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How to Use Lightroom – Introduction for Beginners

How to Use Lightroom - Featured image

Are you ready to take your photos to a new level? Venturing into the world of post-production can feel daunting at first. The rewards are immense, and you may very quickly find Lightroom indispensable.

Lightroom Classic is a very powerful and efficient program specifically targeted towards working with photography. Essentially, it is an all-in-one program for photo management and photo editing.

It will take you from importing your images to culling, managing your photo library, and editing images, to exporting your final photographic files.

After reading this you will have a solid introduction to all the key areas of Lightroom Classic. You will also be ready to dive in and start organizing and editing your own images.

What is the difference between Lightroom Classic and Lightroom?

You may have noticed that Lightroom comes in a couple of forms. So, let’s get this straight.

Adobe Lightroom Classic (LrC) is the version we are focusing on here. This refers to the full-featured desktop application. It is the version serious or professional photographers will tend to use.

Adobe Lightroom (Lr) on the other hand is the newer cloud-based app. It is designed with consistent tools and the ability to sync your images across multiple devices.

In casual conversion, many people simply say Lightroom for short, regardless of which version they use.

Both are available via a monthly subscription plan with Adobe. You will need to sign for a Creative Cloud account with Adobe, then download and install the software.

Let’s get started by taking a look at an overview of Lightroom Classic, and what it is used for.

What is Lightroom Classic, and how does it work?

Lightroom Classic is a RAW photo processor. However, you can certainly edit your JPEGs in Lightroom as well. Lightroom also handles TIFF, PSD, Photoshop large document format (PSB), DNG, and PNG files. It can import some video formats too.

All editing which takes place in Lightroom is stored as a record of changes, or instructions to be applied to the photos. This makes the editing non-destructive. Your original photo files are never altered.

There are some clear advantages to working in this way. You can more easily browse through and share edits across multiple images. Plus, overall, you won’t need as much hard drive space, as complete new image files are only created when the finalized files are exported.

This is in contrast to other photo editing programs like Photoshop where a new copy of the photo file is created at the beginning of the editing process.

Lightroom Classic has streamlined the workflow of many photographers, as it is excellent for managing large numbers of images.

For more complex editing, Photoshop can be easily used in conjunction with LrC. When you are starting out, stick to Lightroom.

Understanding the different modules

Once you have opened Lightroom Classic, you will see at the top right of the interface a list of areas. Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, Web.

In the documentation, these are referred to as different modules. They function much like tabs, and you can shift from one area to another to perform different tasks.

The two key modules to know are Library and Develop. This is what we will focus on here.

The Library module is for importing and organizing. Develop is where you edit your images.

You do not need to learn the ins and outs of all seven modules to use LrC effectively. Many photographers won’t go beyond Library and Develop. The remaining modules are primarily geared towards ways of presenting your images.

Navigating Lightroom Classic

Each module has its own tools to work with. These are arranged in panels along the right and left edges of the interface. In the center is the main workspace.

At the bottom is a long panel called the film strip. When you have multiple images open, they will all line up here. Scroll sideways to navigate between the images.

The three-panel areas around the central workspace can be shown or hidden as you please. Just click on the small triangle in the middle along each edge of the interface.

Scroll up and down to see all of the panels available at the sides. There is a small triangle at the top of each panel. Click this to hide and show the relevant options. The panel titles always remain visible.

You will notice that the menu options also change when moving between modules. There are shortcuts for a lot of the commonly used menu items, and once you learn these you won’t need the menus so often. The majority of work is done with the panels on the righthand side.

Now let’s get into the details of the main modules.

The Library Module

If you are just starting, there won’t be anything to navigate here until you import some photos. Your original files do not need to be on your internal hard drive. They can be on external hard drives.

How to import images into Lightroom Classic

Step 1: Click on the Import button at the bottom of the left side panels.

Import Button
Import Button

Step 2: Use the Source panel at the left to navigate to where the photos you want to import are located. You can import a single photo, or many images within a folder, or nested folders.

select a source
select a source

Step 3: Select how you want the files imported.

Add is the default option and will be highlighted at the center top of the interface. This option will keep the original files where they are when importing. Select this if your photo files are already located where you want them on one of your hard drives.

Import Method
Import Method – Add

If you are importing your files directly from a camera card, select Copy and then use the Destination panel on the right side to select where you want them copied. You can also choose to move the files, or convert them to a DNG.

Import Method - 2
Import Method – Copy

Step 4: Select the photos you want to import.

You will see in the central workspace that Lightroom will automatically show you all the image files it sees which can be imported. There is a check box at the top left of each image. Make sure there is a check on every image you want to import.

Check or Uncheck all with the buttons at the center bottom.

