Seven Pieces of Advice for New Lightroom Users


Lightroom Develop module

A Digital Photography School poll held earlier this year revealed that the majority of readers carry out their post-processing in Lightroom. Lightroom is attracting users all the time as it is not just a photo processor – it helps you organize, search and view your photos as well. If you are new to Lightroom then these tips will help you get started.

1. Understand the Lightroom Catalog

The Lightroom Catalog is a database containing all the information that Lightroom holds about your photos. It includes metadata, records of any edits you have made, star ratings, keywords, Collections and the locations where your photos are saved.

***An important note: the Catalog doesn’t contain any photos, just information about them.***

The Catalog is important, and for maximum peace of mind you should set Lightroom to make a backup copy every time you close the program. Do this by going to the General tab in Lightroom > Catalog settings and setting Back up Catalog to Every Time Lightroom Exits:

Lightroom Catalog settings

The next time you exit Lightroom it will give you the choice where to save the backup – it’s a good idea to save it on a separate hard drive to the one containing your Lightroom Catalog (located on the computer’s main hard drive). If the backup and the original Catalog are on the same hard drive, and it fails, you will lose both.

2. Appreciate the advantages that using Lightroom gives you

The main benefit of using Lightroom is that it becomes the heart of your post-processing workflow. You can do most of what you need in Lightroom: including viewing, organizing, searching and key-wording photos, through to post-processing and exporting. If you need to finish a photo in Photoshop or another program you can export it from Lightroom first, then bring it back into Lightroom when it’s done, where the two versions will exist side by side.

This diagram shows the workflow:

Lightroom workflow

Another advantage is that Lightroom saves you hard drive space. Think about what happens if you process a Raw file in Photoshop. You start by converting it in Adobe Camera Raw, then open the file as a 16 bit TIFF in Photoshop itself, before finally saving it. Depending on what format you save it in, you end up with either a Raw file and a JPEG, or a Raw file and an 8 bit or 16 bit TIFF.

In Lightroom, on the other hand, all the edits you carry out on your photos are saved as text commands in your Lightroom Catalog. This takes up a lot less space and you only need to export your files into another format (JPEG, TIFF etc.) when you actually need them for something.

You can save even more hard drive space by converting your Raw files to the DNG format when you import them into Lightroom. This also makes Lightroom run faster. This is covered in more detail in my article Make Lightroom Faster by Using DNG.

3. Learn what you can and can’t do in the Develop module

Lightroom is primarily for processing Raw files, although it can also be used for editing JPEGs and TIFFs. All this is done in the Develop module. Even if you are processing a Raw file with the intention of exporting it to another program (like Photoshop or a plug-in) it is a good idea to do as much editing as you can in Lightroom first.

Why? The main reason is that using Lightroom saves you hard drive space, as mentioned earlier. When you export a photo to use in a plug-in, Lightroom converts it to a 16 bit TIFF (or other format of your choice) first. This negates the benefit of using Lightroom to save hard drive space, so you should avoid it where possible.

Things you can’t do in the Develop module are anything involving layers, creating HDR images by tone mapping, exposure blending, adding textures, creating composite images or adding fancy borders. For these you will need Photoshop or another program.

4. Retouching portraits in Lightroom

There are lots of Lightroom plug-ins available designed to help you retouch portraits. Indeed, there are so many that it’s difficult to know which are any good, especially as some cost more than Lightroom itself.

While you may need a plug-in (or Photoshop) for high-end retouching work, Lightroom has a built in Adjustment Brush preset that will do the job for you. It’s called Soften Skin and is a quick and easy way to retouch a portrait.

This before (left) and after (right) comparison shows what you can achieve in Lightroom:

Lightroom portrait retouching

This is a good example of learning what you can achieve within Lightroom, saving yourself time, hard drive space and the expense of purchasing another plug-in in the process.

For more on retouching portraits in Lightroom see: How to professionally retouch portraits in Lightroom

5. Learn to organize your images in the Library module

If you are new to Lightroom you will be accustomed to organizing your photos into folders on your hard drive. In Lightroom though, things are different. There’s only one module (Library module) that gives you direct access to the folders on your hard drive. The others all use Collections instead.

Lightroom is set up that way because Adobe wants you to organize your photos in Collections. The advantage of working this way is that a Collection can contain images that reside across a multitude of folders and bring them together in a way that makes sense for you. You can organize your images by date, subject matter, people’s names or any other way that is useful. My article Use Lightroom Collections to Improve Your Workflow goes into this in more detail.

