Adobe Lightroom is the preferred RAW editor for many photographers. It’s user friendly, yet has many powerful features to help you get the most out of your photos. Here are the core Lightroom retouching techniques to get more out of your photographs.
1. Start with your histogram
The histogram is the first step in retouching using Lightroom. It mathematically represents the tonal range of a given photograph. The tonal range considers all the tones between the darkest part and the lightest part of your image.
The histogram maps out the brightness area in the photo in grayscale. Black is situated on the left side of the histogram, while white is on the right. You can find all the shades of grey in between. Every shade has a scale of brightness values. For a standard JPG image, there are 256 different recorded values of brightness, “0” being pure black and “255” pure white.
Learning how to read your histogram is important because it will tell you whether your photo is properly exposed or not. If you have pixels touching the very ends of your histogram, your photo is either underexposed or overexposed
Unfortunately, you can’t recover these missing details with Lightroom retouching techniques.
2. Choose the correct Color Profile
Before you start the retouching process, you should decide on a color profile, as it will make a significant difference in the color and contrast in your photo.
You can find the Color Profiles in the Basic panel. You can choose from Adobe profiles or from color profiles from your camera.
3. Get a base with the Tone Curve
Before making exposure adjustments in the Basic panel, it’s a good idea to get a base with the Tone Curve.
The Tone Curve is a graphical representation of the tones found throughout your image. By making tweaks to the curve, you can influence the look of the shadows and highlights.
I recommend starting by lifting the curve at the midpoint when in the Point Curve. This will boost the midtones and contrast, which looks attractive in most images.
Pull the curve down in the bottom quarter of the curve to deepen the shadows. These simple tweaks can make your image immediately look more dynamic.
If you’re new to the Tone Curve, you might be more comfortable starting with the sliders in the Region Curve. This won’t give you as much control as the Point Curve but will help you make significant changes to the aesthetic of your image.
Once you’ve made other edits to your image, you can come back to the Tone Curve for further tweaks.
Retouching is a process of building and assessing, so you’ll most likely have to jump around from one panel in Lightroom to another until you get a look that you’re satisfied with.
4. Tweak the Basic Panel
The next step is to correct your White Balance.
Keep in mind that White Balance can be set in-camera to be 100% accurate, or can be used creatively if you’re not striving for a correct white. For example, if your style is warmer in tone, you can push your white balance above 6000+ to give it a golden look.
I kept my image on the cooler side because I wanted to bring out the blue and emphasize the complementary color choice to make my apricots pop.
Once you’ve made the best white balance, make any necessary edits to the Highlights, Shadows, and Whites and Blacks in the Basic Panel.
If your image doesn’t look correctly exposed in these areas, you can then adjust the exposure. However, I don’t recommend starting there. It’ll boost the exposure in all those areas, which may not be what the image needs.
5. Layer Contrast and add Vibrance in the Presence Panel
When retouching in Lightroom, I recommend using the Vibrance slider instead of Saturation.
Vibrance lifts the mid-tones. Saturation boosts all the color in the image, which can make it look unnatural and clownish. If you do choose to use the Saturation slider, watch how it affects your picture as you move the slider. A maximum of +10 is usually more than enough.
Be sure to add a bit of Clarity, which will boost the contrast in the image. The best retouching is often the result of layering various effects at low numbers, rather than adding a high amount of any one tool, such as Contrast.
To create contrast, you can use a combination of Contrast, Clarity, Texture, and the Tone Curve. Even a touch of Dehaze works great for a lot of images.
6. Adjust color in the HSL Panel
Color has a huge impact on your image. Color is an aspect of composition and crucial to the aesthetic of your photography. The HSL panel in Lightroom is where you will do the most color treatment.
Unless your aesthetic is quite warm, you might want to bring the orange saturation down a bit in your photos. It tends to look too strong. Also, pay attention to the Luminance sliders and use them instead of Saturation to control brightness, as they control the brightness of individual colors.
7. Try Split Toning in the highlights and shadows
Split Toning is a Lightroom tool that you can use to great effect when it comes to Lightroom retouching techniques. Split Toning adds color toning to the highlights and shadows individually, based on luminance.
However, note that a little goes a long way.
To add split toning, hold down the Alt/Option key while you move the sliders for Highlights and Shadows. This will allow you to see the variations for each color and pre-visualize how it will look applied to the image.
Dial-in as much saturation as you feel appropriate for the image. This is usually a low number. A small amount is often all you need to make your images more dynamic.
Split-toning is sometimes overlooked or used with too heavy of a hand, but with a subtle approach, it’s a very effective Lightroom retouching technique.
8. Enhance with local adjustments
Local adjustments are applied to a localized area in an image rather than globally. They only affect the part of the image selected. This allows you to fine tune your photo and have more control over your final result. You can use them to correct problem areas or to create a certain effect.
The local adjustment tools are:
- the Graduated Filter
The Graduated Filter is for filtered effects and creating evenness throughout the image.
- the Radial Filter
The Radial Filter helps you easily isolate subjects for retouching.
- the Adjustment Brush
The Adjustment Brush helps you create masks for localized retouching by brushing them on.
- the Spot Removal tool
The Spot Removal tool gets rid of blemishes or small objects in the image. The Adjustment Brush is for creating free-form masks, while the Radial Filter is used to isolate subjects.
Range masks have been added to three of the local adjustment tools to allow you to target color and luminance.
The key to enhancing your images with local adjustments is to use a combination of the tools for subtle adjustments, as well as adjusting the opacity or feathering of the tool to create subtle transitions.
Using local adjustments is one of the most powerful Lightroom retouching techniques.
You’ll get the best result in Lightroom by layering the different tools. For example, don’t just use the Contrast slider to add contrast and call it a day. Layer the contrast with small adjustments to the Tone Curve, Dehaze, and Clarity for a subtle and effective look.
Every photographer develops a workflow that works effectively for them. Hopefully, these core Lightroom retouching techniques will help you fine-tune your editing process.
If you have any other Lightroom retouching techniques you’d like to share, please do so in the comments section.