A Crash Course to Editing Images in Adobe Lightroom

Kevin Lee

When your images aren’t up to snuff, there’s always photo-editing software

Photography can be impenetrable from the gear to actually shooting and then the image editing software is a whole other uphill battle. Even with Adobe introducing Lightroom as a lightweight Photoshop alternative, it can be daunting to see a screen full of sliders as a complete novice. To help get you from serial Instagramer to amateur photographer, here’s a crash course to making your images look great with just a few steps in Lightroom.

Why you should shoot in RAW

First off, before we get to editing any images, it’s super important to start shooting RAW format images in case you haven’t already. Unlike JPEGs, RAW files are uncompressed digital negatives that carry much more information. This in turn makes them easier to work with in Lightroom or any image editor. Thanks to this full allotment of the data packed into RAW files, you can fix more images otherwise destined for the trash heap such as blue-tinged messes or almost completely black frames.

If that wasn’t enough to sell you on shooting in RAW, this entire guide was done using the uncompressed format to show off and take advantage of the full image editing power of Lightroom.

Getting started

The first thing you’ll need to in Lightroom is to migrate your images of course. Upon starting Adobe Lightroom, navigate your mouse up to File and select “Import Photos and Video” (Ctrl+Shift+I). Another shortcut users can take advantage of is Lightroom will auto-detect any memory cards or cameras plugged into the computer.

Lightroom will automatically drop images into dated folders. Unfortunately (or fortunately for some) this is programmed into the software, but users can always rename their folders. More importantly keywording your photos will be an indispensable tool to manage, search, and organize your images.

Getting around inside lightroom

Once your images are all loaded into the library we can start editing one by clicking over (or hitting "D" on the keyboard) to the “Develop” screen. On the right edge of the screen users will find a list of settings that will allow them to tweak their images.

There’s a lot to take in with Lightroom’s interface, but the most important thing users will navigate to are the filmstrip along the bottom to navigate images. Clicking anywhere on the image displayed in the center window, meanwhile, will zoom into the frame.

Just beneath the featured picture there’s also a box designated with “X|Y” that will allow you to view the original image next to their processed counterpart. The button to the left of this aforementioned comparison toggle will return the window to normal, displaying only the final picture. Along the left side of the screen users will find a history log of all the edits made so far to each individual photo--and speaking of image settings, they’re all stacked on the right side of the window. At the bottom of this list of editing options there's also a handy "Previous" button to let users undo one chance or "Reset" to start all over again.

Fix your framing

Sometimes in the rush to capture that decisive moment there isn’t enough time to line up a perfect composition. But as long as the subject in the photo is in focus and your camera has enough megapixels, there’s always the option to crop the image.

The crop tool is located on right, underneath the histogram, and is designated by a boxed grid icon closest to the left. Depending on the shot it might be smart to cut away some of the background to isolate the subject. Alternatively, cropping could come in handy to remove a busy or boring background (otherwise known as negative space). Sticklers for completely level images can also bring their mouse cursor to the edge of the frame to rotate the picture as well.

Red Eye Correction

Red eyes and flash photography seem to be inseparable despite all our technological advances, but at least it has gotten incredibly easy to fix this niggling issue. Located just two icons to the right from the Framing icon, clicking on Red Eye Correction will give you a new cursor that you'll want to select any red eyes in the photo. After that Lightroom will use the point users select and auto detect red pupils.

White balance

Lighting is one of the toughest things in photography, especially when there’s a mix of sunlight and a blue hued lightbulb. Not only do the two different types of warm and cool light clash, they also completely throw off all the colors in your photos. With this in mind shifting the white balance should be one of the very first stops on your image editing train. Lightroom comes with a series of preset white balance settings just as cameras do with options such as daylight, shade, tungsten, and flash just to name a few.

