This post was updated on December 13th, 2020
Exploring Adobe ® Lightroom
Have you seen all those posts on Social Media telling you, you need to post-process your digital photos with Adobe ® Lightroom? So now you got the software, but you don’t quite know what to do with it? Then this article is for you.
In this article, I guide you from the creation of your first Adobe ® Lightroom Catalog toward your first retouching work. You learn about some of the different modules that you can use in Lightroom.
What if you haven’t made your decision yet?
Maybe you haven’t made the decision yet if you want to use Adobe ® Lightroom or another post-processing software with similar features yet? In that case, I would recommend getting trial versions of the programs you consider as choices and then see which one fits you best. This article still can help you to get an idea of how Adobe ® Lightroom looks and feels, so it might still be helpful in your decision process.
What versions of Adobe ® Lightroom are covered?
While I show examples from Adobe ® Lightroom Classic CC some of the described functionality also exists in Adobe ® Lightroom CC and previous standalone versions of Adobe ® Lightroom. However, they might not be located in the same area or have different restrictions. I point out the differences, whenever I can, at least toward the standalone version of Adobe ® Lightroom.
What is Adobe ® Lightroom?
Adobe ® Lightroom is not only a post-processing software for your digital photos. It is also a photo-organization software, it can also help you create photo books, and slideshows, as well as websites. On the post-processing work, it is, compared to Adobe ® Photoshop, restricted in its capabilities. So you can’t use layers or to add text – except for watermarks – to your photos. If you need to replace the head from one photo with the one from another, this is not the software you are going to use for the task. However, this does not mean that you cannot have the photo in Adobe ® Lightroom and then call the program that can do such replacements from there. We’ll look into that later.
First time opening Adobe ® Lightroom
When you open Adobe ® Lightroom for the very first time, you see a window asking you to create a catalog.
Create or Choose a Catalog
You can have as many Adobe ® Lightroom catalogs as you like, but you need at least one to get any work done.
Now, what is a catalog?
A catalog is basically a database which stores the information about your photos, their location, the post-processing settings you have assigned to them, their keywords, etc.
Here was a critical piece of information. Let’s enhance that:
Adobe ® Lightroom stores information about your photos, it does not store the actual photo file.
It means, that if you remove a photo from your filesystem, which you previously imported into Adobe ® Lightroom, it is gone. Adobe ® Lightroom shows that photo as missing, and you are going to need your backup system if you find out that you shouldn’t have deleted that photo in the first place. There is no “but I imported the photo into Lightroom, so it is there.” Nope, sorry to say, it is not. All Adobe ® Lightroom has, is a link to the photo in your filesystem, but not the actual photo file itself.
Creating your first catalog
Since we assume that you haven’t opened Adobe ® Lightroom before, you do not have a catalog of it either. Therefore the list of recent catalogs comes up empty and you have to create one first. Click on the “Create New Catalog…” button to do so.
Chosing the directory for your catalog
Another window opens, looking similar to your file browser. Since I am using a Mac it looks a lot like Finder; if you are on a Windows machine, it looks a lot like Windows Explorer. Now, chose the directory in which you want to save your new catalog. You can choose any directory on an internal, or external hard drive. It can, however, not be a directory on a network drive. To ensure the best possible speed of Adobe ® Lightroom, choosing an internal drive – as long as it is large enough – is the best option.
I am opting for my Pictures directory.
You might have to allow Adobe ® Lightroom to access files in that directory. For once, the decision is easy: allow it or don’t use Adobe ® Lightroom 😉 Now enter a name for your new Adobe ® Lightroom catalog in the Safe As Field and click Create.
Congratulations! You just created and opened your first ever Adobe ® Lightroom catalog. The good news: you don’t need to create new catalogs for every single photo so you might go as far as never again creating a new one after this.
Now a new window should open that looks somewhat like the one in the photo.
If you are using one of the standalone versions of Adobe ® Lightroom, you will no longer find the Map module.
First look at the Adobe ® Lightroom Interface
Now, have a look around.
I suppose the first thing you realize is that there is not a single photo in this program. Also, there is also no “Open File” menu point anywhere to find.
If you are working on a Windows Computer, your Adobe ® Lightroom Interface looks slightly different from the screenshots shown here. It shouldn’t be so different that it’s unrecognizable though. I do my best, to include the paths to the Windows menus when they differ significantly from what you can see in these screenshots.
