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Tips & Tricks

How to Do High Quality Portrait Retouching With Lightroom

By Kishore Sawh on July 24th 2014

I can appreciate most any genre and type of photography. However, it’s photos of people, either in masses or singularly, that really piques my interest. People watching where I live in Miami, is sort of a local pastime. From chongas to the deliberately obtuse hipster, to the effortlessly immaculate, they’re all here. (Side joke: How do you get rid of a hipster? Drown them – in the mainstream)

Anyway, it figures then that portraits are just about my favorite, and I tend to take a lot of them, and do my fair share of retouching. Now, regardless of what anyone will tell you, Photoshop is the most powerful software to edit portraits. On the flip side of that, don’t let anyone else say you can’t edit portraits in Lightroom, because you can and to great effect.

While Photoshop can be a bit daunting, Lightroom is much more intuitive, and for novices that’s key. For the more experienced, there’s appreciation to be had for Lightroom’s engine (like Camera Raw), and the ease at which global and local edits can be made. Preset systems for Lightroom, together with the intuitiveness can also make for really fast edits.

Those edits need just a few clicks which means you can cut down your processing time enormously. There’s also the ease of subjecting multiple photos to the same settings. Here I’m going to show you how to fix a portrait in Lightroom using the SLR Lounge Preset System.




  • 03-80 ADJUST – TOOLS, 81. Dust Correction Curve
  • 01-10 BASE – SOFT 10a. Soft – Import (RESET)
  • 03-00 ADJUST – EXPOSURE, 04. Darken
  • 01-10 BASE – SOFT, 10c. Soft – Skin Desat (at end to taste)

Local Area Adjustments

    • Adjustment Brush: 32 Desaturate
    • Adjustment Brush:  24 Eye Brightener, 25 Iris enhancer
    • Adjustment Brush: 04 Dodge (Brighten) +0.5 Stop
    • Adjustment Brush: 03 Burn (Darken) -0.5 Stop


1. Before anything, I do a check for dust, and it couldn’t be easier. If you have LR5 there is a slider option for this, but if you don’t have LR5 you can use this preset, which is more effective, and easier to boot. Select 03-80 ADJUST – TOOLS, 81. Dust Correction Curve. It’ll make your screen look funky and spots appear. Use the spot removal tool to quickly sort them out.


2. This image was shot in a garage, and with just a few seconds. It was a nice overcast day, and the spill of light from the roof made lovely even lighting, including catchlights. A few things need to be altered in the image, however. First, it’s a bit too washed out for the look I’m going for, so I use the 01-10 BASE – SOFT 10a. Soft – Import (RESET). This tends to be my go to general preset for portraits. It’s a good starting point that softens what I don’t want, then adding a bit of contrast.

The image still feels a bit bright, and primarily in the face. To darken that I make one click by selecting the 03-00 ADJUST – EXPOSURE, 04. Darken and drop it about 0.5. At this point, the detail in the face has come back for a more natural look, along with more depth and detail. As with all else, it’s stylistic preference so do as you wish. Below you can see the progression already – in just two clicks.


Brush Application

3. Now time to clean up the few imperfections on the face, stray hairs, skin problems etc. Zooming in, I can see there are some unruly hairs under the eyebrows, and above the lip, that need removing. Also, I’d like to even out skin tone in a few spots using spot removal, and desaturate the teeth a bit for a cleaner smile. Luckily, there are brushes created just for this. The SLR Lounge Preset System comes with over 40 specific brushes for almost any occasion.

To clean up the stray hair and skin issues, I’ll use the spot removal tool.


Then select 32 Desaturate brush and paint over the teeth. Pressing ‘O’ to mask and holding down option to remove the parts not wanted. So feel free to be initially imprecise. If you’re using a Wacom tablet like what I’m using, being precise is simple. I highly recommend them, and you don’t need the high end models. See link below:

[REWIND: Intuos Pro – The Ultimate Retouching Tool Review]



4. The primary issues remaining are brightening the eyes, adding depth to hair, and maybe a small color correction. To pull out more detail and color from the eyes, I use a combination of 24 Eye Brightener for the eye area overall, and 25 Iris enhancer to pull out more punch from the iris.


5. Using the 04 Dodge (Brighten) +0.5 Stop I enhance the highlights in the hair, and using a feathered brush, do not interfere with the face.



6. The 03 Burn (Darken) -0.5 Stop I use to dab a little more shadow on either side of the bridge of the nose for more contouring and definition. At this point, it’s just about finished. Just to call it a done deal for a relatively casual photo, I think desaturating it would suit it well, so by simply making one click on 01-10 BASE – SOFT, 10c. Soft – Skin Desat, I arrive at a finished product.



It’s easy to really stylize the images and give them all manners of effects. I could’ve made this a much higher key photo, and given her more porcelain type skin, etcetera, but I like my subjects to look a particular way, and that generally calls for small, poignant adjustments.

With or without the preset system, Lightroom is able to make a great portrait. That much is certain. It doesn’t have the pixel bending capability of Photoshop, but don’t let that deter you, as Lightroom can be as drastic or as nuanced as you’d like.

If you’re looking to take your portraits, and indeed any other imagery to a new high, and to  streamline your workflow while simultaneously cutting down on processing time, I would suggest looking into the SLRL Preset System. It has had much critical acclaim, and for good reason. It’s not just what the ready made presets are, but more so how they enable you to build on each, to screen the looks, and pull more out of Lightroom than you may think possible.