There's also the option to have Lightroom figure it out all on its own and most of the time it does an admirable job of picking out the right type of lighting. In case anything still looks a little off, there are also sliders that users can move around. Each slider is fairly self explanatory—shifting the top knob leftwards will make the image take on a blue shade while shifting towards yellow will cause your image to take on a sepia tone. The one underneath splits the spectrum between green and violet.

For those wanting a bit more fine tuned control with a point-and-click solution users should select the eyedropper tool. Simply hover the dropper over to a neutral gray or white area and clicking it will have Lightroom take a best guess on white balance from that one spot.

Click on to the next page where we'll dive into more editing magic.

Getting to the Meat

Now that we’ve colored corrected the image and fixed up the composition, it's time to adjust the exposure. But before we start, there’s no hard and fast rule for what is the perfect image. It does not have to be a perfectly balanced image where everything in the frame is evenly illuminated. There’s nothing wrong with having harsh shadows or a blindingly bright spot—in fact it can actually be the thematic part of the picture you want to accentuate.

Without further ado, here’s are the main ways you can use Lightroom to manipulate your images.

  • Exposure: In a nutshell this lets users make the entire image brighter or darker.

  • Contrast: Contrast changes the difference between the bright and dark parts of the image. Lowering the contrast evens out the exposure making it helpful if the picture was caught with extremely dark and bright sections. As such it can help to restore parts of the frame caught in shadows, but the trade off is this can also cause the entire picture to turn gray. On the flipside making photos more contrasty will produce a harsher look and cause colors to intensify.

  • Highlights: Similar to affecting the brightness of the image, highlights specifically tones down the brightest parts of the frame. In most cases this could be useful for bringing back clouds lost in the blinding sunlight. Alternatively, photographers will want to tweak the highlights when photographing anything with a backlit screen or lights at night.

  • Shadows: On the flipside of highlights changing the shadows will brighten or darken any areas caught in shade.

  • Whites: Despite the fact we’ve already adjusted the bright parts of the frame, changing the White level in the image appears to do the same thing. Appears. What changing the white level really does is affect the lightest (or brightest) tones in the image, whereas highlights control the midtones in the frame.

  • Blacks: At the opposite end of the spectrum blacks dictate how the darkest part of the images look. This can be helpful to make sure dark colors aren't grayed out when you've already brightened up the shadows.

  • Auto Tone: Aside from setting all the parameters manually, Lightroom also has a handy Auto Tone tool. As with auto white balance, auto tone automatically adjusts the picture for what the program thinks will look best.

Time to get technical

Aside from the mix of sliders and staring at the image preview, a much more technical way of editing is using the histogram, which appears at the very top of the right side panel. Essentially it displays a graphical overview of the pictures’s full tonal range in which darker pixels fill out on the left side of as they lighten towards the right. Every edit we just explained can be done by clicking on parts of this histogram and dragging them around. Either way works so it's really up to your preference.

Making photos “pop”

The tonal curve isn’t all there is to editing images. Just underneath the exposure settings is something called presence. Starting with Clarity, users can increase the sharpness of their images or give them a dreamy, hazy quality. Saturation intensifies colors in the photo, which can be useful to bringing back some color on gray and cloudy days.

Vibrance does a similar job of intensifying colors except in a slightly smarter fashion than Saturation. Rather than uniformly bumping up the hues in the frame, Vibrance increases the intensity of muted colors whilst leaving already bright colors alone.

Next up Sharpening, Noise Reduction, Lens Correction, and more.

Detail control

Located in the "Detail" section below Lightroom’s "Basic" editing options you’ll find options to sharpen and reduce the noise of photos.


Firstly to quell any misconceptions, Sharpening won’t fix images for soft focus, camera shake, or any mistakes made at the time of taking the shot. Rather sharpening is a tool to accentuate details already in the photo. Just don’t over do it as over sharpening images introduces a slew of new problems including harsh edges, grainy noise, and smooth lines transforming into jagged zigzags.

There are four parameters when it comes sharpening images:

  • The Alt key: Well before we actually get started with any settings, holding down the Alt key is an invaluable tool that will give you a clearer, alternate view of what’s going on while you move around the sliders.

