There are so many options for processing photos in Lightroom that it’s no surprise that some photographers get confused. If you’re finding it difficult to decide what to do with your images (in the post-processing sense) you’re not alone.
The key is to think about what you want to achieve with your processing. That’s not always easy, but you may find it useful to start by thinking about the following aspects. Your answers will help determine the approach you take.
Do you want a bright, colourful image or a desaturated one? Perhaps you’d even like to work in black and white. If you are working in colour do you want the colour to be accurate, or your photo to be predominantly warm or cool toned? The decisions you make about colour will have a big impact on the direction you take once you get to the Develop module in Lightroom.
Do you want a light image, or a dark one? High contrast or low contrast? Some of this will be determined when you take the photo. For instance, if you decide you want to create a portrait with a dark background, then ideally you would make sure that the background is dark in the first place. But, there are ways of making backgrounds darker that mean you can change the look of a photo quite dramatically in Lightroom if you wish. There’s an example of that later, keep reading.
Do you want your photo to be conservative or edgy? Modern or maybe nostalgic, vintage or retro? These concepts may feel a little hard to pin down, but again they will help determine the path you take in Lightroom. If you want to create an image with a nostalgic feel, then how does that affect your approach to colour? Or to contrast? How would it be different if you decided to go for a modern look instead?
With photos of people, do you want them to look stylized or natural? Are you interesting in capturing character or beauty? Or maybe even both? Do you want your subjects to be sexy or sensual, or asexual? Do you want them to be casual or fashionable? Again, some of these concepts are somewhat airy, but thinking about them will help you work out what approach to take in Lightroom.
Please note that you don’t have to think about all of these aspects. For most most photos, you will probably only have to consider two or three . Here are some examples:
Example 1: Portrait with dark background
The inspiration for this approach came from looking at the work of photographers like Tom Hoops, who use dark backgrounds to great effect in their portraits.
The first example is a portrait I took of a girl standing in the doorway of a concrete bunker. The light is coming from her left.
One side of the photo is already dark, so I decided to reduce the brightness of the other side to match. I used a Graduated Filter to darken the concrete wall, and an Adjustment Brush to make the model’s hair darker. Here’s the result.
Possible alternative B&W
The logical extension of this thought process is to convert the image to black and white and make the background even darker. I also increased Contrast in the Basic panel and applied Clarity to the model’s eyes with an Adjustment Brush to make them stand out more.
Example 2: Nostalgic colour
I took this close-up photo in a market in Shanghai, China.
There are two thoughts that occur to me here. First, that the two Buddha heads have beautiful textures that I’d like to emphasize. Second, that I’d like to give the image a nostalgic feel.
To achieve the nostalgic look, I used the Temp slider to make the photo warmer, and reduced the saturation of the colours with the Vibrance and Saturation sliders. I increased Clarity and Contrast to bring out the texture, and added a vignette using the Radial Filter. The dark shadows this creates add a sense of mystery.
Possible alternative add a plugin
How about seeing how far I can push the idea of bringing out the texture and reducing colour saturation? Nik Software’s Viveza2 has some excellent tools for this. See the resulting image below.
Example 3: Long exposure landscape
Finally, here’s a landscape that I took one evening using a shutter speed of 30 seconds. The light is flat and dull, and there is a strong blue colour cast.
One option here is to emphasize the late hour and natural blue colour of the light. But I decided to take a different approach and that I wanted to create an image with warm tones. I did this by pushing the Temp slider to the right. Then I increased Contrast to compensate for the flat light and reduced Highlights to bring back some of the subtle detail in the sky. I added Clarity to the rock arch with the Adjustment Brush to emphasize it as the focal point.
Possible alternative dark monochrome
A darker, monochrome version with a blue tone to evoke the atmosphere of the blue hour when the photo was taken. I applied more Clarity to the rock arch, beach and water to enhance the texture and contrast in these areas, then added a vignette with the Radial Filter.
So as you can see there are many approaches to processing your images in Lightroom. Try different techniques and styles on the same image and you’ll start to learn which ones appeal to you most and are more your “style”. You can also create as many “Virtual Copies” of your image as you want and apply a different style to each for easy comparison. You can even save them as a Lightroom Preset if it’s a look you think you may want to use often.
What is your approach to processing images in Lightroom? If you have any tips for our readers then please leave them in the comments.
Mastering Lightroom: Book One and Two
My Mastering Lightroom ebooks are a complete guide to using Lightroom’s Library and Develop modules. Written for Lightroom 4 & 5 they take you through every panel in both modules and show you how to import and organize your images, use Collections and creatively edit your photos.