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How To Make Youthful, Glowing Portraits In Under a Minute

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You’ve seen it in magazines, photo websites, advertisements, and loads of other places—that romantic, almost saccharine look applied to an image to soften skin texture and create “glowing” portraits. Here’s how to get that supermodel glow in under a minute.

You can apply this effect to nearly any image, but it will probably do its best work improving portraits or pictures of people. But if you’re like most of us, you probably have a lot of these kinds of pictures. Open up some of them, and see how ridiculously easy it is to apply that warm, professional-looking glow effect.

Getting The Soft Glow Look From Any Image

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You can achieve this look with any image with good contrast, detail, and nice highlights in facial areas, like this one. Today’s demo is in Photoshop, but the core of this howto is GIMP friendly. Start with an image that could benefit from some added drama, like this one.

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Duplicate a copy of your Background layer by right clicking and selecting “Duplicate Layer.” You should have a direct copy of your background as shown above right.

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Adjust the levels on your new copy. Use the levels tool by pressing ctrl L and adjusting the middle and right side sliders.This creates more highlights and brightens midtones. You should try to brighten your image without washing it out completely. When you’re happy with your adjustment, click OK.

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After adjusting levels, navigate to Filter > Gaussian Blur. Blur with a low-medium number that softens detail without completely making the image unrecognizable. Click OK when you’re done.

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Find your layers panel and adjust your “Blending Mode” to “Screen” as shown above.

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And there we have it. Our image is brighter, the skin texture is smoother, and the portrait has a warm glow to it. But let’s take a minute and see if we can’t tweak what we have to get a slightly richer look.

Changing the Seasons, Brightening The Image

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Adding a adjustment layer with a levels effect on top of your other layers can help you soften the image and give it a slightly vintage look. Here, we adjusted the output levels to make our whites more gray and make our midtones brighter. In Photoshop we add an adjustment layer by clicking the adjustment layer in the layers panel. In GIMP, you will have to merge your layers, since it doesn’t have adjustment layer ability.

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Here’s our image with our new levels added. Click the sshot-418 in the “Adjustments” panel to add a “Photo Filter” and change the quality of light the image has. You can create similar effects to the “Photo Filter” adjustment layer with GIMP, but you’ll have to do it manually..

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It’s easy to apply a warming light to the image with a setting like this one.

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And we can create a cooling, almost winter-like feeling with this one.

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Bold users might even try adjusting each channel’s levels (Red, Green, and Blue) separately to get a fun vintage effect. If you’ve never done this, you can check out our older article on adjusting contrast like a pro to see how got it done in either Photoshop or GIMP.


Seen any professional photo effects and you’d like to see us feature here? Have any tricks of your own you think are better? Tell us about them in the comments or email them to us at ericgoodnight@howtogeek.com.

Image Credits: Pretty Girl I Know by Phil Hilfiker, Creative Commons.

Eric Z Goodnight is an Illustrator and Graphics Geek who hopes to make Photoshop more accessible to How-To Geek readers. When he’s not headbanging to heavy metal or geeking out over manga, he’s often off screen printing T-Shirts.

  • Published 03/5/12

Comments (16)

  1. r

    I can easily get the same results by drinking a few beers

  2. Tony

    So, these instructions are for Photoshop or GIMP?

  3. Eric Z Goodnight

    Demonstration and instructions are for Photoshop. However, a clever GIMP user can do this exact howto because 90% of the tools are exactly the same. I usually make a note about instructions that use Photoshop-only tools.

  4. lewis meyers

    It is also very easy to do in paint.net with great results:
    effects-photo-soften then adjust the controls.

  5. Ntepek

    Thanks for keeping the instructions simple. I love these sort of articles. More please.

  6. Papa Jeff

    I am with you through the instructions to show a SCREEN blend method. My blend is the way I want it, but I am still stuck with having the actual picture is two separate layers. I am presented with a plethora of Merge Layer selections (flatten, visible, down, etc). Which one will save the image as it appears on the screen blend?

  7. Eric Z Goodnight

    @Papa Jeff: You don’t have to merge unless you’re using GIMP. You can keep it in layers and add adjustment layers on top of everything.

  8. mur_phy

    Thanks for the instructions. I could likely adapt them with tools I have in MS Digital Image 2006. However as a professional photographer, my bigger concern with the image is the fact that the image is taken with a “bad” facial view as you can see the nose cutting into the far eye and across the far cheek bone. The view is neither a 2/3 view nor a profile. The photographer likely wished to create a 2/3 facial view (one of only five correct facial views) but turned the face too far away from the camera. This distorts the face and elongates the nose neither of which makes the face attractive. Prior to the digital age and image editing software, this type of image would have been created by the use of a soft focus filter and a long focal length lens.

  9. 3grrrs

    for what it’s worth, art galleries and museums are more and more beginning to exhibit digital art. Time passes, and what was totally sneered at yesterday be ones mainstream tomorrow

  10. Cissy Brazil

    I enjoyed this article. I use Paint Shop Pro to enhance or just plain fool around with photography. It has all the elements of Photoshop w/o all the expense. Great article! I love stuff like this :)

  11. Francis Bacon

    You wanna buy my 20th-century darkroom equipment? Cheap? I’ve graduated to 21st-century digital and can do much more with it except get green/brown fingernails.

    With formal education in pre-digital photography (film, exposure/development, zone system, et al), I found it extremly hard to exist (survive) in an ever increasing digital world. In *any* profession, to practice wisely and profitably, all skills, theory, insight, and creativity (to name but a few) need to be constantly updated to meet the market’$ need$. Catch up while there’s still time.

  12. Camilo Martin

    Oh, and I forgot to mention: some people even do it all in one layer, or in a couple of layers. One folk I respect used 6. Basically it wasn’t basic, so I’m not gonna explain it. For the basic technique, a couple of layers is more than enough! :)

  13. Mbv

    So funny. So this is ME in this image. I take photos for a living and the author of the frame is a good friend who is a really a great photographer. I saw a comment above of a guy giving a critique about the composition and such and it cracked me up :P This wasn’t taken as part of a photoshoot! Hahaha Phil got this actually in 1 second while I wasn’t looking! BTW, there are no “correct” views of anything. If we all followed such harsh rules, the creative mind would go Buh Bye :) Part of being a photographer is being free to see things from any point of view and share. Sometimes it’s nice to find a good angle to satisfy a client with a flattering photo, but other times it’s all about catching a tiny space in time or an emotion in the most irrational and careless way. Btw, I do think I look fugly here :P hahaha but I see this and remember exactly what I was thinking at that exact time all those years ago. Now THAT is a good photo … Have fun photoshopping! :)

  14. Mbv

    Oh, and I apologize for my horrible spelling and mistakes. I’m super sick and can’t hardly keep my eyes open! Achoo! Now, go geek away!!! :)

  15. Sandy

    Thank you and my face thanks you. I’ll soon be needing any and all the help I can get. ;)

  16. patrick

    You can also get beautiful results by fogging up your camera lens with your breath and waiting just for the right time to snap the picture as the fogging dissipates. Or you can smear petroleum jelly on a clear filter.

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