I meet photographers who struggle with Lightroom too often. This blog posting cannot help completely. There are books, blogs and YouTube videos in abundance for Lightroom. What I want to do here, is collect a few tips which are not obvious to newcomers, and to give a start into Lightroom.
The Principle of Lightroom
Think of Lightroom as a database of images (the catalog). It leaves them where they are. The images are never touched or changed. Lightroom only stores links to images.
Importing means nothing more than adding the links to the images in the database. Don't be confused by Lightroom's ability to copy images from an SD card to an internal folder, optimally changing the RAW to DNG. This is just a service of Lightroom. The target folder is just a folder like any other, and Lightroom simply remembers that your images are in that folder. You can change the folder for the import, of course, at any import. Lightroom can rename the files in very clever ways. Take your time to study the import module.
Exporting just means that Lightroom creates a new image in a folder of your choice. The exports can rename the files. Of course, several choices for the file formats are possible. The settings can be saved by names. As always, the files remain in place.
Because Lightroom does not change or move the images when you edit them, all edits are stored inside Lightroom and only applied to exported images. You can view this as a database of changes that you selected to apply to the image. Nothing is done to the image on the disk. If you create a mask with a pen, the positions and strokes of the pen is saved, not the pixels of the mask. This means that you can revert any change easily and the database is efficient. You can also do two different edits to the same image by virtual copies.
You can select to edit an image in another editor, like Photoshop. Lightroom will create a TIFF file for the external editor, and import the result to its database. The original image will remain intact even then.
Editing a Single File
If you want to edit a specific file on your disk, you need to import it into Lightroom. In this case, copying should be used for the import mode. Lightroom links to the copy and does not use the source image. You can then export the image back to overwrite the file you copied because this file is no longer linked by Lightroom.
Lightroom as an Image Viewer
You can use Lightroom as a database for all your images on a file, say all developed JPEG images, just like other image viewers. Lightroom can select images or show the images on a map, and even to collect persons on the images.
If you use Lightroom that way, you can edit the images, but not export to overwrite the JPEG. You can only export the edited images somewhere else due to the principle of Lightroom to leave the images intact. You should use another catalog to import the JPEG to another place and export to the original place, as described in the previous section.
Lightroom shows you the folders it knows in the library module on the pane on the left side. You can synchronize these folders if you added images manually, optionally importing new images. This pane offers the only proper way to move an image in the Lightroom catalog to another place. You should use it for backups. If you just move the files with the explorer outside of Lightroom, the program will ask you where the file actually is if you use it.
Using several Catalogs
It is often useful to create several catalogs. You can change the current catalog in the menu. Lightroom will restart with the new catalog. The program cannot open two catalogs. By default, Lightroom opens the recently opened dialogue. That behavior can be changed. If the catalog does not exist, e.g. because the file is on an external hard disk, Lightroom will ask to open the default catalog anyway.
Photos can be copied from another catalog. You need to select the other catalog and the folders you want to import. This works like an import. You can select to simply add the file to the new catalog, or add a copy at some selected destination. Of course, the edits will be imported too. E.g., you could edit images on two computers, and have a catalog on a hard disk, which collects the images and their edits from both computers.
The Lightroom GUI
You can change the appearance of the GUI in various ways. The details are often hard to find. But take your time to study the keyboard shortcuts in the menu. For a start, press F to see an image in full screen, and again to go back. Shift-F is also useful to cycle through view modes.
To get more room for an image, you can slide the panes on all four edges with the little arrows. They will reappear, when you move the mouse toward the edges. The library filter and the line with tools can also be disabled with keyboard shortcuts. You can reduce the tools in the Develop module by right-clicking on a tool and editing the available tools and their order.
All these shortcuts and tricks are hard to find. Many involve clicking on tiny spots.
During the import, Lightroom can apply edits to all files from a preset. To create a preset, use the menu in the preset list in the Develop module. The preset will be created from the current image. A dialog will open where you can select all the changes that should be contained in the preset.
To edit a preset, right-click on the preset and update it with the current image in the Develop module. The same dialog for the selection of the changes will open.
To apply a preset, select an image and click on the preset. Presets can be applied to multiple images using the quick develop menu in the Library module. As mentioned above, presets can also be applied at the import of images. This is useful for setting like sharpening or noise reduction. You should create a preset for each camera.
When presets are created, they can be made to depend on the ISO settings. This will create several profiles for several ISO settings. Select several images in the Develop module with different ISO settings when you update a profile. Alternatively, you can create two presets for different ranges of ISO settings, of course. This may be easier to handle.
