Improving Portrait Post-Processing

Though I tend to be more of a travel photographer, I still feel that I need to be able to take portraits. Portraits are the bread-and-butter of many photographers' businesses and having more photographic skills and techniques can never be a drawback.  In this post, I'll talk about a few tips that improved my portrait post-processing.

Improving Portrait Post-Processing

Though I tend to be more of a travel photographer, I still feel that I need to be able to take portraits. Portraits are the bread-and-butter of many photographers' businesses and having more photographic skills and techniques can never be a drawback.  In this post, I'll talk about a few tips that improved my portrait post-processing.

Tip #1
It's All About the Eyes

Really - this is Tip #1 for a reason. The viewer's eyes will zoom, laser-like, directly to the eyes in the photograph. It doesn't matter what else is going on. 

Knowing this, when initially culling my photos, I zoom into the eyes and check that the eyes are: 1) open and 2) in focus. If they aren't, the photo is deleted. Yes, really - I don't care what else is great about that photo - I hit X to delete. There's no saving this photo.

I have figured out how to turn on the AF eye-tracking feature on my camera which does help a lot, but it's not foolproof. 

I've been disappointed enough times, falling in love with a photo only to discover out-of-focus eyes, to have learned my lesson - start with the eyes.
Don't look at anything but the eyes. The photo on the left was super-cute, but no matter how cute, it's OUT - the eyes aren't in focus! The photo on the right was also super cute and that one stayed IN. 
The in-focus eyes from above in context. Shhh, Naomi has a secret. Sony A7II 223mm 1/125@f6.3 ISO100
Tip #2
8x10 Rules

My camera isn't setup to photograph in 8x10 and mostly online it doesn't matter, but it does for anyone who wants to print a portrait. So, the second thing I do - even before I assess the quality of the images - is to crop images to 8x10. Lightroom makes this easy. Just crop the first photo and sync the cropping to all other photos. 

I've also learned, the hard way, to leave a little cropping space when I'm composing the photo. I still don't see in 8x10 when I'm shooting, but these days I'm less likely to zoom in too closely.

I do have a work-around if I don't quite have the space I need around the model to crop to an 8x10. If I have a consistent background (e.g., studio backdrop), I can move the photo into Photoshop and resize the canvas to 16x20. I then draw a rectangle around a slice of background on the edge of the photo, select FREE TRANSFORM (Command-T) and drag the background to the edge of the canvas. This trick doesn't work in all cases, but it is an option for some photos. Though it's always better to get it right in camera. 

Once the photos are cropped, I move the crop around the photo which leads me to Tip #3....

Leave room when composing photo to allow for an 8x10 crop. Allie wanted a nice, smiley headshot. I left room when composing to allow for a comfortable 8x10 crop. Sony A7II 106mm 1/125@f6.3 ISO100
Tip #3
It's ok to Crop Tight

There are some general rules of thumb when it comes to cropping portraits. One of these rules is: try not to crop at a joint. Maybe because we, as humans, actually come apart at the joints, we are a bit disturbed by the cut. But this isn't to say that we always have to have full body shots. Just crop other places.

Let's go back to Rule #1 - It's all about the eyes. Once I crop to 8x10, I move the crop around and try to place the eyes on the rule-of-thirds line - ideally with at least one eye on an intersection. 

If the eyes are the focus and in a key position in the photograph, no one will care if the top of the model's head is cut off!
Both eyes touch the interaction points on a rule-of-thirds grid so I wasn't worried about cropping in closely. The eyes are in focus and at key points in the photo. Naomi is nailing the look! Sony A7II 125mm 1/125@f5.0 ISO100
Tip #4
Minimize Adjustments

I tend to have a light touch when post-processing portraits - I'm much more artistic in my landscape and travel photography when it comes to post-processing. In my view, the model should never even suspect the photo has been retouched - it should simply look like a beautiful image of the model. 

I usually add adjustments until I can barely see the change - then pull it back a bit - that's probably just right. 

After a studio shoot, the first thing I do is Auto WB for flash - I probably should do this in camera, but I usually forget. I sometimes add just a touch of clarity, saturation & vibrancy, but that depends on the photo. 
I haven't yet found a Lightroom preset that I like for portraits, but Lightroom does have a couple of portrait post-processing features built into the adjustment brush. 

Click on the adjustment brush and then on Effect. You'll see options like "soften skin" and "iris enhance". I've created a few of my own presets and edited the Lightroom presets to my taste. To do this, I moved the sliders around to where I was happy and clicked the "Save Current Setting as New Preset" under Effects. 

I really only touch up a few features: 1) soften the skin, 2) brighten the eyes (using the radial filter instead of adjustment brush), 3) add a touch of saturation to the lips, and 4) whiten teeth when visible.

There is another trick to soften skin that I've only recently begun playing with. It's a simple type of Frequency Separation. I make a duplicate of the photo in Lightroom. On this duplicate, I reduce the clarity to -30 (any more and I think the skin starts looking plastic in the final version). Then I select both the original and the duplicate and Photo Merge - HDR. I uncheck the auto-tone box and then merge the photos. This technique seems to soften the skin just enough for my tastes. 

Before & after. Right photo has skin softened, eyes brightened, and lips slightly saturated. Also, blemishes removed - more on that in Tip #5. Sony A7II 300mm 1/125@f7.1 ISO100
Tip #5
Spot the Spots

Spot removal includes everything from blemishes to stray hairs to stains on clothing. 

Look carefully! 

I tend to remove spots in Photoshop because I find that the program responds faster than Lightroom, but Lightroom works fine for a spot or two. But if my model has a lot of acne or the like, I prefer Photoshop. I most often use the Healing Brush tool, choosing a bit of skin as close as possible to the blemish that I am removing. 

Don't feel the need to remove EVERY blemish - this looks unnatural. A few freckles add character.

I will smooth a wrinkle or two while I'm here, but I tend leave most - I like the texture. With age, comes wisdom - and wrinkles! 
Tip #6
Learn to Liquify

Earlier this year (2016), Adobe upgraded Photoshop adding a Face Aware Liquify tool. This can be found under FILTER - LIQUIFY. The tool is surprisingly easy to use. It took only minutes of exploration to learn how the tool worked.

All sorts facial features can be adjusted including eye height, face width, nose width, etc. There are some safe-guards built in so you can't go all Picasso on someone's face, but the adjustments should still be used very sparingly. 

If done well, I can't even tell if I've adjusted the face or not  - until I put the adjusted photo next to the original. If I can't tell neither will my model! I simply want my model to think that I have an amazing camera that magically removes 10 pounds! 

I don't use use this feature with all portraits, but it does help to slim down a plump client or compensate for a less desirable feature. It's not going to make the average client look like Heidi Klum, but it can make the image into the best possible version of the client.

Once I've adjusted one photo, I save the mesh and then apply these same adjustments to all other photos (i.e., load mess). Easy as pie!
Before and after applying Photoshop liquify to facial features. Slightly slimmed face & nose, wider spaced eyes, top lip slightly fuller. Model shouldn't be able to tell! Sony A7II 90mm 1/125@f5.6 ISO100
My portrait style is still evolving and I'm always on the look out for new tools and techniques. Let me know if you have any to share!
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