For those who are interested in learning photo editing or simply want a behind the scenes look at what happens after your photo shoot, I’ve put together a basic portrait editing tutorial.
While Adobe Lightroom is easily the biggest name in raw image editing, I prefer to use a program called Capture One. In my opinion, it offers a much more in-depth set of features that allow me to precisely dial in the look I want to achieve. If you’d like to follow along with the tutorial, download the free trial of Capture One and the sample image I use in the video.
About The Photo
This is a portrait that I shot on the Sony A7R III using the Sigma 135mm lens. It’s of a good friend of mine, a guy by the name of Francis Fung. He’s a career coach here in Tokyo, but he works with clients all over the world, so if you’re having any issues at work, trying to get that big promotion or raise you know you deserve, send him an e-mail. He can definitely help you out.
Let’s get started by taking a look at the histogram.
Working in the Exposure Tab
As you can see here, a lot of the data is stacked on the right hand side of the histogram, which would typically indicate an overexposure. And, yes, some of the background is a bit blown out.
However, when we’re talking portraits, the only exposure we really want to focus on is the subject’s skin tone. If it’s overexposed or underexposed, it’s going to change the color of their skin tone and not be accurate to real life. With portraiture, you really want to capture the essence of that person, so whenever possible, try to nail the exposure for the subject’s skin tone at the time of the shoot. If you’re shooting in raw, which you should be, you have a little bit of wiggle room when you go back to correct these things like the blown out background.
Let’s first take a lot at those blown out highlights. Now, we have a few different options for fixing this. A lot of people would immediately reach for the exposure slider, but you don’t want to do that in this case. It’s what’s called a, “global adjustment”. It’s going to take down the luminance levels of everything, including the skin tone that we just discussed. Instead, we’ll come down to the high dynamic range tool set.
We have a couple of different choices here. The highlight slider is a popular option, and you can use that. As you drag the slider to the left, you’ll start to see that little peak on the right of the histogram flatten out.
It doesn’t look too bad, but like the exposure slider, it is a far-reaching adjustment in that it’s going to take the entire highlight region and move it over to the left, and it’s not quite what we want. However, we have another tool; the white point slider, that works in a similar way. Moving it to the left will take down the luminance, but only in the brightest parts of the image.
If you adjust the image like before, sliding it to the left until the peak on the right of the histogram disappears, you can compare the two images (using the highlight slider vs using the white point slider) and see the difference for yourself. Both have brought the brightest points of the image to a more reasonable level, but the latter hasn’t affected the highlights we want to keep, like those on the subject’s face.
When dealing with just a few extremely bright areas in an overall well-balanced image, try starting with the white point slider first, and then use the highlight slider as need be.
Looking at the histogram again, we can see that the data does’t reach all the way to the left side. What this tells us is that there is no true black in the image. Instead, anything that looks black is actually a shade of gray.
There are a few ways to correct this. My favorite, and I believe the easiest way to do so, is with the levels tool.
In this box, you will see a series of peaks like those in the histogram. Grab the handle in the bottom left corner and move it to the right until it meets the colored data lines.
What this does is instruct Capture One that this point we have selected (the darkest part of the image), should be black. By doing so, it remaps the luminance values of the image accordingly.
With our black and white points properly set, our image now has much more contrast than we originally started with.
As you’ll see, adjusting the black point did shift all of our data to the left a bit, making the overall image a little darker. That’s ok for the background, but we don’t want to lose the lighting in our subject’s skin. If you head back up to the exposure section, we will take a look at another tool; the brightness slider.
Capture One’s brightness slider is a fantastic tool. At first glance, it probably looks identical to the exposure slider, but it works in a slightly different way. As mentioned earlier, the exposure slider is a global adjustment, shifting the entire image brighter or darker. The brightness slider on the other hand is designed to affect only the midtones of the image. If exposed properly, your subject’s skin should sit roughly in the midtone section of the histogram. By using the brightness slider, we can adjust the luminance of the skin without overtly affecting the brightest and darkest portions of the photo.
In the case of this particular portrait, I set the brightness slider to +8 and found that it brought a good sense of overall balance to the photo.
With our exposure looking good, we can start to add some saturation to the image. Raw files are naturally low in saturation and will typically need some color added (depending on the look you are going for). I typically set the saturation anywhere between +10 to +20 to start. Trust your eye and remember that it can always be adjusted later after making other corrections.
Before leaving the exposure tab, it’s worth pointing out that there is a contrast slider that we haven’t touched. With the black and white points properly set, I don’t feel this particular image needs any more contrast. What adding contrast does is grab data at the center of the histogram and stretch it to either side; taking everything left of center further to the left, and everything right of center to the right. This is useful when you find most of your data centered in the midtone range, as it would all sort of blend together, but in this case, our data looks nicely distributed already and doesn’t need adjusting.
Correcting Skin Tones in the Color Tab
Moving on, we will do some more work on our subject’s skin tone. Near the top of the screen, click the “Color” tab. It’s the one marked with three connected circles.
Once there, navigate down to the section labeled, “Color editor”. In this window, select, “skin tone”.
In the skin tone tab, click the eye dropper tool in the bottom right corner. With it selected, zoom in to the subject’s face and choose an area of the skin that you feel best represents the overall tone. You want to choose an area with even lighting and a pleasing color. Ideally, you should avoid high highlight areas like the bridge of the nose or the forehead. I typically choose the area along the cheekbone, near the eye.
Click the spot you have chosen, and you will notice the color wheel in the skin tone tab now has a colored area that resembles a slice of pie. In this slice, you will see a small dot. That dot is the color value you have chosen and the slice around it is its neighboring range.
