One of the highest praises I get in my work as a photographer is this: “I normally don’t like pictures of myself, but I love the ones you took!” When I hear it through the privacy of an email, I let myself smile so big my cheeks hurt; when I hear it in person, I sort-of scuff my toes in an arc on the ground and say, “Aw, shucks. I’m so glad.”
It occurred to me at some point that I was hearing this both from people who’d never had professional photos taken before and people who’d had photos taken often. It would have made sense to hear this from my subjects who weren’t used to having photos taken in general… but what about the other ones?
I started listening more closely, to see if there was some specific, consistent thread tying together the photos that stood out to my happiest clients. Apart from trying to make my subjects feel totally at ease (so I could capture genuine laughter instead forced smiles), and being conscientious to ask questions that gave me an advantage (such as, “Is there anything you’re self-conscious about? Do you have a preferred side of your face? What’s your favorite physical trait?”), when I listened closely to their feedback I realized the steps I take during post-processing were some of the most valued measures in my process.
My clients didn’t realize it, but in between the lines, that’s what they were telling me.
Just to be sure, I looked at other local photographers’ work to confirm that these few steps I always take were truly setting me apart, and to my surprise, I seemed to be the only photographer in my area consistently doing the 5 things I outline below. If you’re a photographer, or even if you aren’t, perhaps you will enjoy learning what they are, and the thought process behind them.
5 Uncommon Editing Steps I Take in Lightroom
Step #1: I adjust the white balance (the hue of the photo), and then I add warmth.
Why: Warm hues psychologically make us feel happier.
In real life, we tend to be more drawn to people with a little sun-kissed skin, light on their face, and clothing colors that fall on the warm side of the spectrum. On a subconscious level, we associate reds, oranges, and yellows (and the colors in between, like coral and tangerine) with adventure and comfort; seeing these colors releases chemicals in our brains that allow us to loosen up a bit, feel daring enough to take a few risks.
I personally think this has to do with the seasons. In the summertime, the days are longer, and it’s a time of year that we make positive memories. Trips to the beach or the pool; late-night campfires with friends; summer flings. So seeing ourselves in pictures that look slightly “golden hour”—even if they were taken in the morning—allows us to see our best, most laid-back and fun-loving selves.
For this step I use the eyedropper tool on a gray card or a neutral area, then adjust the temperature slider about 200 degrees in the “warm” direction.
Step #2: I get rid of undereye circles.
Why: In real life, we would hardly ever notice them, but in photos, they always stand out.
Photography can be very cruel for a variety of reasons:
For one, it’s a mere two-dimensional representation of reality, and being so, many, many aspects of the “real life” experience are lost. Two, by design, photography is a detection of where the light falls and the colors that it reflects. Absence of light is often particularly harsh in photos, because photography is the art and science of capturing light, not darkness. Three, subjects of photos don’t move (well, not outside of Harry Potter, anyway), which means that facial expressions and the movement of light that occurs when someone laughs or reacts is never perfectly captured.
Basically, people just look better in real life than they do in pictures. I find that things like undereye circles, the crevices around the nostrils, the upper lip, and the dip between the lips and chin always look much darker in photos than they do in real life… so I brighten those spaces up a bit. Usually I do this with the adjustment brush by boosting the white levels, taking out a bit of the black, and knocking a couple points off the “Dehaze” slider.
Step #3: I add a radial filter to the chin, neck, and clavicle area.
Why: This area is often cast in shadow in portraits, making the subject look hunched or unapproachable, even if in real life they’re friendly.
God bless the radial filter. I use it constantly. Almost every radial filter I apply is inverted, with a 50% feather, so that I can make subtle adjustments to the light values without having to add painstaking brush strokes. One area I often apply an inverted radial filter is the neck and collarbone area.
(If you’re unfamiliar with the radial filter, it’s essentially a tool used to segregate a circular or ovular portion of an image, and adjust aspects of the image inside or outside that circle or oval. When I say I use an inverted radial filter, I mean I’m adjusting what’s inside the shape, rather than what’s around it.)
People often feel like they look dark and brooding in photos, even if in real life at that time they looked fabulous. By brightening the space under the chin and around the clavicle, I automatically correct a smidgen of any bad posture and at the same time make the subject look more happy, open, and approachable. I also use inverted filters around the eyes to pull up the shadows, increase exposure, and sharpen.
Step #4: I increase the exposure on the subject, and leave the background where it is.
Why: Even with bokeh, this can really make the subject pop.
I don’t always do this, but I almost always do this when I’ve placed my subject or subjects in the shade. While shade is great for eliminating harsh shadows, adding a little bit of glow to the cheeks, and drawing out the cool tones of, say, a pair of blue eyes, it can also make the image as a whole look flat, and the subject look washed out or pale.
So I turn off the “Auto-Mask” feature, make my adjustment brush really big, highlight my whole subject, and boost exposure by about 10. Sometimes I may even make the subject warmer using the temperature slider.
It has to be very subtle, or the subject will end up looking superimposed over a background. But when you do it right, it just feels like the subject “takes up space,” or has a real presence.
Step #5: I make localized adjustments based on abstract memory of the person and the shoot.
Why: My goal is less to create the perfect photo technically, and more to deliver an image that feels real.
When people imagine themselves, unless they suffer from some sort of dysmorphia, they imagine their best selves. Then when they get photos back in which their eyes look dark, their shoulders seem hunched, their tummies or upper arms look paunchy, and the whites of their eyes look yellow or red, they are surprised. And not in the good way. They wonder if maybe the way they’ve been “seeing themselves” this whole time was wrong.
But usually it isn’t. The way they see themselves is probably pretty close to the way they actually are. But photography doesn’t capture the way they really are, just like when we pause a television show, the actor on the screen always ends up looking distorted and a little like they’re about to sneeze.
So I close my eyes and go back and remember what I particularly enjoyed about the subject’s personality or admired about their appearance (meaning facial features or hair or something physical other than clothes). And then I look at the image and see how close it is to what I remember. If I remember the subject having beautiful eyes, but we were on a windy beach and by the end of the shoot, her eyes were red, I make them white again. If the subject has a great smile, but his teeth look a little yellow in the photo, I whiten them a bit.
Once the person in the photo looks like the person I experienced, I know I’m ready to deliver the image to the client. And you know what? They’re usually really happy.