color portrait tutorial + tips

Started Jun 7, 2004 | Discussions thread
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Daniel Chui Senior Member • Posts: 2,734
color portrait tutorial + tips

This is a guide to soft-focus color portraits. I have been using this quite a bit recently to proof for clients, and I’ve been pleased with the results.



More information on the action is available here:

The following is the exact workflow I follow.


Start from a properly exposed and color balanced portrait (shoot in RAW if there is any doubt). If you want to save time in post processing, request your subject wear some makeup before the shoot.


Here’s a link to a document I give to all of my clients/models pre-shoot. This should give you a basic idea of what the model can do to guarantee the best quality in their photos. For a portrait photographer, the face is a canvas. The better the canvas you start with, the easier it is to make a beautiful final product:

START THE GUIDE ALREADY! Okay, here is what we start with:

A) OVERALL CONTRAST (this adds some punch to the shots):

1. New adjustment layer > Curves.
2. Set blending mode to OVERLAY.

3. Right click the layer > blending options > Set the opacity of the layer from 20% to 30%. I use 27%.

B) SHARPENING. Apply unsharp mask BEFORE you blur, this creates the “soft but sharp” look

1. Select the background layer.

2. On a full-sized image, I’ll usually use an unsharp mask with radius 200% and radius of .5. On a web-sized image I’d use a sharpening of about .2 or .3, with radius 200%.

NOTE: I batch process using a slightly different workflow for small shots versus big shots. That is, my small shots are not shrunken versions of the bigger files; I do individual adjustments for either web-viewable or printable sizes. I am able to do this because I have created an action for batch processing the original files. I save a lot of time this way.


1. Select the background layer. Hit CTRL + J to make a duplicate layer.

2. Filter > Blur > Gaussian Blur . Now up the blur radius until the eyes are relatively indescript. Obviously, different image sizes will require a higher blur radius. The person’s face and eyes should look like this:

3. Double click the duplicate background layer and set the opacity somewhere between 30% and 40%. Your mileage may vary. Your image is now soft-focus without being overly blurry.

D) SLIGHT DESATURATION. The subject may be a little bit orange looking from the overlay curve. No problem, we’re going to take a little bit of the color out of the image; I feel this adds a little bit to the “dreamy” effect I’m after.

1. Select the background copy layer, the one that you used Gaussian blur on.
2. New adjustment layer > Hue/saturation > Adjust saturation -15%.

E) OVERALL PUNCH #2. Let’s finish up the image.

1. New adjustment layer > Curves
2. Apply a VERY subtle S-curve:

Hopefully this is helpful. I apologize for not getting this tutorial written sooner, I’ve been extremely busy with my studies! Sometime soon I’m going to write a tutorial on taking portraits and dealing with models in general. I’m no pro, but I’d like to share what I’ve learned so far.

- Chui

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