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Quick Tip: Add Some Grit to Your Portraits

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Read Time: 4 min

Gritty, urban-style portraits have become more and more popular in the last few years. Today, we look at a method of giving your photos this gritty look in Photoshop. All in under five minutes.


I have tested this technique with a great deal of different portraits and it works better with dark backgrounds. However, don't worry, as it works pretty well on other backgrounds, too.

When shooting your own portrait you want to make sure you are shooting with an aperture of around F8 to keep everything nice and sharp.

For this tutorial you just need to have a valid license of Photoshop CS3 or above. However you should be able to do all but one step in lower versions. With experience in The GIMP or Lightroom you should be able to get a similar effect.

First of all, credit goes to pitrih-stock for use of the main stock image used in this tutorial.

Step 1

Open up Adobe Photoshop and your chosen portrait.

The first thing we need is a brightness and contrast layer. You can find this by going Layer > New Adjustment Layer > Brightness/ Contrast.

Change the brightness to -10 and the contrast to +66.

Step 2

My next step was to warm up the photo by using a colour balance layer.

Once again go Filter > New Adjustment Layer > Colour Balance or you can click on the black & white circle on the bottom of the layers panel to find the adjustment layers.

I only adjusted the mid tones with the following settings: +39, 0, -46. (Flip my figures for a different cool look) Just make sure "Preserve Luminosity" is ticked.

I reduced the opacity to 41%. However feel free to change it to whatever you think looks best.

Step 3

In this step, create a exposure layer (once again found with the other adjustment layers).

Set the sliders to:

  • Exposure: -0.10
  • Offset: +0.0707
  • Gamma Correction: +0.73

Then set the layers blend mode to soft light at 44% opacity.

Step 4

This next feature is only available in CS3 or above and is pretty handy. You can find it with the adjustment layers under Vibrance.

We need to put the vibrance slider up to +100 and then lower the saturation, I settled on minus 37. However this varies with each picture, you might need to reduce it a little more.

Step 5

Go Layer > New > Layer or use the shortcut CMD/CTRL, Shift + N.

Then we want to apply the image by going Image > Apply image. This places a perfect copy of our current scene onto one layer, a very handy feature when it comes to editing in Photoshop.

Then go Filter > Other > High Pass Filter. Change the setting to 4.3 and hit OK.

The high pass filter is a brilliant tool which is often overlooked. It is great for sharpening images.

We want to set our high pass filter layer to Overlay at anywhere between 40-100%.

You are Finished

That is all there is too it! Naturally each image will be different and you might want to change a few sliders.

If you are shooting males I would also suggest that you create another new layer, apply the image and then use the sharpen tool to bring out more details around the face. Stubble and facial hair makes the portrait slightly more gritty in my opinion.

You could of course sharpen the whole applied image layer by going Filter > Sharpen > Sharpen and then use the eraser tool to remove the bits which are too sharp.

In the image below, we see the before and after.

Further Examples:

Image credits to DanHeffer-Stock

Image credits to: Valentine-FOV-Stock

Finally a self portrait. This image was shot against a simple black background in a dark room. I had two tripods, one for the camera and the other for a flashgun. I used a 50mm lens with a F9 aperture (for sharpness) and then held a remote trigger in my hand.

I followed the same steps but added an noise layer as well as sharpening the image.

Thanks for reading

Please take this effect and develop it further. There are so many more adjustment layers or different types of colouring you could play with. When dealing with white backgrounds or lighter images you might find that a curves layer does wonders!

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