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10 Lightroom Tips for a Smoother Work Flow

If photography has become an integral part of your existence, or is destined to be, chances are fair to good that you will find yourself staring longingly into the eyes of Lightroom like an insatiable lover. That might sound romantic, but in reality it is more like a hypnotic spell which can be difficult to break.

Hypnotic trance

It’s easy to squander away lots of time fumbling your way through Lightroom.

However, when you find yourself in this situation, rest assured that it will hopefully be time well spent as it is an indispensable resource in your photographic arsenal. One of the keys to getting the most out of your Lightroom experience in a reasonable amount of time is to approach it like a dangerous animal – in small, carefully planned steps.

Sure, you can just jump in blindly headfirst, but knowing what lies ahead can save you precious time and unnecessary pain (read=frustration).

In this article, I’m going to lay out some of Lightroom’s features that I like to exploit to achieve my goals in a more direct and timely manner.

1. Apply on Import Settings

You can save time early on in the process when first importing images into Lightroom by utilizing the Apply During Import feature.

When you are in the Library module, the Import button will be live in the lower left corner. Clicking it reveals the Import window which is where you have the Apply During Import dropdown menu in the panel on the right.

Apply on import screenshot

Applying Develop presets on import is a good way to get a jumpstart on the the editing process.

The Develop Settings dropdown provides access to your Develop module presets. If you haven’t created any, this will only be populated by Lightroom’s built-in preset options.

This is a way to save you some clicks by allowing Lightroom to apply things like sharpening, saturation, color temperature, etc. (any settings savable within a preset) while it imports your new photos to your catalog.

You are also presented with the opportunity to populate the Keywords box and apply common metadata like image location or copyright information. I recommend beginning an unwavering habit of adding keywords on Import and not procrastinating until later to it. You will thank yourself in a few years when you’re looking for a specific picture in your library of 20,000 images.

2.Preview and Selection

Once you have imported your latest batch of soon-to-be masterpieces it’s time to sort through and separate the wheat from the chaff.

There are a number of ways to go about this, but I prefer to start at the beginning, viewing images at full screen (keyboard shortcut F) and using the arrow keys to flip through. When I come across a potential keeper, I mark it by color. You can do this by clicking one of the four colors in the lower tool bar menu (while not in full screen mode) or using keyboard shortcuts 6-9 which correspond to the four colors (while in full screen mode). If the color labels are not visible, click on the arrow on the right side of the lower toolbar and click on Color Label.

I have attached specific meanings to these colors. Red, for example, means that the photo is a potential candidate for editing after closer inspection.

Screenshot of photos grouped by color label

Color labels and flagging are convenient tools for sorting and locating images.

After you sift through a batch of imported photos and have color coded them, you can then sort or filter by label color for quick selection or organizing. To do this, you must be in grid view in the Library module. In the upper Library Filter toolbar, you can click on Attribute and then click the desired color and Lightroom will group all photos with that label color at the top.

If you just want to group together photos with the same color label without hiding all of the other images in that folder, you can click on Sort in the lower toolbar and select Label Color. After you have applied color labels and grouped them together, you now have a convenient way to delete unwanted images by clicking the first one, holding shift, clicking the last one (which will select the whole group) and then hitting delete.

3.Use Keyboard Shortcuts for a Smoother Editing process

As you spend more time using Lightroom, you will find that all of these little tricks which seem to save only trivial amounts of time/effort are compounded quickly.

Keyboard shortcuts are one of those tricks. Don’t be selfish, share the carpal tunnel with your left hand too.

At the very least, learn the keyboard shortcuts for the processes that you use most often.

Although I could list them all here, you really only need to know one: CTRL+/. This will open a pop-up window of some of the keyboard shortcuts for the respective module that is active.

Screenshot of keyboard shortcut cheat sheet

Pressing CTRL+/ brings up the keyboard shortcut cheat sheet for the module you are in.

