Expert Advice: Editing Photos in Lightroom

Sep 22, 2016
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Lightroom, my favorite image catalog software and raw processor, makes organizing and editing images a breeze. It’s a great way to view and maintain your entire archive and make non-destructive edits to your images. Even better, it lets you seamlessly transfer your images into Photoshop for more advanced post-production work. The best part of all this is that it keeps your work perfectly organized while doing so. I’ve been using Lightroom since it was first introduced, and have grown fonder of it with each new version that’s released. 

The latest version of Lightroom, Lightroom CC, is broken down into the following modules: Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, and Web. While most photographers are well familiar with navigating the program, I wanted to share my own, streamlined approach (including my favorite shortcut keys!) for operating in the Library and Develop modules.

Importing Your Images:

It all starts with the Library Module. This is where your images get imported. The Library Module is also the place for viewing, organizing and rating your photographs, along with adding important information like metadata, copyright, and keywords. You can rename and batch process your images during import here, too. Since there’s no limit to the number of photos you can import, it’s best to maintain only one Lightroom catalog for your entire archive, even though it is possible to have multiple. And if you work on multiple computers like I do, you’ll want to keep your catalog and images on an external drive that can get plugged into whichever system you’re using.

Rating Your Images:

The fastest way to do a preliminary run-through of your shoot once it’s imported is to start with a simple yes or no approach. Is this a strong shot? Is it technically on point? Or, is this not a strong shot? Is it boring? Is the focus off? To do this, put your images in the single frame Loupe mode (quick key “E“) and use the left and right arrow keys on your keyboard to quickly move through your files. Hit the “P” key to pick the shots that work, and watch as the little white flag gets added to the images you like. Use the “U” key to unpick an image that you no longer want flagged. Any shots that are clearly not up to par can be rejected altogether with the “X” key, and you can delete them from your catalog later on.

To make this process even more streamlined, Lightroom has a nifty “Auto Advance” option that allows you to move to the next image without even having to touch the arrow keys. To set Auto Advance, go to your top menu bar, go to Photo and check on Auto Advance. Your images will now automatically advance once one has been rated or flagged.

Once you select all the images that are strong, go back to the grid view mode (“G”) and adjust your library filter to show only the images that have the white flag attribute (circled in the screen capture below). If your library filter bar is not showing, you can turn it on by hitting the “\” key or go to View: show filter bar.


A selection of flagged images from photographer Stephanie Mullin's recent web edit.

Now that you’re looking at just your selects, go through your edit a second time, still in the Loupe mode (“E”), this time rating your strongest and most commercially viable images using the star system (much like you would in Bridge). Rate only the images that are worthy of a star on a scale of 1-5. To do this, hit the number key for the number of stars you wish to apply. I suggest using 1, 3, and 5 stars, reserving 5 for your most portfolio-worthy shots. Afterwards, you can once again adjust your attributes to show only flagged images with a star rating.

Creating Collections:

Once I have a group of images that have been rated and flagged, I like to take advantage of Lightroom’s Collection feature. Collections are essentially virtual folders that group your images together in your catalog, while never actually moving them on your hard drive. They’re essential for creating batches of images that can be sequenced and arranged for clients, your website, or a promotional emailer.

To make a collection, start by selecting the image candidates you’ll be working with. It could be just your flagged, 5-star choices from before. Then click on the “Collections +” to create a new collection. Here’s an example of creating a collection for a promotional emailer.

Name your collection and be sure that the “Include selected photos” box is turned on.

Sequencing in Collections:

Once your collection is created, use the “Tab” key to hide your workspace panels and give yourself a bigger workspace. You can select all the images in the collection while in the grid view mode “G”, and hit the “N” key to show your images in the Survey mode.

At this point, I like to turn the lights out with the “L” key so that I can view my candidates against a clean, black workspace. And because you’re now working with images in a collection, you’re free to drag them around to sequence and rearrange them for your edit. Deselect the ones you don’t want by clicking the “x” at the bottom right of each image.

Images in the survey mode with the lights out:

After moving some shots around and eliminating the images I’m less inclined to use, I decided to go with these three selects shown below. Again, these images are being selected for a promotional emailer. I’ll delete the rest of the images from the collection, and label it with the date I plan to send them out. And remember, it’s a virtual folder, so deleting in this case only removes the images from the folder, not the catalog.

Collection Sets & Smart Collections:

Lightroom’s Library Module also allows you to create Collection Sets, which are essentially parent folders for Collections. These are helpful when working with multiple sets from the same shoot or when organizing content for the different galleries on your website. I typically use Collection Sets when doing photographer web edits to help organize the projects and specialties for their sites.

There are also Smart Collections. Smart Collections function just like regular Collections but populate themselves based on pre-determined metadata, ratings, and color codes. One of the best ways to use a Smart Collection is for cataloging your portfolio-worthy shots. For example, any image that has a five-star rating would probably be a good candidate for either your print book or website. But what if you want to be a bit more deliberate with what work automatically gets added here? Add another rating criterion, such as a color code, that you’ll only plan to use when you see a shot that you’d want to use in a specific place. For example, red for print portfolio, green for web, blue for social media. Lightroom will do the rest and put the work into those collections for you.

You could also make Smart Collections based on specialties. You could color code your work based on specialties and have Smart Collections that auto-populate according to the specialty color and rating (red for portraits, green for lifestyle, yellow for travel). The quick keys for your color codes are the following number keys:

6 — Red
7 — Yellow
8 — Green
9 — Blue

Editing Your Images:

When it comes to processing your images, Lightroom lets you make basic preliminary adjustments right inside the Library Module with the Quick Develop panel. Of course, there will always be times when Lightroom processing isn’t enough, but I would still recommend that you make your preliminary adjustments here. Here you can do simple tone, exposure, or clarity adjustments and sync them across your import. This is great if your shoot was shot a bit over/under-exposed, and can be executed by correcting one image, then selecting the entire batch and hitting the Sync Settings button at the bottom right. Ideally, the bulk of your processing should be done in the Develop module and edited in Photoshop when necessary. In the Develop Module, I always start with white balance, then curves, followed by any needed selective enhancements. Editing can be synced from one image to the next here as well. Simply make your adjustments to one image, move on to the next, then hit previous at the bottom right to apply the same edits.

Once all my image editing is complete, I like to use my favorite quick key ever, the “ \ ” key.  This is your before and after preview key for image editing in the Develop Module, and I suggest using it throughout your editing process to see how far you’ve taken your image—and if it’s been taken too far.

Exporting Your Images:

When you’re ready to move to Photoshop, go to the top menu bar and select Photo > Edit in Adobe Photoshop. Work your magic in Photoshop, hit "command S" to save your adjustments, navigate back to Lightroom and see your filename-edit.tif version next to the original in your catalog.

Here are a few helpful quick keys for working in the Develop Module:

Command + ' (apostrophe): create a virtual copy of an image so that you can play around with multiple processing styles, crops, and variations.
Tab: hides/reveals the side panels to provide a larger work area.
L: “lights out,” dims the surrounding image area.
T: hides/reveals the toolbar.
F: full-screen preview.
I: toggles through your image info (title and metadata) at the top left of the image.

Check out the rest of Adobe's helpful shortcuts here

That’s it! Hopefully, these tips will allow you to make your Lightroom process even smoother. And remember, anything that will improve your database organization, speed up your workflow, and make editing more streamlined will surely allow for more time behind the camera and less time in front of the computer. 

Questions? Give me a shout! And if you're interested in help with an edit of your own, I'm happy to help

Tags: expert advice lightroom stacy swiderski