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Adding contrast to portraits in Lightroom

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Adding contrast to photos in Lightroom can be done for a few reasons.

First, adding contrast can help a dull, RAW photo stand out and have more color and pop.

Secondly, adding contrast to your portraits can also add depth and visual interest to your work.

Who wants a lifeless photo anyway?

So, adding contrast in Lightroom is a simple and easy way to help your photos stand out and become beautiful works of art.

But, there are a few things to keep in mind when editing in high contrast.

Don’t overdo the editing

Easier said than done, but it’s always worth keeping a light hand when you’re adding contrast to your photos.

In fact, it’s one of my main rules for beginners learning how to edit photos more professionally.

Adding contrast is no exception.

It’s very easy to add too much and make a photo look overdone, so be mindful of your application.

Work with the natural light of your photo

Nothing can look more unnatural than a photo with high contrast that doesn’t have high contrast light to begin with.

Adding contrast in your editing generally works well with moody light, or light with more shadows.

If there isn’t a lot of natural contrast to the photo, it’s not necessarily a good fit for adding it in your editing.

Take this image for example.

The photo was taken in a very bright location with not very many natural shadows falling on the subjects. While some contrast could be added, this type of photo isn’t a good candidate to adding a lot – it would just look unnatural.

On the other hand, this photo makes a better candidate.

Even those there is a lot of light present, there are also some natural shadows that can be brought out in editing. So, having more light doesn’t disqualify your photo, but the lack of shadows and natural contrast does.

Now that the general rules of adding contrast have been laid out, we can move on to the fun part!

Apply your general edits and exposure

I like to start my photo editing by applying a preset and then working off of that.

Sometimes presets can do a good job editing in 1-click, and other times, they need a bit more attention.

Since I want to add even more contrast to this photo, I also adjusted the exposure. I decreased it by -.60 to deepen the shadows and keep the face properly exposed.

adding contrast to photos in lightroom

Adjust the basic panel sliders for more contrast

To take it a step further, you can use the basic panel sliders to create more contrast and depth.

For nearly every single image that I edit, I also add in an appropriate amount of vibrance.

Adding vibrance increases the colors of the mid-tones without adding overall saturation; making it the perfect option for portrait editing.

This is what the basic panel looks like after adjusting the main sliders. You might need more or less, depending on the photo you’re editing.

 

Use filters to enhance the contrast

Depending on the light situation and direction that it’s coming from, using graduated filters can really help add contrast.

For this instance, decreasing the exposure on the left side of the photo will help with that.

contrast with graduated filters

I made sure to only add the filter to the part of the couch and decreased the exposure by -.92

This added more darkness and contrast, which leads the viewers eye straight to the main subject (the little boy).

 

Apply lightroom brushes for selective contrast editing

Another tool that you can use in Lightroom are brushes.

A simple, yet effective way to add more contrast is by dodging and/or burning.

For this photo, I added a dodge brush (increase in exposure) over the child’s face and region to help enhance the light.

This makes the subject stand out more without over-doing it, but also adds even more contrast.

You can learn more about dodging and burning techniques here.

The final look

Just by adding a preset, adjusting the basic sliders, and adding contrast with filters and brushes, this photo looks completely different.

When done with intention, you can add contrast to your portraits pretty quick and easy (my preferred method!)

Need a close look at this edit?

I created this Lightroom tutorial just for you!

I have gone through each step to adding contrast in portraits, but in much more detail.

Want to learn how to master Lightroom?

You can watch more Lightroom tutorials on my Youtube channel or view them right here on the blog.

 

New to Lightroom Presets?

Check out this post to help get you started and make sure you download your FREE starter set here!

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Hey, i'm heather!

I help aspiring photographers learn the ropes of portrait photography & hone their editing skills so that they can become confident, creative artists. Learn how to edit in Lightroom with these FREE resources or come join my Photography community on Facebook.

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