Cyanotype portraits in Lightroom

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When we talk about Cyanotype we are referring to a printing process discovered in 1842, three years after the invention of photography. Prints are made in sunlight using a UV light sensitive solution in combination with exposing negatives of the same size as the printing paper. The overall results ends up becoming a rich blue print with noticeable messy borders.

Since this effect has many fans, now it’s time to learn how to achieve it inside Lightroom. Even though this is an effect meant to be achieved with old-fashioned processing techniques, Lightroom gives us the tools needed to work with. Follow up this guide on how to create Cyanotype portraits in Lightroom for adding a good creative resource to your digital portfolio.

Traditional Method

Start by importing your picture inside Lightroom. Even if this effect applies to every kind of pictures, I am going to teach you how to achieve this effect in portraits as it is quite used on the film industry for dramatic looks.

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First fix White Balance if your picture looks wrong. In this case, since I think it is more than okay I am going to move on with the adjustments.

Go to the presets panel in the Develop Module and choose, under the Lightroom B&W Toned Presets category, the Cyanotype preset. This is Lightroom automatic mode of creating a cyanotype portrait; and even if you can say it looks okay, I prefer to work it a bit more rather than to stick to the preset only.

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Increase the exposure and contrast values. The result will be this.

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Now the image doesn’t look that dark, but as you can see, the blue is still not there. For this task I am going to switch now to the Tone Curve adjustment panel and adjust inside the blue channel. (For those who can’t find the blue channel, click the tiny curve button at the panel, and you will see that sliders will disappear and become replaced for a channel selector. Pick blue).

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Work with a curve similar to the image below. In result you will see the blues will become more pronounced on our image; which if we were working under RGB mode it would have changed the overall conditions of every channel, not getting the effect we want but rather darkening the image.

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Move back to the Basic adjustments panel. As now we are seeing the Cyanotype effect, we can quickly do some adjustments in order to reduce annoying highlights. The parameters I used are the following ones displayed in the picture below.

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My final effect is going to be done by using the adjustment brush. Choose a fairly large size, and reduce Clarity and Sharpness values in order to have a more blurry effect.

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With a Before/After shot inside Lightroom the effect becomes pretty obvious. I am not going to perform now the messy border effect since it can be easily achieved in Photoshop, but please consider for this task using a brush like oil paint or something related; a brush that really tells it has been a stroke in that place. That’s the key element of this kind of portraits.

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Presets approach

You can also achieve this effect by using third party presets. Perhaps they might not look as blue as this effect since we are actually tweaking values inside the Tone Curve adjustments. In either case, for a large bulk of photos they may come handy.

Also, since this process can be combined with other adjustments like adding Vignetting effect to your portrait or specific adjustments for certain ambient conditions (such as beach landscapes, winter scenes, etc), you can quickly create your own Cyanotype presets by performing the adjustments made in this tutorial to the default Cyanotype preset from Lightroom. Be creative with this! Play with different exposure values (for example, noticeable overexposed values or underexposed), add Split Toning for enhancing even more the blue effect, etc. The point here is to create a unique work of art worth showing somebody else, and also impress people with your Lightroom skills.

And here comes the final result of our portrait work with the Cyanotype adjustments

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Have fun and keep working!

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