Crops and Transformations
One of the most important things you can do to your image is to crop it. The cropping tool in the Development module is easy to use. Note, that you can also rotate the image with this tool. You can use a specific aspect ratio or a free format. For 90° rotations or flips, you should use the Edit menu instead.
You can set an angle for the rotation. If you click on the angle icon, you can drag a line on the image which will be used to level the image. This will also work for vertical lines.
An essential tool is Transform. It is often neglected how important straight horizons and vertical edges of buildings are. Images simply look more professionally if they are not slanted and skewed, unless this is done on purpose. In most images, it is easy to achieve exact alignments using the Auto mode in Transform. If that does not work properly, individual changes can be made with the sliders. Make sure you constrain the crop to the image with the checkbox.
Lightroom has a large database of lenses and can fix images automatically. Usually, it is sufficient to select Remove Chromatic Aberrations and Enable Profile Corrections. The setup mode should usually be Auto. For my lenses, this detects the proper camera and lens. For the 24-200 zoom lens, it will use the built-in profile as stored in the RAW file. You might need to set a specific lens if that does not work.
Make sure that you include the lens correction into the preset you want to apply to imports. If you needed to apply a specific lens, you should create a specific profile.
This dialog allows some changes which have a large impact, even if the image is viewed on a normal screen. You can remove noise here and sharpen the image. These two settings depend on each other in a subtle way. If you sharpen noise, it will look ugly.
The way to handle these sliders is to increase them carefully. You should use the necessary noise reduction, but only to the point where no real details are lost. The image must not start to look smoothened. The details slider in the noise reduction can be used to avoid the smoothened look of too much noise reduction. But simply to be careful with the amount of noise reduction is a good idea.
A good start for sharpening is 0.8 radius, 50%, 25 details, 25 masking. The mask is responsible for protecting areas with noise from sharpening. Sharpening should be applied only to edges. Hold the Alt (Option) key while you drag this slider to see the sharpened areas.
The details need to be lower than the default 25, if you see too many artifacts. Sharpening noisy details will create those artifacts. On APS-C cameras, 25 might be too high even for the lowest ISO settings. It is better to lose details than to create artificial ones.
Finally, be aware that pixel peeping at 100% magnification is not the way your photo will be viewed usually. A good idea is to use only 50% magnification all the time. If you select this once, it will be used in subsequent zooms. To zoom with 100%, you can use a keyboard shortcut instead of simply clicking into the image.
Lights and Shadows
These sliders in the basic settings are also to be used carefully. To learn what they do, keep an eye on histogram. Some prefer the tone curve, which can do the same effects. Or you can simply drag areas inside the histogram to adjust brightness levels.
The highlights slider is often abused. It should not automatically be set to the left edge. Slide it only as far as the lights in the image look natural. The same applies to the shadows slider. It is often not necessary to see every hue in the shadows. In fact, it is often distracting. Just use your taste.
The contrast slider can be replaced by the clarity slider. This does not make the shadows darker and the highlights brighter, and works only for the mid-tones. It can be easily overdone, just like the vibrance slider, by the way.
It is often a good idea to use a brush mask instead of applying these sliders globally. For the darkening and brightening of areas in the image, this procedure is called dodge and burn. But it can also be used to enhance edges, hairs and eyes with the clarity slider. These details tend to pop out more with a bit of clarity.
The new mask tool can set several masks with different adjustments for each of them. The mask tools are radial masks with circles or ellipses, aligned to the edges or rotated, linear gradients, brush masks, color and luminance ranges. There is also an option to select the sky or the motive in an image. Both work surprisingly well. The masks can also be intersected, so that parts can be subtracted from a mask, e.g. with the brush or by luminance.
Just to give one example, a vignette is simply created by creating a radial mask in the center of the image, stretched to the image format, inverted, and then darkened with the exposure slider. Another example would be to give the ground a more warm tone without harming the sky using a linear gradient.
There is also a healing tool. It is simple to use it. Just draw over the parts of the image you want to remove. Another part of the image will be inserted there. You can move the source area with the mouse.
Note that the brush can be enlarged and tightened with the mouse wheel. On the Mac, with a touchpad, you can drag two fingers instead.
The masking tool has presets for the brush, like "enhance skin tones" or "sharpness".
There is much more to say about Lightroom. The topics above are just a start. It is a lot of fun to learn all the various options. And then there is Photoshop, which offers even more ideas. You get it with the subscription to Lightroom. So use it!