8 Steps to Crafting Images in Lightroom

8 Steps to Crafting Images in Lightroom


Lightroom has more tricks up its sleeve than simple photo fixes such as exposure and contrast. It’s possible to craft images inside Lightroom and, in many ways, the tools in Lightroom make the task easier than it would be in Photoshop or another editing program.

In this post I’ll show you a way to turn a relatively hum drum image into something much more visually exciting. So, when you don’t get the image you want straight out of the camera see if, armed with some simple Lightroom tools, you can coax some better results from it. Remember too that this is a creative technique – you’re not looking for realism as much as a way to create a different look for your image.

Step 1

Start out with an image that has what I call “good bones”. It needs to be pleasingly composed and it needs to have something that compels you to want to look at it and to spend some time working with it. Good contenders for this process are images with interesting skies and these include heavy clouds and clouds captured at sunset and sunrise.


Step 2

In the Develop module use the adjustments in the Basic panel to apply global adjustments to the image. I focus in detail on the adjustments that aren’t available in the Adjustment Brush and Graduated Filter such as Blacks, Fill Light, Recovery and Vibrance.


I will adjust the Recovery slider at least half way to the right and adjust Fill Light to get some detail from shadows. I’ll adjust the Blacks even to the extent of plugging some shadows for now. I’ll also use other adjustments such as Exposure and Brightness just as a start.

The fact that none of these changes are permanent is a big plus because if you don’t like the results later on you can come back and readjust them.

Step 3

Having dealt with the overall image I’ll now turn my attention to parts of it. Here there are three areas in particular – the hut and bottom right of the image, the bottom left and the sky.


Starting with the hut I’ll drag the Graduated filter in from the bottom right of the image. Then I’ll bring some detail out in that area by adjusting Brightness, Exposure and Clarity.

Step 4

The sky is treated the same way as the hut. This time the Graduated Filter is dragged down from the top. Then I decreased Exposure and Brightness to reveal the detail in the clouds. I added some Contrast and Clarity and a hint of dull yellow color.


Step 5

In the bottom left of the image another Graduated Filter adjustment fine tunes this area of the image and adds a hint of dirty yellow color. Reducing both Sharpness and Clarity softens the details here.


At this point I might consider adding a second Graduated Filter over the top of this one to again reduce Clarity to soften the details even more. The Graduated Filter can be used cumulatively so adding one on top of the other enhances the effect.

Step 6

Once I’ve finished with the Graduated Filter, I will return to the Basic panel and fine tune the settings there. Here I adjusted the Brightness and Fill Light to lighten the image a little.


Step 7

At this point I cropped the image to remove some excess detail from the bottom and right edges to focus interest more in the water and the hut.


Step 8

To finish, I used the Adjustment Brush on the plastic crates. By painting over them with the brush and reducing the Exposure slightly they are made a little less distracting.


At any time I can revisit any of the changes I have made including those applied with a Gradient Filter or the Adjustment Brush and adjust the settings if desired.

Not every image will lend itself to this treatment but many will. You should note too that here I was working on a jpg image and because of the in camera processing applied to jpg images and the fact that much of the data that the camera captures is discarded in the process of saving an image as a jpg, the scope for adjusting this image was significantly less than would have been the case if I had the image captured as a raw file.

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Helen Bradley is a Lifestyle journalist who divides her time between the real and digital worlds, picking the best from both. She writes and produces video instruction for Photoshop and digital photography for magazines and online providers world wide. She has also written four books on photo crafts and blogs at Projectwoman.com.

Some Older Comments

  • nick March 10, 2011 01:46 pm

    Hi Helen,
    Since I read and follow your articles on L3, I have more and more saved pictures. Before I saved 1-2% from a shooting and since L3 and you got on my work habits...I'm saving 20-30% of the shots.
    Still on the learning process and get this L3 to work for me...
    Thank you for sharing your experience and knowledge with us.

  • Alex March 8, 2011 01:45 am

    Great information, thanks! Been using the trial of Lightroom for a couple of weeks now and was undecided if I wanted to keep using it once my trial is over. I really like some of the tools in it and all of your guides have been very useful.

    I particularly like the saturation picker. Click on part of the photo and increase/decrease the saturdation of associated colour(s). Great for making an object stand out!

  • Thabo Buthelezi August 26, 2010 08:07 pm

    enjoyable as usual, man pliz, pliz help i take pictures of cars during the day using Sony@350 or @200 please tell me how my settings should be everything from white balancing,aperture, shutterspeed, P, M. Auto or what help me out i look up to you and your readers

  • Helen Bradley August 26, 2010 12:06 am

    @elizabeth halford - Hi there!
    The Graduated filter only works from the edges of the image inwards so it has to start at an edge somewhere - similar to how a graduated filter would work on the camera. So, you can't remove areas from the edge per se. However, you can use the Adjustment Brush to paint over the areas to remove from the Graduated Filter's effect and set the Adjustment Brush settings to counteract the effect of the graduated filter. So, if your Graduated Filter adds Brightness then set the Adjustment Brush to remove Brightness so the nett result is no change.

