Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

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Lightroom is anything but intuitive for new photographers. Its multitude of panels, sliders, menus, and buttons are enough to make your head spin. But fortunately, there’s hope for even the most beleaguered beginner.

Amid all the options and icons is a single panel in the Develop module that can handle most of the basic editing tasks you are likely to need on any given image. Appropriately titled “Basic,” this one panel contains a plethora of sliders each with its own unique effect.

Once you get the hang of these you’ll start to feel right at home with the way Lightroom works. The first step in becoming familiar with the Basic panel is understanding what each of the sliders does, so let’s examine each of them in detail.

maternity photo - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

You and Lightroom: A match made in heaven

The Lightroom Basic Panel

The Basic panel is broken into three general areas; WB (or White Balance), Tone, and Presence.

Each has a few sliders that control specific types of edits and it’s not uncommon for 95% of your editing to be done right within this one panel.

Despite its meek-sounding name, the Basic panel is a powerful and highly effective tool that you can use to give your images the type of punch visual appeal you need.

Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

These sliders are in the Basic panel, but they can do quite a lot.

The Temp Slider

Lightroom’s nomenclature can seem somewhat daunting, especially if you don’t have a background in photography or image manipulation. Temp is the abbreviated form of Temperature, though a true beginner would be forgiven for thinking it simply meant Temporary (Lightroom is not good at helping people learn these sorts of things.)

The temperature of an image, broadly speaking, is how warm or cool it appears. If you really want to dig deeper with White Balance this article is a good place to start.

Move the slider to the left and it will give your image a blue tint, but move it to the right and it will appear to have a yellow cast. If you are editing a JPG image this slider will let you change the value to ± 100, whereas shooting in RAW lets you go from 2,000 to 50,000.

The reason it’s called Temp is that you are adjusting the degrees Kelvin temperature of the white level of the photo. But you don’t need to know all the technical terminology to get good results. If a picture feels too cold or too warm, adjusting this one slider can go a long way towards fixing your photo.

Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom - white balance temp slider

The Tint Slider

This slider works in tandem with Temp to give your image just the right color cast. As you slide Temp back and forth, your White Balance will get closer to where you want it, but it might result in an image that looks somewhat green or red. You can then use the Tint slider to fix that, giving your image just the right look and feel.

If you prefer Lightroom to do a bit of the heavy lifting for you, you can use the large eyedropper icon in the top-left corner of the Basic panel to get your image most of the way towards a proper White Balance and Tint.

Click the eyedropper and then click on a light gray (not pure white) area of your image. Lightroom will adjust the Temp and Tint sliders to what it thinks are the best values for your image. It’s a good starting point and will often get you pretty close to the look you want.

tint slider magenta to green - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Exposure Slider

Move this slider and you’ll quickly get an idea of what it does. It simply makes your picture brighter or darker. This is a global adjustment that affects all areas of the image including the light parts, mid-tones, and dark portions all get brighter or darker when you move the slider left or right. (Note: The Exposure slider mostly affects mid-tones although other tones are also affected.)

You can see this reflected in the histogram above the Basic panel. Move the slider to the left or right and the entire graph moves to the left or right.

Exposure is often used to compensate for when a picture doesn’t come out right from the camera. This usually happens if the camera wasn’t metering the scene properly or exposure compensation was enabled by mistake.

Exposure is like a blunt instrument that goes a long way towards making dark images lighter or light images darker. Then you can use additional sliders in the Tone section to fine-tune your picture.

exposure slider - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Contrast Slider

You might have seen a slider like this on your TV. If you have ever adjusted the values, you probably noticed that as contrast increases, the picture also gets more vivid and punchier. That’s because higher contrast results in a greater degree of variance between light and dark areas.

The same holds true for the Contrast slider in the Lightroom Basic panel. Move the Contrast slider to the right and the bright areas will get brighter while simultaneously making the dark areas darker.

Contrast can also have a negative value which makes your image seem almost hazy since the farther you move the slider to the left the less difference there is between light and dark areas.

Most photographers don’t find negative contrast values particularly useful. But it can come in handy depending on the type of style you are going for in your image editing.

contrast slider - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Highlights Slider

This slider, in conjunction with Shadows, works especially well if you shoot in RAW format. That is because much of your image data that might be discarded in a JPG file is still available to you when editing RAW files.

When you move the Highlights slider to the left it makes only the bright parts of your image darker. Conversely, when you move it to the right the bright parts get even brighter.

This works wonders on images where some parts are properly exposed but other parts are blown out and you want to decrease the exposure of just the bright parts.

Highlights slider - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Shadows Slider

Whereas the Highlights slider only affects the bright portions of an image, the Shadows slider lets you adjust the degree to which the dark areas get lightened.

