A Viewfinder Darkly

Photography tips and tutorials

How to Use Adobe Lightroom to Lighten Faces

August 7 2012

by Philip Northeast

In Adobe Photoshop Lightroom there is an easy way to lighten faces in portrait photography hidden in dark shadows.

Sometimes circumstances make it impractical to carefully arrange portrait lighting. This applies particularly to candid photos where the main attraction is the subject’s natural unposed appearance.

The example photo of a lady picnicking on the lawns during a major event of the summer horse racing carnival.  The shot was not planned, but after finishing a set of track shots using a long focal length telephoto zoom a quick scan of the crowd through the lens revealed the colourful hat.

Lady with hat

The finished photo of the Lady with her hat

The result is a quick set of photos before moving to the next item on the list of required shots in the photographer’s brief.

Ladies take great pride  in their hats on race days, so keeping the intense bright yellow is important part of the composition. General exposure adjustment to lighten the face would also wash out some of that colour  from her spectacular hat. All this photo needs is to reveal some of the facial detail buried in the hat’s shadow on her face.

Most digital photo editing applications offer tools for adjusting parts of photos, and Adobe’s Lightroom has a tool for selective adjustments.

Making a Selection  

Photographers select areas  using the adjustment brush in Lightroom’s Develop module . While not as sophisticated or complex as some of the selection tools in heavyweight applications such as Photoshop Creative Suite 6, its relative simplicity and limited capabilities make it easier to learn and use.

Photographers  use the pointing device to paint over the area to be adjusted, rather than defining the outer edges of the area. The selection does not have to be continuous, more than one area requiring similar processing can be included.

Coloured Mask in Lightroom aids selecting the area to be adjusted

Coloured Mask in Lightroom aids selecting the area to be adjusted

The size of the brush and the associated feathering is adjustable.  Feathering is the width of the transition from full effect of the brush, to the outer edge of the brush strokes. A wide feather produces a soft transition, and helps blend the adjusted area into its surroundings. A narrow feather produces hard edges to the brush stroke, and this is useful when there are well defined edges to the target area.

The flow slider varies the mount of adjustment applied, or with the paint brush analogy, the amount of paint applied to a spot. This can be varied over  selection, so it can be changed between brush strokes so some a parts of a selection can have more adjustment  compared to others.

The density slider is so photographers can adjust the intensity of the or thickness of the paint tool.  These controls help keep  the adjustments subtle and blending in with the rest of the photo.


The adjustment brush can make more than one selection. The small grey circles shown on the photo in the brush mode indicate the separate selections. To work with one, click on the pin and its centre turns black, indicating it is the active one.

Auto Mask

This Lightroom tool helps prevent brush strokes straying over defined edges in the photo when using a feathered brush.

The brush has two circles, the inner brighter circle shows the area of full application of the brush, while the  lighter circle shows the feathered brush’s outer edge. The feather slider varies the distance between the two circles.

The Auto Mask feature allows photographers to brush to an edge and the feathered section does not affect the areas beyond that edge.  This helps to apply full brush intensity right to  edge.

While the Auto Mask stops the feathered section selecting the adjacent area, the inner circle selects areas across edges.

Show Select Mask Overlay

This is an aid for painting the selection. Lightroom displays a coloured overlay where the brush has been applied, helping to define the section. Once the selection has been completed, it is turned off and the photo returns to its normal look, and adjustments can begin.

The control is in the tools drop down menu and is part of adjustment brush overlay option.

Lightroom in adjustment brush mode

Lightroom in adjustment brush mode with the range of Lightroom 3 selections shown in the dialog box, and the two pins on the image

Erase Mode

This is allows fine tuning of the selection, so if you go over an edge slightly it is easy to trim off the unwanted selected area.


The adjustments available for the selected areas are from the Basic Panel in the Develop Module. These use the same techniques as normal Lightroom adjustments, but they are only applied to part of the photo.

The major difference is that Lightroom 4 includes the proper colour temperature adjustment sliders. The ability to adjust the colour temperature of part of an image is handy when there are different light sources in the scene,  with different colour temperature. With the adjustment brush in Lightroom 4 now each area can be colour corrected individually.

after and before selective adjustment

Lightroom compare function shows the after and before images of the selective adjustment

In the example photo there are two adjustment areas indicated by the pins in the brush mode screen shot. Each selection has different levels of adjustment of exposure.  A separate selection for the darker part of the shadow allowed this area to have more exposure adjustment than the second selection in the centre of her face.

 Before and After 

There is a small toggle slider on the bottom left of the brush adjustment panel so photographers can flip between the original and preview the changes made in the selected areas.

Screen toggle for before and after previews

Screen toggle for before and after previews in Lightroom brush adjustment mode


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