The 6 Most Important Things You Need to Know about Lightroom’s Develop Module

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Lightroom is powerful, but it’s also complex and has a steep learning curve. If you feel overwhelmed by all the options, there’s great value in taking a simple approach and learning to use the tools that are most useful first. Leave the more advanced features until you have more experience.

With that in mind, I’ve put together this list of the six most important things you need to know about Lightroom’s Develop module. Learn these and you will be well on the way to Lightroom mastery.

1. Backup your catalog regularly

This is the most crucial thing to set up, as everything you do to your photos in the Develop module (not to mention metadata changes like Collections, flags and keywords) is stored in the catalog. It would be a disaster to lose your catalog (and consequently all your hard work) to hard drive failure, so you need to make sure that Lightroom is backing it up regularly to an external hard drive.

To do so, go to:

  • For Windows users: Edit > Catalog Settings > Back up catalog
  • For Mac users: Lightroom > Catalog Settings > Back up catalog

I have mine set to: Every time Lightroom exits – some photographers find that Once a week, when exiting Lightroom is enough.

When you exit Lightroom, a dialog window appears that shows you where Lightroom is going to save the backup Catalog. Click Choose to change the location if you need to. Note: this is the only time you can select the destination where the backup will be saved.

Make sure the Test integrity before backing up and Optimize catalog after backing up boxes are both ticked. This slows down the back up process, but it’s worth it because it helps ensure that your catalog remains free from corruption, and is optimized for speed.

Lightroom Develop module

Please note: The Catalog doesn’t contain any of your photos. Backing up your Catalog doesn’t back up your photos, only the information that Lightroom contains about them. Photo backups need to be managed separately.

2. Profile is the most important setting in the Develop module

The Profile menu is tucked away in the Camera Calibration panel, at the bottom of the right-hand panels in the Develop module. The default profile setting is Adobe Standard (circled below). This profile was created specifically for your camera by Adobe. Pick that one for accurate colors.

You will also find the color profile settings specific to your camera (Landscape, Portrait, and so on). You can pick one of these if you prefer the look to Adobe Standard.

Lightroom Develop module

The profile affects both color and contrast, so from a practical point of view it’s important to select the right one, before you start adjusting contrast and white balance in the Basic panel. Get the profile right, and it makes all subsequent processing steps much easier. Get it wrong, and it makes them more difficult.

For example, if you apply a profile intended for landscape photos to a portrait, then you could end up with over-saturated colors and unnatural skin tones. Then you might try and fix that by playing with the Basic panel sliders or other color controls. This approach rarely works, it’s far better to select the most appropriate profile from the start.

These two photos show the difference between the Adobe Standard and Velvia profiles on a Fujifilm X-T1 camera. The Velvia profile saturates colors, the Adobe Standard profile looks more natural.

Lightroom Develop module

3. Use Lens Corrections to correct distortion and eliminate chromatic aberrations

No lens is perfect, and most have at least a little distortion and chromatic aberration. One of the benefits of digital photography is that you can eliminate these in the processing stage, so they are not the problem they once were. Go to the Basic tab in the Lens Correction panel, select Enable Profile Corrections and Remove Chromatic Aberration in order to do so.

Lightroom Develop module

This comparison shows the result on a photo taken with a zoom lens producing barrel distortion.

Lightroom Develop module

Lightroom Develop module

4. You can carry out 80% of your processing in the Basic panel

Once you have selected a Profile, and applied Lens Corrections, you can go to the Basic panel to start making any adjustments required to the photo’s brightness, contrast, and color.

The sliders in the Basic panel are extremely powerful. Take the time to get to know what each one does, and how the settings affect your images. Once you get the hang of these sliders it’s quite possible that you can do all of your global adjustments (those that affect the entire image) here, and not have to touch the Tone Curve or HSL / Color / B&W panels at all.

This photo is a good example. Virtually all the processing was done in the Basic panel, made possible by selecting the most appropriate profile first. The only additional thing I did was add a vignette using the Effects panel.

Lightroom Develop module

My article Steps for Getting Started in the Lightroom Develop Module goes into this in more detail.

5. Learn to use local adjustments wisely

It wasn’t so long ago that many professional photographers would send their negatives to master printers who used dodging, burning, and other fancy darkroom techniques, to create a far better print than the photographer ever could. These local adjustments – those applied to only part of the image, rather than all of it – are often vital for bringing the best out of your Raw files in Lightroom.

Lightroom has three tools for making local adjustments – the Adjustment Brush, Radial Filter and Graduated Filter. They allow you to selectively adjust brightness, contrast, and other tone and color settings. Each tool has its own idiosyncrasies, so take the time to get to know each one in turn.

This example shows the difference that local adjustments make. I used a combination of all three of Lightroom’s tools to turn the image on the left, into the one on the right.

Lightroom Develop module

6. Don’t overlook the Clarity slider

The Clarity slider is extremely useful as both a local, and global adjustment. It’s primary use is to enhance texture, and it does so by increasing edge contrast (the spots where dark and light areas meet). You do have to be careful not to overuse it, but judicious applications of texture enhancement can help bring the best out of any photo. Clarity is also an ideal tool for enhancing black and white images, which often rely on texture to add impact.

The following photos show the effect of adding Clarity. I used the Radial filter to apply Clarity to the Buddha heads to bring out the texture.

Lightroom Develop module

Lightroom Develop module

These six items are not a comprehensive list of what you can do in Lightroom’s Develop module, but they will certainly get you started, and simplify the process of learning to use it.

What do you think are the most important tools to master in the Develop module? Do you agree with my selection? Please let me know in the comments below. And if you want to learn more about Lightroom then please check out my Mastering Lightroom ebooks.

