How To Take Beautiful Portraits of Women With Or Without Photoshop

Building on last weeks April fools joke, where I riffed on the absurd idea that women actually prefer to look awful in photos and the current anti-Photoshop and no-makeup selfie trend making the rounds on social media – in this week’s article, I am going to share how to use proper lighting, posing and the right lens to make women look gorgeous without Photoshop, and then how I touch up portraits in Photoshop.

But first, we need a before and after (complete with cheesy internet meme).

Before and After professional photographer glamor portrait lighting and photoshop jp danko totonto commercial photographer

Yes, this is the same woman…read on to find out how I went from before to after.

Why Most Selfies Look Horrible

Before we get started, its important to understand why most selfies look absolutely horrible.  I did take this photo to make this woman look as ugly as possible on purpose (so technically its not a selfie), but to me its fairly typical of the no makeup selfie fad.

professional photographer vs selfie;

Besides the obvious, the woman in this photo looks horribly ugly because my cell phone has a wide angle lens which is about two inches away from her nose, so her entire face is grotesquely distorted by the optics of the wide angle lens.  Add to that awful indoor lighting (she is lit by a compact fluorescent bathroom fixture on the wall in front of her and window light from her left side) and you get a really ugly portrait that looks nothing like the real person.

Of course, she is also not wearing any makeup, but that is a relatively minor factor when a close up with a wide angle lens and bad lighting are combined.

The Raw Beauty Talks campaign does a good job showing how the right lens and the right lighting are far more important for capturing glamorous photos of women.

Posing Women for Beautiful Portraits

Next, lets talk about the importance of posing women to accentuate their features.  I haven’t seen anyone show how important posing is for head shot portraits better than Peter Hurley, and you can see exactly how big a difference proper posing makes in this video:

Use A Portrait Lens!

It should be obvious, but for a portrait, you must use a portrait lens!  Generally speaking, a portrait lens is 85mm and longer.  Even at 85mm there is still some optical distortion in a head and shoulders portrait, but by the time you get to 150mm and over, optical distortion is eliminated.

If you want to see a few examples of portraits taken with a wide angle versus portrait lens, click here.

All of the photos in this article were photographed with a 70-200mm f/2.8 lens at about 150mm.

Hair and Makeup

There is no doubt that hair and makeup make a big difference in the look of the final portrait.

Yes, the women in the examples in this post have brushed their hair, and yes, they are wearing makeup – but their hair was not professionally styled and the makeup they are wearing is what they wear every single day when they leave the house (although it has been freshly applied).

In my opinion, if I am going through the trouble of photographing a woman to produce a portrait that they will actually like, they better at least bother to do their hair and put on some makeup.

Recent social media fads aside, it shouldn’t be controversial to say that women generally look a hell of a lot better in a portrait with nice hair and some makeup!

Glamor Lighting for Beautiful Portraits of Women

After you’ve got the right lens and the right pose, using good lighting is critical for beautiful portraits of women.

There are tons of options for glamor lighting that is flattering for women with different face shapes, but I just used clam shell lighting which does a great job of making anyone’s skin look great (although otherwise it is a bit flat for my tastes).

Here is how you set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women – this is the basic lighting setup.

how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

A large soft box (your key light) is used to light your model’s face from slightly above and directly in line with the camera.  The resulting photo looks like this:

how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

Next, another softbox or a reflector is used to brighten the shadow areas of your model’s face from below and slightly in front (your fill light).  This leaves a small slit between the key light softbox and the fill light softbox that you shoot through.  You need a long lens for this setup to work, otherwise the softboxes will be in the frame.  The fill light should be about 1 to 2 stops darker than the key light.

Here’s what the fill light from below looks like:

how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

And this is what it looks like with the overhead softbox key light and the under softbox fill light together (making a “clam shell”):

how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

Last, we add in hair lights to separate our model from the background.  The hair lights are usually about 1 stop darker than the key light, but really its just to taste.

This is what the hair lights look like on their own:

how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

And finally, combining the overhead softbox, the fill light and the hair lights, we have a beautiful portrait:

how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

To Photoshop or Not To Photoshop?

That Is The Question

So far, all of the sample photos are exactly as shot – right out of camera.  If you don’t believe in retouching women in Photoshop, that’s cool, you can stop here and you already have a portrait that’s infinitely better than any selfie.

One point to make here is that you can use your camera to “Photoshop” your photos too – which of course brings up the question of when exactly retouching begins.

Here is a clam shell glamor lighting portrait right out of camera from RAW with no retouching:

how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

And here is the exact same photo – right out of camera with no retouching, but using the JPEG Vivid preset:

how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

Is this photo retouched?  Because it looks quite a lot better than the original RAW photo.

Photoshop Retouching Portraits of Women

I will be the first to admit that I am not an expert portrait retoucher.  I mean, there are entire books on the subject and to retouch portraits well takes years of practice and a lot more time and effort than I am usually willing to put in – but, I will share my typical portrait retouching workflow.

