With Lightroom, you can manage and organize your photos, label your favorites and enhance your images with powerful editing tools. Learning Lightroom is not an easy task, but it’s really important if you want to get serious about photography.
I got asked a lot of times how I post-process my photos and how to use Lightroom. For this reason, I decided to create this ultimate guide, divided into three parts to show you the main functionalities of Lightroom, how to use it to manage your image files and export them, and how to edit your photos like a pro.
How This Guide Works
Don’t worry if you don’t have prior knowledge of Lightroom. I divided this guide into three articles and in this first part, I’ll guide you through how to start familiarizing with the basic concepts and a thorough explanation of Lightroom’s User Interface.
1. Intro to Lightroom
What is Lightroom? First of all, please keep in mind that we are going to talk about Lightroom Classic CC and not Lightroom CC. I’ll dedicate another article to highlight the differences between the two. For now just know that if you want to have access to the complete set of tools, Lightroom Classic CC is the one you need use.
Lightroom is the most popular photo editing software on the market, made by Adobe. It’s used to create and manage catalogs of photos and to edit them.
Lightroom is a non-destructive editing software, that means, it won’t actually change your original files or move them from your computer. It works by changing a placeholder image to show you how your final creation will look like once you “Save as” or “Export” your final file, leaving the original untouched.
You can always go back to previous states of your images. More on that later.
1.1 Opening Lightroom for the First Time
It can be daunting the first time you open Lightroom. I remember getting really confused since I thought I was going to be able to start my post-processing adventure immediately.
But remember, Lightroom is not only a photo editing program it’s also a tool for organizing your images, so at first it will ask you to create a new catalog and where to store it.
For now, you don’t really need to decide where to store your catalog, leave the software to decide the destination folder in your computer by clicking “Continue”. We’ll see how to work with Lightroom Catalog in part 2.
Or if you feel confident with changing the destination folder and know how to do it feel free to expand the menu and choose your favorite destination in your computer’s hard drive.
On the next screen, you’ll see a lot of menus, buttons, and functions.
Trust me, there’s nothing to worry about, you’ll master Lightroom in no time.
It won’t take you long to familiarize yourself with Lightroom menus and it’s an important step to go through if you want to learn how to start editing in Lightroom.
Everything will look a bit dark and empty since you haven’t imported any photos yet. One thing to remember is that you won’t need to learn the entire set of options, settings, and functions in one go. In fact, you won’t even necessarily need to ever learn everything.
You’ll learn enough by the end of this guide and you’ll have the knowledge to edit like a pro in Lightroom and to keep discovering new functionalities with time.
1.2 Lightroom Modules
Different tasks in Lightroom are solved by using different modules. You’ll see the 7 Lightroom module names at the top right of the screen.
Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, Web. In this guide we’ll learn the first two, Library and Develop.
These two are the modules where you’ll spend 99% of your time when using Lightroom.
The Library module is where you will import photos, organize them and manage your catalog.
In the Develop module, you’ll perform the actual editing of your images. Here you will find sliders and menus to correct the exposure, sharpness, saturation, contrast and so forth. The Develop module is where the fun stuff happens!
2. Lightroom User Interface and Layout
2.1 Import Dialog
When you open Lightroom, the first screen you see is the Library module, but nothing has been imported yet so the library is empty.
We need to import some images to start understanding how it works. On the bottom left you’ll see the “Import…” button. Click it.
On the next screen (the Import Dialog) you’ll select a source on the left-end side and click on the folder you want to import. As you can see you have access to all the images on your computer. The ones in your memory card, external hard drive or on your Desktop.
If you want the Import Dialog to open automatically when you insert a memory card in your computer, go to Lightroom > Preferences > General > Show import dialog when a memory card is selected.
On the right-end side of the screen, you have a menu that changes according to the type of import you select. You can select the type of Import on the tops of your screen.
If you choose to add photos to your catalog, it means you have copied or moved your files in the right location on your computer’s hard drive already.
In this case on the right menu, you can apply some effect during the import or a few file handling options like manage duplicate files.
Move will be used when you want to add photos to your Lightroom catalog the same as “Add”, but at the same time move photos in your computer under another location.
Copy will as the word say not only add to your catalog but also copy the file from its current location to your hard drive. This can be used if you want for example to copy files from your memory card to your hard drive without deleting them from the card and at the same time add them to the Lightroom catalog.
Copy as DNG does the exact same thing as copy, but it will convert the file to DNG. You will unlikely use it.
For the last 3 options, you’ll see that the right-end side menu will stay the same. With the difference from “Add” that you’ll have a “Destination” dropdown menu and a “File renaming” menu to manage those aspects of these import modes.
You can already see how powerful Lightroom is in terms of file management and organization. You can rename files while importing them, add a series of pre-defined editing settings such as noise reduction or sharpening, for example, to save you some time during editing. You can fill the copyright of your photos in the metadata section and personalize a lot of aspects of this phase.
