How to edit photos in Lightroom
Editing in Lightroom is a must if you want to take your photos to the next level. Lightroom is used by professional photographers and it’s one of the most popular photo editing software out there. So how to edit your photos in Lightroom?
Photo editing in Lightroom is a fundamental part of my workflow when I take photos. Lightroom is the popular software made by Adobe (today called Lightroom Classic CC) with which you can professionally enhance your images with countless functions and export them. I got asked a million times how I process my images that you can see on this blog and on Instagram. For this reason I decided to create this comprehensive tutorial to go over the main functionalities of Adobe Lightroom Classic CC.
Don’t worry if you don’t have prior knowledge of Lightroom. I divided this guide in several sections that also include how to start familiarizing with the basic concepts, a through explanation of Lightroom’s User Interface and Lightroom photo editing techniques. If instead you are already familiar with Lightroom you can skip those sections.
By the end of this article you’ll be able not only to edit your photos, but also to sort them in your catalog, and organize your files in your computer or external hard drives.
- 1. Intro to Lightroom
- 2. Lightroom User Interface and Layout
- 3. Organizing your photos with Lightroom
- 4. Edit like a pro
- 5. Create Presets
- 6. Export your work
- 7. Is Lightroom the only photo editing software available?
- 8. Conclusion
1. Intro to Lightroom
What is lightroom. Please keep in mind that we are going to talk about Lightroom Classic CC and not Lightroom CC. I’ll dedicate another article to highlight the differences between the two. For now just know that if you want to have access to the complete set of tools, Lightroom Classic CC is the one you need use.
Lightroom is the most popular photo editing software on the market, made by Adobe. It’s used to create and manage catalogs of photos and to edit them. Lightroom is a non-destructive editing software, that means, it won’t actually change your files or move them from your computer. It works by changing a placeholder image to show you how your final creation will look like once you “Save as” or “Export” your final file, leaving the original untouched.
Opening Lightroom for the first time. It can be daunting the first time you open Lightroom. I remember getting really confused since I thought I was going to be able to start my post-processing adventure immediately.
But remember, Lightroom is not only a photo editing program, it’s also a tool for organizing your images, so at first it will ask you to create a new catalog and where to store it.
For now you don’t really need to decide where to store your catalog, leave the software decide the destination folder in your computer by clicking “Continue”. Or if you feel confident with the
On the next screen you will feel as you are getting lost in a vast land of menus, buttons and functions and that you’ve just made a terrible mistake. But trust me, there’s nothing to worry about, we’ve all been there. You’ll master Lightroom in no time. This is just the little initial “pain” to go through if you want to learn how to start editing in Lightroom.
Everything will look a bit dark and empty since you haven’t imported any photos yet. One thing to remember is that you won’t need to learn the entire set of options, settings and functions in one go. In fact you won’t even necessarily need to ever learn everything. You’ll learn enough by the end of this guide and you’ll have the knowledge to edit like a pro in Lightroom and to keep discovering new functionalities with time.
Lightroom modules. Different tasks in Lightroom are solved by using different modules. You’ll see the 7 Lightroom module names at the top right of the screen.
Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, Web. In this guide we’ll learn the first two, Library and Develop.
These two are the modules where you’ll spend 99% of your time when using Lightroom.
The Library module is where you will import photos, organize them and manage your catalog.
In the Develop module you’ll perform the actual edit of your images. Here you will find sliders and menus to correct the exposure, sharpness, saturation, contrast and so forth. The Develop module is where the fun stuff happens!
2. Lightroom user interface and layout
Import Dialog. When you open Lightroom, the first screen you see is the Library module, but nothing has been imported yet so the library is empty.
We need to import some images to start understanding how it works. On the bottom left you’ll see the “Import…” button. Click it.
On the next screen (the Import Dialog) you’ll select a source on the left-end side and click on the folder you want to import. As you can see you have access to all the images in your computer. The ones in your memory card, external hard drive or on your Desktop.
