Editing Tutorials: Lightroom Basics

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So, you took a nature photograph… and now you want to put it on Instagram and get a lot of likes. Well, first of all, let me be the first to congratulate you on your accomplishment, bravo! And let me also say, you have come to the right place. Before you ruin everything by posting lame photos to Instagram you made the smart decision and decided to learn how to edit your photos first, good job.

Editing your photos may seem daunting but once you get the hang of it things will make a lot more sense.

For these tutorials I will be editing only RAW files and performing all edits in Adobe Lightroom Classic. If you are editing a JPG and want to follow along, you can do so by importing your JPG into Lightroom or even more simply, just opening it in Photoshop and using the “Camera Raw Filter”. ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) and Lightroom Classic have identical functionality although the UI’s differ between them slightly.

Section One: Set up folders on your HDD where you will save and work with your pictures.

Make a folder on your computer to put your photos in and establish a system of organizing your photos. I actually went out a bought a 12 Terabyte HDD to store my photos on. I named this drive “D: Photos”. I know, very imaginative right? I then would create a folder on that drive called “Nature Photos”, and a subsequent folder named after your location such as “Alphie’s Backyard”. Then inside the location folder create a folder with the date and a descriptor like this: “2021-10-22_SquirrelInATree”. When you are done your directory structure should look like this:

  • Nature Photos
    • Alphie’s Backyard
      • 2021-10-22_SquirrelInATree
        • YOUR FILES FROM THAT DAY

Now every time you go to Alphie’s Dad’s Backyard and photograph squirrels, you would add a new folder with a new date inside the folder. Let us say you go back a couple days later and photograph a rabbit, your new structure would like this:

  • Nature Photos
    • Alphie’s Backyard
      • 2021-10-22_SquirrelInATree
      • 2021-13-22_RabbitHoppingAround
        • YOUR FILES FROM THAT DAY

Section Two: Getting started with Lightroom for the first time

Now that you understand how to organize your photos on your hard drive, I will assume you did the obvious and went ahead and did that and put your files you are going to edit in their as shown.

Now that you have your photos saved onto your computer it is time to open Adobe Lightroom Classic. This is what the logo looks like:

Now, using your mouse, click on the icon and the program will begin loading. When the program opens you should see something like this:

lightroom screenshot

The difference is I have a catalog open, if you have never used Lightroom you will need to create a catalog first! Doing that is simple, go to “File” and select “New Catalog”.

Browse to the folder where you want to save your catalog, I recommend just putting the catalog in the same folder as the root of the files you want to edit in that catalog. In this case your root folder is “Nature Photos”. In the file browser window that popped up after you hit “New Catalog” select your folder “Nature Photos” and press “Open” on the bottom right. After that, give your catalog a name, you can just make it something like this: “Nature Catalog 2021”. Then hit “Create” on the bottom right.

Here what the window looked like for me:

how to set up lightroom screenshot'

Once you have pressed “Create” you have created a catalog.

Of course, now is the exciting part, lets import your photos!

With your newly created catalog ready and waiting go to “File” and click “Import Photos and Video”. Why it says video I have no idea, Lightroom is not a video editing program!

Using the file browser at the left of the popup window navigate to where your photos are located on your computer. Once you find the folder with your images and click on it, the main windows will be populated with all the new files kind of like this:

lightroom import screen

A couple things to notice about this screen, you can check and uncheck the files to be imported, anything you uncheck will not be imported. For the most part there is no reason to try to do culling on this screen so by default I usually important all the files in a folder. If everything looks good to you just hit “Import” on the bottom right of the window and Lightroom will start importing the files. Depending on how many files and how fast your computer is, it may take it a few seconds to finish importing.

Once your files are imported you will be looking at the “Library” screen as shown below:

lightroom library screen'

Section 3: Beginning the process of developing our files.

On the menu at the top right where it says “Library”, “Develop”, “Map”, “Book”, etc., just click on “Develop” and we will begin the process of editing the images.

A note on digital developing:

Adobe calls it “Develop” but the truth is you are not developing in any way similar to how developing film works. The process of developing digitally is done to convert a RAW file to a bitmap image. Bitmap images are files like JPG, TIFF, PNG, GIF, etc. In a bitmap image the image data is stored as RGB pixel values. RAW data is stored differently, it is a special representation of the sensor data that allows it to be transformed in certain ways without any degradation. Additionally, there is no defined limit for the bit depth of a RAW file, they can be 32 bits if need be, although most cameras will max out in the 12-to-16-bit range. Most bitmap formats support less than 16 bits. Formats like JPEG in particular are currently limited to 8 bits (nothing you see on the internet or Instagram is higher than 8-bits). Since RAW file image data is not stored as RGB pixel values, we have to use programs like Lightroom to convert to a bitmap image that you can use in most other programs and the internet. Sometimes you may see programs that are not RAW converters show a preview of RAW files. Usually when this happens it is because the RAW file contains a JPG image inside of it. This allows different programs to display a preview of the RAW file. Many Canon cameras allow you to choose to shoot RAW + JPG which is a RAW file with a JPG saved inside of it for the purpose of previews. Most other brands also support this functionality in their cameras.

