What Makes Great Portraits Different From Good Ones


The famous American photojournalist Steve McCurry once said, “a good portrait tells a story and hints at a life beyond the edges of the frame”. It’s true to its core. As an experienced photographer, I realize that one needs to be a keen observer before clicking a portrait picture.

But there is something more important than a good camera click to bring out a picture of a person that can capture attention for a longer time by a person who watches it. That is nothing but mastering the art of editing. If you are a photographer yourself, I am sure you follow a set of editing processes and basic editing like enhancing vibrancy, adjusting exposure, etc. However, that’s just not enough to bring the magic of a portrait shot. Probably, you need to learn deep editing techniques.

Of course! Not all photographers have an equal passion for editing. But should a photographer deliver an image without editing? The answer is just a “Big No”. So, what are these techniques that help a photographer create stunning portraits? Well, before letting you know what those are. Just know that Adobe Photoshop is the best software for editing portraits because so many of them use it and availability of tutorials or use case studies are available in excess over the internet.

Let us come back to the techniques. Firstly, use the healing brush most often. Shots of people mean you have to conceal the unnecessary spots, pimples, blemishes, etc. on the face. Now you must be thinking, isn’t it better to show people naturally as they are? It is ok, but unpleasant marks, pimples, and blemishes on the face or the portrait background can be truly distracting and might reduce aesthetic appeal.

Then it again depends on the project a photographer is handling. For instance, the portraits of great photographer, Edward S. Curtis, when he captured images of thousands of individuals from indigenous tribes, wouldn’t have wanted to remove the blemishes and make it polished. But then again there is a flip side to this. Edward lived in the 19th century, he might have used Photoshop, if it was available back then. Jokes apart, let us see what is the next technique.

The second technique is choosing quality presets. Imagine you’re working on a massive project with a stipulated deadline with hundreds of portraits that need to be exported. It sounds tiring, right? Well, not to worry, there is a solution to this. Photoshop’s quality presets can be a real timesaver while editing portraits. These settings allow you to gain the quality standards for your images based on your unique project needs—whether for web, print, or archival purposes.

For instance, if you’re preparing images for a high-quality print, you’d choose a high-resolution preset, wouldn’t you? This ensures your images retain all their minute necessary details and colors, even when blown up to larger sizes. On the flip side, if you’re uploading these images to a website, you might opt for a lower resolution preset to speed up loading times without sacrificing too much quality, this is not rocket science, ain’t it? Well, it’s all about finding the right balance for your specific project.

Thirdly, let’s talk about the available gradient tool, which is like the true magic wand of background creation and subtle shading while portrait editing. It’s perfect for adding a touch of depth to your portraits or creating a smooth transition between colors, which can even be contrasting.

Say you’re creating a portrait with a background and want to have a sunset effect in the background. With the gradient tool, you can choose a gradient that mimics the colors of a sunset—from a deep orange to a soft pink. Just click and drag across the area on the portrait where you want the gradient to appear, and voilà, you have a beautiful, seamless transition of brilliant color play. It’s simple yet effective and adds a whole new dimension to your portrait.

Lastly, let’s move on to the color adjustment tool. This is your go-to for making sure the colors in your images look just the right way. Whether you need to brighten a dull photo due to a bad click, adjust the contrast of it, or alter the saturation level, color adjustment is what you need.

Imagine you have a photo that’s slightly too dark, making it hard to see the details. By using the Brightness/Contradiction option, you can instantly lighten up the image, making everything more visible. Or perhaps you want to create a vintage feel; you might play around with the saturation to give your portrait a faded look. The possibilities are endless, and with a bit of tweaking, you can significantly enhance the impact of your photos.

On an endnote, using these tools, you can tailor your images to match the vision in your head or the requirements of your project. So go ahead, experiment with these tools, and see how they can improve your workflow and your portrait’s final look.