If you want the Import Dialog to open automatically when you insert a memory card in your computer, go to Lightroom > Preferences > General > Show import dialog when a memory card is selected.
On the right-end side of the screen you have a menu that changes according to the type of import you select. You can select the type of Import on the tops of your screen.
If you choose to Add photos to your catalog, it means you have copied or moved your files in the right location on your computer’s hard drive already.
In this case on the right menu you can apply some effect during the import or a few file handling options like manage duplicate files.
Move will be used when you want add photos to your Lightroom catalog same as “Add”, but at the same time move photos in your computer under another location.
Copy will as the word say not only add to your catalog, but also copy the file from its current location to your hard drive. This can be used if you want for example copy files from your memory card to your hard drive without delete them from the card and at the same time add them to the Lightroom catalog.
Copy as DNG does the exact same thing as copy, but it will convert the file to .DNG. You will unlikely use it.
For the last 3 options you’ll see that the right-end side menu will stay the same. With the difference from “Add” that you’ll have a “Destination” dropdown menu and a “File renaming” menu to manage those aspects of these import modes.
You can already see how powerful is Ligthroom in terms of file management and organization. You can rename files while import them, add a series of pre-defined editing settings such as noise reduction or sharpening for example, to save you some time during editing. You can fill the copyright of your photos in the metadata section and personalize a lot of aspects of this phase.
At the bottom of the Import dialog you can select the type of view (Grid or Loupe), check or uncheck all photos, sort them and change the size of the thumbnails.
You can also save your Import settings as presets and use them for other imports.
My suggestion if you are at the very beginning is to stick to the “Add” mode for now. So what you want to do when you come back from a photo shooting is to put your memory card in your computer, copy and paste those images into either your computer or I highly recommend getting an external hard drive and then Import them into Lightroom by just Adding them to your catalog. As I’ve said before, leave Lightroom decide the location of your catalog and remember if in the future you decide to change that location, make sure you leave it in your computer hard drive so that you avoid performance issues or avoid compromising your data. So to recap.
Memory Card > Original Files
Computer or Hard Drive > Copy of the Original Files
Computer > Lightroom Catalog
Library Module. After importing your photos, you’ll be back into the Library panel or Library module. This is where you organize your images and build your catalog. The main benefit of this Lightroom module is that it gives you the tools you need to get organised and speed up your workflow.
On the left-hand side you have the folder structure in your computer, and from this menu you can add more folders to import extra files.
Then you have the Collections section always on the left-hand menu. It is extremely important and it’s where you can really speed up your workflow and harness the full organizational power of Lightroom.
I’ll explain this section in details later, for now just know that you can think of collections as something similar to a music playlist. You can add an image to as many collections as you like.
In the middle of the screen you have your images. Clicking on the thumbnails you can rotate them, add them to a collection, flag, rate and label them. I’ll explain everything in a moment in the next section of this article.
The bottom part of the middle section includes the so called toolbar where you can switch between grid and loupe views. You can choose to compare photos against one another and choose a People view where Lightroom’s face recognition algorithm will group together photos with people faces.
You can quickly choose one of these views by using your keyboard. I dedicated an entire section on this guide to keyboard shortcuts.
Click here to jump to the Lightroom keyboards shortcuts →
At the very bottom of the screen, you have a miniature version of your photos, useful to scroll through your images when you are in loupe mode.
On the right-hand side
At the top of the screen you can switch between different modules.
The Develop module. This is where the magic happens. You’ve imported and organized your images, now it’s time to have fun and edit them.
Before introducing this section, it is extremely important to know that professional photographers and serious hobbyists shoot their photos in RAW mode. This will produce low contrast and low saturated images. You might ask why people want to obtain less contrast, less saturation and vibrance on an image? Well since a JPEG file is just a RAW file that has had some additional processing applied in camera. Remember, you want to shoot in RAW so that in Lightroom you can have full control of color contrast, curves, saturation, white balance and so forth.
