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Getting That Trendy, Gritty Portrait Look

There’s a Photoshop effect for portraits that started making the rounds last year, and now it’s one of the hottest and most requested looks out there, and you see it everywhere from big magazine covers to websites to celebrity portraits to album covers. Anyway, you can get pretty darn close to that look right within Lightroom itself. Now, before I show you the effect, I have to tell you, this is one of those effects that you’ll either absolutely love (and you’ll wind up over-using it), or you’ll hate it with a passion that knows no bounds. There’s no in-between.

Step One:

Before we apply this effect, I have a disclaimer: this effect doesn’t look good on every photo. It looks best on photos that are dark and moody, but have multiple light sources (in particular, one or more bright lights lighting your subject’s side from behind). Think gritty, because that’s the look you’re going for (not soft and glamorous). For the image shown here (of Photoshop User magazine Managing Editor Issac Stolzenbach), I used a large studio softbox (an Elinchrom 53″ Midi Octa) off to the right side of the subject, and an Elinchrom RX600 Studio Strobe with no softbox—instead, just a reflector with a grid spot attachment (so the beam of the light would be hard and narrow)—behind him, opposite the main light. I started by increasing the Exposure to +0.41.

Step Two:

Now you’re going to really crank just about everything up. Start in the Develop module’s Basic panel, and drag the Recovery slider, the Fill Light slider, the Contrast slider, the Clarity slider, and the Vibrance slider all the way to the right (until they all read +100, as shown here). I know, it looks terrible, but we’re not done yet.

Step Three:

The key to this look is to have a super-sharpened image, with vivid colors, but an overall desaturated feel (if that makes any sense). So, you do that by going to the Saturation slider and dragging it almost all the way to the left (as shown here), until there’s just a little color left in the photo (so, in Step Two, we made the colors super-saturated, and then here, we’re almost taking them all away. Almost). You can see how doing these two steps brings out incredible details in everything from his shirt to the floor behind him, to his hair. In some cases, it will make your subject’s skin too sharp and detailed, and in that case, I’d use a little bit of the Skin Softening technique I’ll show you in the next chapter, and just paint over the areas of your subject’s skin that look too harsh.

Step Four:

The final step is to add an edge vignette to darken the edges of your photo, and put the focus on your subject, so go to the Vignettes panel (in the right side Panels area), and drag the Lens Correction Amount slider nearly all the way to the left (making the edges really dark). Then drag the Midpoint slider pretty far to the left, as well, but not quite as far as the Amount slider (the Midpoint slider controls how far the darkened edges extend in toward the middle of your photo. The farther you drag this slider to the left, the farther in they go). At this point, you could save this as a preset, but just understand that because each photo is different, the preset is just a starting place—you’ll always have to dial in the right amount of desaturation yourself using the Saturation slider.

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