How to Edit Photos in Lightroom
In this tutorial, I’ll explain how to edit photos in Lightroom. Lightroom was designed to be easy to use, but over the years it’s become more and more complicated. Because of this, it’s easy to become confused or miss important tools that can make a big difference when editing your photography. This tutorial will help you make better sense of all the photo editing tools and provide a simple photo editing example.
The Lightroom Modules
Lightroom is organised into a series of modules, each module having a different purpose. You can see the modules along the top of the interface on the right-hand side.
Usually Lightroom shows seven modules which are Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print and Web. But sometimes you may see fewer modules in the menu because you can customise the Lightroom interface.
If you can’t see the module you want, right-click on any of the module headings to display a pop-up list. You will then see tick marks next to each of the visible modules. Clicking any module in the list will toggle its visibility on and off.
To edit a photo in Lightroom we need to use the Develop module.
Opening a Photo to Edit in the Lightroom Develop Module
When you’re editing a photo in the Lightroom Develop module, you can only work on one image at a time. It’s usually best to select your photo for editing before switching into the Develop module. The Lightroom Library module is probably the best place to do this.
In the Library module you can select any folder of images that you’ve imported to Lightroom. You can then browse through the images until you find the one that you want to edit.
Here you can see the list of folders in my Lightroom Library on the left of the screen (number 1). I then selected the photo to edit in Lightroom by clicking the thumbnail in the Library grid (number 2).
Now I can switch to the Lightroom Develop module where I can edit the selected photo.
The Lightroom Develop Module Interface
When you open a photo for editing in the Lightroom Develop module, you’ll see the interface change to look something like the screenshot below.
- Along the bottom of the interface you may see a filmstrip showing thumbnails of photos (number 1). These are all the photos that are in the same Lightroom folder as the image selected for editing. You can switch to editing a different photo by clicking on the thumbnail in the filmstrip. You can also collapse the filmstrip by clicking the small arrow at the very bottom centre of the interface. This can be helpful as it gives you more space for editing the photo.
- Along the left side of the Lightroom interface (number 2) you will see some tools that can help in the editing process. These include things like a History List where you can easily return to a point in your editing history for the photo. There’s also a list of Lightroom Presets you can use to quickly apply predefined adjustments to a photo.
- To the right-hand side of the interface (number 3) you will see the Lightroom Adjustment Tools. You can use these to apply all kinds of edits and adjustments to a photo. Lightroom arranges the Adjustment Tools into panels which you can collapse and expand.
- To the centre of the screen (number 4) you will see a preview of the photo you are editing. This displays the effect of any changes you make using the Adjustment Tools.
The Lightroom Photo Editing Tools
We will now take a closer look at the photo editing tools that appear on the right-hand side of the Lightroom interface.
- At the top section (number 1) you will see the Histogram. The Histogram is more of an informational tool to help you to understand the different tones and colours in a photo. But you can also use the histogram for editing, by clicking and dragging it with your mouse. There are better ways of editing a photo as you will see later.
- Just below the Histogram (number 2) you will find a role of icons. These are special editing tools within Lightroom that allow you to do things like levelling the horizon in a photograph.
- Below this (number 3) you will see the Lightroom Adjustment Tools organised into panels. In the screenshot, these are collapsed, but they still show their headings. Each panel contains tools you can use to edit a photo.
- At the bottom of the screenshot (number 4) there are two buttons. Clicking the Previous button will undo the last edit you made to the photo. Clicking the Reset button will reset the image to remove all the editing that you’ve applied.
When you’re new to Lightroom ,this large selection of editing tools can be very confusing. You will probably find yourself asking questions like which tools should I use to edit my photo and in what order do I use them. Whilst the order is less important it does help to follow a set sequence when editing a photo.
Choosing the Photo Editing Sequence in Lightroom
When you edit a photo in Lightroom, it’s a good idea to follow set sequence of adjustments. This sequence is a workflow makes it easier to work with Lightroom and helps you remember which adjustments to use. A workflow can be any set of steps, but the following will help you make better photo editing decisions.
We can break the Lightroom workflow into three groups:
- The adjustments you MUST make to every photo you edit.
- Adjustments you SHOULD make when editing a photo, but which may not always be required.
- The adjustments you COULD make to an image to improve it or to add special effects.
Let’s look at each of these in a little more detail.
Edits you MUST Make to a Photo
Almost every photo that you edit in Lightroom will benefit from these adjustments. Fortunately, the Lightroom designers have grouped them all into a single panel called the Basic panel. You can see an example of this below.
When editing a photo in Lightroom the Histogram can be extremely valuable. It provides information about what’s wrong with a photo as well as the effect of the adjustments you make. Whilst it’s too big a topic to cover here, you can see from the Histogram in the screenshot the different colours making up the photo I’m editing.
The Histogram also shows how dark or bright the tones in the photo are. In this example, you can see the Histogram gathered over to the right-hand side. This shows the tones are light and the photo is probably overexposed. If the histogram were over to the left-hand side, the photo would probably appear to be too dark.
Working down the controls in the Basic panel, you can see the WB (for white balance) section. This section contains the Temp and Tint sliders. You can use these to control the White Balance or predominant colour of the image. The sliders themselves show how they will affect the colour of the image. For example, moving the Temp slider to the left would make the image appear blue whilst moving it to the right would make it appear more yellow.
Below this is the Tone sliders. You can use these to adjust how dark or light the photo appears. For example, moving the Exposure slider to the left would darken the image whilst moving it to the right would make it brighter.
The Contrast slider increases or reduces the contrast in the image. When you increase the contrast, light tones become lighter and dark tones become darker at the same time. You can see this reflected in the Histogram which extend out further at either end.
