Adobe Lightroom is a massive, lumbering behemoth of photography software with enough functions and processes to make any photographer go crazy. At the simplest level, though, Lightroom was created to help you do just three things: sort your photos, post-process them, and export them. On Photography Life alone, we already have more than 100 articles about Lightroom — the equivalent of several books — and other websites have countless more. Clearly, it’s an important topic to learn, whether you’re just starting out or you’re an advanced photographer. In this guide, I will go over the process of using Lightroom for beginners, from start to finish, including tips on the topics that tend to confuse people the most.
This comprehensive article lays out all the basics, and it is divided into several different sections to make things easier to read. If there’s a specific term that you’re trying to find in this article, you might want to press Control F (or, for Mac, Command F) on your keyboard. If you’ve never used this shortcut before, it’s very useful, since it lets you search a webpage by the keyword you want.
Also, you can skip to the various parts of this article by clicking on the options here:
- Introducing Lightroom
- Why Lightroom is unique
- Demystifying the Lightroom catalog
- Importing a photo into Lightroom
- Explaining the layout of Lightroom’s Library and Develop modules
- How to organize your photos in Lightroom
- How to post-process your photos in Lightroom
- How to export your photos from Lightroom
- Backing up your catalog
My goal was to write a tutorial that lays out everything a beginner needs to know about Lightroom, whether you have an older version (anything before Lightroom 6, such as Lightroom 4 or Lightroom 5) or the newest version (Lightroom 6 or Lightroom CC).
Hopefully, even if you start without any knowledge at all, you’ll end up with a medium- to high-level understanding of Lightroom’s most important concepts. So, it’s a long article.
Feel free to bookmark this page for later reference if you find some of these tips to be useful. Lightroom can be overwhelming at first, and the purpose of this guide is to simplify everything as much as possible.
1) What is Lightroom?
Lightroom is a post-processing and photo organization software. It lets you sort your photos, edit them, and export them at whatever size you need. Let’s dive into each of these three main functions:
1.1) Organizing Your Photos
The most obvious thing that Lightroom does is help you sort and organize your photos.
Each time you import images into Lightroom, you’re also seeing where they’re located on your computer (i.e., the file structure). This appears on the left-hand side of your screen. So, you might see something like this:
The photos that are already on your computer don’t automatically show up in Lightroom. If you want to add some of your photos to Lightroom, or you want to add an entire folder of photos, you’ll need to import them. I’ll cover more about the Import Dialogue later; it’s not something you need to know in detail yet.
Beyond simply telling you where your photos are located, though, Lightroom has many other ways to sort and organize your photos.
What if, for example, you take a photo that you particularly like, and you want to find it again in the future? Is there some way to mark it that makes it easy to locate later?
Of course! There are countless ways to do so. You could give it a five-star rating, you could flag it, you could add it to a “Best Photos” collection, and many more. Later on, I’ll go into detail about these different options, and how you can use them to sort and organize your photos however you want.
For now, just know that Lightroom is one of the main programs — in fact, the most popular one on the market — that photographers use to organize and sort their photos.
1.2) Editing Your Photos
Lightroom isn’t all about sorting your photos, though. Most importantly, it also lets you edit the photos that you take.
Lightroom doesn’t offer the same vast range of post-processing edits that other software options, such as Photoshop, do. Still, just because it isn’t as extensive doesn’t mean it’s not extensive enough. Many photographers can get by seamlessly with Lightroom’s post-processing features; personally, although I do own Photoshop, I use it more for graphic design work than photo editing.
Lightroom’s post-processing options cover all the main bases: brightness, contrast, color, sharpness, and many more adjustments. This also includes the ability to apply local edits — i.e., adjusting certain parts of the photo selectively, while leaving the rest untouched.
In short, Lightroom was designed to edit your photos. This isn’t simply a side feature that you can use from time to time rather than editing the photo in Photoshop; it’s intended to be the main tool you use for post-processing.
1.3) Exporting Your Photos
Most likely, you’re already somewhat familiar with the idea of exporting your photos.
Say, for example, that you’re trying to email a set of several photos to one of your friends. Since Gmail and other email services tend to have a file size limit — something like 25 megabytes — you may not be able to send full-resolution photos. One way around that is to shrink the file size of the photos that you send. Rather than 4000-pixel photos at 0% compression, you could send 1000-pixel photos at 20% compression instead.
That’s one of the things Lightroom does well. If you need to resize a photo for email (or anything else), it is easy to export a photo at whatever settings you want.
Exporting doesn’t delete the original copy of your photos. If you export a 500-pixel copy of a photo, it’s just that — a copy. It will have a different file name (or file type) from your original photo, and you can delete/modify/send it however you want without affecting the real version.
(In fact, if you try to export a photo in Lightroom without changing its name, location, or file type — something that normally would override the original — Lightroom won’t even let you.)
I export photos all the time: When I enter photo contests, text photos to people, upload images to my website, and so on. I just right-click on the photo in Lightroom, go to Export > Export, and pick all the settings I want for my final photo.
This isn’t the most well-known thing that Lightroom does, but, in the long run, you’ll end up exporting your photos all the time.
2) What Makes Lightroom Different from other Software?
This is one of the top questions I hear about Lightroom, and with good reason. Lightroom does not work how you might expect, and, in a few crucial ways, it is vastly different from other options on the market, including software like Photoshop.
Case in point: When you make a change to your photo in Lightroom, that change only shows up in Lightroom.
What do I mean by this? Say that you brighten a photo in Lightroom. You might be surprised to realize that, if you open the photo in any other software, it won’t look any brighter than normal. The actual, underlying file is totally unchanged.
This is a fundamental part of Lightroom, and it’s not a feature you can disable.
