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A No Nonsense Guide to Photo Editing in Lightroom Classic

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Lightroom has been my go to for photo cataloging and editing for the last 5 years. Whether you’re new to Lightroom or have been using it for years, I think it’s important to realize that there are multiple ways to do just about everything in Lightroom. Additionally, within the Adobe suite, you can spend months diving into all the programs and discovering that aside from Lightroom, you can often do the exact same things in Photoshop or Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw. I think it’s good to learn and understand all the programs because there are slight difference that enable you to do specialized things. 

Professional Photo Editing Software

Anyway, I currently use Lightroom Classic on my main computer for most of my photo cataloging and editing. I’m slowly trying to transition to Lightroom CC because I’m excited by the possibility of having constant access to my catalog on all of my devices but am currently frustrated by their lack of preset syncing and custom export settings (UPDATE: preset syncing is getting rolled out now!). So my typical workflow is still within Lightroom Classic and I export JPEGs to dropbox folders to send to myself or clients. I've thought about purchasing Capture One, since the go to for most photographers when they're shooting tethered but I've resisted thus far. Occasionally, I get pinged by various companies coming out with new photo editing programs but at the moment I use Lightroom, Photoshop and VSCO actively. Since Lightroom Classic is where I do most of my edits these days, this guide is focused on using that but I will likely do another one for Lightroom CC when I fully switch over. 

Photo Cataloging in Lightroom

When I started using Lightroom, I always thought of it as an editing tool. I jumped right in and didn’t think much about my photo organization. At that time, I was just taking photos for fun. 5 years later and about 200,000 photos in, the cataloging function of Lightroom has become much more important to me. Often, I need to find photos from 2 or 3 years back and I wish I could report that I’ve been excellent about keywording all of my work and adding pertinent information. Honestly, I’m awful about diligently keywording my photos. The smart image search in Lightroom CC is definitely a feature I’m deeply smitten with and one reason I’d like to fully switch over. Anyway,  I usually have a vague recollection of some photo that I may have taken and I just have to spend 30 or 40 minutes diving around my archive to find it. I know, editing is definitely way more fun to think about then cataloging but if you keep your work well organized, it will benefit you later down the road. Currently, I have separate catalogs for clients and for myself by year. I keep this year and last year always accessible on my computer and at the end of the year, I archive the catalog that is 2 years old onto an external hard drive. 

A Complete Guide to Lightroom Classic

Okay, enough about organization and on to the fun part, the editing! As I was starting to write this, I was thinking about photographers whose editing style I admire and Betty quickly came to mind. She has a very strong aesthetic that somehow never tips over into being excessive. Her edits always compliment her photos so well. So I got in touch and we had a long and wonderful chat about editing. You should pause reading here and go scroll through her entire Instagram feed because the progression in her editing style from when she started out in 2016 to now is so fast and so phenomenal. She spent an afternoon with a wedding photographer learning the basics of Lightroom and then found her footing through tinkering. 

BASIC panel in Lightroom


Anyway, it was interesting to discover that Betty and I had found our way to many similar steps in our editing but approached them with different goals in mind. Most of the time, when I start editing, my image is already accurately exposed so I don't tend to touch overall exposure but I almost always push down the blacks in my images in order to create more contrast. Betty, on the other hand, decreases highlights. When I wrote the first draft of this guide, I noted that this process was something I stumbled into and had no idea how "right" it is, so it was somewhat nice to discover that I wasn't alone in using the exposure panel to control the overall tone of my images. Below, I'm increasing the overall contrast of the photo by dropping the blacks in the exposure panel and raising the whites. 

A Complete Guide to Lightroom Classic

White Balance

Whenever, I'm editing, I work on getting my exposure set first and then tinker with the light balance. Personally, I prefer all of my photos to be a bit warm. Even the darker images, I tend to warm them up a bit. Wedding photography is almost always extremely warmed up. Go through a few wedding photography blogs and you'll quickly realize everything is very warm. On the opposite end, a lot of cityscape photography tends to range on the cooler end. Occasionally, increasing the warmth of an image makes it look extremely yellow. In these situations, I usually split tone in order to keep things looking relatively natural. Below, I'm increasing the overall warmth of the image and then checking the before and after to see if it's where I want it to be. 

A Complete Guide to Lightroom

* Helpful hint: You can use your mouse to change whatever setting you're working on or use your keyboard up or down keys, which is what I did in the example above.

