Some photographers don’t enjoy photo editing nearly as much as the shoot itself. I, personally, love post processing. Sure, sometimes it can be a tedious and time-consuming endeavor. But that’s when being a hobbyist has its greatest advantage. I can do it when I want to, stop when I want to, and start again when I feel more inspired.
That said, editing cannot turn a bad photo into a great photo. 80% of photography comes from taking the photo – the exposure, the composition and the focus that happens when you’re actually shooting. The other 20% comes from the editing – bringing down the highlights, brightening shadows, adding some clarity, etc. From start to end, the photography process is about being creative, artistic and uniquely you. No two people will shoot or edit a photo the exact same way.
My photo editing process has changed pretty significantly since I started about a year ago. I learned from watching tutorials from talented photographers like Serge Ramelli and Joshua Cripps, listening to podcasts such as Tripod and the Improve Photography Podcast, and scouring the web for anything I can find on interesting editing techniques. I love to learn and these resources have been an invaluable part of my progress.
On occasion, people have asked me about the software I use to post process, and my workflow in general. So that’s what I’ll be sharing in this post. I’ll take you through my entire Lightroom workflow from beginning to end by editing a photo of The Sun Voyager sculpture that I took during a rainy day in Reykjavik, Iceland.
Keep in mind that the exact number for each setting changes depending on the photo I’m editing. For example, some photos will require more or less vibrance than others. The decision of how much to put in is up to you since it is your art that is being edited. I’ll be using Lightroom CC 2015 and will be working in the Develop tab, in the right-hand panel. The original, RAW image I’ll be starting with is below.
1. Lens Correction
I like to start my workflow in the Lens Correction section. This allows me to straighten out my image and adjust for any weird distortion that happens with each type of lens.
Check the box next to Remove Chromatic Aberration. This helps to remove color fringes that happen around objects in your photo.
Check the box next to Enable Profile Correction. Sometimes Lightroom will be able to detect the lens you use and automatically populate it in the drop-down menu below. However, if it doesn’t, you will have to select it yourself. As mentioned above, this fixes the distortion that occurs with each lens.
In the Transform section, you can fix the distortion in the horizontal and vertical lines in your photo. This is a big deal because a photo where the horizon is crooked or a building looks like it’s leaning to the right or left makes the photo look sloppy and imbalanced. Of course, there will be times when photographers will distort these lines and use an unconventional angle on purpose. However, in most cases, you will want to correct this.
In the Transform section, click Auto. This allows Lightroom to detect those horizontal and vertical lines in the photo and automatically correct it for you. I would say this works 98% of the time. In the case when the Auto does not give you the outcome you want, try the next step.
- If the step above doesn’t work, click on the Crop and Straighten tool at the top of the panel and click on the ruler icon next to Angle. Click and drag the ruler along a horizontal or vertical line in your photo to straighten it out. If you like the result, click Done below the photo.
- If you’re still not completely satisfied from implementing the step above, you can try returning to the Transform section and adjusting the sliders (titled Vertical, Horizontal, Rotate, etc.) manually.
3. Camera Calibration
In the Camera Calibration section, you can set the contrast and color interpretation of the photo.
- In the drop-down menu next to Profile, I always set mine to Neutral. This is done because I don't want any color automatically added to my photo. I want full control over the color, which I will be able to decide on when making adjustments in the other settings in Lightroom.
I use this section to dehaze my photo in scenarios when it’s not desirable to have that foggy look in the photo. In this case, it was a foggy morning and though I do like the way the fog that covers some of the mountains in the back, I want to turn up the dehaze slider a bit to bring out the details in the parts that are not completely covered by the clouds or fog.
Turn the Dehaze slider up to anywhere between +10 to +25. In this photo, I turned it to +21.
The Basic section is where most of the magic happens. This is where you’ll be able to bring out most of the details and colors in your photo. Needless to say, it is a fun area to work in!
Highlights and Shadows
These sliders will make the most dramatic changes in your photos because they allow you to bring to surface the details in the darkest and brightest parts of your image.
Turn Highlights all the way down to -100. This brings back the details in the brightest parts of the photo.
Turn the Shadows all the way up to +100. This allows you to recover the details from the darkest parts of the photo.
Whites and Blacks
The Whites and Blacks sliders are similar to Highlights and Shadows except they work with more extreme tonal ranges. So when working with these sliders, pulling the Blacks slider down will give you a much darker image, and pulling the Whites up will give you a much brighter image – so you should use these sliders much more sparingly than those for Highlights and Shadows.
What I like to do here is get a white “point” and black “point”. You accomplish this by hitting alt/option on your keyboard while simultaneously moving the Whites slider up and Blacks slider down.
