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22nd April 2010
Lightroom made easy Part 1
by Ian Burley

An easy introduction to Lightroom

  • Who is this article for? Any photographer who takes and adjusts a reasonable number of photos.
  • Ability level: Enthusiastic beginner to advanced photographer.
  • Vote in our Lightroom poll

If you take a reasonable number of photos, especially RAW images, and spend a lot of time making adjustments to improve them, then you should seriously consider switching to one of the new generation of combined image management and RAW development packages like Adobe Photoshop Lightroom or Apple Aperture, and other solutions like ACDSee Pro Photo Manager, and IDimager.

You can say goodbye to the laborious and repetitive process of finding an image on your computer, finding the application you want to use to edit your image with, opening it, loading your image, editing, and then saving your image, being careful not to accidentally over-write the original. These new-generation programs help you manage your images, let you edit them quickly and easily, with next to no risk of accidentally deleting the originals thanks to 'non-destructive' editing, and they can help speed up your workflow by potentially hundreds of times; and that's not an exaggeration.

(Click image to open a larger view in a new window) New-generation programs can make organising and improving your images a breeze, but it does challenge familiar and traditional way of working with images on your computer.

In this series I will be showing you how to transform the way you work with your photos using new-generation software. I will be using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 beta 2, primarily because it's an application I use myself and because it's available to download free of charge and use until June 2010, or when Adobe finally releases the finished version of Lightroom 3. Even then, Adobe usually makes Lightroom available as a 30 day trial download for free. But don't feel obliged to stick with Lightroom; other solutions like Apple Aperture, ACDSee Pro Photo Manager, and IDimager, etc. are all worth investigating.

I want to encourage all kinds of people to explore the benefits of Lightroom, and so I will be avoiding deep technical terms that put people off. The big challenge with Lightroom is getting to understand how it operates from a simple level. The nuts and bolts technical power of Lightroom is something to gradually tackle the more you use the program.

The basics - simplified

One of the key problems users find when dealing with programs like Lightroom for the first time is just being able to get your head around it. You need to think differently. Change is a concept most of us struggle with, but after having personally been through the process, I can only say - hang in there. I'm going to use my own experience with the aim of getting you through the familiarisation process much more easily.

(Click image to open a larger view in a new window) On the face of it, Lightroom just looks like a rather slick image browser, which of course it is, but it's much - much - more than that.

To make the most of Lightroom you need to understand what it's designed to do:

  1. Manage and browse your images. This is the Library mode.
  2. Enable you to adjust the image quality of your images, especially, but not exclusively, camera RAW images, quickly, conveniently, and efficiently. This is what the Develop mode is all about.

There are other modes (Slideshow, Print, and Web) but I think it's much more important to get to grips with Library and Develop first.

Comparing the old way of editing an image and the Lightroom way

To start with, I was very undisciplined with the way I stored my camera images before I started using Lightroom. My images were all over the place, and stored in folders with meaningless names half the time. On top of that I had copies of folders of images, so duplicate images were clogging up my hard drive. Naturally finding images was often a chore.

But even if you have been very organised and stored your images in a carefully designed arrangement of usefully named folders, Lightroom can build on that and enable you to find your images more easily than ever. You can choose whether or not to let Lightroom manage the storage of your images, or you can let Lightroom learn where you prefer to store your images and let you continue to store them manually with the system you prefer.

Whichever way, Lightroom will build up a Catalogue of your images. Think of a catalogue as a database of your images. Each image in a catalogue will be associated with its stored location, key words that have been linked to that image (more on that later), as well as information inside the image, or 'metadata'. This means you will be able to sort and find image by date, camera mode, lens, aperture and/or shutter speed used, ISO speed used, even - if your camera supports it - where you took the picture through the use of geo-tagging. If you have been good and stored your images in folders with good descriptions in the folder name, Lightroom can also use words in folder names as target key words. All of this information is accessible simply by importing images into a Lightroom catalogue. This process alone endows Lightroom with copious amounts of information about that image that you can use to sort and locate it very quickly and easily. But of course you can also add your own key words, both at the time of importing, or later on.

(Click image to open a larger view in a new window) The arrangement of the panels in Lightroom is very flexible, in fact the whole application is very customisable.