I start in Lightroom with the original RAW portrait photo file.  In this case, I can see that the white balance is off and the photo needs quite a bit of contrast and vibrance.  After my basic Lightroom adjustments, the photo looks like this:

how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

I happen to have a gray background, so I used the “White Balance Selector Tool” to set a neutral gray.  Then I raised the contrast (+62), dropped the blacks (-48) and raised the vibrancy (+71).  Normally, I would also apply a lens profile correction, but since I was using a good portrait lens, it didn’t make much difference.

After I was done the basic adjustments in Lightroom, I brought the photo over to Photoshop for more advanced facial retouching.

Now, like I said, doing facial retouching of women with Photoshop is very complicated and time consuming, so I am going to cheat and use Portrait Professional.

I am a big fan of Portrait Professional, simply because it can produce very good results very quickly.  You do have to be careful not to overdo touchups with Portrait Professional, and the results are not quite what an experienced portrait retoucher would produce – but compared to doing portrait retouching from scratch in Photoshop, Portrait Professional is so much easier and faster.

Here is the photo after it has been retouched in Portrait Professional:

As you can see, there are some subtle refinements: her eyes have been whitened, the irises brightened and sharpened, the pupils darkened, there is some minor skin smoothing (only a small amount was necessary because the clam shell glamor lighting has already eliminated almost all her skin imperfections already), her hair is a little redder and has been smoothed and her eyes are slightly larger and her neck is slightly longer.

After Portrait Professional, I bring the photo back into Photoshop for a few more adjustments.

I used Michael Woloszynowicz‘ awesome technique to quickly remove stray hairs in Photoshop.  If you’ve ever tried this you know how much of a pain it is – I highly recommend you watch the video:

Then, I used the burn tool – with the Range set to “shadows” and the Exposure set to 4% to brush over the image and add a little more depth and contrast to the shadows.

Finally, I brought the image back to Lightroom and added a vignette and gradients from the bottom and sides to improve the composition and did a little more work on her eyes by adding clarity with the adjustment brush to her eyebrows, eyelashes, lips and the inner and outer perimeters of her irises.

This is the final retouched photo: how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

And here is a side by side before retouching and after retouching:

how to set up clam shell glamor lighting for beautiful portraits of women jp danko toronto commercial photographer

Portrait Lens + Posing + Lighting = Beautiful Portraits of Women

The point here is that by simply using good technique, an experienced photographer can take beautiful portraits of women – with or without Photoshop and even with or without makeup (to a certain extent anyway).

We can even make photos look even better right out of camera by using a favorable JPEG preset – which is simply telling the camera how to interpret the RAW data.

Does hair and makeup make women look more beautiful in a portrait?  Of course it does – which is why most women take the time to brush their hair and put on makeup before they leave the house in the morning – is it wrong for them to do the same for photos?

Does Photoshop make women look more beautiful in a portrait?  Of course it does – that’s why every glossy magazine cover model is retouched.

Do hair, makeup and Photoshop create an unrealistic portrayal of feminine beauty that is impossible for real women to live up to?  Of course it does – that is the whole point – to create an image of a woman that looks better than reality.

However, hair, makeup and Photoshop create no more of and unrealistic illusion of beauty than simply using good technique.

In fact, as you can see, a wide angle cell phone camera and bad lighting creates just as much as an unrealistic illusion of beauty, but instead of looking unrealistically better the person looks unrealistically worse.

The bottom line for me is that photography is about making money by selling pictures.  Like it or not, women pay money to look fabulous in photos and the crux of my job as a photographer is to make anyone in front of my camera look better than reality.

Do You Use Good Technique to Create Unrealistic Portraits of Women?

Do you consider a good pose, a good portrait lens and good lighting tools that create an unrealistic interpretation of feminine beauty – or is that just good technique?

What about Photoshop, or just hair and makeup?

Is a cell phone selfie just as much an unrealistic interpretation of feminine beauty as anything else?

Leave a comment below and let us know your opinion.

  • Caroline Lefebvre

    This article might contain a few potography tips but the way it talks about women is so discusting, I just can’t read the whole thing.

    • Lynda

      I don’t see that. I see the professional talking about the production of a product. At some point the maybe a non attractive person in front of your lens. And though they maybe a beautiful person and we can tell them that over and over, when they see there profs they are going to find another photographer. This is a well laid out plan for achieving professional results. Thanks for a great article.

  • Amaryllis

    I personally never even wear make-up to begin with… and it’s not because I don’t want to look beautiful or anything. So, I usually skip the make-up part for most of my self-portraits. Since I’m Asian, I just use a light that makes just a little shadow around my eyes and it makes me look like I wear at least some kind of make-up, though. The furthest I go in retouching is removing pimples and other stuff that would eventually just disappear in a few weeks, as well as adding a few effects to obtain a particular feel in the photo.