  • Amount: As you might have guessed this increases the amount of sharpening you add. This value starts at zero and as users get towards the high-end they will end up enhancing the noise in the image along with sharpening details.

  • Radius: Image sharpening mainly refines edges, but the Radius can be extended by a few pixels. In this case the radius number corresponds with the number of pixels Lightroom will apply sharpening around the edges in the picture. Having a high radius number will intensify details with a thicker edge.

  • Detail: The Detail slider determines how many edges on the image get sharpened. With lower values the image editor will only target large edges in the frame, meanwhile a value of a 100 will include every small edge.

  • Masking: Although every other slider has been about incorporating more sharpening into the image, masking does the opposite by telling Lightroom which areas should not be sharpened. Just keep in mind masking works best from image with an isolated background. The sharpening masks' effectiveness is significantly more limited with busy images, where there are edges everywhere.

Noise Reduction

Noise is unavoidable whether its due to shooting higher ISOs or a result from bumping up the exposure in post—luckily there’s a way to save images from looking like sandpaper.

  • Luminance: Our first stop towards reducing noise. Increasing this value will smooth over any stippling on the photo. Take care not to raise this too high as Lightroom will begin to sacrificing the detail and turn the picture into a soft mess.

  • Detail: In case users want to better preserve the sharp details in their image, they should increase the Detail slider.

  • Contrast: This is specifically used to tone down the amount of chromatic noise—typically green and red flecks that make their way into high ISO images. Unless there is colored noise in the image, it’s best to leave this set to 0.

Lens Correction

Moving on, we’re going to start correcting for imperfections in the lens by scrolling down the right sidebar to "Lens Corrections."

Lens profiles

Enter the round hole, square peg problem. No matter how well engineered an expensive lens is, it will always produce some amount of distortion thanks to the nature of curved lenses filtering light onto flat sensors. The good news is this is the easiest thing to correct for. Simply click on "Enable Profile Corrections" on the "Basic" pane of Lens Corrections and Lightroom will do the work for you. Witness as your images are automatically corrected for barrel distortion and vignetting (dark corners). It's pretty much fool proof unless of course Adobe has not made a Lens Profile for the lens you shot with. It also might not be necessary to always click this option on as some photos might look better with the vingetting and distortion.

Color Fringing

Fringing for who don’t know appears as a purple or blue and green outline when an object is captured against a bright background—the most common example being a tree limb with the bright sky behind it. It can be a minor quibble with photos in most cases but certain lenses fringe so badly it can make a scene look like it was outlined with a color pencil.

Luckily getting rid of fringing in Lightroom can be easy as spotting it and then clicking on it. To start, select the Color pane within the Lens Corrections and use the eyedropper just as we did with white balance. Usually fringing appears at points of high contrast so bring the cursor over to dark edges that meet a bright background. It might take a little bit of sniffing around but stay vigilant and you should be able to spot some misplaced purple or green-blue colors eventually. Some lenses are guilty of fringing terribly while others control it well, so it’s really up to you if the flaw is noticeable enough to merit correction.

Chromatic Aberration

Since we’re here anyway, go ahead and click on the option to remove chromatic aberration—another type of color fringing where wavelengths of light are blurring together—since it’s as simple as turning the option on.

You Can’t Save Them All

Despite how extensive this guide might appear, there’s even more editing magic to mine from Lightroom—we haven’t even gotten to making black and white images, or split toning! This is only a crash course to help you make your images look better and the only way to master photography is to keep on shooting and practicing.

In the same breath, however, we would recommend users should not use Lightroom as a crutch. Although Lightroom can do a lot to salvage poorly shot images, it’s no excuse to just shoot half-assed and expect to fix things up afterwards. Otherwise post processing will end up eating up most of the shooter's time and eventually they’ll realize that there are even certain images Lightroom can’t save (as evidenced by the one shown above). Image editing software can be a great help, but its no substitute for good old skilled photography.

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