Using Portrait tools to improve your HDR photos

I used some portrait tools on this HDR photo, and they really helped!

The word portrait is rarely used in a sentence with the acronym HDR, unless it’s something like this: “Geez, HDR processing on a portrait makes him look like a coal-miner”.  To be clear: that is NOT a compliment, unless you actually ARE a coal-miner, in which case this might be a good thing.

But generally, I think everyone agrees that except in the case of doing composite work, portraits and HDR do not mix.  Therefore, most folks don’t try out some of the cool white bouncy castle portrait tools and brushes on their HDRs.  In this case, I am referring to using portrait tools to enhance HDR photos of landscapes and cityscapes, primarily.

In my experimentation, I have found that using a couple of tools that were originally designed for portrait work can actually pay off big when used to accentuate HDR photos of landscapes and cityscapes.  They allow you to soften certain parts of a photo and give it an interesting “glow”.

Usually with HDR, folks are looking to accentuate the detail and create an evenly-lit photo, as well as making sure it is pretty sharp.  There’s nothing wrong with that, and I do that too (depending on the photo, of course).  But there are also some situations where I prefer to have more realistic and darker shadow areas and a little “smoother” overall appearance to my HDR shots.  It takes the “HDR edge” off the photo, and in my opinion can give the photo a more interesting appearance…and frankly, perhaps a more realistic appearance too.

The two filters/brushes that I most frequently use to achieve these results are Glamour Glow (a filter in Color Efex Pro by Nik Software) and Skin Smoothing in Aperture (surely there is an equivalent in Lightroom).  I frequently use both of these on my HDR photos, regardless of the subject of the photo.

I find these are great tools to really make your HDR photos “pop”.

Glamour Glow:

  • This filter in Color Efex Pro softens the subject and tends to highlight it, due to creating a higher contrast between it and the background.
    • It tends to darken the shadows, and sort of “floods them”, by which I mean it extends them a bit further into the shot – it’s actually a pretty nice effect, especially in cityscapes where it helps to add a little mystery to the shadow areas.
    • This in turn accentuates the main subject, in which it often gets lighter, drawing in the viewer’s attention.
    • It is very good at creating a dreamy, moody sort of feel to the shot.  Shadows tend to add mystery, and this filter is perfect for that!
    • I personally like the effect it has on clouds and skies – they tend to get lighter and smoother, which softens what the HDR process normally does to them.  It brings them back from looking “too HDR”.  If you ever process really cloudy scenes in HDR, I think you know what I am talking about here.  They can get dark and look pretty “cooked”.  This can help alleviate that.
      • This filter also smooths out the details quite a bit, which makes them more realistic.  Although details may be one of the things you are aiming for in your HDR work, I tend to prefer skies and clouds that look lighter, softer and smoother – and therefore less HDR-looking.  (This is a personal preference, of course.)
      • Thanks to Control Points in the Nik products, you can apply this filter selectively – you simply adjust the filter to the extent you need it in the sky, then use Control Points to remove it from the spots where you want to maintain the original HDR look and feel. Works like a dream!

Here’s the photo in the Color Efex Pro menu, before using the Glamour Glow filter:

And here’s the photo after pushing the Glamour Glow slider off a ways to the right:

Can you see the differences?  The “after” photo has a smoother sky, smoother water, the shadows along the left bank especially are more deeply flooded, and there is a bit more highlight contrast in the sky along the horizon line as well as across parts of the water.  In my opinion, it looks a lot better now.

Here’s a closeup of the slider menu, in case that gives you a better idea:

As you can also see by observing the menu section of each screenshot, the Glamour Glow slider was the only thing that I moved.  I did not touch saturation at all, but to my eyes the blues look richer and deeper.  That’s a little bonus you get with this filter, but just be careful not to push too far.  It can blow out highlights in a big way and make colors look a bit too rich.  Also, if you push too far the shadows will grow and grow and take over the photo.  So, moderation is good!

Skin Smoothing:

  • As the name implies, this brush was designed to smooth over “rough spots” in the skin in portrait work – ok, let’s be honest – it’s used to make people look younger!
    • It is much cheaper and quicker than plastic surgery!
    • Although I don’t do portrait work, I suspect this brush is used on almost every portrait.  It just does a great job.
    • I use it to smooth over my skies and often water, in nearly every shot – because it works!
      • Just a quick brush over the skies and they look great.  You can vary the strength of the brush with a slider – all very simple!
      • It also helps to reduce noise in the skies, which in HDR photos is a place where is becomes most obvious.  I often use this for noise reduction as it works really well.  That is a bonus!

Here’s a screenshot of the Skin Smoothing brush tool in Aperture.  Like I said above, I am sure there is a similar one in Lightroom.  As you can see here, all you do is just slide the sliders to the appropriate spot to select the size of the brush, the softness and the strength.  Then just brush it across the parts of the photo you want to “smooth” – in this example I used it on the skies.  It’s also really great to use on cloudy skies!  Try it on water as well.

So there you have it – quick and to the point.  Two quick little tricks to help you craft dreamy, smooth HDR photos that look lovely.  All told, using these two filters together on a photo is about 2-3 minutes worth of work, worst case.  It’s quick, easy and effective!  Have fun trying it out!

Jim Nix is a photographer, traveler, HDR enthusiast, explorer, iPhone shooter, and tea drinker based in Austin, TX. He shares his photos and travel experiences on his blog at

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