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5 Things You Should Know About Lightroom Before Starting


So you just installed Lightroom, now what?

You could spend some time just playing around and learning through doing, but if you’re looking for a nudge in the right direction here are a few simple concepts that I wish I’d thought about before starting my own Lightroom journey – hopefully it helps you! Five things you should know about Lightroom before you start:

#1 Your organizational strategy

organize-in-lightroomThis might not seem important at first, but Lightroom is an amazing organizer of your photographs if you choose to use it as one. So before you start haphazardly uploading photographs into your Lightroom catalog try to come up with some sort of basic organizational strategy first.

Some ideas for organization include:

Organizing by date, by location of shoot, or by specific events. Think about your style of photography and the subject matter you plan on shooting. For example a wedding photographer would probably want to organize by date/bride-groom name, where as a wildlife photographer may organize by location/animal.

Lightroom has many different tools for organizing your photographs from colors, star rating and flags. You could for example use flags as a simple yes/no option to quickly cull images, while colors could be for various states of post production workflow (i.e. blue is for images that need to be processed and green is for images that are finalized and shouldn’t be touched).

This might sound overwhelming at first, but if you get into this habit early on, it will simply become a part of your Lightroom workflow, and trust me an organized Lightroom library makes things a lot easier when you’re dealing with thousands of photographs.

#2 How you want to import photos

This is a simple question, but one that you should know the answer to before you get started with Lightroom. When you first open up the import dialog box you’ll be asked whether you want to Copy as DNG, Copy, Move, or Add. Knowing the difference between these four options will help you make the best choice for your workflow. So here’s the Cliff’s notes version:

  1. Copy as DNG – Converts the file type to Adobe’s .DNG format. Read all about Adobe’s DNG format here.
  2. Copy – Retains the original file type of your image (on your computer or memory card) and copies it to a new location on your computer or hard drive.
  3. Move – Moves the image from one place to another on your computer (or from the memory card).
  4. Add – Adds the image to a Lightroom catalog without moving its physical location on your computer or copying it.

For a more detailed look at importing photographs in Lightroom check out: Quick Tip: Importing to Lightroom Made Easier

#3 How to use the Lightroom Develop Module

lightroom develop moduleNow that you’ve got your organizational strategy situated you’re starting to get into the fun stuff, before you go all hack and slash post-production on your first photograph it does help to learn some basic fundamentals. Here’s three quick points to get you started.

  1. Learn what the basic tab does – The basic tab is the workhorse of Lightroom it is what will bring your image to life. At a minimum master these five Lightroom sliders and you’ll be on the road to successful image processing.
  2. Learn the art of local adjustments – Once you’re comfortable with Lightroom’s basic tab you’ll probably want to move onto learning things like how to apply adjustment brushes, graduated filters and radial filters to your images. These tools function in much the same way as the sliders within the basic tab, however, they allow you to have more isolated and local control over your images.
  3. Learn the finishing touches – Finally within the develop module you’ll want to learn a bit about the finishing touches that Lightroom is capable of providing. Things like the clone/heal tool, sharpening, and noise reduction are a good place to start. You may also want to learn about how to remove chromatic aberrations and correct for lens distortion as well. These types of tools are subtle, but powerful, and really will bring the entire image together as a final printable work.

#4 What are presets and how you should use them

While you may be tempted to start with presets it’s better that you learn your basic tab and various other tools first – why? Simply because all presets are created from these settings so once you learn those settings not only will you know a lot about the presets you’re choosing, but you’ll also be able to create your own.

When it comes to presets think of them as a starting point, not a finished product. Learn how to use them to speed up your workflow by creating your favorite looks within a preset, then applying what you know about the various sliders in the basic tab to fine tune the results.

For more info on Lightroom presets: A Concise Guide to Lightroom Develop Presets

#5 What your export settings should be

Here you are, ready to export your first photograph from Lightroom, and just when you thought you had everything figured out, this screen pops up. What do you do now?

Lightroom Export

First you’ll want to remember that Lightroom doesn’t save your processed images, only the instructions of how to process them, that’s why you need to export (export = “save as”) a file out of Lightroom. This image is separate from the original camera RAW file, and as a result will need its own name, and place of organization.

You’ll want to determine what file type and size you’re going to export, and whether or not you want Lightroom to automatically add a watermark to your photographs. These things are all going to be preferences for your own work and there’s no right or wrong way to go about doing it, but you should learn about the implications of each before you start exporting hundreds of photographs.

What Else?

What else would you tell someone who’s just getting their feet wet with Lightroom? Leave us a comment below and let us know!

