Colour, or the absence of it, plays a crucial role in portraiture. By manipulating colour and tone to create diferent Photoshop effects you can create striking portraits that really stand out from the crowd. Here, we’ll show you how to give your portraits an edgy, stylish, ultra-detailed finish often seen in modern portrait photography. We’ll use subtle variations in saturation, brightness and contrast to achieve similar results. What you’ll need is Photoshop CS4 or higher.
While some tonal tweaks will be applied universally, the emphasis here is on selective adjustments. We’ll start by working on our raw image in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) with the Adjustment Brush. This is one of the most powerful tools that ACR, or indeed Photoshop, has to offer, allowing you to paint an area that can be edited with various sliders. It’s quick and easy to boost contrast, lower colour saturation, add a touch of clarity or darken highlights.
Once we’re in the main Photoshop interface, we’ll mimic the effects of a shallow depth of field by adding blur to parts of the image that are behind the point of focus. This helps to give the portrait a softer feel and draws attention to the eyes – we’ll give them special attention with the Dodge and Burn tools to make them really pop.
We’ll also make use of Photoshop’s HDR toning command and shift the colours in Curves to give the image a final polish. Here’s how it’s done…
How to recreate the look of a medium format portrait
01 Open and crop
Open your original file in Adobe Bridge. Right-click on it and choose Open in Camera Raw.
Grab the Crop tool from the top toolbar, then right-click and choose a ‘2 to 3’ ratio. Crop in tighter on the subject’s face, then click on the Zoom tool to see the results of the new crop.
02 Boost the tones
Next, click on the Basic tab, then use the sliders in this panel to adjust the tones. Set Exposure to +0.55, Fill Light to 45, Blacks to 11, Contrast to +30 and Clarity to +20. You can now bleach out some of the colour by knocking the Vibrance slider back to -37 and reducing Saturation to -15.
03 Prepare a mask
Click on the Adjustment Brush. Ensure the Show Mask box is checked, then click the colour box next to it and choose a bright colour to represent the mask so you can easily see where you’ve painted. Use Cmd/Ctrl and the + key to zoom in closer on the face.
04 Set a pin
Resize your brush so it’s smaller than the eye, then click over the iris to add your first pin. Paint over both irises to complete the mask. Uncheck Show Mask, set Exposure to +0.45, Brightness to +30, Contrast to +30, Saturation to +37, Clarity to +70 and Sharpness to +10.
05 Mask the hair
Click on New (top right), then check Show Mask. Add a second pin over the hair, then completely paint over the hair. Make sure you don’t include any of the background. If you go wrong, hold Alt and paint to erase. When you’re happy, uncheck Show Mask.
06 Enhance the hair and lips
Double-click each slider to reset them. Next, set Brightness to +20, Contrast to +15, Saturation to -15 and Clarity to +21. Click New, then set another pin and paint a mask over the lips. For the lips, reset the sliders, then set Saturation to +20 and Clarity to +40.
07 Desaturate the skin
Add a new pin and paint over the skin to make another mask. Reset the sliders again and set Saturation to -15 and Clarity to +15. Make another pin for the brightest skin on the forehead, and this time bring Clarity back to -70 to tone it down.
08 Open and duplicate
Add more pins if you want to tweak other areas, then hit Open Image to open in Photoshop. Right-click the Background layer in the Layers palette, then choose Duplicate Layer. In the Destination settings, choose Document: New, then name it HDR and hit OK.
09 Apply HDR toning
Click on the new HDR image, then go to Image> Adjustments>HDR Toning. In Preset, choose Photorealistic High Contrast, then OK. Right-click the layer and choose Duplicate Layer. Set Destination Document as the portrait_before image and hit OK.
10 Change the Blending Mode
Go back to the portrait_before image and change the Blending Mode of the new layer to Luminosity. Alt-click the Add Layer Mask icon. This adds a full mask that hides the layer. Grab the Brush tool and hit D to reset the foreground colour to white.
11 Reveal the effect
Hit 2 to set the brush opacity to 20%, then paint the face to selectively reveal the HDR effect over the skin and eyes. If you go too far, hit X to flip your colour to black and paint to hide the effect. Overall strength can be controlled by lowering the layer opacity.
12 Add blur
Press Ctrl+Shift+Alt+E to merge the layers into a new layer at the top of the layer stack. Right-click this new layer and select Convert to Smart Object. Go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur, set Radius to about 4px and hit OK. Double-click the layer name and call it Blur.
13 Mask the blur
Alt-click the Add Layer Mask icon to hide the blur. Grab the Brush tool, choose a soft-edged brush and set foreground colour to white (D). Paint the edges of the head and body to reveal the blur in areas that would be naturally be further from the camera.
14 New layer settings
Hold Alt and click the New Layer icon to access the New Layer box. Name it Dodge and Burn, then click on the Mode drop-down menu and choose Overlay. This should give you an option below to Fill with Overlay-Neutral Colour. Check this and hit OK.
15 Dodge and burn
Grab the Dodge tool and set Range to Midtones and Exposure to 10%. Paint over the whites of the eyes to lighten. Switch to the Burn tool, set Range to Midtones and Exposure to 10%, then paint around the lashes and the edges of the iris to darken them.
16 A quick retouch
Continue using the Dodge and Burn tools to lighten or darken areas of the face. Click on the Create New Layer icon and call it Healing. Grab the Spot Healing tool and ensure Sample All Layers is checked at the top. Use the tool to get rid of blemishes.
17 Add a colour cast
Click the Create Adjustment Layer icon and choose Curves from the list. Go to the RGB drop-down and choose Red, then click one point on the top quarter of the line to pin it in place. Make a second point halfway along and drag it down slightly.
18 Fine-tune colour
In the Blue channel make two points in the middle and top third of the curve. Make a point in the lower quarter and drag up slightly. In the Green channel, make one point and drag up. Go to RGB and boost contrast with a shallow s-shaped curve.