Are you starting out with digital photography and looking to improve your post-processing skills? If so, you’ll want to learn the basics of Adobe Lightroom – a software program designed for basic and advanced photo editing.
People new to digital photo editing (or the Digital Darkroom) can be intimidated by complex applications like Lightroom. However, the skills you need to succeed are truly straightforward and easy to understand.
This guide will teach you some basics of the Lightroom beginner workflow. We’ll go into importing images, essential editing adjustments, and wrap up how to export your updated images. You’ll also learn tips on using Lightroom’s different features to get the most out of your photos. So if you’re ready to take your photography to the next level, read on!
What is Lightroom, and What Can it do for Photographers?
Lightroom is a software program for photo editing (also known as post-processing). Post-processing is the work you do to make an image look more like how you remember the scene – to add emotion and tell the story. This is done by modifying the image’s crop, tone, and presence so that the person viewing the image understands what you want to show.
A huge advantage to using Lightroom to process your photos is that all of the edits you do are “non-destructive”. That means you make changes to your photos without modifying the original file. Lightroom does this by saving all of the modifications to your photographs in a separate file. The original images stay unmodified. This way, you can “roll back” some or all of your changes at any time, create a new copy, and start over with different changes.
Another great advantage that Lightroom has over other photo editing tools is its integrated catalog. The catalog incorporated into the application means you have a built-in tool to organize your image library. Before I started using Lightroom, I couldn’t tell you the number of times that I had a panic attack thinking I’d lost an image. But now, with all my images tracked by a catalog, I only have to use Lightroom’s search tool to quickly locate a photo.
This can be confusing, but there are three different versions of Lightroom –
- Lightroom Classic (desktop)
- Lightroom CC (cloud-based)
- Lightroom Mobile (cloud-based)
The most significant difference between the applications is where the images are stored. The Classic version saves the images to your computer’s drive, whereas the CC and Mobile versions store their photos in Adobe’s Creative Cloud cloud storage service.
Fortunately, Lightroom Classic does have an option to sync selected images with Creative Cloud, so you can quickly transfer and edit your photos to all three versions.
Basics Which Version of Lightroom Should I Use?
If you’re just getting started using a DSLR or Mirrorless camera and have a laptop or desktop computer, I recommend using Lightroom Classic. It’s the most straightforward version to use, and it has the most features. If your photography is more smartphone (iPhone or Android) based, I’d suggest going with Lightroom CC.
The editing capabilities for all of the versions are practically identical. There are still a few of Classic’s features absent from the CC & Mobile versions, but most users won’t miss them:
- no plugin support
- no support for external hardware (e.g., camera tethering, Wacom tablets, etc.)
- no modules for generating slideshows, books, or web galleries
- no smart collections
In my case, I’m used to using my desktop computer, so my preference is to use Lightroom Classic with sync enabled. I have Creative Cloud sync enabled, so I can easily transfer and edit photos in Lightroom Mobile on my iPad using the Apple Pencil.
For more information, I take a deeper dive into the differences between Lightroom CC and Classic in this article.
Do I Have to Use Photoshop too?
No, Photoshop is a separate program that brings many more capabilities to your digital darkroom, but for beginners, Lightroom is powerful enough for most tasks.
Using Lightroom Classic
Lightroom Classic’s application interface is divided into seven modules: Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, and Web. Most of the activity of post-processing takes place in the Library and Develop modules, so we’ll focus on those in this article. The other five are pretty useful, and we can cover those at a later time. For now, here’s a quick overview of the modules.
The Library Module
The main focus of the Library module is to import and manage your photos. It is where you do keyword tagging, sorting, and organization of the images in the catalog.
Across the bottom of the screen, Lightroom shows all the images in the currently selected folder. On the left, you will see panels for Navigator, Catalog, and Folders. On the right, you will see the details of the currently selected image.
The Develop Module
The Develop module is where you edit photos. The image is displayed in the middle of the screen. As the image is edited, you can see your changes reflected in real time. Any modifications you make to the image are stored in the catalog and will be applied the next time you edit the photo.