Many photographers begin their editing by moving the Highlights and Shadows sliders, often by moving Highlights to the left just a bit and Shadows to the right. This will make dark portions of the image brighter while simultaneously making bright portions darker.

Some image editing programs only allow you to bring the highlights down and shadows up, but Lightroom takes a slightly different approach. You can, if you so choose, make the bright areas even brighter and the dark areas even darker by moving the sliders to the right and left, respectively.

Most photographers don’t take this approach but it’s nice to know you have it available if you want to use it.

Shadows slider - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Whites Slider

While the Whites slider might seem somewhat similar to Highlights, it doesn’t actually adjust the brightness of lighter portions of an image. Rather, it makes the whiter areas more white. The effect might seem subtle, but careful adjustment of the Whites and Blacks sliders can have a similar effect to the Contrast slider but it offers you more fine-grain control over the outcome.

I often begin with a +25 adjustment on the Whites slider just to give my images a bit more punch and brightness and then adjust it as needed.

It’s easy to overdo it when adjusting the Whites slider. You might find that going much past 50 will give your images a strange and unnatural look so take care when editing that you don’t overdo it.

You can also get good results by moving the Whites slider to the right while also moving the Highlights to the left. This tends to result in a bit more even-handed editing while giving your images the added spark you might be looking for.

whites slider - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Blacks Slider

The Blacks slider works just like the Whites slider but in reverse. It makes the dark portions of an image more pure black which can give a nice sense of contrast and tone to a photo.

When you first adjust this slider it might seem like it has the same effect as the Shadows slider, but careful examination reveals a subtle difference in that it is not actually making the dark portions brighter or darker, but adjusting the intensity how black the darkest portions are.

Similar to the Whites slider you might get good results by lowering the black levels and then increasing shadow detail just a bit.

blacks slider - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Clarity Slider

Of all the sliders in the Basic panel, Clarity is probably the one that is the least understood and depending on who you talk to, the most abused. Clarity does not adjust the overall contrast of an image but instead, it adjusts what’s known as edge contrast.

Whenever there are harsh lines or edges, adjusting the clarity slider to the right will make them stand out and have a little more pop or visual punch than they otherwise might. Moving it too far to the right will result in images that look artificial and unnatural, but it can be useful to use high values if they get you the result you want.

Conversely, you can move Clarity to the left to make your images appear softer and almost a bit ethereal.

Keen image editors will note that the Adjustment Brush tool contains an option called Skin Smoothing which is merely a -40 Clarity adjustment that you can paint in wherever you want. Using this on a person’s face has the effect of removing the appearance of pores and even small hairs that can, if overused, lend an unnaturally smooth look that you might see in magazines or other media.

Clarity slider - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Dehaze Slider

Arriving a few years ago for Lightroom Creative Cloud users, the Dehaze slider does pretty much what its name suggests, although the results are not always as good as what users might want.

The idea of the Dehaze slider is that by moving it to the right on images with a bit of a foggy or hazy appearance, you can mitigate some of the issues causes lens imperfections or atmospheric intrusions.

It’s not a perfect solution, but if used in the right conditions it can go a long way towards fixing an image that might have otherwise ended up in the rejected pile.

dehaze slider - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Vibrance Slider

Have you ever taken a picture that you thought would look awesome, but after importing it into Lightroom, just seemed kind of dull and boring? As if the lifeblood had somehow been sucked out of its colors? Vibrance aims to fix that and it works especially well on images of nature and landscapes.

Whereas saturation adjusts the overall color intensity of an entire image, Vibrance works by making duller colors more vivid. It’s also smart enough to leave skin tones alone which means you can make a scene look a little more interesting and colorful without resulting in portraits that are unnatural or oversaturated.

Vibrance slider - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Saturation Slider

This option can take even the dullest and most boring image and add a massive punch of color. Or it can be used to turn vibrant pictures into faded black-and-white versions.

When you slide the Saturation slider to the right it increases the value of all the colors in an image, whereas moving it to the left has the opposite effect and can eliminate all color entirely.

Similar to the clarity slider, saturation is powerful but easy to overuse and I find that it’s best when adjusted in relatively small amounts.

saturation on a portrait - Unlocking the Power of the Basic Panel in Lightroom

Conclusion

If you are new to Lightroom and unsure of where to even begin, the Basic panel is a great way to get you where you might be trying to go.

Even though the goal of this guide was to give you a good understanding of the sliders in this panel the best way to learn is to try it out for yourself. Open up some images and start using the sliders and see what you can do with them. You might be surprised at your results!

Remember that Lightroom is non-destructive so you can always undo your changes which makes it even easier to edit or just experiment for fun.

Read more from our Post Production category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

  • Bill Ward

    This is a great introduction to the Basic panel, and the example images really bring it home. I’ve enjoyed many of your DPS articles, but this one is special. Thank you so much.

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