Another little trick you may not be aware of can be found in the Develop module. Instead of clicking and dragging sliders, you can click on the name of an adjustment (click the word Exposure for example) and then use the (+) and (–) keys to move the slider in incremental amounts.

Screenshot for develop adjustments

Clicking on an editing action will activate it and using the + and – keys makes incremental adjustments.

If you’re one who likes to work top to bottom, you can use the (,) and (.) keys to cycle through the adjustments in the active panel.

4.Use the Target Adjustment Tool

You will find this handy little tool in the top left corner of the Tone Curve, HSL and B&W panels. The concept is that once you have clicked on the tool and activated it, click anywhere on your image, drag up or down and Lightroom will make the appropriate adjustments.

Screenshot of the target adjustment tool

Using the target adjustment tool takes some of the guesswork out of editing.

If used in the Tone Curve panel, the tone you select will fall into one of the four quadrants the tone curve is divided into: highlights, lights, darks, shadows. Within the HSL panel, the tool is a little more intelligent and can be used to tweak combinations of the eight color sliders for hue, saturation and luminance. For example, if you click on some green grass and start dragging, the tool may move both the yellow and green slider to pinpoint the correct hues for adjustment.

The B&W panel does the same as HSL except the adjustments are to the various shades of gray that the image has been converted in to.

5.Create Virtual Copies to Compare Edits

More than likely you are aware of the basic premise which Lightroom uses to edit your images. It’s simple: a tiny little file called a sidecar file (with the .xmp file extension) piggybacks onto your original image and keeps track of all the edits you’ve made to that image.

Lightroom enables you to add some extra info to that .xmp file which allows you to make further edits on the virtual copy while maintaining the edits you’ve made thus far. This can be accomplished by choosing Photo>Create Virtual Copy (keyboard shortcut CTRL+’).

Screenshot of image comparison

Making virtual copies allows you to compare different edits of the same image side by side.

Lightroom also allows boasts the Snapshot feature in the Develop panel on the left of your screen. A Snapshot basically bookmarks a specific spot in your edit history which you can revert the image back to.

One approach can be to work through your editing process, make a virtual copy at some point and go for a different look with the copy. Then you can compare both edited images side-by-side to see which tickles your fancy. Virtual Copies can also be exported in the same way as the original. This is why I use Virtual Copies rather than Snapshots.

6.Create Collections to Group Choice Images

The Collections panel really warrants an entire article to itself as there are many features within it, but let’s discuss its most basic use, which is to create a grouping of images.

There is a plus sign beside the Collections heading and clicking that launches a dropdown menu. The first choice is Create Collection and that’s where you should start. A dialog box will launch and you should name your collection and check the Set as target collection box.

Screenshot of new collection dialog box

Once a new collection is created, pressing B while any photo in your library is selected adds it to the target collection.

Let’s say you embarked on a wild journey across Siberia and have a zillion photos in several folders. You could create a collection called Choice Siberia Pics, then add your favorite images to this collection to show off to friends in a slideshow. To add images to the collection, either right click and select Add to Target Collection or use keyboard shortcut B.

One benefit of using collections is that you add photos easily from anywhere in your library, and Lightroom doesn’t actually make copies so no additional space is taken up on your computer’s memory.

7. Use Camera Calibration Profiles

In the Develop module, the last choice on the right-hand menu is Camera Calibration. If this panel has been shrouded in mystery and, as such, you have pretended it doesn’t exist, it’s time to enter unchartered territory.

What Camera Calibration profiles do is adjust your image to recreate, as closely as possible, whatever various picture profiles your camera may offer. If you are shooting in RAW and reviewing your photos in-camera, you are likely seeing a JPEG preview that the camera whipped up for you. When you import those RAW files, Lightroom ditches that JPEG and you get that unsharp, unprocessed dull-looking image.

In Camera Calibration there is a Profile dropdown menu which offers up the same processing options that you will find in your camera. I shoot with a Nikon so Lightroom gives me the options of:

-Adobe Standard
-Camera Landscape
-Camera Neutral
-Camera Portrait
-Camera Standard
-Camera Vivid

Camera calibration screenshot

Camera calibration profiles offer the same settings found in many cameras.