Step 5: Once you have selected the files you want to import, click the Import button at the bottom right.

Import Definitions
Import Definitions

This is the basic process for importing your files. Lightroom also allows you to perform certain operations to the images during import. Once you are confident using LrC, you could also apply some edit options or add metadata to organize your files automatically when importing them.

How to manage and organize your images

Once you have some files imported you can start organizing them. The two primary devices for managing images in LrC are keywording and Collections.

There is lots to know about getting the most out of these tools. Here are the basics to get you started and acquaint you with what Lightroom Classic does.

Keywording

Add keywords about the content or location of your images, so it is easier to locate specific files when you need them. Without keywords to search by, relevant photos may sit lost and forgotten in your archive.

But, they go beyond this. The keywords you add stay with your images when you export them and can be read by other programs and systems. Keywords can make it easier for your images to be found online, and are essential when submitting to stock photography agencies.

Add keywords to your images using the Keywording panel found on the right. Keywords are entered using commas to separate each term. To get the most out of keywords they should be used in a consistent manner. If you are not in the habit of keywording your images, then you might want to think about the best strategy for you to use.

Catalogs and Collections

Your Catalog and Collections are in panels on the left side.

When you begin, any images you import will be added to your Lightroom Catalog. This is where a record of all of your edits is stored. The Catalog is normally located on your internal hard drive. You will want to have just a single Lightroom Catalog. Don’t add more without good reason and forethought.

In the Folders panel, you will see a file structure which mirrors the drives on your computer. You can locate files in your Catalog by navigating to where they are located.

Think of Collections like virtual folders. Collections enable you to organize and sort images simultaneously in multiple different ways.

New collections are created by clicking on the + with the little triangle at the right side of the Collections panel. Add photos manually to a Collection by clicking on an image and dragging it to the Collection.

Smart Collections will add images automatically based on rules you define. This can include when images were taken, what camera or settings were used, or based on any keywords you added.

The Develop Module

The amount of adjustment options can be overwhelming if you have never completed any post-processing on your images before. However, many of them can be done very intuitively with simple-to-use sliders.

It can be remarkably quick to take a photo from just okay to great in a few steps. Creating really distinctive and unique looks, or getting the very best out of each image, takes some practice though.

The slider adjustments tend to give better results when applied to camera RAW files. These files have more information in them than JPEG images. For some photographers, this will be an important issue to consider. You might want to experiment if you don’t normally shoot in RAW.

To get started with the most common adjustments, let’s look at the Basic panel.

How to make Basic adjustments in Lightroom

The top panel on the right is the Histogram. Keep an eye on the Histogram to help you make the best adjustments.

Underneath this panel, the details about the current image are shown—exposure, shutter speed, etc.

When the cursor is moved across the image in the work area, you will see that the information under the Histogram changes to show the RGB values of the area.

The Basic panel

This is the second panel you will see on the right side. It has a few different subsections.

Treatment allows you to select whether you want your image to be in black and white or color. Underneath is where you can select from various color profile settings.

The Basic panel
The Basic panel

Tone

Exposure is one of the core adjustments made at the beginning. This slider is a global adjustment which will brighten or darken your entire image. As you move the slider you will see the Histogram update dynamically.

The exposure slider runs from -5.0 to +5.0. You can also click the value and enter a number, rather than use the slide control. This applies to all the other values in these adjustment panels as well.

You will also see four sliders which control the brightness of different tone ranges in your photo. This is where you can start to make some significant changes to the look and feel of your images.

Slide the highlights slider left to darken the highlight areas and bring back some detail in any overexposed areas. For many images lightening the mid-tones or brightening the shadow areas can also be helpful to boost the image. Use the shadows slider to pull out details in the darker image areas.

There is also a Contrast slider in this panel. This is best used sparingly. This slider is easy to use, but the Tone Curve panel below offers more control.

Tone
Tone

Color Temperature

At the top of the Basic panel are the color temperature controls. They are marked as WB for white balance.

Click on where it says ‘as shot’, and you will see a list of standard WB options to select from.

These can be helpful if you are unsure which direction to take your image. Select from options including Daylight, Cloudy, or Fluorescent. If none of these are exactly right, you can adjust further with the sliders to achieve the right balance.

The top slider is the primary adjustment, and controls how warm or cool the image is. When required you can also add minor adjustments with the lower tint slider which controls the green and magenta levels.

Another method to set the white balance is to select the eyedropper icon in the panel, then click on a neutral grey area in your image.

Color Temperature
Color Temperature

Presence

This section might not appear quite so intuitive at first. These are sliders also best used in moderation. It can be easy to go a little too far here.

Texture, Clarity, and Dehaze all work by adding or reducing definition in the photo at a local level. They will bring out and enhance detail in your images. Or soften it, if that’s what you want.