So, if Lightroom makes it impossible to actually edit your photos, and the edits are only visible in Lightroom, why would professionals ever use it?
In fact, this system has a lot of benefits.
First, to address the main concern most people have: Yes, there is a way to see your Lightroom edits outside of Lightroom. What is it? You already know the answer — exports.
When you edit a photo in Lightroom, the edits do only show up in Lightroom. However, when you export a photo — which, as I mentioned earlier, is one of the three most important things you can do in Lightroom — all the edits are present in the photo you’ve exported.
So, you can edit a photo all day in Lightroom to look exactly how you want, but you won’t see any of the changes if you open the file outside of Lightroom. The fix is simple: Re-enter Lightroom, right-click, click Export > Export, and export the photo how you want. The exported copy of the photo now has all the edits you just made. It doesn’t replace the original file, which is still sitting happily on your computer. Instead, it creates an entirely new photo, complete with all the export settings you chose (file type, pixel dimensions, compression, file name, and so on).
Why is this better than simply editing the actual, original photo? There are a few reasons, but here’s the big one: This type of editing is non-destructive. You’re never changing anything about your original file at all. (There are only three settings within Lightroom that do affect the original: renaming the photo, moving the photo to a new folder on your hard drive, and deleting the photo from your disk.) Lightroom makes it essentially impossible to accidentally ruin anything beyond repair.
The same cannot be said of, for example, Photoshop. If you open one of your photos in Photoshop, crop it, save the photo, and exit, your photo will be permanently cropped. There are ways around this — specifically, unchecking the “delete cropped pixels” option and saving as a .PSD file — but this isn’t an intuitive fix. It’s far too easy to edit the original photo by mistake. (See Photoshop vs Lightroom for more differences.)
Lightroom is great precisely because you’re never touching the original file. Lightroom is non-destructive editing software, and that is a critical feature for almost every photographer.
3) What is the Lightroom Catalog?
As you read about Lightroom, you’ll hear one term a lot: catalog.
Lightroom is a cataloging software.
What does that mean? In fact, this is exactly what I covered in the prior section: Lightroom doesn’t actually touch your photos.
Every single edit that you make to a photo; each five-star rating you give; every time you add a photo to a collection — all of those changes are stored somewhere other than the actual photo on your computer. Where? The Lightroom catalog file.
The Lightroom catalog is one file that contains each change and adjustment you make to every single one of your photos. It also doesn’t take up too much space on your computer; my Lightroom catalog file is only about 300 megabytes in size, yet it contains all the edits to each of my thousands of photos. Not bad!
The Lightroom catalog gets more and more complicated as you learn about it in-depth. If you want to use multiple catalogs, send a catalog of photos to someone else, or use the same catalog on multiple computers, things can be very tricky. I recommend reading our full article on Lightroom catalogs if you’re trying to do anything complicated, and our article on using Lightroom with multiple computers.
Luckily, you probably don’t need to do any of that yet. If you just want to add photos to a single Lightroom catalog, you already know enough to start.
By default, the photos on your computer (or memory card) won’t be a part of your Lightroom catalog — so, you need to add them yourself. How do you do this? To add a photo to your Lightroom catalog, you need to start at the Import Dialogue.
4) Getting Started: Import a Photo into Lightroom
When you open Lightroom, you’ll notice a box at the bottom-left that says “Import…”
Click it, and you’ll enter what is known as the Import Dialogue. (Alternatively, the Import Dialogue might open automatically when you enter Lightroom or put a memory card in your computer, depending upon your Lightroom > Preferences settings at the top of the screen.)
The Import Dialogue is where you choose which photos to add to your Lightroom catalog to organize and edit them. You’ll probably end up opening the Import Dialogue a lot — each time that you’ve returned from a photo shoot and you’re loading images onto your computer.
Within the Import Dialogue, there are plenty of options available. I’ll cover the most important below:
4.1) The Left-Hand Side
The easiest part of the Import Dialogue is the tab on the left-hand side. This is where you choose which photos you want to open in Lightroom, simply by clicking on the folder (or memory card) where they currently reside.
There’s not too much to say here, except that you may notice something interesting: It’s not just your memory card that shows up here. If you’re trying to import a photo into Lightroom that’s currently on your Desktop, or in your Downloads file, or anywhere else, you can do so without a problem.
4.2) The Top Options
The top of the Import Dialogue gives you a few more options. Specifically, there are four different ways to import your photos into Lightroom’s catalog: “Copy as DNG,” “Copy,” “Move,” and “Add.” Each one is there for a reason, depending upon what you want Lightroom to do with your photos.
Add is great if you don’t want to move the actual file on your computer to a new location; you simply want the photo to show up when you open Lightroom. This is ideal if you have a photo that’s already in the right place on your computer’s hard drive.
Move is best if you’re trying to add one of your photos to your Lightroom catalog, but it’s not in the right place on your computer. So, if one of your photos is on your Desktop, but you want it to appear under Photos > 2017 > April, you can move the photo to the proper location, while simultaneously telling Lightroom to add it to your catalog.
Copy is best if the photo you want to add to your catalog isn’t in the right location yet, but you still don’t want to delete it from its current location yet; instead, you just want to duplicate it somewhere else. This seems odd, but it’s actually quite useful. When I’m loading photos from someone else’s flash drive, I don’t want to move the photos from their flash drive onto my computer (since that would effectively delete them from their original location). Instead, I simply want to create a duplicate of the photos and put it in the right spot on my computer. Ultimately, the duplicated file is the one that Lightroom adds to your catalog.