Across the bottom of the screen, Lightroom shows all the images in the currently selected folder. On the left, you will see panels for Navitagor, Presets, Snapshots, History, and Collections. On the right, you will see panels of the image’s histogram followed by all the editing tools (all the fun stuff happens here).
The Map Module
The Map module is where you can add GPS information to your images. I honestly don’t use this module very often, as there is rarely a case where I want to share the location of an image. That being said, the interface is relatively straightforward. You use the module to search for a location on the map (similar to Google Maps) and drag one or more images onto the map. The GPS coordinates for the image are then set to that location.
The Book Module
The Book module allows you to layout books for print. I have experimented with this capability a little and talked with other photographers that I’ve used it, which seems pretty nifty. You use this module to lay out photography books or wedding albums with photos and text. When you are done with the layout, you can print it as a PDF or send it off to Blurb to be published. I’ll cover this in a future article.
The Slideshow Module
The Slideshow module is handy. It allows you to create standalone slideshows from your library, attach music, do crossfades, etc. Then export it to an MP4 video that can be played on most media devices. It’s great for showing an event recap or displaying your portfolio. More on this module later as well.
The Print Module
The Print module is used to print your images on a photo printer. I use this quite a bit, and it is pretty complex and beyond what I will cover in this article. Again, I’ll do a whole post (or multiple posts) on this soon.
The Web Module
The Web module in Lightroom Classic lets you create web-based “photo galleries”. It will generate an HTML page of thumbnail versions of images with links to larger versions of the photos. After you finish your gallery, export the files to your computer and then upload the gallery to a web server.
I don’t use this module at all. I honestly don’t see the point of it.
How to Use Lightroom Classic
Now that you know what Lightroom is, which version you should use, and have it installed – let’s take a look at how to use it. (Check out this quick tutorial if you need help installing any of the versions).
There are three primary activities you will need to learn to use Lightroom well, and they are very easy to learn:
I’ll cover the basics of these actions below using Lightroom Classic and will go over them in-depth in future articles. But for now, let’s just cover the basic activities.
How to Import Images into Lightroom Classic
Importing is how you get images into Lightroom’s catalog. The process of importing copies of your pictures from a camera’s SD card to your computer’s disk and registering the location of your image files with the catalog.
Note – If your computer does not have an SD card reader, you might be able to connect your camera directly to your computer using a USB cable. If that’s not an option, you can easily get an external USB SD card reader and connect it to your computer.
Here are some great readers from Anker that I use –
SD Card Reader for USB-A
SD Card Reader for USB-C
The catalog contains the image’s file name and details, a thumbnail, and the changes you make to the images. It’s important to know that the images are not stored in the catalog. They will always remain on the disk in their original form.
Tip – It’s important not to move the images once imported. Lightroom will lose track of the original. If you need to move files, you can do it from Lightroom’s Library folder view, something I’ll also cover in a later article.
When Lightroom Classic is running, the application monitors your computer for memory (SD) cards. When one is detected, the application automatically goes into import mode. If it doesn’t do this for you, select the Library module from the top menu and then click the Import button in the lower-left corner of the screen.
The import screen will show all of the images on the SD card. It allows you to select all or some photos to import into the catalog.
Once your selection is complete, click the Import button on the lower left. Lightroom will process the selected images, copy them to your computer’s drive, and register them in the catalog.
Lightroom Import Settings
You have some choices regarding how Lightroom will process the imported images. The checkboxes and settings in the right panel should be set to –
- Build Previews – standard
- Build Smart Previews – checked
- Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates – checked
- Make a Second Copy To – unchecked ( this is something we will cover later)
- Rename Files – unchecked
- Keywords – A comma-separated set of keywords to use for these images
- Destination Organize – By date
- Date Format – 2022/2022-06-22 (this will make a new sub folder based on the date the image was taken)
- Then select the folder you will always use to put your images under ( for me that’s /greg/pictures )
Note – This is the one place where Lightroom may alter your images. If you are shooting in RAW format (and I recommend using RAW), Lightroom will translate the image to a DNG format. The reason for this is that since every camera manufacturer uses its own proprietary RAW image format, Adobe wants to change them to DNG for future compatibility. There’s a fair bit of debate about this but just go with it when starting out. I’ll discuss this later.
