For many beginner photographers who have started saving their photos are RAW files, learning how to edit photos in Lightroom is a problem. Where to start editing? What do all editing tools do? How do I know my photos will look better when I use Lightroom to edit? How can I know when I am finished? These are all relevant and real questions.
This article is a simple introduction to the basic functions in Lightroom Classic. Most of it is dedicated to showing you how easy it is to get started, once you have a little knowledge of the essentials. Like many things, basic editing of photos in Lightroom Classic is easy when you know how.
- Import and Metadata
- Editing Photos in the Lightroom Develop Module
- Adjusting Sliders in the Basic Panel
- Other Adobe Lightroom Classic Panels
- Exporting Your Finished Images
Adobe offers two versions of their popular photo editing software. These are Lightroom Classic and Lightroom Creative Cloud (CC). In this article, you will learn how to edit photos in Lightroom Classic, and I will cover editing in Lightroom CC in another article.
Import and Metadata
You can import photos into Lightroom one at a time or in bulk. This can be done by connecting your camera to your computer. Or you can remove the card from your camera and using a card reader that’s connected to your computer. If you have RAW files already on a hard drive, these can also be imported into Lightroom.
Lightroom Classic uses Catalogs to help you keep photos organized. These are databases that have three functions. To reference where your photos are on your computer. Instructions for Lightroom in how you have processed the photos. Metadata on each photo. This is information about the photo that may be imported with the photos and also added to within Lightroom. Click here for an article that teaches you more about this data.
Here is a video that provides a brief overview of RAW file editing in Lightroom Classic.
Open Lightroom Classic
You will be prompted to open an existing catalog or create a new one. If you’re brand new to using Lightroom Classic, you’ll have to create a new catalog. To do this, click on the Create A New Catalog button. Choose a location on your hard drive to store it and name it. Lightroom will add an extension to the filename of “lrcat” indicating it’s a catalog file.
These catalog files can become quite large and take up many gigabytes of storage space. It pays to make sure you choose a location to store it with enough free space. I prefer to name my Lightroom catalogs to reflect the date I took the photos that they store. I create new catalogs from time to time, depending on how many photos I am taking. Lightroom catalogs with too many photos tend to slow down processing. How many depends on your computer specs and how much editing you do.
Import RAW Files
Your catalog will open, and Lightroom with inviting you to “Click the Import button to begin”. The Import button is located at the bottom left of your screen. If you cannot see it, click the small triangle halfway up the left side of the Lightroom window or press the f7 key. This will bring the left-hand side panel into view.
Click the Import button. A new window opens. On the left, you need to choose the location to import your RAW files from. Lightroom shows a list of locations that can be hard drives, card readers, or connected cameras.
Select source. Lightroom-generated previews. You can select them all or individually if you don’t want to import everything.
On the right side at the top, you can choose the location on your computer where you want to store the photos.
In the center at the top, you can choose whether to Copy, Move, or Add your photos. If your photos are already on your hard drive Add will be automatically selected. This function leaves the image files in the same location and imports the information into the Lightroom catalog.
Choosing Copy or Move will place the RAW files onto your hard drive. Selecting Move will erase them from your card. I prefer to Copy files and leave them on my card, just in case there is a problem during the transfer process.
Now your photos are imported, you can begin to edit.
Editing Photos in the Lightroom Develop Module
Lightroom has various modules. In this tutorial, we are concentrating on the two most commonly used. These are the Library Module and the Develop Module.
Once Lightroom imports your photos, you can browse them in the Library module and select which ones you’d like to edit. When you have selected a photo to edit, you can press the D key to open it in the Develop module.
In this module, you will need to have the panel on the right of your screen open. If it’s not already open, click the triangle that’s halfway up the left side or press the f8 key. This panel has the controls you will use to begin editing your photo.
Using the Histogram in the Develop Module
At the top, you’ll see a histogram. This is helpful when editing as it allows you to see a graphic representation of the tones in your image. On either side at the top of the histogram, there is a small triangle. You can hover over or click on these to show where clipping occurs in the highlights and shadows. If dark or light areas are highlighted, they are clipped and have lost detail in those areas.
In this example, I exaggerated the highlights to show the red area where there is clipping.
Cropping in Lightroom Classic
Below the histogram, in Lightroom you will see a group of six icons. The only one I’ll cover here is the one representing the cropping and straightening tool.
You can see from the window frame behind the model my image is crooked. Selecting the crop and straighten tool, I can click and drag a corner of the bounding box to correct this problem. When you click on the icon, a grid will appear over the image. When you click and drag a corner, the grid is multiplied which allows you to align the image more precisely.
Once your photo is straight, you can click and drag the handles on any side of the photo to crop it further.
One aspect of straightening like this I like is that as you turn the photo, it is automatically cropped to avoid framing it beyond the area of the image. If it did not do this, as you rotate the photo, you could get triangles of nothing appearing at the corners.