At the bottom of the Import dialog, you can select the type of view (Grid or Loupe), check or uncheck all photos, sort them and change the size of the thumbnails.
You can also save your Import settings as presets and use them for other imports.
My suggestion if you are at the very beginning is to stick to the “Add” mode for now. So what you want to do when you come back from a photo shooting is to:
- put your memory card in your computer
- copy and paste those images into either your computer or I highly recommend getting an external hard drive and then
- import them into Lightroom by just Adding them to your catalog
As I’ve said before, leave Lightroom to decide the location of your catalog and remember if in the future you decide to change that location, make sure you leave it in your computer hard drive so that you avoid performance issues or avoid compromising your data.
2.2 Library Module
After importing your photos, you’ll be back into the Library panel or Library module.
This is where you organize your images and build your catalog. The main benefit of this Lightroom module is that it gives you the tools you need to get organized and speed up your workflow.
On the left-hand side, you have the folder structure in your computer, and from this menu, you can add more folders to import extra files.
Then you have the Collections section always on the left-hand menu. It is extremely important and it’s where you can really speed up your workflow and harness the full organizational power of Lightroom.
I’ll explain this section in detail later, for now just know that you can think of collections as something similar to a music playlist. You can add an image to as many collections as you like.
In the middle of the screen, you have your images. Clicking on the thumbnails you can rotate them, add them to a collection, flag, rate and label them. I’ll explain everything in a moment in the next section of this article.
The bottom part of the middle section includes the so-called toolbar where you can switch between grid and loupe views. You can choose to compare photos against one another and choose a People to view where Lightroom’s face recognition algorithm will group together photos with people’s faces.
You can quickly choose one of these views by using your keyboard. I dedicated an entire section on this guide to keyboard shortcuts.
At the very bottom of the screen, you have a miniature version of your photos, useful to scroll through your images when you are in loupe mode.
On the right-hand side
At the top of the screen, you can switch between different modules.
2.3 The Develop Module
This is where the magic happens. You’ve imported and organized your images, now it’s time to have fun and edit them. But before let’s talk about the layout of this module.
Before introducing this section, it is extremely important to know that professional photographers and serious hobbyists shoot their photos in RAW mode.
Shooting in RAW format will produce low contrast and low saturated images.
You might ask why people want to obtain less contrast, less saturation, and vibrancy on an image?
Well since a JPEG file is just a RAW file that has had some additional processing applied in-camera. Remember, you want to shoot in RAW so that in Lightroom you can have full control of color contrast, curves, saturation, white balance and so forth.
Let’s get back to the develop module.
On the left-hand side, you can control Presets, Snapshots, History and again Collections.
Presets are very popular these days since many photographers make money by selling them through social media. Presets are pre-defined edits that you can save and re-use in your photos.
Let’s say that you shoot many of your pictures at the same ISO value and similar exposure and settings, you’ll find presets useful to speed up your workflow.
Snapshots. They are a way to record a particular group of settings you were using at a particular point in time. Useful if you want to return to those settings at any moment without undoing them manually.
History. In the History menu, you’ll find a list of snapshots Lightroom takes any time you apply an edit to your photo. Let’s say that you change the exposure value, Lightroom makes a snapshot. Do you change the saturation value? Yes, you have another snapshot.
This feature is very useful since you can keep track of all the changes you make and navigate back to a previous state of your image if needed.
Collections. Well, this is the same menu you’ve seen previously in the Library module. Lightroom knows how collections represent a fundamental feature for organizing photos and makes it available in this module too.
On the right-hand side, you have the very post-processing set of menus. This is where you will spend most of the time when editing a photo.
From top to bottom you have
The Histogram, a graphical representation of the tonal value of an image. Underneath it, you can see the camera settings you used for the photo you are editing.
Then you have the Local Adjustment menu. This is very useful for editing only certain areas of your image without affecting the rest of it. Very useful for brightening or darkening only small areas of your photo for example.
Basic. This section is the first of the global adjustment sliders in
Lightroom. Here you’ll have access by all the necessary to make your initial changes. Exposure, Contrast, Temperature and so forth. We’ll see in detail how to use it.
From the screenshot below you can see the other menus. It’s not worth going too deep now with the list of those settings since in the section Edit like a Pro you’ll learn how to use it and know what they do by experimenting with them.
3. Further Readings
Congrats for making it to the end of part 1 of this ultimate guide!
Stay tuned for Part 2 and 3:
- Part 2 Lightroom Catalog, How to Organize Your Photos in Lightroom
- Part 3 Lightroom Techniques | How to Edit Photos Like a Pro
- And here you can find a tutorial that teaches you how to install Lightroom Presets
Stefano Caioni is a photographer from Sydney, Australia. Founder and editor of Pixinfocus, his passion for photography helps him explore new places and live new adventures. Thanks to photography he reconnected with the outdoors and was able to travel the world and take photos of some of the most beautiful places on Earth.