    To answer the questions at the bottom of the article, though, for the first one, I’d say those can help, but aren’t everything. For the second question, Photoshop can remove temporary things that wouldn’t have been there in a few weeks, but I wouldn’t go as far as making one look slimmer or anything like that. If you really want to look slimmer, go run outside and come back when you’ve lost what you want to lose. And lastly, for the third question… there was a time when my only camera was my cellphone, because my little compact was dead and I didn’t have money to buy another camera. I took quite a lot of selcas (my friends’ word for a selfie, it just comes from ‘self+camera’) and, if those were obviously not as good as if they had been taken with a portrait lens, they weren’t THAT bad. So I guess that here, one of those is quite okay too, if done properly.

    And sorry for my English, my first language is French.

  • Zamfirescu Vladimir-Alexandru

    Gotten better end-results out of camera without a portrait lens on a cropped sensor. Learn2light and 2edit. What is that amateurly lit and boringly overedited portrait? Is that beauty? Going from dull to dull?

    Standards must be low in Canada, I suppose.

    • cjsphoto

      And your blog post on an internationally read blog is where?

  • Jens Boström

    So i need a 70-200, studio flashes and photoshop? How is that DIY?

    • Michael Hoban

      Hi Jens. When they give ya lemons. ..make lemonade.
      As a young photographer I didn’t have a studio or studio lights..they were not cheap then!
      So I did my portraits outside. ..”I n Nature”..
      It’s much more difficult. Especially in South Florida where it rained every afternoon and the humidity would melt the makeup!
      You have to have a good eye and imagination in finding the right background that will softly high lite rather than compete with your subject. I keep a locations book with various lighting condition at various time of the day.

      Never have subject in direct sunlight or heavy shade. . Overcast before or after rain we loved…”Portrait Lighting”… harsh glare or shadows etc. We had to color correct the extreem blue( without whitelight controls) for our color film…especially Chrome; with salmon colored lens filters not a problem today!
      In lieu of expensive flashes, use reflectors. Sometimes ya can find one on a park bench…they are everywhere and can be made from anything. Its best to have alarge round one that folds up…and it’s best to have an assistant to hold it for you. However ever thebest thing you need is the desire to create.

      Happy trails.

  • Michael Hoban

    Hi Caroline, I totally agree with Lynda and disagree with you.
    Having been a commercial and fashion photographer over 40 yrs…yeah I know big deal! I startrd readong J.P.s article as a joke; to see how I could pick it apart. Aside from his term “Clam Shell” …which though new to me (and Ansel Adams); kinda cool…every step is to the same drummer that I marched to.
    The Dude knows what he’s taking about and (even taking into consideration that my professional photography was done in a shamefully “Barbie Doll” world which cheated Glamor Shots); I can see no hint of lack of respect and/or feminine explotation.
    As Lynda noted; “the production of a product” and in my view. ..quintessentially well done!
    There’s nothing (aside from terminology; like “kicker” front light or reflector…or “modeling light” and “hair light”) I could add or take away from this very complete and simplistic tutorial. ..great job!

    Oh yeah Vladimir, don’t know what is considered beautiful or boring in your culture…however every language differentiates between bizarre cell phone “selfies”…”snap shots” and “Portraits”; which are taken with a “portrait lenes” cause it’s optics “capture” a more pleasing image…rather than a “pig” face.
    Hey that’s the rage Vladimir. ..especially with tongues flapping out; lol; these are not portraiture! Also a “portrait lens”; as my Nikon 105, brings your subject in nice focus.while slightly defusing the backgroung…the longer the lenes and larger the apature, the more the background will be out of focus.
    My wife is also asain…Korean, and she as my daughter Virgie need no make up…i’m a lucky.guy!

  • Rex Deaver

    Don’t get hung up on the equipment the author uses. Most of these techniques are equally effective with speedlights, reflectors, and a good prime lens. The post production techniques are very much “to taste;” use the ones that work for you, don’t use the ones that don’t. Most importantly, these are tips on producing an attractive product that the subject will like.

    So, criticisms about the tools, techniques, and of the esthetic value of the end product, are out of place, classless, and juvenile. There are legitimate criticisms to make, concentrate on those or go play in the sandbox with the other kiddies.

  • George Parkins

    Now listen:
    She doesn’t look “horribly ugly” to begin with. Pale, yes, but–listen, friend–that’s what real women look like, by and large. Women can’t all be these homogenized hour-glass figures with the same lips and the same button nose and overdone hair. Real beauty is by its very definition a diversified continuum. Were it not so, life would not be worth living.
    I find your redhead model easier to look at in the “before” image, incidentally. She looks a little strained or something in the “after” image. If you take nothing else away from this, man, remember that you’re not creating beauty, you’re merely packaging it for an ignorant audience, so that they can see it in some form without any deeper knowledge of aesthetics.