4 Steps to Make Your Images Pop in Lightroom

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In this article, I share with you the start of my post-processing workflow for pretty much all of the photos I take. I’m mostly using Lightroom for 90% of my post-processing and very rarely do I go into Photoshop for some extra stuff.

Before we begin I must confess that I’m no post-processing master, nor do I know Lightroom inside and out, and I definitely don’t know Photoshop inside and out. But, as I learned, and I hope you will too, it turns out you don’t have to be a master in order to be able to bring your Raw photos to life. It can be done by just about anyone with just a few simple steps as I’m going to show you.

8 Photobek Before
Before we start, here is the image as taken straight out of camera.

The photo I’m going to use (above) for this tutorial is one that I took while on a Dead Sea Night and Sunrise Workshop. I didn’t really plan for this photo ahead of time, but it’s probably the best image I took during that workshop. It’s a photo of one of the biggest sinkholes in the Dead Sea area (one out of more than 5,000 and counting) and it’s an 89 second exposure, done with a 10 stop neutral density filter that allowed me to smooth the water inside the sinkhole, and stretch the clouds moving above.

Now let’s make it POP!

1. Lens Corrections

1 Photobek Lens Corrections

The first thing I do is apply Lens Corrections. This specific photo was taken with a wide angle lens, and if you’re into landscape photography then a wide angle lens would be your go to lens 80% of the time, so fixing the distortion it creates is important.

just go to the Lens Corrections Panel and mark the Enable Profile Corrections. Lightroom has profiles for plenty of lenses, and chances are that it will have one for the lens you are using. If not, make sure you update to the latest version of Lightroom as they keep adding support for new lenses as they are being released to the world.

In some cases I decide to leave the photo as it is without doing the lens correction. It is just a matter of what seems or feels right for each specific photo.

Under the Lens Corrections panel you can also correct perspective in your photo, so I always click on Auto and see how that affects the image. If it’s good, I keep it. If it’s off I undo it and align in manually, or rotate using the crop tool if necessary.

2. White Balance

2 Photobek White Balance

Adjusting the White Balance comes second. Since I’m always shooting Raw (and if you’re not, then please start) I don’t really mess with White Balance while I’m shooting. Again, this is a matter of playing with the options in Lightroom to see what looks the best, and what makes the image as close to how it looked when I was out shooting.

80% of the time I’m using either the Auto or As Shot options, and for this photo I kept it at As Shot.

3. Spot Removal

3 Photobek Spot Removal 01

Spot Removal is a MUST. Not removing the spots from your photos is a really bad habit. It’s hard to avoid having these spots, as the lens or sensor will get some dirt and dust on them, and having them cleaned on a consistent basis is not really something most photographers do. I know I don’t.

Spots can ruin a photo in my opinion, I simply hate them, but I love getting rid of them and Lightroom makes it super easy to do. As you can see in the screenshot above I marked two very obvious spots with arrows but after using the Visualize Spots feature look what happens.

4 Photobek Spot Removal 02

BOOM!

I know I shouldn’t be so happy since my lens (or sensor) is pretty filthy, but thanks to this great feature in Lightroom I can see pretty much all the spots and get rid of them.

You can choose between Clone or Heal in the Spot Removal tool. I usually use Heal as it does a better job of removing the spots and picking the best places to copy over from.

4. Basic Panel

5 Photobek Basic 01

This is where most of the magic happens, and this part makes the biggest impact on the photo. It has nine sliders (besides the two sliders for White Balance which we already took care of in step 2) and the most important thing for you to know, is that every photo needs its own adjustments as each image is different.

The adjustments I’m going to make on this specific photo might not work so good on a different shot, so keep in mind that the overall process is similar and I’ll use all these sliders for every photo, but not necessary move them to the same locations.

Let’s begin:

4.1 Exposure

6 Photobek Histogram

Since the photo was exposed well, and there is no clipping as you can see in the histogram above, I didn’t need to make any adjustments to the Exposure slider, so I left it at 0.

The histogram is a great tool that you should keep your eyes on at all times during your post-processing work on an image. It will provide you with valuable information about the clipped areas in a photo (in case it has any).