Copy as DNG is one that you are less likely to use. This option is what happened when the Lightroom developers realized that if you’re copying a photo from one location to another, the new duplicate can actually be a different file type than the original, if there’s a benefit to doing so. “Copy as DNG” does 100% exactly the same as “Copy,” except that the new, duplicate photo in the proper location will be saved as a .DNG file rather than a JPEG, TIFF, CRW, NEF, or whatever it was originally. (Read more about it here: Why I no longer convert RAW files to DNG)
Personally, when I’m loading photos from a memory card onto my computer, I prefer to copy the photos rather than move them. That way, I maintain two versions of each photo: one on my memory card, and one at the new spot on my computer. This is nice just in case my computer’s hard drive breaks before the new photos are backed up. (“Add” isn’t really a viable option here, because, when I eventually remove the memory card from my computer, the photos wouldn’t appear in my catalog any longer!)
4.3) The Right-Hand Side
There are a lot of options along the right-hand side of the import dialogue. It can seem overwhelming if you’ve never used Lightroom before.
However, the main purpose of the right-hand bar is just to tell Lightroom where to put the photos that you’re moving, copying, or copying as DNGs. (It doesn’t appear if you’re adding photos, since Lightroom assumes that they’re already in the right place.)
Beyond that, the rest of the options are up to you. You can choose to rename the files you’re adding, which could be helpful for organization purposes. You can apply a set of “develop settings” to the photos you add — say, applying a pre-chosen amount of sharpening and noise reduction to each photo — or a “metadata” setting, such as filling in the copyright section of each photo you open. You can choose to create a second copy of every photo you import so that you have a backup (though this may be overkill if you already have a constant backup to an external hard drive or the cloud).
You’ll find yourself personalizing this section significantly over time. If you’re interested in more information about some of these options, you may want to read our full article on the Lightroom import dialogue.
For now, once you’ve chosen the right destination folder, you’re good. Every single one of these settings is reversible at any point in the future.
4.4) The Bar at the Bottom
The last bit of the import dialogue is the bar along the bottom. The main option here is the “Import Preset” section. This is what lets you save all the settings you just chose — the copy/move/add settings, the destination folder, the options on the right-hand sidebar — and use the exact same ones at some point in the future.
Aside from that, once you’ve selected all the photos you want to add to your catalog, you’re done! Click the “Import” button at the bottom-right of your screen, and you’re ready to organize and edit the photos you’ve just added.
5) After Import: How is Lightroom Arranged?
Broadly speaking, Lightroom is divided into two main sections: the organization half, and the post-processing half.
These two core features are separated from one another when you’re looking at a photo in Lightroom; you can’t see all the organizational features and all the editing features at the same time. To organize your photos, you need to enter the Library module. To post-process your photos, you need to enter the Develop module.
On top of the Library and Develop modules, Lightroom also has a Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, and Web module. Each one does, roughly, what it sounds like. If you want to pinpoint the GPS coordinates of a photo you took, for example, you’d need to open the Map module. We have a full article dedicated to explaining Lightroom modules if you’re interested.
The most important modules in Lightroom though, by far, are Library and Develop. Very few photographers will use the other modules just as frequently. So, how do the Library and Develop modules work? I’ll give an outline below:
5.1) The Library Module
You’ll notice upon entering the Library module that it looks something like this:
What do all the pop-out tabs do? I’ll cover each one below:
5.1.1) The Left-Hand Tab
Along the left-hand side is the actual file structure on your computer. (If you don’t see it, press the “tab” key on your keyboard, or click the inward-pointing arrow along the very far left.) In the example above, you can see that the photo I’ve clicked is tucked away in my Pictures > 2017 > 03 March folder.
Near the bottom of the screen, still on the left-hand side, you can see a label called “Collections.” I’ll get to that in a bit, but here’s a spoiler alert: The “Collections” section of Lightroom is very important. For many photographers, it forms the backbone of their organization structure. I’ll cover it in more detail later.
5.1.2) The Top Options
At the top of the screen, below the Library/Develop/Map/etc. modules, is a thin gray bar called “Library Filter.” If you don’t see it, press the “\” key on your keyboard, or go to View > Show Filter Bar. Another spoiler alert: This unassuming tab is the main tool at your disposal if you ever lose a photo and are trying to find it again.
5.1.3) The Right-Hand Tab
On the right-hand side of your screen is another pop-out tab. This one has a few more options — Quick Develop, Keywording, etc. — and exists mainly to give you information about your photos. The most useful of these options is the “Metadata” section, which lets you look at the behind-the-scenes information about your photos. I use this whenever I’m trying to see when I captured a photo, or if I used exposure compensation, or if I used a particular camera/lens rather than another. At the top of the right-hand tab, you can see a summary of this information, as well as a histogram of the photo you’ve selected.
5.1.4) The Toolbar at the Bottom
Another important option is at the bottom of your screen. Lightroom calls this your Toolbar. (If it doesn’t appear, press “T,” or go View > Show Toolbar.)
The Toolbar lets you choose how your photos look within the Library module. They could be a set of thumbnails, a single image that fills most of the screen, or a comparison of multiple photos that fill part of the screen. Those options can be seen in the screenshot below:
The thumbnail view — the icon on the far left — is also known as the Grid View. This one is useful if you’re trying to scroll through several photos at once.
The Loupe View is next. It partially fills the screen with your photo, keeping the sidebars open in the mean time. It’s nice if you want to look at each photo in more detail, though I tend to prefer the full-screen view that you get by pressing the “F” key. (In older Lightroom versions, press the “L” key instead, or just go to the top menu: Window > Screen Mode > Full Screen Preview.)
There are also Compare and Survey views if you want to compare multiple photos against one another at the same time. And, if you take a lot of photos of people, you might find the People view — where Lightroom tries to find people’s faces and group them together — to help for certain shoots. I don’t tend to use these views, but you might find them useful depending upon your work. Feel free to experiment.