Let’s get back to the develop module.
On the left-hand side you can control Presets, Snapshots, History and again Collections.
Presets are very popular these days since many photographers make money by selling them through social media. Presets are pre-defined edits that you can save and re-use in your photos. Let’s say that you shoot many of your pictures at the same ISO value and similar exposure and settings, you’ll find presets useful to speed up your workflow.
Snapshots are a way to record a particular group of settings you were using at a particular point in time. Useful if you want to return to those settings at any moment without undoing them manually.
History in the History menu you’ll find a list of snapshots Lightroom takes anytime you apply an edit to your photo. LEt’s say that you change the exposure value, Lightroom makes a snapshots. You change the saturation value? Yep, you have another snapshot. This feature is very useful since you can keep track of all the changes you make and navigate back to a previous state of your image if needed.
Collections well, this is the same menu you’ve seen previously in the Library module. Lightroom knows how collections represent a fundamental feature for organizing photos and makes it available in this module too.
At the right-hand side you have the very post-processing set of menus. This is where you will spend most of the time when editing a photo.
From top to bottom you have
The Histogram with is a graphical representation of the tonal value of an image. Underneath it you can see the camera settings you used for the photo you are editing.
Then you have the Local Adjustment menu. This is very useful for editing only certain areas of your image without affecting the rest of it. Very useful for brightening or darkening only small areas of your photo for example.
Basic. This section is the first of the global adjustment sliders in
Lightroom. Here you’ll have access by all the necessary to make your initial changes. Exposure, Contrast, Temperature and so forth. We’ll see in detail how to use it.
From the screenshot below you can see the other menus. It’s not worth bothering you with the list of those settings since in the section Edit like a Pro you’ll learn how to use it and know what they do by experimenting with them.
3. Organizing your photos with Lightroom
Let’s dive into a more detailed explanation of one of the main features of Lightroom. Organizing your photos.
Collections.This is probably the most important feature of this section. Collections, Collection Sets and Smart Collections are the best way to organize your images.
To understand why collections are so powerful I’ll give you this example.
Let’s say that I have in my external hard drive a folder at Stefano > Pictures > 2017 > New Zealand > Milfrod Sound.
That folder will show up in my Library in the Folders section on the left-hand side.
Now let’s say that I want to make sure that one photo from that folder can be found in different group of photos that I’m going to create. I want to create, Best Landscapes, Best of New Zealand, Instagram photos and I want a particular shot to be part of those groups without creating several folders in my hard drive and without copying the file several times in those folders.
Here’s where Lightroom Collections come into play. Collections are a way to group photos, have photos be part of different groups (collections) without the need of wasting space in your hard disk and also very important, if you edit your photo the change will also reflect in all of the collections. The original file instead will remain unchanged.
To add photos to a collection you can simply drag it and place it into a collection manually or you can make a collection be a Target collection by right clicking on its name and set it as Target Collection.
This way in the future you can simply add a photo to that collection by selecting it on the grid and pressing B. There can be only one target collection at a time.
A Collection can be part of a Collection Set, which is a container that includes one or more collections.
Then you have Smart Collections. They differ from regular collection in the fact that are created by telling Lightroom what are the rules to follow to put a photo into a collection. These rules can be number of star rating, keywords, date of capture etc.
There are some very handy Smart collections already available by default. One of my favorites is the recently modified, I find myself using it a lot to see the keep track of the work I’ve been doing more recently. It shows your edits from the last 2 days. Value that can be changed in hours, weeks, months or years.
Then you have quick collections. These are listed in the Catalog panel. Quick collections are temporary collections you can keep for a day or two while completing a particular job. You can then right click on the quick collection and either save it or clear its content if not needed to be in a collection anymore.
So to recap, the Folders menu represents the folders and files structure in your hard drive.
