Facebook Pixel RAW Photo Editing in Lightroom: How to Make Your Photos Look Real to Life

RAW Photo Editing in Lightroom: How to Make Your Photos Look Real to Life


RAW photo editing in Lightroom is necessary to make your photos look realistic. Saving your photos as RAW files, they will not look like what you see with your eyes. Photos your camera captures look different than how we see. This is especially so in high-contrast lighting.

We can see more detail in highlights and shadows. This will change as camera technology advances.

RAW files are always flat and dull-looking before post-processing. RAW photo editing is necessary to balance the light and color to get your photos looking lifelike.

RAW Photo Editing Edited Beetle

Edited image made to look more vibrant and lifelike from the original RAW file. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Don’t believe what you see

Chimping will rarely give you a true picture of the detail in your RAW images. What you see on your camera screen is a JPG photo that contains less information than the RAW file. This is different for each make and model of camera. You need to use your imagination and fill in where there appears to be no detail. You must also consult your histogram to keep your imagination in check.

You can extract more detail during RAW photo editing than is displayed on your camera’s monitor. Know your camera well and how the RAW files respond when you post-process them. Then you can have a better idea when you chimp your pictures.

What shows on your camera monitor after you take a photo may show loss of detail in the highlights or shadows. High contrast lighting exaggerates this. Learn to recognize the difference between what you are looking at and the way the pictures of it look. This will help you make better exposure choices.

Having presets active when you import photos to Lightroom will alter the images. Otherwise, images import as the camera recorded them. I prefer to have all my Lightroom settings at zero when I import. This means that when I start my RAW photo editing, I know precisely what I am dealing with.

RAW Photo Editing Zeroed Beetle

Original, unedited image showing all the Lightroom sliders zeroed. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

RAW photo editing from scratch

Lightroom has many presets. Some of them come with the software, others you can download and install. Many of them, when applied, will give your photos a somewhat surreal look. You can create:

  • Monotone images
  • Add a sepia look
  • Saturate or Desaturate
  • Colorize, Posterize and Solarize

Gimmicks abound. Sometimes applying a creative preset can enhance a photo. The ways you can transform your photos are endless.

RAW Photo Editing Cool Light Beetle

RAW image wit a ‘Cool Light’ preset applied. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

You can edit to make photos look however you want them to. It’s up to your creative ideas. But often you will want to edit your RAW photos to make them look realistic.

When you edit RAW photos for a natural-looking result, keep in mind how you saw what you photographed. How was the lighting? Was it high or low contrast? Did it have a warm or cold cast? Was it more neutral? What did the colors look like? If you consider the reality of a scene then you can recreate this during RAW photo editing.

Thinking about what you saw when you were taking your photos will help you edit them more realistically. It’s not always possible to remember clearly. This is when you need to think objectively and aim to find a balance in lighting, contrast, and color when you working on RAW photo editing.

Find a balance – what looks right?

Editing your photos so they look real to life means you must find the right balance. In Lightroom, the sliders I use most often to achieve this are (in no particular order):

  • White Balance Temp
  • Exposure
  • Highlights
  • Shadows
  • Blacks
RAW Photo Editing Edited Flower

Use the sliders on the Develop Module to make photos look life like. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

The other sliders in the Basic panel I will use less often. Their use depends on the lighting condition from when I took the photo. At times I will make alterations to individual colors using the Saturation and Luminance sliders. You can find these in the HSL/Color panel.

There are many ways to achieve similar results in Lightroom. The ones I mention here are the ones I find to give me the best results. If you prefer an alternative way of doing the same thing, please share it in the comments below.

Photos taken at different times of the day and night require editing to suit the lighting. Whether the light is high or low contrast will also make a difference. Photos taken on a sunny day require different editing to photos you take when it’s cloudy, or you’re indoors.

Don’t overdo any of the changes you make. Avoid pushing sliders to their extremes. This will help you keep a more realistic look to your photos. Once you start having to max out the sliders, you will find that image quality begins to deteriorate. Pixelation, banding, and other imperfections will begin to appear.

RAW Photo Editing Zeroed Farmer

Zeroed Settings

RAW Photo Editing Edited Farmer

Sliders adjusted to make the photo more realistic-looking. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Contrast and exposure challenges

How well-exposed your photos are will affect the amount of effective RAW photo editing you can carry out. When you have to push sliders to their extremes, it’s usually a sign your photo was not well exposed. It can mean the contrast range in your composition is too broad for your sensor to capture detail in both the shadow areas and highlights.

RAW photo editing has its limits. You will not always be able to make a photo look like what you saw. This is most often true when contrast is high because camera sensors are still more limited than how we see.

Generally, aiming to bring down the highlights and draw up the detail in shadows will make a photo look more real to life. If an image was poorly exposed, in part or whole, it is more challenging to make it look how you remembered seeing it.

RAW Photo Editing Edited Orchid

Hard light with overexposed highlights. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

To avoid this, compose your photos so that the contrast range you capture is within the dynamic range of your camera. If there are very bright and dark areas in your composition, recompose. Aim to have the tone range narrower. This often means taking photos where there’s no bright lights or deep shadows in your frame.

If you can not do this, don’t be overly concerned about losing detail in the highlights, as this is not such a problem. In bright lighting conditions, our eyes will often not be able to see detail on light-colored or very reflective surfaces. We will still be able to see detail in the shadows.

Setting your exposure so you can capture shadow detail will make it easier to edit the RAW photos in Lightroom. This will help you get them looking realistic.

RAW Photo Editing Edited House

Edit each photo individually to get them looking most realistic. © Kevin Landwer-Johan

Think about Lightroom RAW photo editing when you take photos

When you take photos, consider the changes you can make to your RAW images later. The more photos you take and edit, the more naturally this will occur.

Thinking about what you can do in post-production might seem like cheating to some. I don’t see it that way. It’s a matter of working with the tools we have available to us. Modern digital technology gives us opportunities to make photos look more realistic.

When RAW photo editing well-exposed images, you can make them look real to life when this is your intention. Having well-exposed RAW files means you can balance light, contrast, and color.

Have a look back over some photos you have post-processed recently. Do they look how you remember seeing what you photographed? How could you alter them to make them look more real to life?

Read more from our Post Production category

Kevin Landwer-Johan
Kevin Landwer-Johan

Kevin Landwer-Johan is a photographer, photography teacher, and author with over 30 years of experience that he loves to share with others.

Check out his website and his Buy Me a Coffee page.

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