6. Decide how to use colour labels, star ratings and keywords from the beginning and stick with it

This is the hardest piece of advice to follow because when you are starting out you’re still figuring how to use these features. As your understanding of Lightroom grows, you will work out how to use these things in a way that suits you. Just be aware that consistency is your friend. If you start out using (for example) colour labels one way, then change your mind after a few months, it has the potential to cause confusion.

Lightroom colour labels and star ratings

For help with keywords, read my article Creative Ways to Use Keywords in Lightroom 5.

7. Put all your Raw files in a single folder on an external hard drive

This makes it easy to back them up. If you need help with deciding on a file structure then my article Organising Photos for Lightroom will help. The main benefit of keeping all Raw files in a single folder is that it is easy to back up. I recommend that you back your Raw files up to at least two different hard drives. Given that hard drive failure is inevitable (it is always a question of when, not if, even if the when is years into the future) it is wise to have multiple copies. That way if the worse happens it is an inconvenience, not a disaster.

Over to you

Now it’s your turn. What advice would you give to new Lightroom users? What do you wish you had known from the start?

Mastering Lightroom: Book Two

Mastering Lightroom: Book Two – The Develop Module ebookMy new ebook Mastering Lightroom: Book Two – The Develop Module teaches you how to process your Raw files in Lightroom for spectacular results. Written for Lightroom 4 & 5 it takes you through every panel in the Develop module and shows you how to creatively edit your photos. It’s now 40% off at Snapndeals for a limited time only.

Read more from our Post Production category

Andrew S. Gibson is a writer, photographer, traveler and workshop leader. He's an experienced teacher who enjoys helping people learn about photography and Lightroom. Join his free Introducing Lightroom course or download his free Composition PhotoTips Cards!

  • Thanks for the tips. As far as organizing files, one issue I had was with organizing older files that I no longer have on my computer’s drive. My advice is to spend a little extra on storage and buy two external hard drives at the same time and to buy them twice as large as you think you need.
    Previously I would have multiple smaller drives that kept filling up and I’d have trouble remembering which files were on which drive. Now I buy large drives that can store everything. It’s totally worth the peace of mind.


  • Good tip! I guess as a wedding photographer you have lots of photos to organise and store.

  • ccting

    Wow,, what a super great diagram, i love that.

  • Navaneethan

    Gibson – As usual a nice article from you, Thanks for that. Few plugins are there to merge exposures and for borders. “Enfuse” is for merging exposures and “Mogrify” for different borders,they are good.


  • Doc Pixel

    Just a note: you definitely should purchase 2 drives, both at the same maximum capacity you can afford.

    HOWEVER… an old rule of thumb is to purchase 2 drives from different manufacturers, or at the very least, the same drive from 2 different retailers. Reason being, that if one “batch”, or series of drives malfunctions due to manufacturing errors, generally those that are from a different batch won’t fail at the same time and/or for the same reasons.

  • jumbybird

    I have a huge disorganized mess leftover from years of bad backup habits, iPhoto, Aperture and Lightroom libraries… . It’s a daunting task to go through 30,000 images to organize them into one cohesive, easy to search, library. I”m lost!

  • That’s another good tip. I take it a step further and back up my Raw files to three different external hard drives, so I have four copies in total. A bit extreme for some, I’m sure, but hard drives aren’t expensive and it gives me peace of mind.

  • Thanks – I’ve come across those before but never tried them. Maybe now is the time to do so.

  • I feel your pain. It’s amazing how the photos build up over the years and if you’re not organised, it can become a huge mess.

    My suggestion is to import all your photos into Lightroom, if they are not already there, and use Collections to organise them. This will take time, but whatever you do will take time, there’s no way around it. This article will get you started:

    Then from this point onwards organise your photos properly. My method is to keep my Raw files in a master folder called ‘Raw’ and then organise them by year, month and shoot description.

    The reason I do it that way is that it makes it very easy for me to see which folders need to be backed up.

    Then once they’ve been imported into Lightroom you can organise them into Collections, and the folder structure ceases to matter.

    Hope that helps – if anyone else has found a way to sort out disorganised photo collections perhaps they can add to the discussion.

  • Nemanjas

    Put all raw files in one folder??? I disagree…

  • jumbybird

    Thank you, I will go through that article… one thing I have to figure out, is how to get the photos out of the monolithic iPhoto file. I have one of those. If I exported the files from that, would I get the original files or the edited files?

