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Portrait Tips: A Layered Workflow for Retouching

Retouching the portraits you make can be a lot of fun, and it can be a lot of frustration. I realize that I’ve retouched thousands of portraits and one thing that makes it more fun than frustration is simply the way you go about it — the workflow. Let me show you how using layers in your retouching allows you freedom and creativity and reproducibility.

I’ll demonstrate using Luminar, but you can get similar results using any layered app.

Basics

Start by doing your basic tweaks — adjust the camera profile and white balance, which are in the Develop filter. These will get you a good looking baseline and you’ll be amazed how much white balance has an effect on the tones in your image.

Now, the background in this portrait is too bright, so dropping the Highlights slider to the left brings that under control, and you can activate the clipping warning by pressing the J key. However, even when the highlights are all the way to -100, there’s still some clipping of the highlights, indicated in red. If you were retouching in Lightroom, you’d be stuck because there’s no more room on that slider. But in this case, adding a new layer in Luminar gives you brand new slider that you can use to reduce the highlights more. And if need be, you could add another layer for another fresh slider. In this case, one more did the job and got the highlights under control.

Remove Spots on a Layer

Now erase spots and blemishes and things on the skin that don’t need our attention. Luminar automatically makes a new layer for the Erase and Clone Stamp tools, but in other apps, you’ll need to make a new layer. Having the spots removed on their own layer allows you to blend the effect without affecting anything else. In fact, I touched up his shirt separately from his face so that I could use the face layer with a brush to blend the removal of spots and reduce the wrinkles without eliminating them.

Black and White Layer

Making a new layer for a black and white effect is essential because it allows you to deactivate the black and white and have a great color photo, too, in the same file. You can turn off the visibility of the black and white and export a color, and reactivate the black and white and export that without having multiple files clogging your drives. In Lightroom, I would use a virtual copy or snapshot to do this, but that only exists inside Lightroom, and therefore can’t be seen on another computer looking at the same hard drive. It’s a little thing, but I think in the long run it’ll make an important difference.

For this portrait, I chose to use the Yellow filter to brighten his skin and darken his blue shirt. Check out more about using colored filters in black and white portraits in this article. Also, use this layer to darken the blacks and shadows a touch so you have a pleasing range of tones — you’ve got to have some truly dark areas in your black and white. Don’t worry that his face is a little too dark because we’ll take care of that next.

Dodge and Burn

Dodging and burning are terms leftover form the darkroom, and they mean to lighten or darken an area of your picture, respectively. In this case, particular parts of his face need to be lightened. Create a new layer and add the Develop filter and move the Shadows, Whites and Blacks sliders to the right. It doesn’t matter how much, because you can adjust this after you paint it into the right places.

Get the Layer Brush and reduce the opacity to something under 50%. With the opacity of the brush set low you can gently build up the effect you’re going for and keep a soft transition on the edges. Lighten up the dark areas of his face. Brightening these areas not only draws attention to the important stuff, but it also reduces the impact of wrinkles. Lightening the Shadows makes the wrinkles appear less deep.

*As you start to have several layers, you may want to rename them to help you remember what’s happening on each layer.

Vignette and Preset

Who doesn’t love a vignette? Add a new layer and add the Vignette Filter. Slide it all the way to -100 so that you can clearly see the edges which will help you shape the vignette, then reduce the darkness of it to something more natural. Remember to use the Inner Light slider to brighten the center and to place the center of the vignette over the subject.

Now, I use a vignette in most of my portraits. Since the Vignette filter is on its own layer, we can create a preset that includes only the Vignette filter. That way, every portrait can have a vignette applied quickly with your same settings. Similarly, click on the black and white layer and create a preset of only the black and white settings, too. The Save Filters Preset is in the bottom right corner in Luminar and it’ll make a preset of everything included in the active layer. This way you’ll get your favorite settings in a single click. And believe me, when retouching portraits, faster is funner.

Conclusion

Using a layered workflow for your portrait allows you to make adjustments to each effect without changing the other stuff. It also allows you to stack effects — when 100% isn’t enough, you can add another 100. Lastly, creating a preset for your favorite effects makes it fast to apply and simple to get a consistent look across many photos. As you retouch your portraits, you’ll find ways to refine your process so you can have fun finishing your pictures and save time so you can go out and make more.

Portrait Tips come out each week, and you can see them all right here.

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