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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 and his written over 25 popular photography ebooks. Enroll in his new Lightroom course for free, or download his free Creative Fade Presets for Lightroom.

  • Great article Andrew! I wish you would add some advice on sharpening. It can be confusing and is quite important, especially for those shooting superzooms. I sometimes go as far as editing in On1 Effects.

  • Thanks. An article about sharpening is a good idea. I will mention it to the editor.

  • Eno

    Thanks for the article Andrew. How can I add lens corrections at the time I import images from my camera?

  • Travis Dahlgren

    Thanks for the tips. For #2, I was under the impression the profiles presented in Lightroom are Adobe’s interpretation of the profiles used in camera. So,in the example, Velvia is actually what Adobe interprets the profile to look like in camera, and may not always match what the in camera JPEG may produce when shooting JPEG.

  • Hi Travis, you’re correct, Adobe’s colour profiles are approximations, but to my eye they are extremely accurate in comparison to the camera manufacturers’ profiles. My experience is with Fujifilm and Canon EOS cameras.

  • Hi Eno, you can create a Develop Preset with the Lens Corrections setting you want to apply and apply it to your images when you import them (go to Develop Settings under Apply During Import). This article will help.

    https://digital-photography-school.com/concise-guide-lightroom-develop-presets/

  • Eno

    Thank you.

  • Eno

    Thanks again.

  • Mac

    How is clarity different than sharpening? Thanks for the article.

  • Tom Jones

    Good info. Thanks. About using the Clarity slider you caution, “You have to be careful to not overuse it.” I see that caution regarding other adjustments such as Contrast, Vibrance, Sharpening, etc. I understand the amount is image specific, but, generally, is there an amount (20, 40, 60, ?) that you should be cautious about going above?

  • Michael

    I totally agree to add the Detail adjustments too especially Sharpening as every Raw image must be sharpened in post-processing. Plus if you shoot your images with high ISO, it’s good idea to use the Noise Reduction sliders too. I would use the Tone Curve with the light “S” curve adjustment to give extra punch and contrast to any image. This is much more preferable contrast adjustment than Basic panel Contrast adjustment that I never use. However, check some color shifts on the people faces into red-orange spectrum so use HSL Saturation target adjustment to decrease these tones. Thank you very much for your very informative article Andrew.

  • Francisco Granadeiro

    Interesting article. OIn the back-up point I would like to know how to proceed when copying files totally to an external disk in order to release space in disk, not loosing access to images.

  • Rob Brydon

    Hi Andrew. Good article. In my profile I have “embedded” ticked and I can’t seem to change that. Am I on the right profile?….Thanks..Rob

  • Bram Blenk

    I have the same issue. All I get is “Embedded”. Is there some place in lightroom that I have to specify what camera I have?
    I have the most current version of LR.
    Here’s what I see:

  • Hi Rob, it’s because it’s a JPEG file. You can only change the colour profile if you use the Raw format.

  • Hi Bram, see the previous answer. It’s all to do with file type. You need to be processing a Raw file in order to change the profile. You can’t do it with a JPEG or a TIFF.

  • You can move images within the Folders panel in the Library module. Alternatively, and this works best if you have all your photo folders in a master top level folder, you can move the photos manually (make sure you have at least one, preferably two backups of your photos), delete them from your computer’s hard drive and then relink them by right-clicking on the master folder in the Folders panel and navigating to its new location on your external hard drive.

  • No there isn’t, it depends on the photo. If the light is really flat, for example, and you’re shooting in black and white you could go up to 100. But for some photos going up to ten is too much. In general I find setting Clarity to 20 improves most photos without going over the top, but you really have to judge it on a case by case basis.

  • Francisco Granadeiro

    Thank you for your reply Andrew

  • Good question because Clarity uses a similar technique to applying an unsharp mask. Generally, you use Clarity to enhance texture, it’s often best used as a local adjustment. Sharpening is usually a global adjustment used to compensate for the slight softness caused by the anti-aliasing filter most digital cameras have.

  • Tom Jones

    Thank you

  • Bram Blenk

    Awesome. Thanks.

  • Don H.

    Under the lens corrections tab, I have recently purchased a new lens and under the model drop down list, my lens does not show up. How can I find the correct lens model? Or do I just find one that comes close to the lens I use?

  • George

    Thank you very much. nice to learn a few new things.

  • Leszek

    Hello,

    About point #2. Is there a way to expand the list of profiles or perhaps add more custom ones etc. ?

  • You can use a tool like the X-rite ColorChecker passport to create your own profiles (I wrote an article about that, link below). Other than that photographers tend to use existing profiles and create different looks using Develop Presets.

    https://digital-photography-school.com/how-to-use-the-x-rite-colorchecker-passport-to-obtain-perfect-color/

  • KC

    Let me add a little background and keeping this to Raw for a moment. The reason Raw is different from camera maker to camera maker (even camera model to camera model) is sometimes a lot of data is added to the image file as it’s being saved. That’s the profile. It’s more than just color (a Raw file is technically black and white). It can be corrections for lens flaws and distortions as well. LR won’t show a specific camera profile if none is required. JPEG does this in camera, automatically. Raw conversion is a lot more than just converting data into an image.

    In theory, you shouldn’t see any lens aberrations or distortions, but LR tends to err on the conservative side when it uses it’s own profiles. That’s what you’re tweaking. The point is that it’s more than just a camera profile. It’s a camera (sensor) and lens profile.

    What makes this interesting (to me) is we didn’t have this in film days. We’re cameras, lenses and film better back then? Interesting.

    I find in LR that Clarity tends to affect blue/green more than red, and Saturation tends to affect red more than blue/green. If I’m working on an image that has odd color problems, most likely it’s a touch over saturated. I have no clue why.

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