By hitting alt/option while using the Whites slider, Lightroom shows you a completely black overlay. As you move the slider, the areas that display as white are completely blown out. You’ll want to bring the slider up as much as you can without blowing out the photo. So hold down alt/option on your keyboard and drag the Whites slider up until you see one pixel of white.
For the Blacks slider, it’s the opposite. It’ll show you a completely white overlay and as you move the slider down, the black parts are those that are completely black. Here you’ll want to hold down the alt/option key and bring the Blacks slider down until you see a few pixels of black. I say a few pixels instead of just one because I’m okay with some completely dark areas for this photo.
At the top of the Basic panel, there’s a drop-down menu next to “WB:”. This is where you can change the white balance in order to adjust the color cast in your photo.
Change the White Balance to your preferred setting. I usually play with the settings here a bit until the photo: 1) looks the way I remember it while I was at the location, and 2) matches my preferences / style; I typically like my photos on the warmer side. In this photo, I chose the White Balance setting – Cloudy.
On occasion, I will also manually adjust the White Balance using the Temperature and Tint sliders. I didn’t make any additional adjustments after selecting Cloudy for the White Balance in this photo.
At this point, I will gauge the exposure of the photo and adjust the exposure slider as needed.
For this photo, I felt like it needed to be brightened a bit so I turned the Exposure slider to +0.35.
This is where you’ll adjust the Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation in the photo. Here is where you can bring out the colors and add some contrast to your photo.
The Clarity slider enables you to add contrast to the midtones in your photos. More specifically – it enhances areas of tonal differences between the darks and lights. The Clarity slider could be your best friend and your worst enemy. It’s the slider that lets you add a nice punch to your photo, but overdo it and you could ruin your photo. When I see photos where the clarity is bumped up to the extreme, it’s perceived as lazy editing and highly distracting – even if the photo itself is a good photo. I typically set my Clarity slider between +10 and +30 (which I’m sure some photographers will already feel is too high). Subtlety is key! For this photo, I have the Clarity at +26.
Vibrance increases the intensity of muted colors in your photo. I set mine between +10 and +40. This photo is set at +40.
The Saturation slider is another one that can be easily overdone. It lets you brighten and deepen colors in your photo. My Saturation slider varies greatly depending on the photo. It can go as high as +20 and may even go into the negatives for more dark, dramatic photos. The Saturation slider is at +16 for this photo.
In the Detail section is where you can sharpen your image. Here you’ll want to find a balance between your Sharpening amount and Noise reduction to create an image that is sharp but not grainy.
Under Sharpening, pull the Amount slider up to somewhere between +70 and +90. This photo is at +80.
Under Noise Reduction, increase the Luminance slider to a point between +10 and +30. I usually use this formula to decide on how much Luminance to add: 100 - Sharpening Amount = Luminance amount. So for this photo, the math would be: 100 - 80 = 20. So my Luminance is set to +20.
The Graduated Filter tool can be found at the top of the right-hand panel and enables you to make adjustments to specific areas of your photo using an even gradient. There are no fast and hard rules for using this tool. This is an optional tool that I use on occasion when I want to draw the focus of a photo to an area, and/or want to darken distractingly bright areas around the border of the photo. I almost always use it to darken the sky to bring out the detail and make it more moody.
Click on the Graduated Filter tool and adjust the setting. I usually only bring down the Exposure in the setting, then drag my mouse from one point in the photo to the other. The starting point will have the most intense effect, and the ending point will be the least intense. In this photo, I created three filters at -0.17 Exposure and placed them at the upper left (to darken the sky), and lower left + lower right areas (to darken the ground and pull the attention to the sculpture) of the photo.
The Radial Filter is also found at the top of the right panel. It lets you create one or more areas of vignetted effects in your photo. I use it specifically for dodging (lightening up) and burning (darkening) parts of photos.
Click on the Radial Filter icon and adjust the settings. I typically increase the exposure, clarity and sharpness so I can draw attention to specific areas. Click and drag on the photo to create a circle where the vignetting effect will occur. For this photo, I have the settings at +0.64 Exposure, +10 Clarity and +10 Sharpness and placed the filter at the core of the sculpture and the reflection since this area is the focus of the photo.
...and that's it! If you're new to photo editing in Lightroom, this may seem like a lot to digest. But trust me, once you get into it, this process will usually take just a few minutes. Check out the final photo below.
I do most of my post processing in Lightroom but sometimes will also jump over to Photoshop to do more advanced workflows such as detailed dodging and burning, luminosity masks, exposure blending. If you have any questions about my workflow or would like me to do a post on other editing techniques, leave a comment below or shoot me an email - email@example.com