Adjusting Sliders in the Basic Panel
The Basic Panel in Lightroom Classic has the essential controls for balancing the light and color in your images. This is often the only panel you will need to work with, especially if you have exposed your photos well.
Here I’ll cover each feature that’s in the Basic Panel.
You can choose between treating your image as a Color or a Black and White photograph.
Clicking on Black and White adjusts the image to monochrome and grays out the Vibrance and Saturation sliders. We’ll cover how to edit black and white photos in Lightroom in a future article.
If you would like to save time in editing a photo, our black & white lightroom presets can help!
In this sub-panel are various tools for adjusting the white balance in your images.
You can use the eyedropper to click on a neutral tone in your photo to correct the white balance. This may or may not provide you with a better white balance.
You also have the option here of choosing a white balance preset from the drop-down menu.
I typically have my camera’s white balance set to auto. I only alter it when I am photographing in unusual lighting. In daylight, I find the auto white balance camera setting produces good results.
This image is complicated by the yellow and blue glass behind my subject. To the right of her is an open window, so the light on the left side of her face is natural. It does look a little warm, so I dragged the Temp slider a little towards the blue to cool the color temperature down a fraction.
With the next set of sliders, you can make adjustments to the tone range in your photo. I prefer to control each slider manually, although there is an option to make the adjustments automatically. You can see from this example where I have clicked on the Auto option that it has not produced spectacular results.
Generally, I start with the Blacks slider. This is a matter of taste as I like to have a good solid black tone in some parts of most of my photos.
As I work in this panel, I will move back and forth between the various sliders. I do not set one and forget it. I will often come back and readjust sliders during the editing process.
Here it can be helpful to click the triangles in the top corners of the histogram window. This displays where any clipping may occur as you manage your sliders. To work with a slider, I will click the little handle and then scroll with my mouse wheel. I find I have more precise control using this method than clicking and dragging the slider handle.
After moving the Blacks slider, I’ll pay attention to the Shadows slider. Often darkening the blacks also affects the shadow areas. I move the Shadows slider to the right to open up the shadows a little.
The exposure in this photo is good, so I have not moved the exposure slider. I have increased the Contrast just a touch. This has caused more black clipping to occur, so I will go back to the Blacks slider and move it back towards the center.
My next step is to address the highlight clipping in the window behind my subject. This is simply a matter of selecting the Highlights slider and moving it to the left until the red clipping highlights disappear.
I do not need to adjust the Whites slider for this image. If I do need to make adjustments to the Whites, I do so very carefully. This is because it’s very easy to get gray, muddy-looking whites if you drag this slider even a little to the left.
The next sub-panel down is what Adobe calls the Presence panel. This is a series of sliders that adjust other aspects of photos that are not related to tone.
In the first group, you will see three sliders, Texture, Clarity, and Dehaze. These all work to alter contrast in your photos in subtly different ways. Dragging any of these sliders to the left while editing decreases contrast in details and texture in your photos. Dragging a slider to the right will increase the contrast.
It can be challenging to see the differences between Texture, Clarity, and Sharpening (which I’ll get to shortly). Experimentation is key as the results in how you combine the use of these sliders can vary a lot from one photo to another. Basically, I find that the Texture slider is great for using to smooth skin tones. Dragging it a little to the left has given my model’s skin an even smoother look than it already had.
The Clarity slider has more effect on luminance values. It is often more effective to use in photos where there are no people with skin you want to smooth.
The Dehaze slider increases or decreases haze in your image. If there’s scattered light that’s caused a fogginess, or if you want to include a foggy look, this is the slider to use. I have no need for it in this image. It’s fantastic for landscapes where the composition includes a view to the distance. Editing some haze to a portrait can at times give it a dreamy look. This slider also affects the contrast levels of a picture.
Vibrance and Saturation
Use the Vibrance and Saturation sliders to adjust the color intensity in a picture. The Vibrance slider influences the most saturated colors. The Saturation slider affects the intensity of all the colors in an image. For photos that include people, using the Vibrance slider tends not to have an impact on skin tones. Increasing or decreasing color intensity in skin tones is risky. You can easily make a person look ill when you mess with the tone of their skin.
That completes our look at photography editing in the Basic Panel in Lightroom Classic.
Other Adobe Lightroom Classic Panels
Below the Basic Panel, you’ll find a whole collection of other panels that allow you to make endless editing changes to your picture. If you’ve taken photos in normal lighting conditions and exposed them well, you’ll rarely have a need to adjust any of the controls in these other panels. This depends somewhat on the style of your photography.
The Detail Panel
The exceptions are in the Detail Panel. One of these that tempts a lot of photographers when they edit in Lightroom is Sharpening. The other is Noise Reduction. Both are best used with caution and restraint as overuse when edit photos can ruin an image.
I don’t believe it’s possible to sharpen a poorly focused photograph when photo editing, in Lightroom, Photoshop, or with any other software. You have to get your photos sharp in-camera. This is just good photography practice. Using the sharpening tool when you edit in Lightroom can be helpful when an image is a little soft. This is the type of softness caused by a cheap lens.
