Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush

by Ashley Spaulding

A lot of members have mentioned that you’d like to know how to use the Adjustment Brush tool in Lightroom, so I thought I’d put together a tutorial using skin smoothing and an eye pop as examples. I’ve used Lightroom 3 for this tutorial, but the same process can be used with the Adjustment Brush in Lightroom 2.  And keep in mind that there are many applications for this tool; I’m only using skin smoothing and an eye pop as examples of how to actually use the Adjustment Brush.

Okay, so let’s get started!

I’m going to be working with the following photo during this tutorial; this is the SOOC version:

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

The Adjustment Brush is an awesome tool that you can use to make local edits to photo qualities including exposure, brightness, saturation, contrast, and others. Prior to using the Adjustment Brush to make such local changes, I generally make the global changes I’m going to make to my photo. So, in this photo, I’ve already made the following adjustments:

  • fixed exposure
  • corrected white balance
  • used Spot Removal tool to get rid of stray hair and to get rid of large black area in bokeh
  • increased brightness, contrast, clarity, vibrance, and saturation
  • cropped

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

Now I’m ready to do some editing with the Adjustment Brush!

The two things I want to do with the Adjustment Brush here are: 1) even out my daughter’s skin a little bit, and 2) brighten her eyes just a touch.

To open the Adjustment Brush tool, you can either press the letter k or select it from the tool panel below your histogram. You can actually press k from anywhere in Lightroom, and it will pull up the Adjustment Brush in the Develop module, even if you’re in a different module at the time. You can also press k again to close the Adjustment Brush.

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

One of the first things I do whenever I open the Adjustment Brush is make sure that the Auto Mask option is checked. Auto masking attempts to sense the edges of whatever it is in your photo that you’re painting in order to help you paint only inside your intended area.

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

When you first open the Adjustment Brush, you’ll see a drop-down menu to the right of the word ‘Effect’ with a variety of qualities you can alter on your image. You can select one of those options or you can start adjusting the various sliders on your own; if you adjust more than one slider, the Effect option will change to ‘Custom.’

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

Let’s start with smoothing out the skin in this photo. To even out skin, I can simply adjust the Clarity slider or I can select either Clarity or Soften Skin from the drop-down Effects menu. With a little bit of tweaking, they all get me the result I’m after. Note, though, that if I select the Soften Skin option, the Clarity slider defaults to -100. I generally smooth skin in Lightroom by selecting the Soften Skin option; so, I select that option, and I’m ready to start painting.

When you’re using the Adjustment Brush, you can move the sliders any way you want prior to painting, and then you can adjust them to your liking once you’ve finished painting your intended area, as long as your brush for that particular area is active.

When I move my cursor onto my image, my brush appears. I can adjust the size of my brush with the [ and ] keys; [ makes your brush smaller, and ] makes your brush bigger. You can also go down to the Brush panel and change the size of your brush with the slider.

I don’t want to use a huge brush when I’m painting over skin because I feel like it increases my chances of painting outside my intended area. And even though I have Auto Mask checked, it’s not foolproof; Lightroom doesn’t intuitively know what you’re attempting to paint if you’re using a brush so big that it’s making you paint all over your subject’s hair, clothes, and such. So, I opt for a relatively small brush. The + sign inside my brush indicates that I’m painting on an effect; a – sign is used when you’re erasing one.

I start painting by holding my left-click down and moving my brush around in a small, circular motion until the area I want to paint is covered. Depending on the quality you’re changing in your photo, you’ll start to see your image change as you paint. Once I feel like I’m done painting, I press the letter o to make sure I’ve covered everything I need to cover. This brings up a color overlay that shows where I’ve painted.

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

The overlay is a huge help in seeing where you need to paint more and where you may need to erase. My painting looks pretty good to me for the most part. The Auto Mask option has helped keep most of my brush strokes on her skin and not on her eyes, hair, and clothes. The one area that did get painted over that shouldn’t have is her lips, so I’m going to erase that.

I’m going to keep my overlay on while I’m erasing so that I can see exactly where I’ve erased. To erase brush strokes, go down to the Brush panel, and click Erase. You adjust the size of your eraser the same ways you adjust the size of your brush. I see the – sign in my brush, so I know I’m ready to start erasing around her lips. I choose a much smaller brush since it’s a very small area I need to erase, and I start moving my eraser around the same way I moved my brush around. With the overlay still on, I can see that my painting and erasing are just the way I want them now.