Contrast & Clarity

Personally, I think of Clarity as a relative of the Contrast tool. If you want a deep dive on Contrast vs. Clarity read this. Basically, Contrast stretches your mid-tones towards black or white and Clarity looks for edges and makes them more extreme. In practice, Clarity has a stronger impact on an image. While I rarely push either Contrast or Clarity up by 40, I thought it was the best way to highlight how they're different. 

Using the Contrast and Clarity tools in Lightroom

Vibrance & Saturation

Vibrance and Saturation are similarly related like Contrast and Clarity. Saturation increases the overall intensity of all colors in an image. Vibrance increases just the intensity of the muted colors in an image. I almost never use either tool. Chatting with Betty, I admired how she avoids over-saturation in her edits and she shared that she usually looks at recently posted images to try and match the overall saturation. I usually rely on the HSL / Color / B&W panel to keep all my colors relatively accurate. Here's one image where I actually wished in retrospect that I had tinkered a bit more with the vibrance and saturation.  

Understanding saturation and vibrance in Lightroom

Tone Curve Panel in Lightroom

Tone curves are great and powerful and all that but trying to use the tone curve tool in Lightroom Classic has always made me want to throw my computer out of a window. The interface is teeny tiny. My mouse is not nearly sensitive enough. Occasionally, if I wanted to make tone curve adjustments, I would hop in to Photoshop because the tone curves are a little bit easier to use there (to do this, you just have to right click on any image in Lightroom, go to Edit in and choose Photoshop) . These days, if I want to make tone curve adjustments on an image I switch to Lightroom CC. In the tone curve panel on Lightroom Classic, you can adjust the overall curve and each curve for red, green and blue. Or you can adjust the curve by regions, which is imprecise but somewhat easier to use. 

Understanding and using the tone curve panel in Lightroom Classic

* Helpful hint: My one and only hot tip for tone curves is that if you have presets and want to use just the tone curve, you can do that! That might not make sense written out but the GIF below is an example of what I'm talking about and don't judge me for my excessive quantity of presets. About once a year I go on a preset buying binge and after 5 years that nonsense adds up. 

Understanding tone curves in Lightroom Classic

That's all I've got for the tone curve tool in Lightroom Classic. It's honestly kind of a pain in my opinion. If you need to do specific tone curve tweaks, I highly recommend using Photoshop or Lightroom CC. I've been doing photography for a while and as a full time professional photographer, it's something I heavily invest in. If this is just a hobby or you're starting out, I understand not wanting to get yet another program. You can do a lot with tone curves in Lightroom Classic, it's just a little clunkier. 

HSL / Color / B&W Lightroom Panel

The HSL panel is divided into Hue, Saturation, Luminance and All. Hue is the shade of each specific color. Saturation is the intensity of the color. Luminance is the overall darkness or lightness of each color. Each of these things, I find easiest to understand by looking at the panel, which is relatively intuitive visually.

Most of the time when I'm using the HSL panel I go directly to All, which drops open all of the options (that's how I have things set in the example GIF below). You can make changes by directly clicking and dragging on the panel or you can hit the circle that's to the left and up of each section and then click and drag on whatever item you want to adjust in the image. In the example below, I click on the circle and then click and drag (up for more saturation and down for less) on the orange car to change the saturation. This sample is a bit excessive and I'm never this heavy handed but it's a helpful visual. 

Understanding hue, saturation and luminance in Lightroom Classic

I use the HSL panel in 3 main circumstance. First, I sometimes decide to use a preset that throws off the color of some item in the image. Sometimes with food, browns and reds get weird with certain presets so I go through and fix everything through the HSL panel. Second, I occasionally work on commercial projects with products where I need the image to be consistent with the product. One day, I'll get a color target for color corrections but so far none of my projects have required that level of precision. Anyway, whenever I'm shooting products in commercial projects, I try to keep the product looking as accurate as possible. Third, for photo sets I try to keep color consistent. I find that to be hardest with landscape photos that have a lot of greenery.  

Split Toning in Lightroom Classic

I love split toning! While I try not to go too crazy with it, if you go look at my Instagram feed many of the photos are split toned. Split toning is technically the process of adding different shades of color to the highlights and shadows. Probably the most popular process is to split tone highlights with a warm yellow or cream color and shadows with a blue or green, which is frequently used in films. You can read about a few classic film examples of split toning here

For most of my Chicago cityscape photos, I do the opposite of the typical process. I split tone my shadows to be warmer and split tone the highlights to be blue. That's happening here, here and here. I like warm images but don't want them to scream YELLOW so this is what I do. This is another one of those processes that I've tinkered my way into and am not actually sure if this is "right". It works and I like it. 

