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Portrait Tips: How to combine photos for the best expressions using layers in Luminar

Photographing large groups of people is the most challenging assignment you’ll get as a portrait photographer. Each person expects you to make them look great in the final portrait, but there’s always at least one person with a half blink or a nose tickle and there’s definitely one person who is just looking off into space while everyone else has a winning smile. Sigh.

The easiest thing way to manage this is to make many pictures and then combine them together into one with everyone’s face look great. It’s simple to use Luminar to make this portrait. Let me show you how.

Use a tripod

The first thing you should do is to lock your camera down on a tripod. Because of the way layers work, it’s easiest if the only change between frames is the expressions on people’s faces. If you hand-hold the camera, then the background will shift a little between each frame. For this portrait, I used a Platypod Ultra and strapped it to a ladder to get my camera high enough to see everyone’s faces.

Launch Luminar

Find a few pictures which, between them, have everyone’s eyes open and decent expressions. You can usually use three to four pictures and get it done. It’s easiest if you gather these pictures together into one folder. Open Lunminar and open the first picture.

Note: It’s good to open these directly in Luminar rather than launching from Lightroom, Photoshop or another app as a plugin because when you open Luminar directly you’ll be able to save the finished file as a .lmnr file which will save all the layers, the history, and all changes you made so that you can make adjustments later if you need to. If you use Luminar as a plugin, it will flatten the image and discard all the layers and history when you save.

On the right-hand side at the top of the Layers panel click the + button and choose Add New Image Layer. Use this to add each of your image files. Then click the visibility icon on each of the upper layers to make them invisible.

Organize the layers

I like to put the best one on the bottom of the layers stack — the one that needs the fewest changes. You’ll use little pieces of the other image layers on top of the base. The way this works is that you’ll use a brush to paint only the parts you want to see from each of the layers above the base. It’s best to start with the easy faces and finish with any tricky edits, that way if the tricky faces just aren’t working you’ve at least got everyone else looking good. The hardest layer will end up on top, but you’ll manage that later.

Start painting

Now all you have to do is click on one of your image layers, turn on the visibility icon, and choose the Brush tool. By default, it’s set up so that when you start painting it’ll reveal whatever is on that layer. At the top left of your window, adjust the brush size and hardness. Make it a little smaller than the face you want to paint in and adjust the Softness to about 20%. Now click on the face and start painting. Constantly adjust the size of the brush using the bracket keys [ ] on your keyboard.

You’ll see the face you’re painting revealed on top of the base image layer. Don’t worry about being too precise yet, just get a feel for how it works. When you’ve painted too much, just press and hold the alt/option key to switch to the eraser. Switch between painting and erasing and refine the picture until it looks good. Then switch to another face.

Paint the next layer

Once you’ve painted in all the faces from that first layer, click on the next layer up the stack and do the same thing with the better expressions from that image. Remember to activate the visibility icon for that layer. You can see here my brush masks from each layer.

Pro tip: Give it a nudge

Sometimes the face you need doesn’t quite line up with the layer below it. Maybe the person moved their body or maybe the person next to them moved. In these cases, you can use the Transform tab from the Develop filter to move and adjust the position of that layer so it lines up better with the layer underneath it. Start by painting the face in that you want to see, then reduce click the Opacity slider at the top of the Layer panel and reduce to 50% so that you can see the layer underneath through it.

Now add the Develop filter and click on the Transform tab. Use these sliders to adjust the position of your layer so it fits over the underneath layer more perfectly. Then increase the opacity back to 100% and finish painting that person in. I use this tip to get the head of the boy in the Superman shirt aligned properly.

Make a stamped layer

Once you’ve got all the faces painted in and everyone’s expressions looking good, click on the topmost layer and then click the + sign at the top of the Layers panel and select Create New Stamped Layer. This makes a new layer that is a combination of all the visible parts of the layer below it. You need this so that you can finish the picture creatively and have your changes applied to all the work you’ve done.

Finish editing

Luminar is the perfect portrait editing tool, so finish off your picture while you’re here. Start with any close stamp you work need to do (see the Tools menu at the top), and then start using the creative filters. I recommend starting with the Accent AI Filter and the Advanced Contrast filter. Call me crazy, but I haven’t met a picture, yet, that hasn’t benefitted from the Sunrays filter, too. Be gentle with it, but the way it works with contrast is pretty amazing. Here’re the settings for my Family Portrait preset — it’s a good starting place for all kinds of outdoor portraits. Click to view each filter’s settings.

Feel free to experiment with all the filters and presets. Just make a new adjustment layer (click the + at the top of the Layers Panel) and go crazy. If you don’t like it, just delete that layer. Remember, too, that each filter and layer can be brushed in selectively over only a portion of the photo that needs it.

Now save the file (which will make a .lmnr file) and export it for sharing and printing as a JPEG or TIFF.

Conclusion

Successfully making a group portrait where everyone in the group looks decent is very satisfying and your clients will love it. You don’t have to tell them that you had to blend all these images together — just let them feel great about having a terrific portrait of their whole group. Luminar is the simplest tool I’ve found to get this work done, and it not only blends the images together, but it also has all the tools you need to finish your portrait to perfection.

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

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