Shooting in available light often gives the most natural and attractive portraits, but it also means you often have to shoot at high ISOs. I took this informal picture while I was working on a feature for N-Photo magazine, and while the light from the window is soft and even, it’s not very bright and I had to use an ISO of 2000.

Lightroom portrait enhancement

The picture was taken on a Nikon D4, which is normally very good at high ISOs, but I do think that Lightroom 5 and Adobe Camera Raw tend to exaggerate camera noise compared to other RAW converters.

So to make the tones in this picture look a little smoother and more flattering, I’m going to try out Lightroom’s noise control tools. At the same time, I’m going to use a couple of other techniques for improving portrait shots in Lightroom.

01 Side by side view

Lightroom portrait enhancement

Here’s a really useful trick for carrying out fine detail adjustments in Lightroom. First, you go into the Develop module as usual, then click on the image to view it at 100% magnification. Now if you click the side by side view icon at the bottom left of the screen, you’ll get a split-screen view where you see the original image on the left and the edited version on the right. You can use this to check you’re heading in the right direction with your adjustments and to know when you’ve done enough.

02 Noise control

Lightroom portrait enhancement

You’ll find the noise control options in the Detail tab, and here you have to be very careful to balance any noise reduction against an overall loss of detail. It’s not just Lightroom, it’s any application with noise control options – any tool can remove noise, but it’ll generally take much of the fine detail with it (you’ll have gathered by now that I don’t believe in ‘miracle’ cures).

I’ll start with the noise reduction options, anyway. There are two types of noise in digital images: colour noise and luminance noise. Colour noise is the easy option because you can push the slider to maximum without really harming the image detail. But most modern cameras don’t produce much colour noise, so there’s often not much to be gained.

Luminance noise is the tricky one. This is usually the biggest problem, and this is where noise reduction also produces a progressive loss in detail. So start moving the Luminance slider and watch the on-screen image as you do it – and stop at the point where the noise just becomes acceptable. There are Detail and Contrast sliders in this section too but I tend to leave them alone because they just make things complicated – you can easily end up in a never-ending circle of adjustments and counter-adjustments without really getting anywhere.

Now directly above the Noise Reduction section is the Sharpening section, and they’re together for a reason. I now adjust the sharpening Amount slider to try to restore some of the detail lost to the noise reduction adjustment. Again, I don’t mess with the Detail and Masking sliders if I can avoid it because I think this just confuses matters.

I might need to go back to the noise reduction Luminance slider just to fine-tune the balance between noise reduction and sharpening, but that’s it. Already the image is looking much better. The noise is mostly gone but the fine detail is still there.

03 Smoother skintones with negative Clarity

Lightroom portrait enhancement

Now here’s a trick shown to me by Ben Brain, editor of Practical Photoshop. You can apply a natural and subtle smoothing effect for portraits by swapping to the Basic tab and using the Clarity slider in the Presence section. The Clarity slider is normally used to add ‘punch’ to images by increasing the contrast around outlines. But if you move the slider the other way, it reduces the contrast in fine details while retaining larger outlines very clearly. This is perfect for portraits because it smooths out pores and  blemishes, but without giving pictures that dreadful, over-processed ‘plastic’ look.

04 Removing distractions with the Advanced Healing Brush

Lightroom portrait enhancement

Finally, I want to remove a tiny hair that’s fallen over our model’s upper lip, and for this the new Advanced Healing Brush in Lightroom 5 is perfect because you can now paint over irregular shapes (you could probably do it with the old circular tool in previous versions, but it wouldn’t be quite so easy).

You’ll find the Healing Brush at the top of the tools panel, and you start by adjusting the size of the brush to match the object you want to remove. You can use the square bracket keyboard shortcuts here – use the ‘[‘ key to make the brush smaller, ‘]’ to make it larger.

All I need to do here is drag the brush over that tiny hair, and Lightroom will automatically find a source area to copy over it, attempting to match the colours and textures from nearby areas of the picture. You’ll now have two identically-shaped areas marked out on the image – one is the repaired area, and the other is the area Lightroom is using to make the repair – the ‘source’.

Usually, Lightroom gets it right first time, but here I’ve had to drag the source area to a slightly different position to preserve the outline of the model’s upper lip. You can tell which is the source and which is the destination area (you can move that too) because an arrow points from one to the other as you move them around.

05 The finished picture

Lightroom portrait enhancement

That’s all I’m going to do to this picture because I think portrait retouching should be subtle rather than obvious – and you do have to know when to stop. The ‘after’ image no longer has that distracting noise, the model’s skin is smoother but still natural-looking, and I’ve removed that tiny hair over her lip.

See also

More Lightroom tutorials