The contents of the Menu bar, as well as the Left and Right Panel change, depending on what module you are working in. Also notice the greyed out entries of the Adobe ® Lightroom Modules, only the one you are currently in is not greyed out.
How do I open a photo?
Since you probably are keen to start post-processing your photos before you learn everything about organizing them, let’s import the very first one and later come back to the modules and other things you can do.
You probably already found that there is no menu entry saying something like “Open File” or “Open Photo.” There is, however, an “Import…” button at the bottom of the Left Panel of the Library module.
Click on the button to open the Import Interface.
Once again you have a Left and a Right panel, with some choices on top and a menu. In the Left panel under “Select a source” activate the entry “Include Subfolders,” if you are using an older version of Adobe ® Lightroom. In the current version, there is a little checkbox, like in the next figure, to enable all subfolders at once.
Then below, click on the right arrow next to the hard drive on which your files are located to see all its main folders.
Now all you need to do is find the folder that holds your photo. Once selected, you can see your image in the Photo panel as a thumbnail – if you have more than one photo in the said folder you see, of course, more.
On top of the Photo Panel you can choose between Copy as DNG, Copy, Move and Add. For my part, I have never been very fond of the way Adobe creates its folder structure. So I haven’t used those Copy options in some years. The Move option is, of course, nice to have, but to me, it sounds like, if anything is going to go wrong it happens here. So I always copy my files from my memory card directly to my hard drives into the folder structure that I believe works best for what I do. When I am ready with that, I use the Add option to import my files. Let’s have a closer look into what these options do.
Copy as DNG
If you are shooting in your camera’s native RAW format (NEF, CR2, PEF to name a few) you can use this option to copy your file from your memory card to a new folder and simultaneously convert it into the DNG format. After finishing the conversion, your current Adobe ® Lightroom Catalog can access your file.
How does this conversion make sense?
Your camera’s raw format is not a standardized format. Adobe, however, created a converter to translate your camera’s format into its own. If your camera is supported right now, using your native raw format is no problem. The problem, however, might occur if, in ten years, Adobe quits supporting this particular format. Then suddenly you would no longer be able to work on those files. – Unless you find a converter program that could do the conversion for you. If you are using DNG files, or are converting your native files into DNG, you can rest assured that Adobe is going to support it, as it is Adobe’s standard. They might add a few enhancements over time, but since it is an open standard, you can rest assured that a DNG file from today is going to be readable tomorrow, or even in ten years from now.
If Adobe ® Lightroom does not support your current camera, check the free Adobe DNG Converter program, to convert your files to DNGs.
Well, it does the same as “Copy as DNG,” except that it skips the conversion part. After finishing the copy-process, your catalog can access the file.
Instead of creating another copy of your file, the file you chose to import moves from its original location to one of your choices . After finishing the move-process, your catalog has a link to the file (often called “your catalog contains the file.”)
Adding does not make any changes to your file. There is no conversion ongoing, no copying, or moving of files. The only thing that happens is that Adobe ® Lightroom adds your file to your catalog.
Now, didn’t I say earlier that your files are not in Adobe ® Lightroom? Yes! Adding a file to a catalog does not mean that you would physically add the file to the catalog or Lightroom. Like, say you have a folder to which you add a new page. It only means that Adobe ® Lightroom stores an entry in the catalog which basically reads “find file X in location Y on hard drive Z.”
So what is the main difference between the first three and the last Import option?
Exactly: within the first three, your file is touched, handled, converted, moved, you name it, by Adobe ® Lightroom. The fourth does nothing at all of these things. It only writes down where to find the file.
If you want to minimize the chance that a file gets corrupted by Adobe ® Lightroom (or a crash during import), you want to use the Add option in the Import interface.
There are a few more settings you could have a look at, but I guess you want to start working on your first photo finally. So go on and click the Import button on the bottom right side of the Import interface.
Congratulations! Your Adobe ® Lightroom catalog knows now the way to, at least, one of your photos. Of course, you can import multiple photos at once, by crossing them off in their top left corner.
First post-processing work
I assume, you are keen to do some post-progressing, even if there is so much more you could do in the Library module. Of course, you could wait some weeks before I cover the Develop module in detail, but well lets at least have a brief look for today so you can get a feeling how Adobe ® Lightroom works.