RAW files are also brand specific and there is no defined standard for RAW files. Because of that new cameras will often introduce changes to RAW data requiring the software (such as Lightroom) to be upgraded.

Once you are on the “Develop” tab you can now begin the process of choosing a file to edit. I like to browse my files with the filmstrip at the bottom of the screen as shown below:

lightroom develop screen

As you browse through your photos you can assign them a star rating based on how well you like each picture. To do that simply hit one of the number keys from 1 – 5. If you hit the number 5, you will assign 5 stars to the image. 5 stars is the maximum rating indicating that this is a favorite image that you want to edit. Rating something a 1 would usually indicate the image is not worth keeping as it is badly out of focus or simply wrong in a way that makes you hate it.

Go ahead and go through your images and assign some ratings. To be honest, I do not usually bother rating anything other than 5-star images. If it is not 5 stars it is no stars, that is just how I view my work.

One thing you want to do while going through images is to try and see the picture within the picture. Consider how cropping, editing, or leveling the horizon could improve the image. Perhaps you have some 5-star images hiding around in your files that are just waiting to be revealed with a smart crop. (I will demonstrate this in a moment.)

Section 4: Some basic editing tools and techniques

Once you have found an image you want to edit, we can now proceed to editing the image.

I picked out the image I want, here it is below:

photo of an elk at 200mm canon R5 with RF 70-200

This image was taken with a 70-200mm zoom at f/2.8. There are a few things wrong with it although it is a pretty cool image as it is. The first thing wrong is the street cone on the right side of the image, that is kind of distracting from the immediacy of the subject matter. You could photoshop it out, but I feel the image would still be somewhat editorial in nature with the various elements that are present. There is the obvious road in the foreground, and the second elk to the right of our subject. While these elements add a sense of place and time, the thing that is driving this image is the central character not these other elements. So, I will crop in much tighter to remove what I feel are the unnecessary parts.

After messing with it a bit I ended up with the following crop:

photo of an elk at 200mm canon R5 with RF 70-200

I will pretend to put this on Instagram, so I went with a vertical 8×10 ratio crop. You might be wondering what the crop tool is and how it works, here are some of the crop tool basics:

lightroom editing tips

Let us hope that made sense and you now have a cropped image. The next thing to do is to observe it, are you happy with what you did? I hope so. BTW, my crop is a little tight because I am putting this on Instagram, we are going for “wow” on a tiny phone screen, hopefully we get there! You always want to think about how your audience will view your images. If they are on phones you may need to crop things in a bit more to get people’s attention.

When I look at my image after a little bit, I notice something slightly wonky, the head is tilted like a millimeter. To fix the issue I used the Loupe Overlay to add guides as shown below:

lightroom editing tips

With the Loupe Overlay’s “Guides” activated I place a guide directly over the Elk’s eyes and straightened the image with the crop tool until it looks like the eyes are in perfect alignment. Doing this will activate the Elk’s supernatural powers.

Anyway, you can move the guides around by holding CTRL and clicking on them and dragging them. The guides can be super useful for things like aligning images, particularly when shooting architectural photos. Rather than eyeballing it you can use a guide to determine whether the image is straight or not.

You can also use the guides as an assist for fixing distortion. While Lightroom can attempt to automatically correct distortion in the image, those corrections are based on static parameters. Unfortunately, the way lens distortion works is often much more complicated than a simple parameter can fix. You will usually have to manually adjust the distortion sliders to get closer to perfectly straight lines in your images. In those cases, overlaying the guides on the straight lines can help you easily see if your image distortion is corrected or not.

Once you are done using the guides, if necessary, you can turn them off or move them out of the way.

Now we are finally ready to start adjusting the image!

In the right-hand panel expand the “Histogram” and the “Basic” editing tools, you should see something like this:

the basics panel in lightroom

Most of what we will do to the image will occur with the basic toolset.

When you look at your image try to understand what bothers you about it. Are the colors off? Did you mess up your white balance? Let us pretend you messed up the white balance. What you can try is going to the white balance tools in the basics panel, those are located near the top of the panel. The easy way to see them is to look for the eyedropper tool. Look directly to the far right of the eye dropper tool and click the tiny drop-down menu and select “Auto”. When you choose “Auto” Lightroom will try to adjust the white balance for you, usually this looks pretty bad, but it can be a good starting point if your white balance is way off.