That first choice is Lightroom’s default. If you find one of these settings appealing and want to make it a default setting, you can hold down the Alt key and click the Set Default button at bottom right.

8.Create Develop Presets for Common Settings

In the Develop module, the first panel item on the left menu is Presets. This is pretty self-explanatory and Lightroom has some loaded in there to get you started.

You can create your own presets for common edits you use. If you want to get started in creating your own presets, click the plus symbol next to Presets and take a peek at all of the attributes Lightroom allows you to save.

Screenshot of develop presets dialog box

Don’t mess around trying to match edits that you’ve made before – create presets for them along the way.

Remember the Apply on import setting we talked about earlier? Any Develop presets you create can also be chosen to apply on import. Sure, you can always import a batch of photos, hit CNTL+A to select all of them and then choose one of your presets, but that will take some time for Lightroom to process and the idea here is to save yourself time and clicks.

Develop presets are a great way of preserving complex edits or distinct styles which you may want to reproduce again. There is a bottomless well of preset bundles you can purchase online and even some free ones floating around out there on the interwebs if you don’t feel like making your own.

9.Flag and Rate for Easy Sorting

In much the same way you can slap color labels on images in your library for identification and sorting purposes, so too are you able to take it a step farther by flagging and rating them.

Flags (keyboard shortcut P, or U to unflag) show up as a flag which is displayed in the upper left corner of thumbnails when in grid view. I personally use flags as a thumbs which tells me that the photo is final and client-ready, ready for export or printing. There is also the option to use a reject flag (keyboard shortcut X). I don’t use these in my workflow, but you may find them more useful.

Rating images is based on a five-star system. You can use the star system to put a value rating on images which can be used for filtering or whatever significance you place on them.

Screenshot showing filter for flagged and rated photos

Flagging and rating are ways you can identify certain images and easily locate them later.

By this point you are probably seeing a clearer picture of Lightroom’s multi-layer system of organizing, archiving and locating images in your catalog. The more identifying markers you have on images in your library, the more specific you can be in narrowing down what you are looking for.

If you are not an old-hand with Lightroom, all of this keywording, color coding and flagging might seem redundant and excessive, but as your library grows to unwieldy proportions you will be forever grateful that you formed these good habits early on.

10.Stack Images for a Tidy Workspace

If you shoot in RAW+JPEG, create virtual copies in Lightroom or use Photoshop or other plugins which make copies of your original images before editing, you may end up with several versions of similar images in your library. Same with you time-lapse shooters who don’t process the video in-camera.

To keep your library looking clean and organized, consider using Lightroom’s stacking feature. Stacking is pretty versatile, allowing you to hide an entire folder behind one image if you wish.

Screenshot of a stacked image folder

Stacking enables you to easily hide groups of photos behind a cover image.

The order which the images were displayed in grid view will be preserved after stacking with the active photo being on top.

Once again, stacking can be used in conjunction with all of the previously mentioned identifying and organizing features.

To stack, select the desired images (CTRL+A to select all, CNTRL+click to select non-contiguous images and CTRL+SHIFT to select a continuous string of images), right click on any of the selected images and hover over Stacking to reveal the sub-menu (keyboard shortcut CTRL+G).


I know there’s a distinct possibility that when you got into photography you didn’t envision spending so much time on your computer cursing Lightroom. However, if you haven’t already, you will have to come to terms with the fact that post-processing is a fact of modern photographic life.

Lightroom and other editing software are tools and like tools for any other purpose, learning the various approaches to using them in the most efficient and productive way is crucial to furthering your craft.

Read more from our Post Production category

Jeremie Schatz
Jeremie Schatz

is a freelance photographer, photojournalist, journalist, copyeditor and videographer for a variety of clients and companies in the United States and Thailand. Find his portfolio of colorful images and more of his writing at Exposed World Photography and on Facebook.

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