Also, for what it’s worth, the tools you’ll have at your disposal in the Toolbar will change depending upon which of these options you click. If you enter “Loupe View,” for example, you’ll be able to give your photos a star rating, which isn’t in the Toolbar in the other views (though you can do this at any time just by pressing a number, 1-5, on your keyboard).
5.1.5) The Filmstrip Pop-Out at the Very Bottom
Finally, there’s one more pop-out tab that we haven’t examined yet: the “Filmstrip” at the very, very bottom of the screen. If it doesn’t appear yet, you’ll need to click the upward-pointing arrow at the bottommost point of Lightroom:
This lets you look at a miniature version of each photo along the bottom of your screen. It can be useful in certain occasions — say, you’re in the Loupe View (again, looking at a single photo at a time) and you want to go quickly to a photo that is much later within the same folder. I don’t use the filmstrip much, but it may be useful for your work.
The Library module does more than just let you view your photos, though — it also lets you organize them. I’ll cover that in a moment, but I’ll give a quick overview of the Develop module first.
5.2) The Develop Module
Editing your photos is one of the crucial steps of photography. It is particularly relevant if you shoot with your camera’s RAW mode, in which case you’re likely to end up with photos that are low-contrast and low-saturation immediately out of camera. That’s where the Develop module in Lightroom can help.
Lightroom’s Develop module looks like this:
Once again, I’ll cover what each of these pop-out tabs does below:
5.2.1) The Right-Hand Post-Processing Options
As you can see, there are plenty of post-processing options at the right-hand side of the screen. Most of those are considered global adjustments — in other words, they affect the entire photograph at once.
The other category of adjustment is called a local edit; it only affects part of your photo. The options at the top of this sidebar are the local edit options:
You’ll end up using this right-hand sidebar far more often than any of the other options when you’re post-processing photos in Lightroom. It’s the home base. Almost any time you want to make an edit, this is where you’ll go.
5.2.2) The Left-Hand Tab
The other crucial tab in Lightroom’s Develop module is the left-hand tab. This section has a few separate options that are each equally useful.
First is the “Presets” section. This lets you apply a set of pre-fixed edits to your photos. Since every photo is different, why would you want to do this? Personally, I have a sharpening preset that I apply to most of my photos. Since most of my photos are taken at similar ISO and aperture values, I tend to use the same sharpening settings frequently — and this just quickens the process. Read more here: How to Create a Lightroom Develop Preset
Next is the “Snapshots” section. We have a useful video tutorial about Lightroom snapshots that you may want to check out, but the main point is this: A snapshot is a way to remember the exact post-processing settings you used at a particular point in time. If you like the look of an edit that you made, and you want to return to those settings easily (i.e., without undoing all of them manually), you can take a snapshot and return to it at any time.
The “History” option is next, and it’s a very useful one. Here, Lightroom essentially takes a snapshot every time you make an edit. So, you can go back, chronologically, to see how the photo looked at any point in its history. I use this all the time to compare my recent edits to an earlier version of the photo. However, if you’ve made a lot of edits to a particular image, this section can get crowded and difficult to navigate exactly where you want.
Finally, the “Collections” option is last. As I mentioned earlier, this section also appears in the normal Library module, and I’m not sure that it’s totally necessary here. But, if you have the filmstrip pop-out enabled, you can drag any photo you want into any Collection you want, even within the Develop module. Some photographers may find that useful.
5.2.3) The Develop Toolbar at the Bottom
The last part of the Develop module’s layout is the toolbar at the bottom. There are only a few options, and you won’t end up using them very frequently.
The first option is the view mode of the Develop module. You can view your images with a single photo taking up the screen — which is the most typical way to use the Develop module — or with two photos taking up the screen. In this case, the second photo is the original appearance of the photo out-of-camera.
This can be useful if you’re trying to see how drastic your edits were, but it’s not something that most people use very often. You can do something similar, without showing both photos at once, by pressing the “\” key on your keyboard.
The other option in the Toolbar is called “Soft Proofing,” and this is a relatively advanced topic. If you’re trying to print a photo, it can be difficult (i.e., really difficult and expensive) to get the colors/contrast/brightness of your image to look exactly the same between your screen and your print. The Soft Proofing option lets you load profiles from your printer and see, roughly, how the photo will look when printed.
Personally, even though I really enjoy printing my photos, I rarely use this option. Depending upon how closely you care about one-to-one accuracy between your print and your screen, you should already know whether it will be useful for you.
6) How to Organize Your Photos In Lightroom
Now that you know the layout of Lightroom’s Library and Develop modules, I’ll cover the various tools at your disposal when you’re trying to organize your images. For what it’s worth, we already have a full article on organizing your photos in Lightroom, which goes into some more advanced behind-the-scenes catalog settings. Below, I’ll mostly stick to the basics:
Like most photo organization software, Lightroom lets you rate your photos by giving them a “star” label. You can give a photo a rating from 1-5 stars, or you can leave it unrated.
The easiest way to do this is just to click the number on your keyboard corresponding to the stars you want to give. Technically, you can do the same by going to Photo > Set Rating > Five Star, but that’s way more complicated than necessary.
Flags are just like stars, but without as many options. You can flag a photo as a pick — one that you like — or flag a photo as a reject. And, of course, you can also leave a photo unflagged.
Personally, I use the flag options quite often. When I’m loading photos, and I think that I want to delete an image, I flag it as a reject. Then, later, I look through all my rejects and decide if any of them are worth keeping.
To flag a photo as a pick, click “P.” To flag it as a reject, click “X” instead.
6.3) Color Labels
Another way to group your photos is to give them a “color label.”
This doesn’t actually do anything to the photos themselves. There’s no behind-the-scenes thing you can do with photos of a certain color label that you can’t do with others; like stars or flags, it’s just an additional way to give yourself a grouping that is easy to recognize later on.