How to Organize Images in Lightroom
As a beginner learning the Lightroom basics, I suggest you keep to one catalog and one location on your hard disk. Then, as shown above, import the images into a file structure arranged by date. This is the most straightforward strategy to organize your photos.
In another article, I will expand on the possible strategies for using –
- multiple catalogs
- multiple disks
- folders by event/customer name
But for now, KISS – don’t try to get too complex when learning a new tool.
Note – I’m still keeping it simple and have 87,000 + images in my only catalog. I don’t worry about it because Lightroom automatically makes weekly backups of the catalog. Additionally, I back the catalog up to the cloud. So if anything ever happens to my computer, I can download the catalog and restore my image updates.
Using Lightroom’s Library Module
I’ve already covered one of the primary operations in the Library module, importing and organizing images. The other main use of the Library is to locate the photos you want to work with.
There are two main ways to locate images. The first is using the “Previous Import” item in the catalog panel. Clicking on this will show all the pictures in the last import. The other method uses the Folders panel to locate the image by its location. Selecting any folder will display all the images in that folder and any subfolders.
You can also use the search tool to locate an image by name (or any text field in its metadata) or attribute (e.g., stars, flags, keywords). This can be handy when you start adding keywords, titles, and descriptions to your photos.
Once a set of images is displayed, select it by clicking on it or bring it to single image mode by double-clicking it. You can always get back to the Library grid by typing “g” on the keyboard or clicking on Library in the menu.
When an image is selected, you can see all the metadata on the right. There’s a whole load of info here, and we can dive into it in another post.
Now that you have an image selected, it’s time to move into the fun stuff.
Tip – In any of Lightroom’s modules, you can hide the left, right, or bottom sidebars by clicking on the little triangle next to it on the edge of the screen. This will give you more “screen real estate” to work on your images. Hovering over the triangle will make the sidebar temporarily appear. Clicking it again will restore the sidebar.
Using Lightroom’s Development Module
Once you select an image, the Develop module is where you do all of your photo editing. You access the Development module by pressing “d” on the keyboard or clicking on Development in the menu.
I will take you through a simplified version of my editing process for Lightroom Basics. I try to start working on global changes and then work on local adjustments.
Here’s the order to work in –
- Lens Corrections
- Crop and Straighten
- Basic Edits
Tip – You can press the “\” (forward slash) key at any time in the development module to toggle seeing the original image. Additionally, you can press the “f” to see the image in full-screen mode. These are great ways to review how your edit is coming along.
When making your first edits to an image, it’s important to jump down to the Lens Corrections panel and ensure that both Remove Chromatic Aberration and Enable Profile Correction are checked. These tools do some major magic for your image.
Remove Chromatic Aberration, removes any green or purple fringing around the contrasty edges in your image. These colors can be caused by poor lens quality or shooting into bright areas. CA is a visual distraction, and this tool pretty much removes it with one click.
Enable Profile Correction adjusts the distortions caused by different lenses. Lightroom will look at the lens metadata in the image, locate corrections needed, and apply them. Again, one easy click to remove a visual annoyance.
Tip – If you want to see how these tools changed the image, just click on the toggle to the left of the title to turn the tool on and off. On some lenses, it’s a significant change!
Cropping Images in Lightroom
It’s best in Lightroom to get basic cropping and straightening done at the beginning. That way, you won’t be working on parts of the image that are not part of the final work.
Enter the crop tool by clicking on the crop icon (looks like a box with arrows next to it). When cropping, you can use your mouse to change the outer edge of the image area to reduce what will be shown in the final photo.