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John Davenport is the creator of PhoGro - Gro' Your Photography a community that aims to help you grow your photography through engagement with other photographers. John also offers a free email course Jumpstart Your Photography that covers some of the most important elements of photography.

  • And not a single mention of tags? Really?
    I import everything into folders by date. I organize by collections and tags. I try to tag by location, people in the image and other labels that feel natural to include. There are many ways to organize pictures, but this works for me.

  • Sounds like a very powerful and searchable library. One of the great things about Lightroom is it’s ability to be molded specifically to the user’s needs.

    No one organizational strategy works for everyone, so that’s why the step is more general, find your own, one that makes sense for what you’re doing.

  • Bunch-O-Tech

    For users that want to control their library
    from multiple devices they should know the limitations of catalogs and what
    methods can be used to work around these limitations. I don’t always have my
    desktop available to edit photos and need to do some quick edits while on the
    go with my macbook. Exporting and importing catalogs is 1 of the options that
    works but can get old pretty quick. Another thing not mentioned is the use of
    smart folders or collections with exporting/publishing. There are numerous
    options that you can choose to do this; from label colors, flags, keywords, lens
    type, etc. This can drastically reduce the time needed to share your photos.

  • jsducote

    What makes you think that correcting chromatic aberration and lens distortion are “finishing touches”? Just because they’re at the bottom of the toolbar does not make them less important. If anything, they’re the first things you should fix so that all other adjustments are made from a proper reference.

  • hapinessey

    You should be aware that if you’re interested in submitting pictures for any contest that RAW files are accepted, DNG are not. You might save some space converting to DNG, but that’s the compromise…

  • uwe caspar

    a small question: as a new user of LR, i am confused about the rigth way how to make multiple/different processings (let’s say a b/w and another in color but other cropping) from one photo, as LR just keeps one processing information for the RAW-file. do i always have to make a “virtual copy” of my original RAW, if i want to process and export one pic in various ways? thx a lot for your help to a newbee.

  • Well that kind of depends.
    You could of course process your original in one way, export that to your hard drive and than change the processing of your original and export that to your hard drive. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that though. Because in my very restricted experience – I haven’t been using Lightroom for more than two years now – you will one day learn something somewhere and want to apply that to your photo – sure you have your history to rely on, but say it would make your photo from processing 1 better looking but would not work on the processing 2 of the same photo… how do you want to figure out where one processing ended and the next started.
    Another way would be having several copies of your photo on your disk and import those to LR. But that would cost you a lot of disk space over time.
    So the virtual copies have quite a few advantages – they’ll save you disc space, you can see all the different ways of processing next to each other and decide which one you like the best and – if you want – get rid of the other ones. You can easily come back later and change some of the processing you have done before. And you could come back later and check out what processing you have done to a photo to get that specific effect, copy those settings and use them for a completely different photo as well.
    So I would recommend using virtual copies.

  • I just started tinkering with Lightroom so thanks for the tips!!

  • The great refuter

    I just don’t get the value of Lightroom for the hobbyist. I can do basic post production in the default Windows photo editor. Anything beyond that requires a) money and b) time to learn. By all means, spend your money as you see fit to fulfill your desires. I just find it funny to see amateur hobbyist like myself posting their pictures that they’ve obviously spent a lot of time on with their little watermarks.

  • I guess what I don’t get is when people complain about spending a hundred or so dollars on software when they’ve already invested 1,000 dollars or more on a camera body a few lenses and a tripod.

    In the general scheme of things when it comes to your photography hobby or professionally, investing in software, is probably one of the smallest expenses you’ll come across. As a hobbyist if this small investment keeps you motivated to continue capturing images for whatever reason – then by all means it’s money well spent.

  • Glad it helped! 🙂

  • Any contest is probably a stretch – I’d imagine most contests are actually expecting some sort of compressed JPEG that’s been processed – but I don’t do much contest work so that’d be useful to know if it is in fact true.

  • Point taken 😉

  • hapinessey

    The way it works is: You submit the JPEG file, but if you’re shortlisted you’ll have to provide them with the RAW file, DNG files are not accepted. So you might be one of the winners, but if you don’t have the original RAW file (or the JPG if you’re shooting JPG) then you’ll be disqualified.

  • Oh I guess that makes sense thanks for the clarification.

  • abrianna

    Virtual copies are the way to go.

  • abrianna

    I created a preset import that has both lens distortion and chromatic aberration applied to all my photos when I import them. Saves time and I have found that if a photo is a bit too dark, applying the lens distortion profile brightens it up so I don’t have to change exposure later.