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

Now I press the o key again to remove the overlay so that I can see the effect as I adjust the slider. I prefer skin to look fairly natural and not too smooth in my photos, so I never leave my clarity at -100 when I smooth skin. I play around with the slider each time I smooth skin, but I generally end up around -55. For this particular photo, however, I played around with the slider and decided I was happy with the clarity around -80.

One thing that really helps me decide whether I’m happy with the brush adjustments I’ve made is this small, rectangular button I’ve circled below:

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

That little button allows you to turn your adjustments on and off so that you can see the effect(s) they have on your photo. I rely on it a lot to help me see whether I’ve taken an adjustment too far or whether I can push it a little further.

Now, let’s say you want to continue to use the Adjustment Brush but you’re done with one type of adjustment. No problem! With the Adjustment Brush still open, you simply click on New right underneath the brush icon, and go through the same process with your new effect. In my example, I want to brighten her eyes just a little bit, so I select New and then choose Brightness for my effect. I almost always zoom into 100% whenever I’m making an adjustment on eyes in a photo so that I can paint easier since they’re a smaller area.

Before I start painting, I press the o key again to get my overlay so that I can see exactly where I’ve painted. Once I’m happy with my painting, I remove the overlay so that I can see how the effect changes the eyes in my image. At this point, I zoom back out to normal size so that I can see how the changes to the eyes affect the look of my image as a whole.

Even though I chose Brightness as my initial effect, I tend to move several sliders when I’m working with eyes. For this example, I’ve bumped exposure and brightness a bit, and I’ve increased the saturation, clarity, and sharpness as well. Once again, I rely quite a bit on the button that turns my adjustments on and off to see how they affect my photo and to make sure I maintain the type of editing I want to achieve. After making those changes, here’s where I’m at:

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

The changes I made with the Adjustment Brush were not major, which is good because my intention was to effect minor changes and enhance my image in subtle ways.

Some additional Adjustment Brush tips:

  • Anytime you want to return to the default setting for something, you can double-click on the slider label, and it will reset. For example, if I increase the size of my brush too much and want to return to the default, I simply double-click on the word ‘Size’ in the Brush panel, and it resets to its default value.
  • If you press Shift while holding the o key, you can go through various overlay colors.
  • You can see where your brushes are by pressing the h key. Small circles – ‘pins’ – will appear where you have initiated brushes. Your active pin is denoted by a black center. If you want to make adjustments to a particular brush, you first need to make it the active one by selecting it. Your pins will automatically go away as you’re painting so that you have a clearer picture of where you’re making brush strokes. You can hide your pins by pressing the h key again.
  • Pressing the Reset button at the bottom of the Adjustment Brush panel will clear out all of your brushes.
  • If you only want to clear a certain brush, make all of your brushes visible by pressing the h key, and select the brush you want to clear. Once the brush is selected/active, simply press delete, and only that selected/active brush is cleared.

Here’s a final comparison of my SOOC and my edited version:

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photo

Thanks so much for reading! I hope this was helpful! Have fun playing around with the Lightroom Adjustment Brush…it’s an amazing tool!

Tutorial | Lightroom Adjustment Brush photoAshley Spaulding, Kansas
blog | mentoring | ask a pro
Being diagnosed with thyroid cancer in 2010 changed the way Ashley viewed both life and photography. “Our lives can literally change in an instant and that idea has affected my photography because it’s made me want to document my kids’ lives even more than I wanted to before I was diagnosed” she says. And although she loves traditional portraits of her kids, Ashley’s true love is lifestyle photography and being able to “capture them as they are in their everyday environments. For me, it’s the best way to document them – who they are, where they’re at in their lives, what their interests are, what makes them ‘them.'” Ashley is relishing her now cancer free life with her husband and their two children in Kansas City where they truly love being together and playing outside as a family. She enjoys cooking and baking, despite her claim to be unskilled at both. Twizzlers, ice cream, Doritos, coffee, pedicures and a good novel are her guilty pleasures. Currently, Ashley shoots with a Nikon D700, 50 f/1.4 and 24-70 f/2.8.


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