Here is what it would like if the highlights were clipped (press J or click/hover on the arrows that are shown at the top of the histogram to activate the clipping indicators).

6 1 Photobek Histogram Clipped Highlights

Here is what it would like if the shadows were clipped.

6 1 Photobek Histogram Clipped Shadows

Keep in mind that some clipping is perfectly acceptable, and might even be desired at some occasions. The trick is to find out where the clipping is occurring, and deciding whether a loss of detail in that area is acceptable or not, and that is entirely up to you to decide.

4.2 Contrast

I usually don’t mess around with the contrast slider much, as making the adjustments to the following sliders also has a big impact on the contrast of the photo, so I don’t find it necessary. I kept Contrast at 0 for this photo.

4.3 Highlights

The highlights slider is designed to bring back detail (moving slider to the left) in the brightest areas of an image, or to brighten (moving slider to the right) highlights while protecting against clipping.

What you should do is drop the highlights slider all the way down to -100 while watching your histogram, and move it back up if needed. In the case of this photo I dropped it to -100 and kept it there, and you can clearly see that it brings back plenty of detail in the clouds and the mountain in the background.

7 Photobek Highlights

4.4 Shadows

The Shadows slider will affect the midtone shadows, to the lower end of the deeper shadows. To brighten up the shadows, simply pull the slider to the right. To darken the shadows, move the slider to the left. For this photo I actually kept it at 0.

4.5 Whites

The Whites slider sets the White Point (brightness) or extreme tonal range of an image, by either lowering or raising this white value. The difference between Highlights and Whites is that the whites slider help you to define the true white in a photo, and the hightlights slider helps you recover lost detail in the highlights of your photo.

While clicking on the option (MAC) or ALT key (PC) move the Whites slider to the right until you just start to see parts being highlighted in the photo (this indicates which parts are being clipped) then drop it back a little and stop there. For this photo I moved it to +17.

4.6 Blacks

The Blacks slider deals with the darkest areas of the image. While clicking on the option (MAC) or ALT key (PC) move the Blacks slider to the left until you see black areas appear (those areas are clipping in the shadows) than move it back a little and stop there. For this photo I moved it to -14.

7.1 - Photobek - Shadows, Whites & Blacks

Shadows, Whites and Blacks adjusted

4.7 Clarity

Clarity is, in effect, a contrast tool. However, rather than boost contrast across the entire range of the image, it affects it only in areas of the image where it finds edge contrast. This makes it a more subtle tool than the contrast slider and it’s excellent for adding punch to your images, without making them look unnatural.

Raise it up until you think it made the impact you want on the photo, but don’t over do it. For this photo I took it up to +52.

4.8 Vibrance

Vibrance is the close cousin of Saturation, and at first they may seem to be almost the same, but Vibrance is different. The Saturation control moves all the colors in the spectrum up or down in saturation, more or less together. Vibrance on the other hand, is a lot more selective about the way it saturates colors as it only saturates colors that need it, which means it doesn’t oversaturate colors that are already very saturated or colors of very low saturation.

Raise it up until you think it made the impact you want on the photo, and again don’t over do it. For this photo I took it up to +32 to add more blue to the sky and more earth colors to the mountain.

Clarity and Vibrance adjusted

Clarity and Vibrance adjusted

Before and After

As you can see, not much was done to the image and this entire process shouldn’t take more than a few minutes (depending on how many spots you have). I think it makes a world of difference to this specific image, and to any image for that matter.

Here is the image as taken straight out of camera:

8 Photobek Before

Here is the image after the adjustments were made:

9 Photobek After

Finally, here are the before and after one next to the other:

10 Photobek Before After

I hope you enjoyed this tutorial, and more importantly, I hope you’ve learned something that you can actually implement on your own photos to make them POP.

Read more from our Post Production category

Dror Bekerman is an enthusiast Landscape Photographer and blogger. He blogs about traveling the world one photo at a time at www.photobek.com. Be sure to check his latest ebook, The 80/20 of Landscape Photography to learn how to become a better landscape photographer by focusing on the 20% that really matters.