Collections are pointers to the original file and represent a way to store a photo in as many Collections as you like without duplicating the file and with the power of keeping that photo in sync with all the collections when it gets edited.
4. Edit like a pro
Lightroom offers really powerful editing functionalities. You can apply a preset with a single click, similar to what you can do in Instagram or having full control of each individual setting and manually change each one of them one at a time for a more professional and polished look.
As we’ve briefly introduced, the editing phase happens in the Develop module. This is where you will probably spend most of your time when working in Lightroom. From this module you can adjust pretty much any imaginable setting of your photo.
Thanks to the powerful editing features of Lightroom you can make your photo look unique, by applying your own style to differentiate your work from other photographers.
Unless you are a visual artist, a good rule of thumb of photo editing is to make your final images look as natural as possible. In the beginning you’ll be very tempted to over saturate or over contrast your photos, but with time you’ll learn how to recognize when you’ve reached a well balanced image.
The Post Processing Sliders. On the right hand side you have the most important menu of Lightroom, the Develop Sliders.
The best way for me to introduce you to these settings is to edit a photo and walk you through each step by explaining what is happening in each section of the post-processing menu.
I’ll stick to a top to bottom walkthrough in my explanation through the various panels of the post-processing menu. When you edit in Lightroom you’ll find yourself going back and forth between the menu while adjusting the values.
Also, the way I edit my images is entirely personal. There are common rules that can be applied to all the images, but in general, follow these step as an introductory guide then find your own style and experiment to see what different results you obtain. I’d be very happy if you shared your results in the comments below.
Let’s start by going to our Library module and select an image, then back to Develop we see that image fitting the middle space area of the screen.
The Basic panel In the develop menu I’ll now jump straight to the Basic panel on the right. The Basic panel is located right underneath the Histogram. Expanding this menu you’ll immediately see that the first value you can edit is the White Balance. The real benefit of shooting in RAW is that the file retains all the information needed for you to change these values as if you were changing the settings in your camera.
White Balance. As you can see from a lot of my images on my Instagram profile, I often like to have a cold feel in my photos. So let’s start by bringing down a little bit Temperature and Tint.
Tone. I am now going to bring the exposure up a little (+0.50 stop) even though this image is pretty bright, but this will serve my purpose for later changes. I’ve also added quite a lot of contrast. Moving the contrast slider to the right makes dark parts of the image more dark and bright parts of the image brighter.
Highlights, Shadows, Whites, BlacksAt this point I usually go to individually adjust the dark and light areas of the photo.
Since I’ve increased my exposure, I’m going to bring down the highlights quite a lot, but I’ll increase the whites a bit to make it more distinguishable. It’s important to make sure that you don’t overdo this step, you need to keep your image quite balanced, you can keep an eye on the Histogram to have a better idea of what is happening in your photo.
Bringing the blacks down and the shadows up, will give me enough contrast and balance in the dark areas.
Clarity affects the transition between dark a light areas. Bringing it down, clarity will make the image less defined with an almost out-of-focus effect. In our case we want well defined shapes as usually you would for a landscape photo. Bringing the slider to the right will make the shapes more defined.
Dehaze the Dehaze slider is a new arrival in the Presence section. It’s a really useful slider, since atmospheric haze could be caused by several factors. Fog or pollution for example can be really affect the look of a landscape photo. With the Dehaze slider as the name says you can reduce this effect and add detail in your image. Again don’t overdo it.
Vibrance. 90% of my images end up on Instagram. Smartphone’s screens tend to make colors look much brighter than they actually have to be. With the vibrance slider I almost always tend to make colors less intense by shifting it to the left.
Saturation. Similarly to Vibrance, Saturation affects the intensity of colors. The difference is that with the Saturation slider all the colors in the image are affected, not only the dominant colors. If pushed too much it will end up adding a color cast to the image. Again, I tend to shift it to the left just a little bit to desaturate the image.