Just for kicks here are two examples of other SLRL Presets I’ve applied to the finished image to show what looks can be achieved, and this is just a sliver. Each look took a single click. The Preset System is that simple, and it’s that effective.

01-20 BASE – SOFT STYLIZED, 21b. Natural Fade – Filmic Color


01-30 BASE – VIVID, 30c. Vivid B&W


You can find out more about the system and get it here.

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A photographer and writer based in Miami, he can often be found at dog parks, and airports in London and Toronto. He is also a tremendous fan of flossing and the happiest guy around when the company’s good.

Q&A Discussions

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  1. Rob Kirkland

    Love lightroom for quick adjustments.

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  2. Basit Zargar

    Awesome article
    really helpful

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  3. Michael Moe

    thanks for sharing! ;)

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  4. Duc Hong

    well totally agree that Photoshop is probably the best tool for photo editing, but that doesn’t mean we can’t do most of the retouching processes on Lightroom.
    I’ve used Photoshop for years before Lightroom, (before that I only use PS for web designing and some graphic design), so the day I bought a DSLR and at that time I still stick to the old school way of doing everything on PS, even when I know the Lightroom app is out there and specialized for Photography. Until one day I gave LR a shot and totally loved it, especially the fast workflow when you have to work on lots of images, comparing it to PS it it really a time saver.
    One thing I dont really like about LR is its limited on brush usages (such as for toning mood for the image, you want the subject warmer while the background is cool with blueish tone), coming from a Photoshop background I really miss the mask (though LR has it but to me it’s quite difficult to manage the adjustment brushes when the photo has many many brush adjusted), also I find it quite slow when you have to work on large RAW image file compared with PS, dunno why but sometimes my LR made me feel it’s going to crash any sooner or less if I have do the cloning tool one more time, I don’t really like that insecure feeling

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Hi Duc, I think you’re in good company with your thoughts. First off, LR is well known to be a resource hog of your computer, and WILL slow you down after a while. It’s one of the things they’ll nee to, and I believe are getting a grip on. Lightroom though, as you said, and I did, is wonderful for mass editing, and a quick workflow. It’s not as precise, but for most people it does the job. Honestly I use photoshop mostly for retouching of people and LR for most else. But I don’t do wedding photography that requires me to do massive batches.

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  5. Austin Swenson

    I think it’s so much easier to do photo-surgery when I have fixed most of my stuff in lightroom first, and then I go into photoshop when I need to actually fix something important that I can’t do in lightroom. Its all just so easy with the sliders sitting right there vs. photoshop.

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Generally speaking it’s hard to disagree with you, especially for those who aren’t really adept that Photoshop. Even for those who are, the sliders, as you say, are so simple. That said, I do love the Camera Raw Filter addition to recent updates to Photoshop which brings the same engine and sliders right into Photoshop. If you haven’t seen it yet check it out. Cheers

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    • Austin Swenson

      Boy do I only wish I was on CC and I could have that to edit while in photoshop too, bud sadly I just have CS6 right now, and I bought it right before Adobe announced CC too… I guess when it becomes really out of date in a little while I might upgrade into CC…

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  6. Kurk Rouse

    I’ve always wanted to do all iIcan in lightroom but after removing a ton of spots with the spot remover tool, even the fastest PC could slow down a bit during the process. Ps is better for that but LR is where i live…good read.

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    Learning something each day is really great KISHORE SAWH …. Am always happy to find your articles and highly appreciate the replies you offer

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  8. Perry Lim

    Great little tutorial.

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  9. David De Fotograaf

    Thanks. This reminded me of that fact, that I don’t always need Photoshop.
    I “bought” the Photoshop (the photographer package) and since it has been ages since I used Photoshop (been using Elements for a long time.), I tend to find myself using a tad bit to much.

    I think Photoshop is good for those extra things: correction to body or adding some cool looking colory swirls to your picture of even adding a bit of texture to your pictures. And yes, while Lightroom can only soften the skin and remove blemishes, there are some techniques that are petty cool to use in Photoshop like frequency separation.
    I think I’ll do a side by side comparison once… Just to convince myself. ;)

    Lightroom: the local newspaper
    Photoshop: your standard glamour magazine.
    The same person can be in both, just with a slight different feel to it. ^-^

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Dvaid, hi again. Local newspaper vs glamour mag. I like the analogy. And yes, as I mentioned above, Lightroom can’t do all what Photoshop can, but it can do a lot. I should also interject here that while I do care much for our preset system, it too in not necessary. Sure it makes things quicker, and easier to apply in batches, but with a proper understanding of LR, you can still do nice retouches. Cheers

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  10. Jagannath Kirtan Das

    sorry to be that guy, but it’s “pique my interest”

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Be that guy Jagannath. I’ve previously been that guy for this precise word. Slipped.

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  11. Andy O’Dowd

    Nice! I love the b&w version.
    It’s always good to see different examples of how people do touch ups.

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  12. Asad Qayyum

    Nice on Kishore. Very useful

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    • Kishore Sawh

      Of course, Asad. I’ll be doing more of these highlight other types of edits and looks. If there’s anything in particular you’d like to know about, don’t hesitate to say.

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