In the conventional way, once you've found your image, you need to open it in your editing application of choice, like Photoshop, PaintShop Pro, etc. So you would either fire-up the editor software and then use its file options to navigate to your target image and open it, or drag the image from your target folder onto the editor. Your image is then available for adjusting and editing. Once you have finished, you need to save it before closing the editor application, or all your work will be lost. And you need to save the edited image carefully because there is a risk that the edited image could accidentally over-write an irreplaceable original. And when you come back to that image, it may have a new name, it may have been saved to a new location, so it's difficult to find again, and if you decide to make more changes to it, image quality could suffer because you could be editing an image that loses data each time it's saved. JPEG images are a good example of this.

With Lightroom every time you close the program, its state is remembered and when you open it again, everything is exactly as you left it. This feature alone is marvelously convenient. If you haven't finished editing your image and you need a break, close Lightroom, come back later, open Lightroom again and you can immediately pick up from where you left off.

Non-destructive editing

Lightroom never changes the original of the image file your are editing. What you see on the screen when editing an image in Lightroom is a virtual rendering of the image. Each adjustment you make to the image is remembered by Lightroom, in the order that it was applied. In other words it builds a list of instructions based on each of the changes you have made. Let's say you brightened the image by 0.5, sharpened it by 30 with a radius of 0.9, and reduced noise by 35. You will see the end result of all these actions on the screen, but even when you move to another image, or export the edited image, the original image file remains un-changed. This is called non-destructive editing and it avoids the risk of losing original files for ever by being over-written, and it avoids the problem of repeated editing and saving of files that lose quality each time they are saved. As Lightroom remembers the changes you have made to an image, you can return to that image months later and you will see it as it was when you last viewed and edited it. If you don't like the edits you made, you can start from scratch, no problem.

Working with lots of images

Let's say you have been to the studio and taken hundreds of shots during the session. Unfortunately, you have found that the white balance needs to be adjusted by the same amount in all your photos. That means you need to load each image individually, make the adjustment, then save and close it and then start the same process all over again for hundreds of times. Forget all that with Lightroom. Instead, choose a representative image from the session, make any number of adjustments until the picture is exactly how you want it, then apply all - or even some - of those adjustments to any number of other images from the session. Imagine the time-saving! This is achieved through a feature called Synchronisation. You use your master image and the adjustments you have made to it, then select other images you want to apply some or all the changes you have made to the master image, and then click on Synchronise. I have used this to adjust hundreds of images at a time, and it takes seconds, not hours.

(Click image to open a larger view in a new window) Besides tools for adjusting colour, contrast, density, and removing unwanted spot detail, and more, you can also crop and rotate images very precisely and with the help of framing aids.

Finally, saving the finished image

Working traditionally, you are usually working on one image at a time, so each edited image needs to be saved separately. You need to think of a good file name, type it in, find the right folder to save the image to, and choose various settings like the quality setting for JPEG images, the correct colour space, etc. And then you need to do the same for the next image.

With Lightroom you can edit dozens or hundreds - even thousands of images, flitting back and forth, without needing to save anything. Lightroom remembers everything you do. Once you have finished editing one or many images, you can export brand new versions of one or all these images; just select the ones you want to export. When you start the 'export' procedure, you have a load of options you can choose from. These include the location where the exported images will be saved to, the size in pixels, even a target file size if the file can be compressed, the file type, whether or not the files should contain embedded information (metadata), and you also have powerful options for batch renaming files and applying watermark texts. Once you have made your choices, you start the export process and all the export preferences will be applied to the batch of images you have selected for export. Lightroom does the rest. If you have selected a large number of files, it can take time for the batch process to complete, but that time can be used to do something else and just think of the time saved up to that point in the first place.

Have I captured your attention?

My hope is that you have stuck with it from the top of the page and if you weren't particularly hooked on Lightroom, then you just might be more interested now. I've only really scratched the surface of what is possible with Lightroom, but I hope you are now getting a feel for what the benefits are of using a program like Lightroom.

Next, I'd like you to actually use the software and follow my examples in the next installment of this series. At the time of writing you can download Adobe Lightroom 3 Beta 2 for free from the Adobe Labs website. You will need to register an Adobe ID with them before you can download. Both Mac and Windows versions are available. See you again next time!

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