Texture is the more subtle, natural looking option, and it tends to affect image colorless. High frequency areas—those with more detail—will be adjusted more than areas with less detail. Clarity adjusts contrast mainly in the mid-tones of the image.

Dehaze is very handy for landscapes, to reduce fogginess and haze from the atmosphere.

Vibrance and Saturation both affect the color intensity of images. Saturation is a global adjustment, whereas Vibrance will intensify mainly the less saturated colors. It also prevents over-saturating skin tones.

Presence
Presence

Further Editing in the Develop Module

Below the Histogram is a tool strip. This contains tools for removing red-eye, cropping the image, and straightening. It also has some basic retouching tools which allow dust removal and adjustments to specific areas of a photo.

The other panels offer more complex fine-tuning options to learn after you get your head around the basics. Here is a quick rundown.

Again, these are mostly very simple to apply and experiment with. To really master them, and bring it all together requires more detail and practice than we will cover now.

Removing red-eye, cropping the image, and straightening
Removing red-eye, cropping the image, and straightening

Tone Curve: this curve gives a different control over the tones in the images, and can be used to darken or lighten, and add or reduce contrast.

Tone Curve
Tone Curve

HSL/Color: Here you can control the brightness, hue, and saturation of specific color ranges in the image.

HSL - Color
HSL – Color Section

Color Grading:  Use this to create more complex color tones, or to create toned monochrome images.

Color Grading
Color Grading Section

Detail: Use these sliders to control noise and sharpen your images.

Detail
Detail Section

Lens Corrections: Make corrections for chromatic aberrations and vignetting. LrC has a huge number of profiles for various manufacturers.

Lens Corrections
Lens Corrections Section

Transform: Here adjustments can be made to correct distortions in the image.

Transform
Transform Section

Effects: Basic effects like adding a vignette and film grain can be applied.

Effects
Effects Section

Calibration: This panel allows adjustments to the default settings your camera used.

Calibration
Calibration Section

Made a mistake?

There are numerous ways you can undo your edits in Lightroom Classic.

Double-clicking on the name of any slider will return it to zero.

The History panel on the left side records a list of your edit steps. If you don’t like what you have done, go back a few steps by clicking on any item in the list. The top lists the most recent change.

The usual Undo (cmd/ctrl-Z) also works, and multiple Undo’s can be done.

At the bottom of the right panels is a Reset button. This will remove all the edits you have applied.

Viewing the Before and After

There are several ways to view the before and after edits of your image. The before image is as it was imported.

Use the \ key to toggle between the before and after images. It will show a Before label at the top right of the workspace, so you know which is on screen.

Alternatively, you can view the before and after images next to each other, or as a split half-and-half image. Use the icon marked YY at the bottom of the workspace to cycle through view options. Or, pick one from the drop-down menu by clicking the small triangle.

Exporting your final files

When you are happy with your edits, it is time to Export your image. This is the point when you will create a new finished file that you can share and use in other programs.

You can Export multiple images at once.

Step 1: Select all the images you want by clicking on them in the filmstrip.

Shift-click or Cmd/Ctrl-click to select multiple images.

Export-button
Export-button

Step 2: Choose Export from the File menu, or use the button in the Library module. A new dialogue box will open with various options.

Step 3: Export Location. In this section, select where you want the new files to be saved.

Export Location
Export Location

Step 4: File Naming. You can choose a naming convention to use if you wish to rename the file.

There are several preset options, or you can define a custom option.

File Naming
File Naming

Step 5: Under File Settings, you need to select the file format you wish to create.

In many cases, this will be a JPEG, and you can set the level of compression, or a maximum file size. However, you can also export as a TIFF, PSD, PNG, DNG, or in the same format as the original was shot. Each has its own format-specific options. You need to also set the color space.

File Settings
File Settings

Step 6: Image Sizing. Check the box to resize the photos.

You can use several different constraint options to define how the image is resized. This is very helpful if you want to export files for different uses. You could export a batch of small images for web use and export the same images also at full size for printing.

Image Sizing
Image Sizing

Step 7. Click the Export button.

Note – if you want a more in-depth guide, check our article: How to Export Photos From Lightroom.

Once you have selected Export you can keep working. You will be able to see at the top left of the interface the Export progress. This is handy when you exporting multiple images.

These are the key options, but you can also control the metadata, add a watermark, or sharpen the images as well. You can also save your Export settings for re-use when in the Export dialogue box.

You are done.

If you were following along with your own image, you now have a complete edited file.

That finishes our quick walk-through and introduction to Lightroom Classic. As you can see the program is capable of a lot. However, it is also very accessible, and straightforward to begin editing your images.

The best advice is to dive and enjoy the process.

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