You can also straighten it manually. By moving the mouse to the right or left of the image, you will see the cursor change to the rotation tool. Holding the mouse button will let you rotate the image to ensure that any strong lines (horizons, trees, edge of walls, etc.) are truly horizontal or vertical.
To apply any changes to the Crop or Straighten tools, just hit the return key or press the Done button
The first panel in the Develop module is the histogram. This shows a graph of the image’s tonal range from black on the left to white on the right. For beginning users, it’s a great way to see if you have any “blown-out” highlights or shadows. Blown-out is when all color is lost in a part of the image and is simply all black or white. Keep an eye on the histogram as we work down the editing sliders. You’ve probably moved a slider too far if you see the graph all bunched up on one side.
All the adjustments in the Lightroom Basics panel are made using simple sliders. To use them, moving left lowers the value and to the right increases it. Double-clicking on the slide’s name will reset the value to the center.
And just like on any modern editor, you can also undo any action by pressing cmd/ctrl-Z
Updating White Balance
White balance sets the warm or cool tone of the colors. I suggest setting this to Auto from the drop-down for most situations. If you want to try it manually, you can select the eyedropper and click on something you know is white in the image.
Editing the Tone
The tone section allows you to modify the brightness and darkness of different image areas. This can help to recover overly bright skies or dark shadowed areas in the image.
Again, start by hitting the Auto button in tone and see what Lightroom suggests for the image. I often do this and then hit cmd/ctrl-Z to undo it so I can see Lightroom’s suggestion.
Editing the image’s tone is a little up to you and a little up to the histogram. You are striving to get most of the tone into the center of the histogram.
Use the histogram in the upper left to pay attention to how the light is distributed throughout the image. In general, you want to see a fairly even distribution of light across the whole graph. When you use the auto button, this is what Lightroom is trying to do for you. In most cases, it will get you close, but you will have to make a few more tweaks to the tone to dial in the correct feel for the image.
Histogram – Before and After using the Tone Auto function
Once you start manually updating the tone sliders, you can modify the amount of light in the image’s highlights, whites, shadows, and blacks. You can see the histogram change in real time as you make the adjustments.
Tip – When moving the tone sliders, Lightroom will highlight the histogram section related to the value you are changing. Paying close attention to the shape of the graph as you adjust the image will help you learn how your changes relate to the light in the photo.
Lightroom has a terrific tool called the Clipping Warning Overlay to help you dial the changes to the highlights and shadows. You almost never want to have parts of your image completely white or black. When you do that, these areas are called “blown out”, and there will be no detail in those locations.
To help with this, Lightroom has a tool called Clipping Warnings. It will overlay colored areas where the highlights or shadows are blown out. It will show a blue overlay where shadow areas are too dark and a red overlay where highlights that are too bright. To toggle Clipping Warnings on and off, press the “j” key or click on the triangles at the top of the histogram.
Here’s what I do for most images. With the Clipping Warnings on, I make a slight adjustment to the exposure slider, increasing or decreasing it to move the histogram peaks to the center.
Then I adjust the Highlights and Shadows sliders so that the red and blue overlay colors are barely there. This gives me the maximum dynamic range in the image.
Finally, I will make small changes to the Black, White, or Contrast sliders until I feel the correct tone.
Editing the Presence
Now that the tone is correct, it’s time to blow it up with the Texture, Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation sliders.
Texture and Clarity have similar effects. They create sharpness or softness around the edges of items in the photo. The effect will be different for every image. Texture targets smaller items (hair, cracks, wrinkles), whereas Clarity works on larger items (faces, eyes, large patches of color).
For female and children’s portraits, I take them down a little; for male portraits, I increase them a little; for nature photography, I increase Texture and Clarity. Pushing these settings above or below 20 on the slider is too much for me.
Vibrance and Saturation also have similar effects, and it will be up to how you want the photo to look. Beginning Lightroom users are prone to overuse these settings. The temptation is to make your image “pop.” So be careful with these sliders. Pushing them above 20 is probably too much. However, you can create interesting looks by decreasing the Vibrance or Saturation.
