraits “less is more”; They don’t take into account that as they make changes to a photo they’re seeing the build up as gradual and tend to not see just how far they’ve actually gone – which often times is too far – like the example below, which is actually rather mild compared to some I’ve seen!!!

Laser-eyed Allie

Let’s take a look now at a more reasonable approach to post processing.  Below are two identical photos. The one on the left is the original, straight out of the camera, the one on the right has been carefully post processed. Without seeing them side-by-side, you would be hard pressed to see a difference – but they are different!  By the way, clicking on any of the photos here should bring up a larger version for you to look at.

I usually do 7 things to a portrait, 8 things if teeth are shown, and I always use Adobe Lightroom to do my post processing work.  I only use Photoshop when absolutely necessary.

  1. I remove any stray hairs that might be going over the eyes or nose.
  2. I remove any acne blemishes.
  3. I reduce the “clarity” of the skin slightly – the trick is to remove slight imperfections without turning her skin into ABS plastic.
  4. I brighten the whites of the eyes slightly.
  5. I boost the brightness, contrast, and saturation the iris of the eyes slightly.
  6. I boost the contrast and the saturation of the hair slightly to bring out more highlights.
  7. I boost the saturation of the lips slightly.
  8. I brighten the teeth slightly and reduce the saturation (removes any yellowing)

(Items 3 through 8 belong specifically into that “less is more” category!)

Then I walk away for a few minutes and then come back with fresh eyes.  Until you learn how much is too much, looking at a photo with fresh eyes will help you figure that out.  If you come back to it and think to yourself, “Holy smokes she’s going to cut me in half with those laser eyes” then you’ve gone too far and need to readjust.  This is where the beauty of Lightroom comes into play.  All the edits you ever make, on any photo, are non destructive.  You can come back at any time, weeks or months or years later, and readjust any settings you’ve made.

Anyway, that’s what I do, and I think it makes my portraits look better, without turning them into some hyper-realistic caricatures…  That all being said, not everyone likes everything – that’s why art is art.   Thanks for reading!