  • Geoff

    So surely that means that you could always say “I shoot in Jpeg” – whether you started with a Raw or not, the contest organiser can’t tell! How a contest can accept Raw files in the first place baffles me too – it’s the processing that makes it even viewable and, as for not accepting DNG files, I’m amazed… and very doubtful. The DNG is the best Raw file – bar none! All camera manufacturers should make DNG an option (as Pentax do) – then we wouldn’t need to keep updating Adobe Camera Raw or LR (not that it’s so difficult nowadays).

  • Geoff

    All these Tags, Flags, Colours and Ratings…… seems to me the only valid use for OCD!

  • Geoff

    If you don’t EVER get Colour Casts, or have the wrong White Balance, or Chromatic Aberration, Lens Distortion, or a spotty sensor, or have blown-out whites or blocked in blacks or some noisy images due to higher ISO used…….. you’re right. Otherwise, some decent software is essential.

  • hapinessey

    Not exactly. The JPEG is processed in the camera, the raw file is not and all that data is available. This is so they know which type of adjustments you have made and if these brake the contest guidelines. It seems that the DNG files can be faked and the RAW files can’t.

    This is what the rules say, for instance, for the Wildlife photographer of the year:

    “i) For all categories other than TIMElapse, RAW files (eg .CR2, .NEF, .ORF, .PEF etc), original untouched JPEGs, and original transparencies or negatives, will be required for authentication. DNG files are only permitted if this is the native RAW format of the camera;

    And on the FAQS:

    Why do you not accept DNG files, unless DNG is the native RAW file format of the camera?

    If the original file has been converted to the DNG format, we’re unable to check if any digital adjustments made fall within the competition rules.

    If you’ve converted your original file to DNG, but embedded the original RAW in the DNG during this process, you’ll be able to extract it and submit it as proof of authenticity.

    Whether you agree or not is not the point. If you decide to enter the competition you have to obey the rules.

  • I’d wonder how many contests take this approach – I highly doubt every contest offered is this strict when it comes to their rules so you might be over generalizing a bit.

    That said if a photographer is planning on submitting to a wide variety of contests it is good to know that at least some of them do require the original RAW image as proof.

  • Hah – yes indeed! The best way to go about it is to find a method that works for you – you don’t have to use every option adobe provides, just the ones that work best for your needs.

  • Philnick

    What kinds of “digital adjustments” are forbidden by the “competition rules”?

    I suspect that the sort of rules you are referring to are for “documentary” photography, where the authenticity of the thing depicted is important, as it takes skill to get good shots of wildlife (and children), while photography that is intended merely to be artistic in nature would not have such strict rules.

    The only other justification I can think of for requiring RAW files would be to prove that you’re the person who took the picture and haven’t just submitted a photo you found on the web. I do shoot in RAW, but I know folks who refuse to, feeling it adds too much work to the process. They instead pride themselves in getting it right “in-camera.” It’s the ancient divide between slide and color negative shooters.

    I’m a landscape photographer with artistic rather than documentary intent. I don’t often engage in modification beyond cropping, contrast, brightness, and color balancing of my images, but I reserve the right to do whatever is necessary for a pleasing result.

  • hapinessey

    The Wildlife Photographer of the Year contest states “The image should be a faithful representation of the original scene. Many contests allow manipulation such as: cropping, dust spot removal, brightness, contrast and colour balance adjustments. Adding and removing elements, compositing or HDR is often not allowed. Of course it depends on the each contest rules. But I’m not willing to sacrifice a possible contest submission just to save a few megabytes for each shooting, plus the time it takes to convert RAW to DNG. It’s not worth it, but that’s me. Everyone is free to have their own and decide on which strategy works best. I just though that people should be aware of what they might lose if they convert to DNG

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  • Mark Stadsklev

    The single number one best reason for Lightroom is organization, as you said. But the best single way to organize is keywords. Maybe I missed it somewhere in the article, nor am I seeing it in the comments.
    To my mind the whole point of organization is to be able to find something. If you start down the folders path it will always be up to you to remember which folder you put it in. No matter your folder system, if you have used keywords you can draw out your subject regardless of what year or what folder you put your image in.
    Light room is jaw dropping really fast (maybe 5 seconds?) at finding all my bear photos over the last 15 years, pulled out of over 100,000 images.

  • Doc Martin

    As far as what else, I would say backing up! Both the lightroom files and the photo files. You need to get a good system going from the start.

  • Patrick Mc Donnell

    I don’t mean this unkindly but perhaps you have lower standards as to what you want to achieve. Use whatever works for you and your vision. I use Lightroom but discontinued using Photoshop as I find I no longer need it.

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