  • Very timely. After almost a decade with Photoshop, I have decided to use Lightroom. Three days in and I like it, I think my workflow will be much faster now.

  • That’s fair enough, tell us how you do it? I too do it slightly differently.

  • Good question, you might have to spend some time on the iPhoto support site or ask them directly. I have done private tutoring with people JUST to help them get the images out of iPhoto. Which do you want, originals or edits?

    I would go for the originals to be honest because iPhoto does really bad job on color correcting, etc and it’s really easy to wreck what was a good original. If that is the case we figured out that if you open iPhoto, right click on any of the thumbnails and choose “show in Finder” or “show in Windows explorer” if you are PC – then it will take you to the folder of originals which is normally hidden inside iPhoto’s structure and you can’t see it. We just grabbed them all the duplicated them to an external drive. Then put them all into LR. From there when we were done she just deleted her iPhoto folder to get rid of the dupes (after check we had them all in LR and making a back up of course).

  • Yeah you can do borders if you make a transparent image and put it on in the print module too. I saw Kelby do it once but forget how exactly. Borders aren’t my thing anyway.

  • that’s the beauty of LR if you have ONE catalog. Once you import into LR it knows what drive the files are on even if it’s offline. Just name your drives and label them and you’re good to go. I can find a file from 6 years ago by a quick search, see what folder/drive it’s on – go find that old drive and plug it on and boom, ready to go in less than 2 min.

  • Further to that I have one copy offsite on the cloud. Or you can have a fourth drive offsite in a safe deposit box or something like that.

  • jumbybird

    Thank you Darlene… I will try that.

  • Tadthephoto

    What a timely article. Having just had a quick look after subscribing to
    LR Cloud a couple of days ago, I though, wow, its looks powerful and
    complicated. How do I do this, and that? This article has cleared a few
    things up for me, and now its powerful and I can’t wait.

  • Dieter W

    I personally use sub-folders, one per year. That way I can move them off the computer individually after a few years when hard drive space is getting scarce.
    As to backing up: too much is still not enough 🙂
    I have 2 external hard drives and a NAS at home, but the thing I am feeling most secure with now is Crashplan as an automatic, off-site backup

  • Brak Muhammad

    Thanks for sharing good tips.

  • ajmills

    I would have added the benefit of batch editing – learn how to copy and apply edits (mainly colour temp, exposure, etc) from one image and apply to others. Handy if you have taken a load of images under the same lighting conditions, perhaps in a studio for example. In general, it’s easier to assess cull, or edit a large number of photos in Lightroom.

    I also agree with @Nemanjas – I wouldn’t put all images (raw or otherwise) in one folder. If you need to go through them without the aid of Lightroom for whatever reason, it would be hard to find what you need. I would at least do a year, then job name/shoot reference structure. It’s not so much of a problem with today’s faster drives and computers, but having too many files (we’re talking thousands here, but that’s not so hard to imagine when you could take several hundred photos in one shoot) in a single folder can slow access down.

  • Sally Reynolds

    Thank you so much for this jump start! Great article.

  • KC

    Overall, a great article. It misses one big point: LR is not Photoshop and Bridge. For anyone jumping into LR from Photoshop and Bridge, and trying to make LR work like Photoshop and Bridge, this is a problem.

    To keep it simple: LR is a digital asset manager (DAM) and editor. Look at the Import module closely and understand what it’s offering. You typically deal with Copy as DNG or Copy (don’t convert to DNG). File Handling and Apply During Import are the next important steps. Keywords are important for sorting later. By default LR creates a very good catalog structure. Your original files are in one structure, the database is in another. Simple and easy to backup.

    In a LR, Photoshop, Bridge setup, LR replaces Bridge. That assumes you launch Photoshop from Bridge. The LR and Photoshop roundtrip workflow is excellent.

    The other important point is that these are two completely different types of editors. LR was designed specifically for photography. Photoshop is a raster editor, originally designed for page layouts and composites, with a bit of image tweaking.

    To some degree you can do precision editing in LR. LR also works with a Wacom tablet. That’s a whole other topic.

Join Our Email Newsletter

Thanks for subscribing!

DPS offers a free weekly newsletter with: 
1. new photography tutorials and tips
2. latest photography assignments
3. photo competitions and prizes

Enter your email below to subscribe.
Get DAILY free tips, news and reviews via our RSS feed