Personally, for example, I tend to assign a red color label to a group of photos that I’m eventually planning to merge into a panorama. It just makes them easier to recognize later on.
Other photographers will label photos that they want to look through together at a later time — for example, giving a blue label to all the wedding photos that include the bride. This just depends upon your own style of photography — there is no right or wrong way to use labels in Lightroom.
To give a photo a color label, press 6, 7, 8, or 9 on your keyboard.
If you want an easy way to find your photos later, consider giving them keywords.
This is exactly what it sounds like — you simply label your photos with a few useful terms that will help you find them at some point in the future.
To give a photo a keyword, you need to be in the Library module. On the right-hand pop-out tab, you’ll see an option called “Keywording.” Click on it, and type whatever keywords apply to a particular photo (separated by a comma).
Personally, I don’t use keywords much as a landscape photographer, but I know event and wedding photographers who find them invaluable. Whether or not you use them in the long run, it’s worth getting a feel for keywords and seeing if they might be valuable for your work.
6.5) Using the Filter Bar to Find Your Photos Later
Each time that you label a photo, you’re making it easier for your future self to find it again. The main tool that you’ll use to find your old photos is called the Filter Bar.
The Filter Bar lets you sort your photos by almost any characteristic: Star rating, color label, camera, lens, aperture setting, file type, and many more. As I mentioned earlier, the filter bar is a thin, gray bar near the top of your screen. If you don’t see it in the Grid View, click the “\” button on your keyboard, or go to View > Show Filter Bar in the top menu.
If you remember a single aspect about the photo you’re trying to find — part of its file name, the month you took it, a range of ISO values you probably used — you can narrow down your search drastically by using the filter bar.
Say, for example, that you know that one of your old photos was taken with the Nikon D800e, and you gave it five stars, but you can’t find the photo anywhere. After going to the “All Photographs” folder at the top-left of Lightroom’s Library module, open the filter bar and start searching:
Here, I was able to narrow the search from 26,547 photos down to just 369!
I use this option all the time, whether to find missing images or to learn useful statistics about my shooting style (i.e., how many images I’ve taken with each of my lenses over time).
If you know how to use the filter bar in Lightroom, you should be able to find any photo that you’re missing. It’s a great tool to have at your disposal.
6.6) Adding Photos to Collections
My single favorite thing about Lightroom is the ability to add photos to collections.
What are Lightroom collections? Essentially, collections are similar to the file structure of the photos on your computer — except that they only exist in Lightroom, and you can add a single photo to as many collections as you want without a problem.
Here’s an example. Say that one of my photos is stored on my computer’s hard drive at Spencer > Photos > 2016 > 02 February. But say that I also want that photo stored in a folder called “Best Landscape Photos,” in a folder called “For Photography Life,” and in a folder called “Photos to Print.”
In the file structure on my computer, I’d need to duplicate the same image several times, taking up a lot of room on my hard drive. Plus, any time that I edited one of the photos, the other copies would remain unchanged! This is a clear problem — a clear problem that Lightroom’s collections fix.
Now, I can have a photo stored on my hard drive at Spencer > Photos > 2016 > 02 February, which will show up at the left-hand side bar in Lightroom’s Library module. But, at the same time, I can add it to a “Best Landscape Photos” collection, a “For Photography Life” collection, and a “Photos to Print” collection. Now, its actual file location remains unchanged, and I don’t end up duplicating the original photo at all.
To keep your collections organized, you can group them into “collection sets.” Personally, for example, my favorite photos from Colorado are stored at From > Trips > Colorado > Best. (In this case, only the “Best” is a collection, while the others are collection sets.)
The beauty of this system is that you’re not creating duplicates of a photo each time you add it to a collection. A photo that’s in one collection takes up effectively the same amount of space as a photo that’s in five, twelve, or fifty collections! And, similarly, any edits you make to a photo in one of the collections are also visible in all the others. This is exactly how photo organization should be.
6.7) Virtual Copies
What happens if you want to edit one photo in multiple ways? Say, for example, that you like an image in both color and black and white — how do you keep two separate versions of the photo?
It’s actually quite easy: Create a virtual copy.
Lightroom’s virtual copies are exactly like duplicating a photo on your hard drive, except that it only happens in Lightroom, and it doesn’t double the amount of space taken up! Virtual copies are very useful ways to keep a variety of edits of the same photo without any significant storage penalties.
However, be wary of keeping several different virtual copies of your photo just because. It’s easy to have your virtual copies get out of hand, where you don’t know which one of them is actually the most up-to-date. Personally, I only try to create virtual copies when I need to keep a version of the photo that is vastly different from my original, and I won’t get confused between the two.
With that one caution virtual copies are a very useful tool (and you can read more about them here: How to Use Virtual Copies.) I end up using virtual copies relatively often, particularly for my main portfolio images. It’s a quick way to keep multiple edits of your most-used shots.
(For what it’s worth, if you’re trying to keep things simple, you may consider using Develop snapshots, which I mentioned earlier, to a similar effect. A virtual copy is essentially a Develop snapshot that appears more tangibly in your actual library.)
6.8) Smart Previews
If you store all your photos on an external hard drive, and you remove the external hard drive, you’ll actually still see those photos appear in Lightroom! They’ll just be very low-resolution previews, and they’ll have little exclamation marks at the top to indicate that Lightroom is confused:
In the most recent versions of Lightroom, though, there’s actually a way to use these previews for something useful: creating something called a smart preview.
A smart preview is exactly what it sounds like: It’s a preview of your photo that acts as if it’s the photo itself. You can edit it, organize it, and export it without any problem — things that you cannot necessarily do with a normal preview.
Smart previews don’t replace your actual photo. They’re lower-resolution, for one, and they don’t actually show up on your hard drive. They exist solely within Lightroom’s catalog.