Understanding split toning in Lightroom Classic

Detail Panel 

The panel detail allows to you increase the sharpness of an image or reduce the noise of a photo. Noise is the appearance of digital specks in a photo. It's similar to grain in film photography. You can read more about film vs. digital over here.  For the most part, noise is considered undesirable (but grain in black and white film photography is generally considered a positive attribute) and most often occurs in low light situations that your camera sensor can't quite handle.  

These days I very rarely touch the detail panel. Earlier this year I switched from the Canon 5d mk iii to the Canon 5d mk iv and was excited to discover that the dynamic range improvements I had read about were spot on. With the Canon 5d mk iv, I very rarely experience conditions that give me any trouble in terms of unwanted noise. This year, I shot a few images at night during a cherry blossom lighting party while in Japan and I used the detail panel to check if I should reduce the noise but found that I didn't need to. If you're using an entry level or older digital camera, this might be useful. 

Learning the detail panel in Lightroom

Sharpening has a similar effect on images as Clarity but it's incredibly subtle. I usually up the Clarity instead of using sharpening.  Also, Sharpening is so subtle that when I was putting together a sample GIF, I had to zoom in almost 8 times to detect the change. If you want to sharpen just use Clarity, Contrast of Dehaze in the Effects Panel. 

Lens Correction in Lightroom Classic

Listen, your photos contain a lot of data and I don't just mean the pixels of the image itself. Every photo I take has a bunch of metadata attached to it. That's great because it helps automate processes like Lens Correction. The downside is that if you're exporting your photos without stripping out that data, you're probably putting out a lot more information about your images and yourself than you intend to. 

Anyway, Lens Correction uses the metadata that's attached to each image to automatically correct for lens distortion. In the sample below, I'm showing how you can check the metadata attached to your image in the Library mode and then use Lens Correction in the Develop mode to easily correct any lens distortion in your photo. 

How to correct for lens distortion in Lightroom Classic

* Helpful hint: Take a moment to check what your Export settings are set to for Metadata. I usually set mine to Metadata, otherwise EXIF scrapper programs could pull all of my equipment and edit settings. 

Transform Module 

A while ago, I wrote a guide on how to improve interior photography with 5 steps. The one thing I skipped was using the transform module to straighten your images. Transform is helpful for correcting any perspective issues in your images. There's are 4 automatic options that make adjustments for you: Auto, Level, Vertical and Full. Plus a guided option that allows you to somewhat manually adjust your images. I most frequently use Auto, Guided and Full, in that order. 

Using Transform in Lightroom Classic

Most frequently, I use Auto. It works perfectly about 80% of the time. Every now and again, if there's an oddly shaped object, it doesn't work. I used the photo below to illustrate how Auto can get tripped up but for the image below, I would most likely just use the regular straighten & crop tool.

How Transform can get tripped up in Lightroom Classic

When Auto doesn't quite work, I usually just fix things with the Guided option. It gives you 4 lines to trace out whatever you needed straightened in your image. 

Fixing perspective with the Guided Transform tool in Lightroom Classic

Adding Effects 

You've made it all the way to the very end! Almost. There's one more module after Effects, Camera Calibration, but I dig around in there about once every 5 months so I won't go into any detail here. 

Anyway, the Effects panel has Vignetting, Grain and Dehaze. I personally never add vignetting to my images. If anything, I leave in some lens distortion and natural vignetting but I don't muck around with vignetting. Every couple of years, I go through a phase of adding Grain to my images. It's pretty straightforward. 

The one thing I do use with some regularity is Dehaze, which removes atmospheric haze from photos. In my mind it's in the same category as Clarity, Contrast and Sharpen (in the Detail panel) but works particularly well in hazey cityscape or landscape images. (UPDATE: right after I wrote this, there was a Lightroom update that moved Dehaze up to the basic panel next to Clarity, Contrast and Sharpen). 

Using dehaze in Lightroom Classic

Go tinker away

I intended to include all the tools I use in Lightroom for this guide but since it's become nearly novel length, I'll work on a separate post for cropping, cloning and masking. You can do a lot with the panels I went over and while I think it's good to read and watch tutorials (YouTube has a ton of helpful tutorials, though you have to hunt around a bit), the best way to learn is to just go shoot and then test out these things on your photos. Tinkering will help you learn and retain better than anything else.