  • If you have any questions or remarks please feel free to let me know. Thanks!

  • Ghuna Ganesan

    i never knew that there was an option to visualise spots thanks for that.

  • Sure thing, it was a big “Aha” moment for me too when I figured it out 😉

  • Dror, thank you very much for all these tips! I have a questions: how often do you use Tone Curve settings? I have ween some tutorials about that but it seems kind of complicated for me yet. Do you think it is possible to have all the desired adjustments only using the others settings or in some cases you should use Tone Curve? Because, it seems to me that it makes the same adjustments but in a different tool, maybe more flexible. But maybe (probably) I am wrong…

  • Hi Rafael, as you can see I didn’t use the Tone Curve on this image and to be honest I very rarely use it in my post processing. I feel that I can get the adjustments I want and need without it. I don’t know if that’s good or bad but what’s important is that it works for me and remember than when you keep things simple it is much easier to do them so if the Tone Curve is something that seems complicated than you can either take the time and learn what it does and how best to use or just let it be and use the other tools that you better understand. I hope this helped 🙂

  • tinplater

    Thanks…but what about image sharpening and noise reduction? I find those tools to be indispensable.

  • Thanks for the reply! Helped me a lot! =)

  • Hi, this shot was taken a ISO 100 and there is no noise issues that I noticed that needed addressing. Sharpening on the other is indeed something that can be done on just about any image and in my post process I prefer to do it via Photoshop instead of inside Lightroom so in order to keep this process as simple as possible I left it out.

  • FerociousFlower

    Holy Spot Detector Batman! THAT is a very nifty feature. Maybe one day I’ll know everything there is to know about LRoom, and make the transition from PShop for more and more editing in LR. Guess I’m just too comfortable in PS to burden myself with learning it all over again in another application, and procrastination as my most prominent character trait doesn’t help either. 😉

  • It is a great feature but to be honest, the spot removal tool in Lightroom is very limited when compared to what you can do in Photoshop and since both are made by the same company I really don’t understand why they don’t make the spot removal tool in Lightroom to be more powerful and close to what you can do inside Photoshop. This is one of the big frustrations I have with Lightroom.

  • FerociousFlower

    I understand what you’re saying. I love PShop and am amazed at its ability for just about everything when it comes to corrections/adjustments within the content of the image itself. But, I do love LRoom for image-raw-file adjustments of lighting, tone, WB, etc – all that basic “photo developing” stuff used to tweak an image negative to print. I do want to get more familiar with LRoom, to move the processing along at a quicker pace. For me, quick easy adjustments are critical! Thanks for all you share with us, it’s a HUGE help.

  • It’s easier than you think, just give it a go and you won’t go back 🙂

  • sorcerygod

    I have, on my website (sorcerygod.wordpress.com) some examples of side by side photos done with Lightroom and with Photoshop, so you can see the difference. Click below to go there if you don’t want to type in the above URL:

    http://www.sorcerygod.wordpress.com

  • E. O’Bannon

    This has been one of the most concise explanations in DPS that I’ve read about concerning the use of these LR tools, and your photo examples were very helpful, too. Much appreciated…!

  • Thank you very much for this awesome comment and I’m thrilled that you feel this way and that you found it helpful 🙂 Be sure to follow me on Facebook and on my blog for more stuff. Thanks again!

  • donna31

    Hey thanks for the post. I am a newbie photographer and have been looking at different ways to set up a workflow. So this was a very helpful tutorial. Also, thanks for the link to the info about raw imaging. I have been learning about raw and what it is good for, so that link really helped.
    Here is another resource that really helped me out with learning a little more about raw: http://www.paintshoppro.com/en/landing/raw-images/. It has some good info for newbies like me.
    Thanks again for your post.

  • Laurie Pohl

    I just followed this process for a recent fall foliage/water shot, and I love the results. It looks so much better, but not overly processed. Like the others, I didn’t know about the Visualize Spots option, either, which is now part of my toolkit! Thank you!

  • Gabriele Cripezzi

    clarity effects the MIDRANGE contrast

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