However, the benefit of smart previews is that you can edit them exactly like typical photos, and, when you reconnect your hard drive later, all those edits will sync back up to the original photo as if nothing happened.
Personally, I don’t use smart previews, since they take up a significant amount of space compared to “dumb” previews. However, if you’re frequently connecting and disconnecting different hard drives, and you don’t want a break in your workflow, they can be very useful.
7) How to Edit Your Photos in Lightroom
It only took 6000 words to get to the best part: editing your photos!
Along with organization, post-processing is one of the crucial pillars of Lightroom. It’s also one of the most personal parts about photography, and your individual post-processing style has a major effect on the way your photos ultimately look. It’s a crucial way to differentiate your work from the rest of the market.
At a broad level, a good philosophy for post-processing is that your final result should look natural. If someone immediately thinks one of your photos looks fake, they aren’t likely to see it in a very positive light.
Still, if you’re a color-high photographer who throws conventions in the wind, and you want otherworldly contrast and bright red skies in your photograph, you can do that in Lightroom, too.
Lightroom isn’t as advanced as Photoshop in terms of the sheer number of post-processing options it offers, but it certainly includes the most important options. Unless you are focused on conceptual, studio, or advertising photos, which could require intense levels of retouching and photo blending, the options in the Develop module will likely be enough for most of your photos. Personally, I spend 50x more time in Lightroom than Photoshop, and most of my work is in the Develop module.
7.1) The Develop Sliders
The heart of the Develop module is the right-hand side bar — the post-processing sliders.
This is where you change the brightness, contrast, saturation, colors, and other global image edits. The Develop sliders affect the entire photograph rather than just a specific part. (A note on what I mean by this: Yes, something like the “shadows” slider will affect the shadows more than the rest of the photo. But it will affect all the shadows equally across the entire image. So, it’s still a “global” adjustment.
Most of them are fairly intuitive, and it isn’t worth spending 1000 words describing how “shadows” affects the brightness of the shadows in a photo, and “contrast” boosts the overall contrast of your scene. Play around with these sliders, and you’ll get a better feel for what they do than you ever could just by reading an article online.
However, if you’d like to read about any of them in particular, we have several articles that dive into more detail on some specific topics:
- The sliders in the “Basic” panel
- The sliders in the “Tone Curve” panel
- Using the “Camera Calibration” panel to get more accurate colors: Nikon, Canon, Fuji, and Sony
- The split-toning panel
- Lens corrections
You’ll get a lot better at using the sliders as you continue to edit photos over time — and there is plenty more to learn. Like I mentioned at the start of this article, Lightroom is a huge program, and even a “complete” guide like this one couldn’t possibly dive into everything it offers.
7.2) Making Local Adjustments
Beyond the Lightroom sliders (global adjustments), though, there are a set of local adjustments that you can make to your photos, too.
These can be very useful. Say that you want to highlight the importance of one particular tree trunk in your photo — a simple solution is to do a local adjustment and brighten that single area of your image.
Which local adjustments does Lightroom offer? It depends upon the version that you have. However, at the most, you’ll be able to set five local adjustments: spot removal, red eye correction, graduated filters, radial filters, and adjustment brushes.
7.2.1) Spot Removal
This is one of Lightroom’s most useful features. Have you ever taken a photo where your camera sensor has dust specks? They show up as small, annoying blobs in different parts of an image:
The spot removal tool is intended to eliminate dust specks like this, as well as other parts of your photo that need to be healed. For example, if you’re trying to get rid of a tiny bird that flew across part of the sky in your image, you could use the spot removal tool to clone it out.
To see the photo more closely, you’ll probably want to zoom in. Press the “Z” key, or go to the “Navigator” in the left-hand tab and choose the magnification that you want. (Lightroom doesn’t have a slide-zoom feature that some other software does — you’re limited to zooming to very strict magnifications.)
You’ll notice that there are two options within the spot removal tool: clone and heal. Both work by sourcing the replacement pixels from some other part of the photo. If you choose “clone,” Lightroom replaces your spot-healed section using the exact pixels from the source area. If you choose “heal,” Lightroom replaces your spot-healed section a bit more flexibly, using its algorithms to determine how it thinks those pixels should look (though it still uses the source pixels as a baseline). I find that I generally get better results with “heal,” but, for hard edges, it sometimes does a poor job replacing pixels. In that case, “clone” can be a better option.
As of later Lightroom versions, the spot heal actually works in more than just circular spots; you can “paint” a healing brush in whatever shape you want. I was glad when Lightroom added this feature, since the earlier version was much more difficult to use.
Although the spot removal isn’t as advanced as Photoshop’s healing brush and similar features, it does its job. Unless you want to do extensive spot removal adjustments, it should be good enough in most cases.
7.2.2) Red Eye Correction
I don’t take pictures of people very often, so I don’t think I’ve ever needed to use this tool. However, if you used on-camera flash and ended up with red eye in one of your photos (or if you’re editing images that someone else took), this is a nice option to have.
It’s pretty self-explanatory. The only tip I have is to zoom in on the photo (again, by pressing Z), which should make it easier to click on the right spot.
7.2.3) Gradated Filter
This tool, on the other hand, I use all the time!
If you ever need to adjust part of a photo and not the rest, your goal should be to make everything look as natural as possible. You don’t want any halos around your subject; it just looks weird.
The graduated filter tool is a great help for this exact reason. Essentially, it allows you to adjust all the normal settings — brightness, saturation, contrast, etc. — but only to part of the photo. Specifically, it adjusts the photo along a smooth gradient.
If you want a darker sky, for example, it can be difficult to make it look natural without affecting the horizon line as well. In such a situation, my go-to would be the gradient tool, since it is a very gentle adjustment. A gradient going from slightly above the horizon to slightly below would be very difficult to spot, and is likely to look much more natural than most other local adjustments would.