    You may reach the point where the benefits of using Ligthroom are outweighed by its limitations and you'd be off to Photoshop to make your image. But until you get to that point, Lightroom lets you create images like this far more easily than you could ever do in Photoshop.

    Hope this helps?

  • Elizabeth Halford August 25, 2010 11:46 pm

    @Helen: you know in step 4 how you dragged the grad filter over the sky? Well it also has to cover the top of the roof. Is there a way to erase spots affected by the filter which you want to remain unaffected?

  • Alysa August 20, 2010 01:25 pm

    I'm in the process of figuring out which photo editing software i should purchase. The end goal is a business in wedding photography.

    I'd love to hear opinions on the best photo editing software out there - i'll say i'm not the most technical person in the world, so if there are two similar products but one is definitely more user-friendly that would be helpful to know.

    Any information would be helpful.



  • Reiad August 17, 2010 06:34 am

    @mikael: I think she was just trying to illustrate her point as indicated by the last sentence of the introduction.

  • Amber Johnson August 17, 2010 06:10 am

    Great tutorial! I have one question that you might be able to help me with or someone on here can. When you were useing the Graduated filter I noticed that after you were done with the filter it left the white dot behind. I know why it is there and how to use it but my lightroom 3 that I have stopped leaving that white dot behind. So now I can not go back and adjust the settings or if I want to pull it back and forward I can't do that either. I have only been using lighroom for about a year and I noticed the problem back in lightroom 2. So I have not been able to use the Graduated filter for 3 months or more. So once the filter is in place that is it for me. Lightroom doesn't let me even slect the edit button like it use to once I apply the filter. I don't know what happened. I can still use the adjustment brush just fine and it leaves the dot behind so I can go back to it. I thought that once I upgraded to lightroom 3 from lightroom 2 that maybe the problem would go away but it didn't. So is there anyone who knows what I can do? Has anyone else had this problem. Please someone shed some light on this.

  • Mikael August 11, 2010 11:34 pm

    I don't see why the sky should be so dramatic. It draws attention from the rest of the image and looks unnatural and amateur.

  • Sylvia August 11, 2010 06:44 am

    HI Helen,
    Great tutorial! I am a professional portrait photographer, and after much debate with a fellow photog, I decided to add Lightroom to my workflow, what a difference. I still do creative postprocessing in PS3, but I now have LR to help!

  • Helen Bradley August 7, 2010 12:34 am

    @fernando You're totally right and opening JPEGs in ACR has been possible since CS3.

    Everything shown here can be done with ACR - the only thing that is less attractive in ACR is the crop tool and the color of the program window.. black/dark grey really shows off images so nicely.

  • Fernando August 7, 2010 12:04 am

    Hi there
    Great post, with a clear tutorial.
    I have never used Lightroom, (I mainly use Bridge, Adobe Camera Raw, and Photoshop) but from what I see in the screen shots Lightroom looks much like an extended version of Adobe Camera Raw. Everything you talked about in this post can equally and identically be done in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR). Also, just so you know, ACR is not only for RAW photos, you can open jpgs with it as well from Bridge (at least in CS4 and CS5 you can).

  • nicolopicolo August 2, 2010 11:40 am

    awesome explanation Helen,
    I have LR3 and know nothing about it. try to play with the free version and I fill lost...I'm a newbie to this hobby and sometime is hard to understand and get all the short cut's and terminology...
    I would like to see more in regards with this software, from the first step to the last when you save the edited picture at a certain level.

  • chasrl178 July 31, 2010 01:31 am

    Helen why did you change the colour on the final image to make it a red herring ? I use a slightly different approach but it would end being similar.

  • Rob Henry July 30, 2010 08:30 am

    Helen, I'd like to know how to you work with color profiles from start to finish. I shoot RAW, import to LR3 and make final tweaks in CS4. At the end, I want a standard RGB JPG where the colors look true (or as close to true) as the RAW files. Plu, my lab need my files in SRGB and I know this is the best profile for the web. Sometimes when I am done with my files using the workflow mentioned above, my files look reddish. I do not know what is the best working profile to use in CS4. I thought it was SRGB, but why then would my pics have red tones when looking at them OUTSIDE of CS4 or LR3? What is your color profile workflow using LR and CS4??

  • Eileen July 30, 2010 05:01 am

    That's a wonderful transformation! Thank you for the step-by-step. You've touched on features of Lightroom I haven't explored yet, so I?m especially grateful.

  • Rex Maximilian July 27, 2010 04:19 am

    Nice article for people on the fence on whether to use LR or not. A little puzzled as to why you used JPG... It's like driving a driving a Ferrari on a road full of potholes. For ppl who shoot JPG, I just tell them to use iPhoto. Anything worth doing is worth doing right.