I didn’t lump Dehaze in with Texture and Clarity because it’s a different animal. Dehaze works well for removing or adding a little fog or haze to an image. A little bit goes a long way, so don’t abuse this slider.
This is another topic that I will cover in detail in another article. Getting into the details involves using the masking tools. For beginning users, I would suggest going into the mask tool, selecting the sky or the subject, and applying minor adjustments.
How to Export Photos from Lightroom
Once you’ve finished editing your pictures, the next step is to do something with them. Let’s export them to the disk so you can share them with others.
To export one image, just click on it. To select more than one, press the cmd/ctrl key and click on the images you want to export. Then right-click, select “Export,” or select Export from the File menu. Lightroom comes with some predefined export settings (you can create more – yes, that will be another article). For your first export, select “Export for email (hard drive)”, and the images will be saved as JPG images in your chosen folder.
I hope that this tutorial has helped get you started with Adobe Lightroom basics and that you can start using it to organize your photos and edit them with a little more confidence. There are many more things I don’t have room to discuss in this post; keep an eye out for further Lightroom tutorials and tips as I dive further into the subject.
The other panels that we’ll discuss further in the following article are:
- Tone Curve
- Details & Masking
- Spot Removal
- Red-Eye Reduction
- Black and White
- Using Presets
Thanks for reading, and please ask any questions in the comments field, which I will happily answer.
Lightroom is not available as a standalone application for your computer. Adobe’s subscription model starts at $9.99 monthly or roughly $120 yearly. I know this seems like a lot, but it’s a deal based on what you get and how expensive the standalone licenses used to cost.
Adobe offers three different subscription plans for photographers:
1) Photography Plan with 20GB cloud storage – $9.99 per month
This plan includes Photoshop, Lightroom Classic, and Lightroom. It’s is perfect if you intend to use Lightroom and Photoshop. You can activate and remain signed in to the app(s) on up to two computers, but you can only be active on one computer at a time.
2) Photography Plan with 1TB cloud storage – $19.98
Same as the base Photography Plan with both Lightroom versions and Photoshop, but with 1TB cloud storage included. You’ll need this plan if you intend to use Lightroom CC heavily and will be storing all your images in the cloud. Tip – You can start with the 20GB version and upgrade to this one when you need extra storage.
3) Lightroom only with 1TB cloud storage – $9.99
This is a good plan if you only want to use Lightroom CC. It costs the same as the basic Photography Plan and includes 1TB of cloud storage. The drawback is that you do not get access to Lightroom Classic or Photoshop.
Tip – You can get a 70% discount if you’re a student or a teacher. See Adobe for details.
Keyboard Shortcuts in Lightroom
Here are the keyboard shortcuts that I use most often :
- G – Go to the Library/grid view.
- D – Go to the Develop module
- \ – View original image in Develop module
- J – Toggle clipping overlay in Develop module
- F – View image full screen
- R – Go to the Develop module and activate the Crop tool
- X – Rotate the Crop (e.g. 4×5 to 5×4)
Is There Any Way to Get Lightroom for Free?
Yes, Lightroom Mobile is a free app for iOS and Android. You can download and use it on your mobile device or tablet at no charge. By downloading the free app, you’ll be able to use all the editing features. You can access all the photos in your device’s photo library (iCloud or Google), but won’t be able to sync to the cloud or use any of Adobe’s extended features without a license.
Can I Purchase a One-Time License for Lightroom?
Adobe switched Lightroom’s license model to subscription-only in 2017, so that is the only legitimate way to get a copy of the software. If you find someone on the internet offering a one-time or perpetual purchase license, it’s a scam. If you buy the software, it will be an outdated and unsupported version of the software –
DO NOT BUY IT
In reality, Adobe’s license for Lightroom ran about $120 and new versions came out every other year or so. In the subscription model, for $120 a year you get both Lightroom and Photoshop, so that’s a deal in most people’s opinion. You may not start out using Photoshop, but eventually, you will.
Tip – Adobe has an excellent camera app called PS Camera that you should check out.