Tone Curve. This is a really powerful tools in Lightroom, probably my favourite. The Tone Curve represents all the tones of your photo.
The X axis of the curve is the tone axis.
The Y axis represents the lightness of a given tone.
The X axis. Tones.
Going from left to right you have Shadows, Midtones, Highlights. The Midtones are split in Dark Midtones and Light Midtones.
The Y axis. Tone’s Lightness
By move the curve down tones get darker, moving it up they get brighter.
As you will see it’s pretty intuitive to start making changes using the tone curve. If for example you want to make the image brighter, click in the midtone area and drag the curve up. You will see your image getting brighter as you drag the curve. You can repeat the same action for the Highlights and Shadows until you obtain the desired result.
Lightroom gives you two ways to operate on the Tone Curve. The first one is called Region Curve, it’s an aided mode that you can use when you’re moving your first steps in Lightroom. The second mode is called Point Curve. You can activate it by press a little square button at the bottom right of the Tone Curve Panel.
The Point Curve mode gives you more control and you have access to the three colors defining the RGB gamut and choose which one you want to change, Red, Green or Blue. By default you will affect all three at the same time.
Ok I have to admit that the Tone Curve is for me probably the first thing I use when I start my editing. You don’t have to, it’s just my preference, but before jumping into the Basic panel and playing with highlights and shadows I use the tone curve to get as close as possible to the level of contrast I want to obtain.
By dragging the various points on the curve and obtaining the shape in the image below, you see that we obtained a good level of contrast but at the same time I “muted” the tones a bit to give the image that slightly unreal feeling almost like a memory or a dream.
One thing you will notice is that we obtained a slight “S” curve. This is a very common way to make your image pop more. All I did to then mute the tones is drag the farthest left-hand point (Shadows) up and the farthest right-hand side point down (Highlights).
Again, this is my preference and it works with this image. You can experiment and find your style.
HSL stands for Hue-Saturation-Luminance. This powerful panel allows you to control different colors of your image independently.
You can brighten or saturate specific colors while leaving others untouched.
Hue. Simply put the Hue is the gradient of color in your image. If you look at the grass, you will say that it’s green, but what shade of green? Is it actually green or there’s some yellow as well? These variations of color is what we can describe as hue.
Saturation. Intuitively by dragging left or right a slider in the Saturation section you will make that color more or less intense.
Luminance. Luminance is the reflective brightness of a color. Usually if I make a color less saturated I try to balance and see how it looks by adding more luminance.
Here’s my HSL settings after I’ve edited my photo.
It can seem as the split toning panel is not the most used one. Of all the option you already have to change color, adjust brightness and contrast of an image, you could think that it’s already enough. I personally use this panel as it gives a way to add two different colors to the highlights and shadows. If you look at the images below you’ll understand what the split-tone panel does to a photo.
Alright now let’s see the before and after of the image.
5. Create Presets
After editing your photo you can “save” your settings and create “Presets” that you can re-use on similar images and save a lot of time and energy.
Creating Presets is easy, go to the Develop module and on the left-hand side underneath the Navigator ,you’ll see the Presets section. As you can see Lightroom gives some initial presets. To add your own, click on the “+” sign.
A box with a list of settings will pop up. Checkmark the setting you want to include in your Preset. Give a name to your Preset and click “Create”. The newly created Preset is now available in the “User Presets” list.
If you now select another photo and click on your new preset, you’ll see the magic happens. All the settings you saved are now applied to the new photo.
Obviously different photos need a different treatment. I use Preset as a starting point when two images have very similar light and colors. After applying my Preset I then make slight adjustments to the new photo to bring it to the point I desire.
6. Export your work
Exporting your edited photos is one of the most crucial steps of post-processing. You’ve organized and edited your images, you’ve created reusable presets. Now it’s time to “Export”.
Click and select the photo you wish to export (Lightroom can export multiple photos at the same time). Then right click on your mouse or trackpad and select Export > Export.