So right now you are still in the Library module, and in the bottom line, you see the film strip with the photo(s) that you just imported.
Now click on the Develop tab in the top-right, or press the <D> button to open the Develop Module.
You should be able to recognize the same kind of interface layout as you have already seen in the Library module. Notice however that the contents of the Left and Right panel have changed. In this first introduction, we will, however, focus on the essential functions of the Right panel.
Other functions have to wait until the blog post(s) that explore the Develop module more in detail.
For those of you with special attention to detail: yes, usually the photo does not change from the import to the Library/Develop Module. The screen prints are from two different computers with different Adobe ® Lightroom versions 🙂
One of the first changes I make to all my photos, actually on import, but more on that in a later article, is to activate Lens Corrections and to change the color profile to one that fits my style.
Lens Corrections in Adobe ® Lightroom allow you to remove, or at least reduce, distortion, chromatic aberration, vignetting, and correct the perspective in a non-destructive way. So far I have not had a reason to use the manual settings. For all the lenses that I have used so far, the profiles already existed, so all I need to do here is to activate them.
If you compare the next three images, you can see what changes these simple clicks made to the original photo.
Adapting the color profile
During the standard import, without applying any presets, Adobe ® Lightroom Classic CC applies the Adobe Color profile. You can see the used profile in the Right panel under the Basic tab.
Camera calibration before the June 2018 update of Lightroom Classic CC
Previous to the June 2018 update of Adobe ® Lightroom Classic CC and for the standalone versions of Adobe ® Lightroom, the Camera Calibration setting was/is located in its sub-panel in the bottom of the right panel. Upon import, with no presets selected, the Adobe Standard profile was used to calibrate your RAW files.
The Adobe Standard profile, in my opinion, gives you a good starting point to post-process your images. However, using a profile specific to your camera results in a more realistic color representation. Look at the differences between the two photos below. The only difference in their processing is that, for the second, I have chosen a profile specific for my camera instead of the Adobe Standard profile. No other settings have been changed to create the difference.
Photo with the old Adobe Standard Profile
Camera calibration since the June 2018 update of Adobe ® Lightroom Classic CC
The current version of Adobe ® Lightroom Classic CC comes with more (and improved) camera profiles. Additionally, you do no longer change the profiles in a sub-panel called Camera Calibration – which now is called Calibration, but in the Basic Panel under the Treatment section.
If you do not apply any preset upon import, the Adobe Color profile is applied to your images. In my opinion, this is a considerable improvement compared to the old Adobe Standard profile, but have a look for yourself.
To select a different profile, click on the arrows next to Adobe Color and another, small, window opens. Click Browse and then click on the down-arrow next to Profiles. Chose the profile that fits your camera and situation best. Then click on Close to the right of your chosen profile to get back to the other development options.
First, after these initial changes, I am starting to post-process my image in detail.
So now it is your turn to play around with the sliders in the Basic panel to improve your photo.
What if you go too far with one of these changes?
I made a few changes to the sliders in the basic panel to create an improved version of my image. Among others, I changed the White Balance of my image. However, as you can see, now my photo has a blue cast. My previous version (which I haven’t shown here) looked so much better, but who am I to remember all the changes that I have made?
Adobe ® Lightroom comes to aid with one of the sub-panels from the Left panel, the History panel. In this panel, you can trace all changes you have made to a particular image. As you can see, my last two changes were a change of the color Temperature and a change to the White Balance setting “Custom” (from As Shot).
To go one step back (or more), I activate the History-entry to which I want to step back:
Storing your changes in your photo files
Congratulations, you have made some improvements to your photo, without really changing your photo at all. Remember: Adobe ® Lightroom is basically a database. So far the changes have not been stored within your photo-file but within the database.
If you wanted to store the changes in the file, or for vendor native raw-files in a so-called sidecar file, you need to choose “Save Metadata to File” (Shortkey <Ctrl><S> / <Cmd><S>) from the Photo-menu of the Develop module.
You can find the sidecar file in the same folder as your photo. It has the same name as your photo but with the file extension XMP. If you remove the sidecar file and open your photo in another application, the changes you made in Adobe ® Lightroom will not show up. Adobe ® Lightroom, however, still stores them stored in this catalog.
Now have a look around in Adobe ® Lightroom and enjoy what you have learned so far. In the next article of this article series, we dive deeper into the Develop module and its Basic Panel.