April 16th 2013 by Andrew S Gibson
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Thanks for reading! Andrew.
I’ve spent the last six months taking and processing a lot of portraits. I tried out lots of software to see which works well for me. My conclusion? Lightroom 4 is by far the best option out there. Other software has its place for specific features, but for versatility and ease of use, not to mention quality of results, Lightroom comes out on top (the portrait above is processed with Lightroom 4).
Let me show you some examples.
I took this portrait with an EOS 5D Mark II and 85mm lens and processed it in Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP). That’s Canon’s proprietary Raw processing software, supplied with its cameras.
I set the Picture Style to Portrait, white balance to cloudy and tweaked the highlights and contrast sliders. That’s about as far as I can take it in DPP, and it’s fairly close to what would come out of the camera if I chose to use the JPEG format instead of Raw. To do more with this portrait I need to use other software.
When it comes to portraits, there are a few features that DPP lacks:
- The ability to retouch portraits or soften skin.
- Local adjustments (all adjustments are global in DPP).
- Some sort of preset system to make it easier to save your settings or use third-party settings to process your portraits to obtain a certain ‘look’.
- Advanced black and white processing and toning.
Not all readers of this article will be Canon users or use DPP. But no matter how you get to this point with your portrait, you probably have the same question. How do you start with a portrait like the one above, and retouch and enhance it so that it looks great?
Here are some of the options. I’ll leave Lightroom 4 until last, so I can explain why it’s my favourite.
Photoshop CS or Photoshop Elements
Most photographers have one or both of these programs. There is a lot you can do with both, and the layers system gives you great flexibility. However they both take a long time to learn, both can get complicated and there is very little that is intuitive about their use.
Let’s take a look at what I managed to do with Photoshop CS (you can do the same in Photoshop Elements):
I used the healing brush tool to eliminate the lines under her eyes and the high pass filter to soften the skin (I’ll write a tutorial about that technique another time). You may have to look closely to see the difference, so here’s a comparison:
It’s possible to go too far with removing lines from under eyes, but this time I think I’m okay. My intent is normally to lighten rather than eliminate, as I’m after a natural look rather than a heavily retouched one. It’s a subjective judgement I make on a case by case basis.
OnOne Software is a company that is making useful software that you can use in conjunction with, or even in place of, Photoshop CS and Photoshop Elements.
For this article I used Perfect Portraits 2 and Perfect Effects 4, which I purchased as part of Perfect Photo Suite 7 (click the link for details).
This is what I managed to achieve using these two pieces of software:
I used Perfect Portrait 2 to smooth Wimmy’s skin, and enhance her eyes and lips. I lightened the area under her eyes in Perfect Effects 4. This is easier and more intuitive than using Photoshop.
Here’s the comparison with Photoshop CS. Note the difference in eyes and lips:
Another feature of Perfect Effects 4 is that it contains presets you can apply to your images. These are fun, and extend your creative options. Here are a couple I used:
Lomo Soft preset. The difference is very subtle.
Split blue orange preset. This one is not so subtle.
If your curiosity has been piqued, you can try out some of these presets for yourself with the free version of Perfect Effects 4.
So far, both Photoshop CS and Perfect Photo Suite 7 have proved very effective for processing my portrait. Earlier I said that Lightroom 4 has become my favourite software for portrait processing. Here are some reasons why:
- Lightroom 4 is more than a Raw processor. It lets me catalog, view, organise and search my Raw files. Lightroom 4 is a tool that has become an integral part of my workflow from the time I download my Raw files from the memory card through to exporting final images.
- Lightroom is intuitive. I’ve used that word a lot, I know, but here’s what I mean. In Photoshop CS or Elements, if you want to smooth skin you need to create another layer, apply a softening effect and use a layer mask to control the effect. In Lightroom 4 you just use an adjustment brush, set it to skin smoothing and brush in the skin smoothing effect where required. It’s easy and you don’t need to follow step by step instructions to do it.
- You can buy or download free Lightroom presets that let you apply creative effects to your portraits. It’s easy to edit any part of the preset as the settings don’t have to be applied in any particular order. You can use Photoshop actions to create similar effects in Photoshop CS, but they are not as flexible or as easy to alter.
- You can make virtual copies. This is very useful especially if, like me, you like to create multiple versions of the same portrait for converting to black and white, toning or applying other effects.
- I can use Lightroom 4 to do most of the processing work, then export a JPEG or TIFF file to edit in other software as required. Often you can open the image directly in the software or plug-in from Lightroom 4 if you wish.
Here is how this portrait came out after processing in Lightroom 4. The key difference compared to what I was able to do with Photoshop CS or Perfect Photo Suite 7 is that I was able to process the background with a different colour temperature. I did this to emphasise the difference in colour between Wimmy’s skin and the background (an out of focus metallic children’s slide in a playground that appeared slightly blue anyway as it was reflecting the blue sky):
Here’s the comparison with Photoshop CS. Note the difference in background colour (which is possible in Photoshop using masks, but a little more complex):
Black & white in Lightroom
I also like Lightroom 4 for converting to black and white. Here are some toned black and white versions of the portrait:
Lightroom presets make it easy to experiment with different ‘looks’. Here are some more versions of this portrait I created. Not all are flattering – but they are interesting and show what can be done.
The OnOne Lightroom presets, part of the OnOne Signature Collection, are free. Download them here.
David duChemin’s Lightroom presets are part of a package of 36 presets. They cost $US10 and you can download them here.
OnOne Gritty Light Lightroom preset
OnOne Toners – Mocha Lightroom preset
OnOne Vintage – Grandma’s Lemonade Lightroom preset
OnOne Vintage – Classic Muted Lightroom preset
OnOne Cross-Process Blue Lightroom preset
David duChemin Black & White Green Filter Warm Duo Lightroom preset
David duChemin New Direct Positive – No Vignette Lightroom preset
If you would like to learn more about Lightroom’s Library module then take a look at my new ebook: Mastering Lightroom Book One – The Library Module. It shows you how to import your images and get organised in the Library module, so you can spend more time being creative in the Develop module.
P.S. Don't forget to check out the Ultimate Photography Bundle