Then there is a series of four sliders which you can use to edit different tonal ranges in the photo. These are the Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks of the image.
You must consider applying the above adjustments to all the photos that you edit in Lightroom. You will find photos that don’t require any editing, but most will require some adjustment.
Adjustments you SHOULD Make to a Photo
Now it’s time to look at the changes you SHOULD make to a photo. These are usually to correct a problem in a photo like removing distracting objects or dust spots. But there is a second group which I will call selections. One of the most powerful features of Lightroom is being able to select and adjust areas of a photo without affecting other areas.
The tools you will use for these adjustments are in the toolbar just below the Histogram and in the Panels below this.
- Clicking the Spot Removal Tool icon (number 1) will open the Heal and Clone brushes. You can use these to remove any dust spots on a photo, or even remove larger objects from a scene.
- These three icons (number 2) represent the Selection tools. From left to right these are the Gradient Filter, Radial Filter, and the Selection brush. You can use these to select areas of the photo and then apply adjustments to just that area. This is one of the most powerful features in Lightroom if you want to make your photos appear less like snapshots.
In addition to these Lightroom editing tools, there are three further panels which you should use to edit your photos:
- Detail – which you can use to sharpen your photos and remove any image noise.
- Lens Corrections – used to remove any problems caused by your camera’s lens.
- Transform – which can be used to correct any perspective problems in a photo.
Adjustments you COULD Make to a Photo
Finally, we have the category of edits that you COULD make to a photo. These are typically special effects that you can add like:
- Converting a photo to black and white.
- Applying colour grading effects using the Split Toning panel.
- Adding a vignette in the Effects panel.
- Or, creatively combining different tools to create all manner of effects.
Whilst it’s not possible to cover the huge range of Lightroom tools in this tutorial, a simple photo editing example may help you understand some of them.
Editing a Photo in Lightroom
In this example, I’ll step through editing a photo in Lightroom.
Step 1: Assess the Photo
Before you start to edit a photo in Lightroom, it’s always a good idea to assess the photo. This allows you to decide where the problems are and what adjustments you may need to make.
The problems with this photo are:
- The image tones are too light and there is too little overall contrast. We will use the Tone controls in the Basic panel to correct this.
- The colour of the image is too blue. I shot it in winter, only a couple of hours before sunset and the light was quite warm. We will use the controls white balance controls of the Basic panel to fix this
- There are a couple of tree branches appearing towards the lower edge of the frame which are distracting. I will remove these using the Spot Removal tool.
- As well as fixing these problems, the photo could be improved by selectively darkening the sky. I can do this using the Graduated filter.
Step 2: Correct the Photo Tones and Contrast
In the Basic panel I will move the Exposure slider to the left to make the photo darker. When the photo looks to have the correct brightness, I’ll stop.
Next, I will increase the contrast by moving the Contrast slider to the right. This causes the Histogram to expand out to the left and right. This also makes the detail in the image easier to see.
Finally, I can move the Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks sliders to balance the overall tones of the photo.
You can see the before and after photo below, together with the settings applied in the Lightroom Basic panel.
Step 3: Correct the Photo White Balance
To correct the White Balance, I will move the Temp slider in the Basic panel over to the right. This reduces the blue in the scene and warms the image.
After adjusting the Temp slider, the image is looking warmer, but I can see there’s a slight pink tint to the colours. To correct this, I can move the Tint slider to the left.
You can see the before and after image together with the adjustments used below.
Step 4: Remove Unwanted Areas from the Photo
Next, I will magnify the photo to one-to-one magnification and position the screen so that I can see the edges where the unwanted tree branches appear.
I can then click the icon for the Spot Removal tool and select the Heal brush. Using the Heal brush I can paint over the area that I want to repair. When I release the mouse brush, Lightroom selects another area of the photo to copy, and uses this to repair the selected area.
Whilst Lightroom often makes a reasonable repair with the Spot Removal tool, sometimes it doesn’t always work well. When this happens, you may need to use a combination of the Clone brush and the Heal brush together. You might also need to move (by clicking and dragging) some of the selections manually, to select better areas to use in the repair.
Step 5: Darken the Sky with the Graduated Filter
I will now select the Graduated Filter in Lightroom tools by clicking the icon just below the Histogram. This allows me to draw a selection onto the sky so that I can apply adjustments to just that area. You can see the selection in red below. The area of red is a mask and shows the selection.
With a selection in place, I can apply my editing to that area of the photo. You can see the Adjustment Controls below.
These are the sliders I can apply to the selected area of the sky. All the Selection Tools in Lightroom (Graduated Filter, Radial Filter and Selection Brush) have the same controls.
You can see a the before and after editing of the photo below.
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Whilst these have been simple changes in Lightroom, the photo looks much better following the editing.
Summary of How to Edit Photos in Lightroom
The aim of this article was to give you an introduction to how to edit photos in Lightroom. The key points to remember are:
- Lightroom has a lot of tools and photo editing controls, but you don’t need to use all of them to achieve good results.
- Try to develop a workflow which you can follow for each photo you edit.
- Use the MUST, SHOULD, COULD grouping of editing tools within your workflow.
- Creating selections and applying adjustments to localised areas of a photo can make a huge difference to its appearance. This is one of the most powerful photo editing techniques in Lightroom.
There is much, much more to photo editing in Lightroom than I can cover in a tutorial like this. You find further free resources and tutorials to help you learn about Lightroom on this website. But to really master Lightroom photo editing, consider my simply Lightroom develop course or my book the photographers guide to the Lightroom develop module.
I hope you found this tutorial helpful. If you have, please take a moment to share it with others.
More Lightroom Tutorials
You’ll find more high quality, free tutorials on my Adobe Lightroom Tutorials page.
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