If you click the checkbox marked “View selected color range”, Capture One will desaturate everything not included within that range. If you look closely, you will notice that sections of our subject’s skin, such as on his ears, are in gray, and therefore fall outside the range. To fix this, click the slice icon in the bottom right corner. This will expand the selected color range further, and should now encompass all of the different tonal ranges you would expect to find in your subject’s skin tone.
If you look closely, you will notice that we have inadvertently selected other parts of the image as well, such as his sweater, hair, and parts of the background. To fix this, click the three dots in the corner of the skin tone window and select, “Create masked layer from selection”. This will create a new adjustment layer with a mask pre-applied. If you press M on your keyboard, you will be able to see this mask.
Everything in red has been masked. What this means is that any actions you take on this layer will only affect the areas in red. You can add or remove parts of the mask using the brush or eraser tools respectively. For now, select your eraser tool (E on your keyboard) and begin to erase any parts of the mask that are not on our subject’s skin. Make sure that the mask has not been applied to the whites of his eyes or his lips as well, as we do not want to affect the colors of these areas.
Once your mask has been cleaned up, head back to the skin tone tool and select the eye dropper once again. Zoom back into the face, select that same point along the cheek bone, and click the slice icon to expand the range once again.
We can now start to work with the sliders below, labeled, “hue”, “saturation”, and “lightness”. These sliders can be found in two places, under the headings, “Amount” and “Uniformity”. We are going to begin with the “amount” section.
If we wanted to change the color of his skin, we could do so using the hue slider. This will add magenta or yellow depending on which direction you move the slider. In this case, no adjustment is needed, so we will leave it alone.
We added global saturation to the image in the exposure tab, but his skin could use a little bit more to help our subject really stand out from the background. You’ll find that the skin tone saturation slider is much gentler than the standard saturation slider, so don’t be afraid to take it further to the right. For this photo, I brought the value up to around +10.
Next, we can use the lightness slider to give his skin just a bit more brightness. I chose to set this at +2 for a subtle effect, but feel free to take it a bit further if you’d like.
Next, we will move on to the sliders below the “Uniformity” heading. These sliders all work based around the particular point on the skin you selected. Again, this point can be seen as the dot inside the color wheel at the top of the tool box. As you move each slider to the right, Capture One will adjust the other values within the tonal range to become more in-line with your selected value. That might sound confusing, but go ahead and drag the hue slider all the way to the right and you’ll see what I mean.
At +100, all of the other hues in our subject’s skin tone have been changed to our originally selected value. Of course, having a completely uniform skin color is unrealistic. Since we don’t want our subject to look like a Ken doll, bring the slider back down to a more acceptable range. You want it to be just enough to smooth out any major color shifts. I found that around +30 looked good for this photo.
Similarly, the saturation slider is useful in controlling any over saturated areas of the skin. This tool is a life saver on cold days when your subject is prone to having an uncharacteristically bright red nose. I typically bring this up a little higher than my hue slider, but go by what looks good to you. I chose a value of +50 for this image.
Lastly, the lightness slider is available, but I almost never use it. As you move the slider towards the right, you will see why. It adjusts the luminance across his skin tone to be all the same value. This can be useful in extreme lighting conditions where you have harsh, unwanted shadows on the subject’s face, but with even lighting like in this photo, it destroys any sense of contrast and makes the face look flat.
Making Final Adjustments
Before we finish, there are a few tiny adjustments we can do to enhance the overall look of our portrait. Back on the exposure tab, navigate to the layers window and click the plus icon. This will create a new empty adjustment layer. Select your brush tool (B on the keyboard) and paint over the subject’s eyes.
Take the exposure slider and move it a very small amount to the right. Subtlety is key here. You don’t want the eyes to look as though they are generating their own light. The goal is to add just a little pop as if they are reflecting the available ambient light. I recommend setting the value at around +0.10. You may need to toggle the layer on and off (click the checkbox next to the layer name) to even notice the difference, but that is exactly what you want.
While working on the eyes, you may have noticed an eyelash sitting on the subject’s nose. Luckily, we can fix that in Capture One too. In the layers window, click and hold on the plus sign and you will see a menu pop up. Select “New Heal Layer”. With the newly created layer highlighted, select the band-aid tool from the top menu.
Use the bracket keys to adjust the size of your brush (left bracket to make it smaller, right bracket to make it larger) until it is roughly the width of the eyelash. Click and hold to paint over the eyelash. Capture One will now copy a nearby section of the subject’s skin and use that to hide the eyelash. It will also automatically adjust the saturation and luminance to blend the area in as best as possible.
Lastly, navigate back to the layers window, long click the plus sign and select, “New Filled Layer”. This will create a new, completely masked layer. Any changes made on this layer will affect the entire image, but because they are on their own layer, we don’t need to worry about messing up any of our previous edits.
This will be our final step to add any last minute edits like additional sharpening, a vignette, or more contrast. Feel free to play around with different options. If you don’t like something you have done, you can always press control + Z to undo the last edit, or completely delete the layer to remove all changes.
In this case, I decided to add a slight bit of clarity to the image. Clarity works in a similar way to the contrast slider, but like the brightness slider, it focuses mainly on the midtone range. By using this, we can add just a touch of definition to our subject’s features.
Once you have made your final adjustments, click the before and after button in the top menu to see the results of your work.
We didn’t make any drastic changes to the photo, but the impact is undeniable. Where our original image looked flat and washed out, the final image has great contrast and saturation, is well-lit, and our subject clearly stands apart from the background.
While the directions above don’t need to be followed step by step for each and every portrait you edit, having a clearly defined process will drastically speed up your overall workflow and provide the consistent results that clients expect. There is certainly much more that can be done when editing portraits in Capture One such as selective color editing and dodging and burning, but those are topics for another day.
If you have any questions about the process, want to share your own work, or have requests for future tutorial topics, send me an email!