Of course, it’s still possible to mess up the graduated filter; it doesn’t automatically create a seamless result. Here’s an example where, by brightening the left-hand side of the frame with a graduated filter, I still ended up with a result that looked unnatural:
This is just one over-exaggerated example, though, and there are dozens of good examples of the graduated filter, too. Again, you’ll need to experiment. I find myself using this tool for a huge portion of the photos I take, since it’s the most subtle way to edit a portion of an image selectively.
Also, if you want to see the exact area that your adjustment is targeting, here’s a useful tip: Press the “O” key! You’ll see the area of your gradient highlighted in red, which makes things pretty easy.
Finally, it’s worth noting that some later versions of Lightroom allow you to edit the gradient that you’ve created using the “brush” option (see below):
This can be useful if your gradient works well across most of the photo, but there’s a small bit that you don’t want it to affect. Not all versions of Lightroom have this option, but it’s nice if yours happens to include it.
7.2.4) Radial Filter
Similar to the graduated filter, newer versions of Lightroom will offer what is called the radial filter.
In this case, your “gradient” is circular or oval-shaped, but otherwise acts exactly like the graduated filter tool.
I use this tool quite often, since, once again, it is one of the gentler ways to make a local adjustment. If you’re trying to brighten a rock in the foreground of a landscape photo, for example, this tool can be very useful.
The only additional point to mention is that the radial filter can be inverted, too — that is, you get to choose whether the filter affects the area outside or inside the circle/oval that you draw. You can switch between them simply by checking or unchecking the “invert mask” option.
7.2.5) Adjustment Brush
The last of Lightroom’s local adjustment options is the adjustment brush.
This one is as simple as it gets: As if you’re using Microsoft Paint, you just paint over all the areas that you want to adjust. Here, especially, it helps to press the “O” key (or click “Show Masked Overlay” in the Toolbar) so that you can see all the areas you’re selecting.
The adjustment brush is easy to misuse. First, my main tip is to avoid clicking the “auto mask” option (in the right-hand pop-out) for most photos. What does the auto mask do? Essentially, it tries to find hard edges in your photo, then stop/start the boundary of your adjustment brush so that you don’t go beyond them.
It sounds like a good idea, but it doesn’t work very well. If you accidentally leave “auto mask” turned on, and you use the adjustment brush over something like a cloud, you may realize later that the cloud looks really weird at full magnification, since the brush you wanted to apply works on some pixels and not others. Potentially, you’ll end up with grainy and splotchy sections that don’t look good at all. (However, if you’re trying to select something particularly tough — say, curls of hair — you may want to turn on the “auto mask” option briefly. Just make sure that the final result actually looks good.)
Also, if you apply the adjustment brush without care, it’s easy to get strange halos around your subjects. Always watch out and double check that your edits look as natural as possible.
With those qualifications, Lightroom’s adjustment brush can be a great tool. It’s the most flexible way to edit your photos selectively, which makes it a very useful option to have at your disposal.
7.3) Sync Develop Settings
It will often be the case that you want to edit two photos similarly, or perhaps the exact same way. For example, when I’m taking Milky Way photos, the light doesn’t change very quickly from photo to photo. This means that I can use the same Develop settings on several photos in a row without a problem.
Obviously, you could do this the slow way: re-editing photo after photo with exactly the same settings. However, there’s a much quicker way to do this: syncing the Develop settings.
How do you sync the Develop settings from photo to photo? It’s fairly easy:
- Edit one of your photos however you want; this is what you’ll copy the settings from.
- Enter the Grid View of the Library module (press G).
- Highlight all the photos that, ideally, would have identical Develop settings. You can do this by holding down the Shift key and clicking the first/last photos of the group. Or, you can hold down the Control key (Command on a Mac) and click each photo individually.
- Now that all the photos are highlighted, click once on the already-edited photo. The other photos should remain highlighted, but the already-edited photo should be highlighted brighter than the rest.
- Right-click on any of the highlighted photos. Go to Develop Settings > Sync Settings.
- A dialogue will pop up asking which of the Develop settings you want to sync. Remember that any local adjustments you’ve made may not appear in the right spot in other photos, assuming that your composition changed from shot to shot.
7.4) Photo Merge
If you have one of the newest versions of Lightroom (Lightroom 6 or Lightroom CC), you also have access to a useful feature called photo merge.
This option lets you blend together photos as an HDR or as a panorama. Hopefully, in the future, it will allow merging as a focus stack, too, although that isn’t available as of May 2017.
To merge photos together, you’ll want to highlight all of them in Lightroom’s Grid View. Again, to do so, you need to hold down the Shift key, then click the first/last photo that you want to merge. (Or you could hold down Control — for Mac, Command — and click each photo individually.)
Then, right click, and go to Photo Merge > HDR, or Photo Merge > Panorama. In both cases, a dialogue will pop up that gives you a few options. They’re all pretty self-explanatory.
Here’s what the HDR panel looks like:
The HDR photo above has some strange colors here (since I clicked the “auto tone” option, and Lightroom didn’t do a great job), but that is very easy to correct later. The completed photo looks something like this:
Not too bad! Lightroom’s Photo Merge tool is one of the main reasons I upgraded to the newest version. It also exports these HDR or panoramic photos as .DNG files, which means they are still RAW files (as covered earlier in the section on “Copy as DNG”).
7.5) Editing Externally
As nice as Lightroom’s develop options are, you still may want to edit your photos in different software from time to time. Personally, I use Photoshop for certain images — those which require complex edits, like focus stacking, that Lightroom does not allow.
To edit a photo externally, just right click and select Edit In > Adobe Photoshop, or Edit In > [whatever software you want to use].