    @ Smitty Bowers --> if you have come to the realization you will miss LR, perhaps that is qualification enough that you should buy it. Go for it, you won't be sorry! :-)

  • Morris July 26, 2010 08:43 am

    Hi Helen...thanks for the explanation...i kinda figured that but I guess I was expecting to see the end result, not just the mask...

    and for what it's worth, I like seeing how other people work with software I use...even small things can sometimes clarify something for me in my own work...

    Hi Mark...true, Lightroom does make certain things very easy...like the steps in this tutorial, powerful tools, just incredible, and all parametric...sometimes i'm working on an image and i remind myself of it and I find it just hard to believe, but it's happening right in front of me...

    maybe that's part of the point of what Lightroom is, at least at version 3...relatively simple tools to make global and not so global adjustments fast...who knows, maybe one day we'll get layers and a pen tool to play with...

  • Helen Bradley July 26, 2010 06:17 am

    @morris the orange colour is just the mask you see as you create the selection with the Adjustment Brush. I wanted to show that here we are selecting just a portion of the image and the selection is very different to what you get when you use the Graduated Filter.

    You can enable/disable this mask overlay by pressing O (the letter O not the number zero) on the keyboard.

  • mark July 26, 2010 05:11 am

    @ Morris

    I think that the orange colour is really the mask she used to select only the crates. the colour is merely a tool to guide the eye to boundaries, not actually the resultant colour. I got that part of the lesson, but she didn't mention using a mask tool to achieve the specific result (which i thought would have added to the general all-around lesson this was)

    I'm still not impressed with the level of advancement of this particular lesson but mind you it's not your fault, by design Lightroom is incredibly easy to use and even easier if you have already done a fair amount of photo editing in photoshop in the past. good for those beginning out, but once you know what you're doing these tutorials can get boring and redundant to the things you already know.

  • Morris July 25, 2010 07:40 pm

    thanks for showing us your steps Helen...at the end two things bug me a bit...you change the yellow crates to orange...both distracting, the orange even worse in my opinion (the final image wasn't really orange, was it? don't think it would be using the brush to reduce exposure)...i might have desaturated the yellow, easy within the hsl panel and the tat tool, but it could affect other yellows...also, I would have straightened the horizon line or worked to align one of the verticals on the hut, right now it's all leaning a bit over to the right..really easy to adjust within lightroom...

  • Smitty Bowers July 25, 2010 01:17 am

    Helen, you have some of the most helpful tutorials on this site. I have a little more than week left on my Light Room trial. I'm going to miss it.

  • Tyler Wainright July 24, 2010 10:59 am

    Nice write-up. I've never thought about using the graduated filter like that before. Thank you

  • Lloyd Barnes July 24, 2010 09:35 am

    Thanks for the tips. I haven't used the graduated filter very often but now I'm going to give it a try!

  • Helen Bradley July 24, 2010 07:59 am

    Hi Nicole..

    In Lightroom nothing is permanent. So, if you were to do as I did in Step 4 and add some color to a Graduated Filter you can go back and click on the filter's pin then remove the color. So you're not so much winding back history - because you only want to make a single change - but you're finding the slider that you used and then readjusting it.

  • alan July 24, 2010 06:26 am

    very helpful. i use LR on everything i shoot but i haven't played with the gradient filter. looks like it could be very beneficial.

  • scott July 24, 2010 03:18 am

    If you plan to bend images like this you really must shoot in RAW. Otherwise you end up with a noisy mess.

  • Brian July 24, 2010 03:06 am

    I agree with Bonnie, very informative.

    Taking things a step further, I think it would be great to illustrate just how much more you can do with a .RAW file versus a .jpg.

    The photographer who shot our wedding shot in .jpg and post-editing was horrendously apparent when she tried to brighten my tux because she metered off the sky behind me.

  • Bryan Davidson July 24, 2010 02:12 am

    Good tutorial, thanks for posting it. You're right that extreme changes like these will hold up better on RAW files, especially the recovery of the highlights. Sometimes if I know I'm going to be shooting JPEG only (pretty rarely), I set the contrast a little lower than normal in camera so that I have more room for adjustments in post. Every camera is different, so this can take some experimentation, but a lot of cameras have pretty high contrast on their JPEGs by default.

  • Bonnie Rannald July 24, 2010 12:57 am

    Very informative illustrations and easy to understand examples. Thanks for sharing this information.

  • Nicole M. July 24, 2010 12:32 am

    I love these tutorials - it's so helpful to see how others use the tools and also to see how you attack the retouching. One question - is there a way to go back and just delete one step out of the history of your changes? Let's say I applied some sort of color correction and I change my mind later, but don't want to erase everything I've done either before or after that one correction.

    Thanks again, and keep 'em coming!

  • Nicole M. July 24, 2010 12:29 am

    I love these tutorials - it's so helpful to see how others use the tools a