It can also occur in some zoom lenses that may not produce truly sharp images all the way through the zoom range. Similarly, softness can happen with some lenses when you use the widest or narrowest apertures. With this type of softness, adjusting the sharpness sliders carefully can improve a photo.
If you have used a high ISO setting, you can use the Noise Reduction section of sliders when photo editing. These help to reduce or eliminate excess digital noise. This is most often seen in low-light photography. Use the Luminance and Color sliders for good effect. Drag them carefully to the right, only as much as you need to. Overdoing it will have the effect of softening your image.
In this example photo, I have reduced the noise very slightly. I generally like to keep both the Luminance and Color sliders to the same level if I adjust them.
You can zoom in by pressing the Z key to see the changes more clearly as you edit in Lightroom. Using the switch in the top left of any panel will disable and enable the changes you have made, allowing you to see a before and after comparison.
The tone curve allows for further light based adjustments in the highlights, lights, darks and shadows in relation to the RGB color profile. This means that this feature will allow you to manipulate the tones of red, blue, green or the entire RGB curve. With this tool you can adjust the overall color of your image by moving the points across the plane or by using the linear point curve.
The next tool is the HSL/Color block. This feature allows you to alter the hue, saturation and luminance of the colors within the image – red, orange, yellow, green, aqua, blue, purple and magenta.
This is the best way to achieve the color scheme of your image, but must be used sparingly and effectively with the other tools within the develop mode.
Altering too much of one color could cause an adverse effect, so I would recommend using this tool last after you have made all other light and editing adjustments.
Split toning is the ability to change the color of the highlights and shadows within your image. You can use the color bar or the box located next to highlights and shadows to pick your color. After choosing the color, you will adjust the saturation by moving the bar to the right or left.
The balance bar, located in the center, is used to balance the the highlights and shadows. In the center will give you an equal distribution of the hues, moving it to the left will focus heavily on the shadow tint and to the right will focus on the highlights.
Lens Correction allows you to make adjustments of any distortions created by your lens. If Lightroom has your lens preferences available, it will appear in the make, model and profile boxes. This will then automatically adjust the image when you mark the “Remove Chromatic Aberration” or “Profile Correction” box in order to fix any distortion or vignetting. In the profile setting, Lightroom will adjust for you, but you can always make these adjustments yourself in the manual section.
The Transform tool is related to the horizontal and vertical aspects of your image. You can choose to use the lightroom presets – auto, guided, level, vertical and full – which are known to only sometimes work seamlessly. In other cases, you can always use the straightening tool which we will discuss later.
Additionally this setting allows you to transform the image with options such as – vertical, horizontal, rotate, aspect, sale, x offset and y offset. Some images may not need these adjustments, but it is best to test these out and see which works effectively for your photograph.
Effects is a module that is used for unique and specific effects based on the photographer’s preference. Here you can add more vignetting, the black shadows that frame an image, by increasing the amount and altering the midpoint, roundness, feather and highlights. Additionally, the effects section is where grain can be added to achieve the film look for your images. You can adjust the amount, size and roughness you want by moving the bars left or right.
Exporting Your Finished Images
Adobe Lightroom Classic editing is all non-destructive. This means your original RAW files are not altered. The changes you make are all like layers added over the base RAW image as you work. When using Lightroom, it automatically saves these changes throughout the process.
Once you have finished your photo editing, it’s time to Export your picture. To do this, right-click on the image and choose Export>Export from the options that appear. Alternatively, you can click File>Export from the top menu. Or hold Ctrl+Shift+E on a PC or Cmd+Shift+E on a Mac.
This brings up the Export dialog window. Here you can choose where and how you want to export your images. The main areas to pay attention to here are:
- Export Location
- File Settings
- Image Sizing
Choose where you want to export your images by picking a folder and including a subfolder if you wish.
Further down you can select the image format type you want to export your image as from the drop-down menu. Depending on your option, you may have other adjustments to make. Here I am choosing to save my photo as a jpeg image, so I must also select Quality and Color Space.
Then you can have Lightroom resize your photos if you wish. This is particularly helpful when saving images you later want to upload to the internet. You can restrict the dimensions and the resolution. For internet use, I’ll often restrict my picture size to 1500X1500 pixels and a resolution of 72 pixels per inch. This will keep the overall file size reasonable and allow you to upload it quickly.
Editing photos in Lightroom can be a lot of fun for a photographer once you get used to the editing workflow. I hope this article will help you reach a new level of editing your photos that brings you more enjoyment with your photography. It takes time to practice and become comfortable with an editing tool such as Lightroom. When a photographer starts with a clear idea of how they want their images to look it certainly streamlines the process.
There are many Lightroom presets available to produce different results for how your images look. These can help you discover your photography style and how you want your photos to look when you are first beginning to explore this software.
If you are looking for an in-depth course for learning lightroom, explore our recommended lightroom classes available online.