Photoshop effects: how to make high-key portraits and film noir-style photos

Our final image

What a difference a few Photoshop settings can make. With simple adjustments to tones, we can take a single image in completely different directions. This is what we’ll do here, by giving a portrait shot two looks that are polar opposites in style.

First, we’ll aim for a bright and breezy high-key portrait effect with blown-out skin and soft, hazy detail. Then we’ll go for a dark, moody film-noir treatment, complete with shadows cast by the light from an imaginary blind.

Our before image

We’ll begin by preparing our portrait with a few retouching techniques in Camera Raw to remove spots, soften skin and improve the eyes. Then we’re ready for the first of our two treatments.

High-key images typically feature blown-out highlights, desaturated colours and soft shadows. We’ll use the settings in Camera Raw to achieve this before finishing it in Photoshop.

Take two

Then it’s on to the second treatment, a moody film noir effect. This is done by converting the image to black and white, then adding shadows that look like they’ve been cast by a blind. Both effects involve key Photoshop skills, including Smart Objects, Layer Masks and the Adjustment Brush; but If you’re keen to try out just one effect, the high-key treatment starts at step 5 and the film noir effect on step 9.

SEE MORE: 50 free Photoshop actions for portrait photographers

How to make high-key portraits and film noir-style images in Photoshop

1. Open and remove spots

Download our start image and follow along! Open our tutorial image noir_before.dng in Camera Raw. Grab the Spot Removal tool from the Toolbar, and begin by removing any spots, blemishes and marks over the face and hat. Next grab the Crop tool and crop in slightly tighter to the girl’s face.


2. Soften the skin

Grab the Adjustment Brush from the Toolbar, and zoom in close to the face. Click on the cheek to set a pin. Go to the settings on the right and set Clarity to -80. Make sure that all the other sliders are reset, then paint over the rest of the skin on the cheeks and forehead.


3. Boost the iris

Click New in the top right, then click over the left iris to set another pin. This time you need to set the sliders as follows: Clarity to +42, Exposure to +2.30 and Saturation to 74. Paint over the iris, then switch to Erase in the top right and paint to remove the pupil from the mask.


4. Make a snapshot

Click New again. Set Shadows to -24 and then paint over the lashes on the right eye to darken them slightly. Next, double-click the Hand tool to zoom out, then go to the Snapshot Panel which is located on the right side. Click New Snapshot and name it ‘Retouched’.


5. The high-key look

Go to the Basic Panel and set Exposure to +1.65, Contrast to +15, Highlights to -12, Shadows to +73, Whites to -78, Blacks to -44, Clarity to +37 and Saturation to -40. Now you need to click the HSL Grayscale Panel and go to Luminance, then set both Oranges and Yellows to +28.


6. Darken the hat

The tonal shift has left the hat looking washed out, so grab the Adjustment Brush again. Go to the settings and tick Auto Mask, then paint over the hat. Set Exposure to -1.20, Shadows to -23 and Saturation to +42. Hold down Shift and click the Open Object button at the bottom right.


7. Soften the image

In Photoshop, bring up the Layers Panel then press Ctrl/Cmd+J to copy the bottom layer. Go to Filter>Blur>Gaussian Blur and set Radius to 7px then click OK. Next, go to the Layers Panel and change the blending mode from Normal to Soft Light, then set Opacity to 50%.


8. Copy Smart Object

Now we’re ready to get going with our second treatment, which is a moody noir effect. Right-click the bottom layer and choose New Smart Object via Copy, then drag the copy to the top of the stack. Double-click the layer thumbnail to send the image back into Camera Raw.


9. Remove the colour

Click on the Snapshot Panel and click the ‘Retouched’ Snapshot that we made earlier in step 4. Next you need to go over to the HSL/Grayscale Panel and click Convert to Grayscale, then set Oranges to +15 and Yellows to +30. When you’ve done this, click OK to return to Photoshop.


10. Make a selection

Make a new layer, then grab the Polygonal Lasso tool. Starting at the top-left corner of your image, click from one side of the image to the other to make a series of horizontal strips running across it, then click back on the start point to close the selection.


11. Add a gradual blur

Right-click in the selection and choose Fill. Set Use to Black and press OK, then Ctrl/Cmd+D to deselect. Next, go to Filter>Blur>Field Blur. Drag the circle over to the left side and set Blur to 230px, then click on the right side to set another circle and set Blur to 180px. Click OK.


12. Transform the lines

Press Ctrl/Cmd+T to transform the layer. Hold Ctrl/Cmd and drag the corner points to skew the lines so that they look like they’re following the angle of the wall. Zoom out to see the box if necessary. When you’re happy with your adjustments, press Enter to apply.


13. Select the figure

Hide the top layer and highlight the layer below, then grab the Quick Selection tool. Paint over the background to select it, then go to Select>Inverse to select the person. Click the Refine Edge button at the top and set Feather to 5. Choose Output to: New Layer and click OK.


14. Lower the exposure

Reveal and highlight the first black-and-white layer below, then hold Ctrl/Cmd and click the thumbnail of the hidden black lines layer in order to load its shape as a selection. Next, you need to click the Create New Layer icon and choose Exposure. Set Exposure to -6.00.


15. Clip the layer

Hold Alt and drag the Exposure layer above the layer of the cutout person to copy it, then hold Alt and click the line between the two layers to clip the adjustment to the cutout layer. Next, click the link between the mask and thumbnail on the top Exposure layer to unlink it.


16. Warp the face lines

We’re going to warp the shadows across the face so that they’re offset from the lines on the wall. To do this you need to highlight the mask thumbnail on the top exposure layer, then go to Edit>Transform>Warp. Drag the box to warp the shadow, then press Enter to apply.


17. Fine tune the masks

Highlight the mask thumbnail on the lower Exposure Layer, then grab the Brush tool. Set the colour to black and press 3 for 30% Opacity, then paint to tone down the shadows around the edges and in the figure’s shadow. Highlight the top Exposure layer’s mask and do the same.


18. Darken the edges

Make a new layer and grab the Gradient tool. Set the colour to black, then click the gradient preview and choose the Foreground to Transparent preset. Drag in from the edges to darken them down. Finally, add a Curves Adjustment Layer and make an S-shaped curve line to boost contrast.


Our final image


Photoshop effects: how to mimic studio lighting for stylish portraits
How to recreate the look of a medium format portrait
Orton Effect: try this quick soft-focus Photoshop trick
13 photo editing mistakes every photographer makes (and what you can do about it)