Project Description

Editing portraits is a great way to make the subject look their best. This video demonstrates the entire workflow for processing a portrait from start to finish. Check it out and learn essential editing steps such as correcting color casts, sharpening, tonal adjustments, retouching, and tips to keep from going too far.

Photo: Luc Coiffait


White balance

The best place to begin editing portraits is to first remove any unwanted color casts. This process is equally important for editing color or black and white images. Skin tones are extremely important for portraits, so getting them correct is an essential starting point. A simple way to dial in the color tones is to use the White Balance adjustment tool. Sample a reference area that should appear as white or grey. For more information about using this tool, watch our Fixing Color Casts video.


A well balanced crop can improve a photo in numerous ways, including eliminating distractions, strengthening composition, and more. Cropping can happen at any time in the workflow because the adjustments in Exposure are non-destructive. Either freely crop to the desired proportions or select from the cropping presets.


The Detail panel controls add sharpening to correct technical issues like when an image didn’t come out of the camera sharp enough. Typically this kind of sharpening takes place early in the editing process. When applying sharpening, temporarily maximize the Amount control. This makes the results of the other sliders are more noticeable.

Too much sharpening can make an image look punchy. Unwanted artifacts from over-sharpening appear first on defined edges in the photo. Lowering the Amount slider will reduce this effect.

Strong sharpening effects can accentuate noise in photos. This can make smooth areas look rough and speckly. If unwanted grain becomes noticeable when sharpening is applied, dial back the Amount, or apply noise reduction.

For more advice about sharpening images, watch our Sharpening Techniques video.

Tonal Adjustments

Balancing shades, tints, and tones is the next step in processing. These adjustments are made to the controls in the Basic panel.

Clarity mostly affects the visibility of textures or small details, while the Contrast slider mainly affects the tone of larger regions. For portraits, balancing adjustments to these two controls can give portraits more pop. It’s usually better to adjust contrast before modifying clarity. This helps minimize creating any unwanted artifacts, like noise.

The Histogram is very useful for editing portraits. It makes problem areas easy to identify. This can happen in the highlights being blown out to white, in colors being blocked up saturation, or muddy shadows where details are indistinguishable. Drag identified regions directly in the histogram to adjust the corresponding sliders in the Basic panel.

Presets are an excellent resource for editing portraits. They can add pleasing tones to skin, remove unwanted color casts, and more. There are a wide variety of options to select from and they are easy to customize. The more subtle presets in the Color Film and the Color Film – Low Contrast categories work well with photos of people.

Touch Ups

Near the end of editing portraits is touching them up. This can involve a number of steps, depending on the type or complexity of retouching needed.

Small distracting elements, like spots on a blemished complexion, are easily removed with the Spot Heal tool. Other retouching such as enhancing the subject’s eyes, or sculpting and contouring with dodge and burn are handled late in the editing workflow, too. Check out our Portrait Touch Up video for a step-by-step demonstration of basic retouching processes.

The final step of editing portraits is to add creative effects. Direct the viewer’s eye with realistic focus effects. Create more separation by darkening the background around the subject. Punch-up the mood with a vignette. Or give the shot a new feel with texture or light effect overlays.

Watch our local adjustments video to learn about creatively controlling the application of effects.

Exporting Images

With the image edited, the last step in the process is export. If there are different requirements for image sizes, consider using quick export recipes to streamline the export process. Exposure has several to choose from – including presets for social media and high resolution files for print.