The Export Dialog will pop up.
Here you can choose:
Export Location. In what destination in your computer or external hard drive you want to export your work. Lightroom makes you choose what you want to do if a file already exists. I leave it to the default “Ask what to do” to avoid unwanted overrides.
File naming. You have several options, as you can see from the menu. This is totally up to you, if you want to rename your files or keep the original name.
File Settings. Are you going to do more work on the image by using Photoshop? You can choose to export you file as a PSD. Or the most common file extension if your work is done is JPG.
Image Sizing. Here as you’ve already guessed you can resize your images. If you know the pixel and resolution you want then choose width & height and type the number of pixels. If you just want your JPG to be a bit smaller in term of file size you can just select percentage and type let’s say 90% or less depending on the size you want to obtain.
Metadata. Here you can choose if including the details about camera and lens, exposure settings date and time and so on in you image. By including these you will make it available to other photographers or you can decide to just include the Copyright only.
The Export Settings can be saved as a Preset for future reuse. This again, will save you time in the future. To save your Export settings, click the “Add” button on the left-hand side of the Export Dialog, name your preset and voila’, your export preset is now available under “User Presets”. To remove it, just select it and click “Remove”.
7. Is Lightroom the only editing software available?
Obviously not. Lightroom is not the only photo editing software, but as I’ve said already, it’s the most popular. There are alternatives to Lightroom and in this guide I’ll just make a brief intro to them.
Photoshop. I can’t avoid mentioning Photoshop. It is not really an alternative to Lightroom, but another powerful and amazing software always made by Adobe. When I use it, it’s in conjunction with Lightroom as a second and final step of my workflow. A lot of photographers completely skip this step and only use Lightroom. Let me know in the comments below if you want me to write bout Photoshop in a future article.
For now know that Photoshop is mainly a digital photo editing program, that has expanded a lot through the years and now does way more than simply editing pictures. Photoshop is used by graphic designers, architects, photographers, visual artists and so on. Lightroom has a subset of Photoshop’s functions and it’s completely tailored to meet photographer’s needs. And as I’ve said, Lightroom is also a catalog management tool.
Capture One Pro. With a price of over $300 USD Capture One is an expensive alternative to Lightroom. Used by professionals, in terms of features, Capture One Pro has advanced capabilities and professional level functions. Works for both Mac and Windows and it has a 30 days free trial version.
RawTherapee. This is a free alternative to Lightroom. Yes free! RawTherapee is an open source non-destructive raw image processor. It has many powerful editing capabilities and it’s a good alternative if you are looking for a light and inexpensive RAW processor to export your photos to work on your favourite editing tool.
LightZone. Another open source (hence free) RAW processing software that works for both Mac and Windows. Same as Lightroom and RawTherapee, LightZone is a non-destructive editing tool that offers a very strong feature set for photographers looking for an alternative tool to Lightroom for converting their RAW file.
On1 Photo Pro. An emergent editing software that has found its space in the market and it’s loved by professionals. On1 Photo Pro is not only a RAW image processor but it also has some capabilities similar to Photoshop, such as layer support.
Well done and thank you for making it to the end of this article! I hope you’ve enjoyed learning about Lightroom and that you will keep checking this article for further updates.
Lightroom is a really powerful program that offers a lot of tools to edit your photos. By keep practicing and exploring the software you’ll find yourself developing your own workflow and your own style.
As you progress in your photo editing journey, you’ll learn and discover how to optimize your process and despite the roadblocks you might encounter if you don’t give up and keep experimenting, you’ll be very satisfied by the results you will obtain.
As I always say, to be a good photographer nowadays you need to know the ins and outs of your camera, know how to manipulate light, rules of composition and last but not least how to edit your pictures to bring them to the next level.
Do not hesitate to send me a message or write in the comments below to ask any questions you might have about Lightroom. I’m always happy to help!