Portrait Workflow in Lightroom CC

My post processing follows the 20/80-rule.

I have to admit it; I’m lazy! I rarely sit for hours and fine tune all my images. It would definitely give more pleasing results, and better images. But my philosofy is the 20:80-rule. For 20% of the work you get 80% of the optimal result. It is very seldom, that I want to spend the last 80% to obtain a 20% gain on all my images.

In the following, I will describe my fast track on processing portrait images in Lightroom. The workflow is tuned for saving time – not by sacrificing quality, but prevent repeatable tasks and waste time on bad pictures.

My workflow is as follows:

  1. Importing with presets
  2. Selection process to find candidates
  3. Initial post processing
  4. Final selection
  5. Cloning for Black and White / different crops
  6. Fine tune pictures individually

Importing with presets

I prefer to import my images to a specific (color) Film Simulation and a predetermined sharpening / NR.

My presets are copied from various good bloggers, and for portraits I use the Astia Film Simulation in the Calibration section in stead of the default Adobe Profile. My settings are

  • Sharpening: sharpening: 25, Radius: 1 to 1.2,  detail: 50, masking 75
  • Noise Reduction: Luminance to 0,  Color: 0 to 25

For some reason, I find it hard to set the masking level of sharpening in the presets. Default is 0, I prefer 75. This can be set after import by setting the masking to 75 on the first photo and sync all pictures only for sharpening.

Selection process:

After import I start to rate my pictures by first giving the keepers one star, then two up to three stars

  1. One star for keepers. Unsharp or bad frames gets an X. I write down the different ‘series’.
  2. The filter is set to one star or above. I give two stars for the best/interesting frames. Sharpnes are checked at 100% (1:1). If the sharpness in the eyes is missing, there has to be a very good reason for keeping the frame.
  3. The filter is set to two stars or above. I crop the frames in the Lightroom Development module. The one frame or the two best frames in each series is marked with three stars.

With the filter set to three stars or above, I now have my candidates.

Initial processing in development

  • For each series, I apply the basic Lightroom settings on the first frame, and syncs it to the other frames in the series, sice color temperature, hightlight and shadow are mostly the same. If I want to apply the settings to a bunch of images, I find it hard to sync – it is very easy to deselect the images by accident. Instead I copy the development settings, select the images I want to apply the settings to in small groups, and copy the development settings.
    Syncing basic settings to a group of similar images

    The main purpose of adjusting the basic settings, are to get a ‘good’ tonality with colors in a broad range from 0 to 100% in the histogram. It can be a good idea to enable white and black clipping in the histogram widget to push the tonal range to the maximum (using exposure, contrast, white and black), but not over the limits.

An extreme example to illustrate the highlight and low light checking feature
  • Retouching is the tough part of post processing. Depending on your preferences for ‘Clarity’, there can be more or less work here. I normally set clarity to +20 and uses the Clone-tool in Heal-mode with the image zoomed in to 1:1. Here the little preview window is used to pan around. I generally do not remove birth marks and freckles.
  • Hard shadows, especially around the eyes and the mouth, is softened up with the Brush-tool.
Skin retouching is the time consuming part
  • I often add a bit of light to the eyes with the Brush-tool (exposure: +0.15EV to +0.3EV, maybe adjust clarity). For some images, both the white part of the eye and the iris is lifted. For some, only the iris.
  • In the Effects-section, I may add a bit of vignette (-20 to -40 on upper slider) to help the viewer going for the center of the image. The vignette should be very subtle!.
  • To get pleasing skin and vibrant hair, I can either go for adding texture to the hair with the brush tool, or soften the skin with a ‘negative clarity’-brush.
  • The it is time to blur the background and removing disturbing artefacts. Bluring can be done in a various of ways depending on the nature of the background. For backdrops, I often go for a flat look (clarity and contrast sliders to the left). For outside locations, I bring down the exposure (dodging).
  • Finally, I adjust the vibrance and saturation. Unlike landscape photos, I only make small adjustments . Either to enhance the colors a bit or to desaturate colors for a more vintage look. In general, vibrance is aware of skin tones and tends to pop colors outside the skin tones, while saturation is a more ‘global’ adjustment.
Comparing before and after processing in Lightroom.

Select the final pictures

In the end, I go through the pictures and selects the best from each serie. The selected are rated with 4 stars.

Color and B&W

I prefer to generate all my black and white copies in one go. It requires some diciplin, but can be done very fast in Lightroom

  • Go to Grid-view (press G) and apply the four star filter, so that only the final pictures are in the grid-view
  • Select all pictures (Ctrl+A) and mark pictures with red color (6)
  • Without changing the selection in the grid view; left-click and creaty virtual copy – now all pictures are copied, and the new virtual copies are selected
  • Mark all virtual copies with green (8)
  • Go to development module and set to Acros (or another B&W-profil of your choice)
  • Sync all pictures (only sync the the calibration-section, not the other settings!)

Now you can toggle red and green marks on and of, to work on the color and/or Black&White.

Red and Green are used to distinguish between color and B&W copies

Adjusting B&W copies

With the filter set to green (for B&W), I now adjust each copy individually. I use these rules of thumb:

  • Exposure is raised +0.5EV to +1EV in order to obtain more intensity in light areas
  • Contrast: 0 to +20 to distinguish highlights from low light – and to emphasize structures like hair and eyebrows
  • Shadow: +10, Black:-10 to 20 to compensate for added exposure and obtain details in the shadows
  • Highlight, White and Clarity: minor adjustments
  • Lower eye-mask (to +0.1EV to +0.2EV) due to added exposure and contrast.

Sometimes a picture just doesn’t work in Black and White – or in Color. Then the copy is uncolored and downgraded to three stars, and it disappears from the filter.


Experimenting with different crops is a great way to examine, if I have got the best out of my images and the post process. It is fairly free to clone images as virtual copies and experiment. I often try 1:1-formats and/or narrow crops. If the clone is unfruitful, I simply delete the clone.

Exporting test pictures to verify the result

Finally I go to the grid-view (G), ensures the filter for four stars is set, selects all copies and Exports them to sRGB. Checking the pictures outside Lightroom is a sanity check. Sometimes, I find color cast in the sRGB-files, that I don’t see in Lightroom. Also Black and White-images sometimes are to harsh – hence the exposure and contrast level must be adjusted.

So I find manual inspection necessary – and corrections are easily applied in Lightroom.

My workflow is a fast track

By the workflow above I try to save as much time as possible by investing only the effort needed in each picture. Of course, I some times end up spending hours on a single picture with retouching, softening etc. But in stead of jumping directly into Development mode for a single image, I try to add structure to my selection and post process, so that as many images as possible are discarded before I start up the time consuming post development process.


As an enthusiastic amateur photographer, I spend most of my spare time finding the next photo opportunity. I favor landscape photography and portraiture, and challenge myself with street.

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