Here is what my image looks like with “Auto” selected shown next to the unadjusted image:

photo of an elk at 200mm canon R5 with RF 70-200

I have learned that the best way to deal with white balance is to avoid the idea of making it look perfect and focus on making it look how you want it to look. However, I always like to start from a correct white balance before I make it look how I want it to look. For me that makes it easier to know how far from “real” I am getting.

Hopefully, you can see in the two images above that the auto white balance image is less yellow and less magenta. That can be expressed as the opposite as being bluer (the opposite of yellow) and greener (the opposite of magenta). As such, the two main controls for white balance shift the image between blue and yellow tint, or magenta and green tint. Below are some visual examples, please note the different settings for the white balance sliders:

white balance comparison in lightroom

As you can see, the white balance sliders can allow some drastic adjustments, you might even like how some of these look. While white balance only does one thing really, it makes it easier to edit your image if you get it set properly before doing the bulk of the editing. It can also be a quick way to get a feel for what is in the image by just dragging it around.

Ok, how about the rest of the tools in the “Basic” panel? What we have in here are a variety of sliders that all adjust different parameters of the image, most of them are pretty self-explanatory. If you drag them to the left, they reduce, and if you drag them to the right they increase.

When I look at my image it appears a little too dark to me, so I am going to do a couple different things to fix that.

First, I am going to go into my “Tone Curve” panel and bring up the pure blacks. This is a trick called a “matte” look. I like to avoid letting the darkest blacks go to true 100% black so I lift the very leftmost point on the graph just a bit as you can see in the next image:

lightroom tone curve tips

I lifted the blacks a bit and added some contrast. And if you notice in the “Basic” panel, I also dropped the highlights by the maximum amount.

Now the image is still pretty boring so there are some problems here. It is very monotone. To fix that I am going to bump up the saturation. I also want to find the division between yellow and blue in the image so I will move my white balance more towards blue. Additionally, the Elk’s face and neck fur are looking really dark, so I am going to use the “Shadows” and “Blacks” slider to bring those tones up substantially.

Now I have this:

photo of an elk at 200mm canon R5 with RF 70-200

Yep, now I am starting to feel the elk power! One thing I really like here is the blue in the shaded parts of the antlers, I think bringing some focus on that will draw attention upward through the antlers kind of like blue fire rising into the air.

While I probably could stop here and have a perfectly valid image, I think we need more oomph. It is incredibly competitive out there on Instagram, you got to stand out!

Next, I am going to open up the HSL/Color panel and adjust some individual color tones. Like I said earlier, I like the separation between blue and yellow in this image, so I am going to play that up heavily with the HSL sliders like so:

lightroom ui tips

If you look at the sliders in the HSL panel it may look like I experimented a lot to come up with this, but by using the point editing tools that allow you to click and drag on the image to adjust the colors, I was done in literally 4 clicks of the mouse.

After doing that I had the following image:

photo of an elk at 200mm canon R5 with RF 70-200

The Elk has risen!

I think we are about done with the editing part of this tutorial so let us take a minute to look at the differences in our image.

Here is the initial uncropped image:

photo of an elk at 200mm canon R5 with RF 70-200

And here is a before and after comparison of our crops:

The important takeaway from all this is that editing can reveal things in our images that are not visible initially. What was once a somewhat drab shot was transformed into a dramatic and colorful image. Which one do you think is going to capture more attention on Instagram???

It also shows just how much data our cameras can capture now. There are more colors than you realize everywhere, and the cameras are doing an impressive job picking it all up.

BTW I shot this with a Canon EOS R5 and the RF 70-200mm f/2.8 zoom lens in case you were wondering.

Section 5: Exporting from Lightroom

The final step for our image is to export it for Instagram. Since we already chose a 4×5/8×10 aspect ratio exporting is pretty simple. First, select your image in the Filmstrip, with your image selected you can do one of 3 things, either right-click the image and choose “Export…”, go to the “File” menu and choose “Export…” or use the keyboard command CTRL + SHIFT + E.

Once you are in the export dialog all you have to do is figure out where to save your image, what to name it, and what resolution to make it. The resolution for a vertical portrait on Instagram is 1080×1350 so we know that at least. Where you want to save it and what you want to name it are entirely up to you. What I have done is created a folder on my HDD called “Instagram Wildlife” and I put my file in there.

Check out the rest of the export settings I used for this in the image below:

lightroom export dialog box

Most of it is pretty self-explanatory. The only thing I will elaborate on is the Output Sharpening section. I always choose to Sharpen For: “Screen” with Amount: “Low” when posting to Instagram.

That is about it for the Lightroom Editing Basics tutorial. Now you are well prepared to take the Lightroom + Photoshop advanced editing tutorials.

Good luck and happy shooting!

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