By default, when you save the photo in your external software, a copy of the photo reappears inside Lightroom. This is very useful! You can change the specific settings for the reopened photo by clicking at the very top menu: Lightroom > Preferences.
When you open the Preferences dialogue, go to the header labeled External Editing, and you can adjust the settings for photos that are reopened from other post-processing software:
I leave mine set to import 16-bit TIFFs with the ProPhoto color space, since those are the largest files with the most information. You can set these however you want, though, and save more hard drive space with more compressed options.
(As a side note — if you’re ever trying to change some of Lightroom’s behind-the-scenes settings, this is the place to do it. There are several different options in the Lightroom > Preferences dialogue, covering everything from the folder location of your Catalog file to the background color of your Library window.)
In addition to external editors, you can also use external plugins — tools that can make your life easier and accomplish tasks that Lightroom itself does not natively allow. For example, I bought an external plugin called LR/Mogrify 2 that lets me add borders to the edges of my photos when I export them, which wasn’t otherwise possible.
If there’s something you can’t do in Lightroom, you can almost always accomplish it via an external editor or an external plugin.
8) Exporting Your Photos
Almost done! The final step of the process is to export your photos, and, for that, you’ll need to enter the export dialogue.
Along with organizing and post-processing your photos, exporting is one of the most important tasks that Lightroom can accomplish. It’s also quite intuitive and easy to learn for yourself.
To start, click on a single photo or multiple photos at the same time. (Lightroom can export photos in batches without a problem). In fact, if you want to highlight every single photo contained in a particular folder, press Control A on your keyboard (Command A on a Mac).
Then, right click, and go to Export > Export. The export dialogue will pop up:
Most of the settings within the export dialogue are self-explanatory. If you want the longest edge of your photo to be 2500 pixels wide, set it to 2500 pixels. If you want a slightly-compressed JPEG, select JPEG at, say, 80% quality.
There are only a few points worth noting.
First, under the “Image Sizing” tab, if you’ve chosen your dimension in terms of pixels (rather than inches or centimeters), the “Resolution” option means nothing. A digital image displayed full-screen will look 100% identical whether you choose 300 ppi, 72 ppi, or 2 ppi. This setting only matters if you’ve chosen your dimension in terms of inches or millimeters instead. If so — which will generally be the case only if you’re trying to print your photo and you don’t want to do any calculations yourself — you can tell Lightroom to print a 4×6 inch photo at 300 ppi and it will automatically calculate that you need a 1200×1800 pixel photo.
Second, under the “Metadata” tab, the idea here is that every photo you take has associated data other than the photo itself. If a photographer hasn’t removed the metadata from an image, you can see a lot of behind-the-scenes data about the photo: the camera and lens, the exposure settings, the date and time it was taken, and so on. If you don’t want people knowing this information, select Include > Copyright Only.
Lastly, if you want to save any of your settings as a preset — something that you can reuse at any time quickly in the future — it’s an easy process. Click on the “Add” button on the left-hand side of the export dialogue, and just name your preset whatever you want.
9) Backing Up Your Catalog
The final step of the process is to close Lightroom. When you do, you might notice a box pop up that looks something like this:
This is the Backup Dialogue. If it doesn’t show for you, go to the menu at the very top of your screen: Lightroom > Catalog Settings > General > Back Up Catalog > Every Time Lightroom Exits.
This is a very useful step to take. Although you don’t actually need to back up Lightroom every single time that you close it — and, personally, I often click the “Skip this time” option — it’s something that you should be doing with regularity.
Why? There are a few reasons.
First, as Lightroom tells you, this doesn’t actually back up your photos. Instead, it backs up Lightroom’s catalog file — the catalog file that contains every edit, star rating, label, collection, keyword, and setting that you’ve chosen for each of your photos. It’s a big deal.
By backing up the catalog, if something horrible ever happens, you can revert back to an older version. The backed-up catalog won’t have all of your newest edits, but it will be far better than nothing.
Also, since the Lightroom catalog is a surprisingly small file, there’s no real harm in backing it up regularly. As I mentioned earlier, mine is only 300 megabytes in size, which is the equivalent of roughly seven RAW photos from my camera.
Always leave the “Test integrity” and “Optimize catalog” options turned on, just because they can’t cause any harm, and they’ll only add a second or two to the total backup time. The other option — the folder that you’re backing up to — should also be self-explanatory.
We made it.
This was a long article — longer than I expected when I first started writing it — but that’s because Adobe Lightroom is a complex program. If you’re trying to learn it from scratch, you’ll need a wide foundation before you can start to build anything that is truly solid.
Hopefully, this article built that foundation for you. Still, the best way to learn Lightroom, and anything in photography, is to practice it yourself.
It’s great to know how Lightroom is laid out, and how to import photos, and what the different modules do, but you won’t know any of it intuitively until you’ve used Lightroom for a long time yourself.
There may plenty of roadblocks along the way, and it’s very possible that you’ll spend late nights trying to make Lightroom run faster, search for old photos that Lightroom can’t find any more, or find the best ways to edit some photos on another computer (tip: File > Export as Catalog). Not surprisingly, all of these examples come from my personal experience.
The bottom line is that Lightroom has a steep learning curve. If you put enough time into it, though, it will pay you back significantly — to the point where you can organize your photos seamlessly, edit them exactly how you want, and export them at the right size for any use.
To me, learning Lightroom (or a comparable software, like Capture One Pro) is almost as important as mastering your camera settings. It is critical to keep track of your photos, edit them well, and export them properly for clients. If this guide has helped you do those three things in Lightroom, I would argue that you aren’t a beginner any longer.
If you have any questions about Lightroom, from the catalog file to advanced Develop settings, please leave them in the comments section below, and I’d be happy to help.