Editing is one of the the topics that I get the most questions about, so I decided to create this series of blog posts to go over some fundamental topics that I find really important for photographers who are learning to edit. I personally enjoy editing my work, and improving my editing skills helped me take my work to the next level professionally and enabled me to augment my income by editing photos for other photographers.
In this post, I’m discussing my most used editing tools and breaking down some basics in Adobe Lightroom, my primary editing software.
(Small disclaimer before we jump in: these posts are designed with the advanced amateur or pre-professional photographer in mind. I’m writing with the expectation that you’re already knowledgeable about camera settings and lighting and use RAW format.)
There are plenty of different options to choose from out there, but I’m an Adobe purist when it comes to editing. I use the Creative Cloud Photography plan, which costs me ~$11/month (including tax) and gives me access to Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC. Lightroom helps me manage and organize large numbers of photos at once (i.e. from shoots or weddings) and has all of the editing capabilities I need on a daily basis. I can make exposure, tone, and color adjustments and have access to tools that can be used for light retouching. I rarely use Photoshop, but I like having it just in case I need to do some more heavy-duty retouching such as removing background objects, etc. Photoshop is an excellent resource for portrait photographers that want to do advanced retouching like skin-smoothing, contouring, or altering. (I choose not to use these techniques on my clients, thus I edit almost exclusively in Lightroom)
If cost is an obstacle, Adobe offers a student discount and also has free trials if you want to test the software before investing in it. There are also free or low cost alternatives to Adobe products if the interface isn’t a good fit for you or you’re looking to save money. GIMP is a free alternative to Photoshop (it’s actually what I used when I first started) and RawTherapee is a free alternative to Lightroom.
Since Lightroom is my home base for all things editing, I wanted to break down some of its basic features in this post. (Later posts in this series will go into detail on my most used tools, but if you have a specific question, feel free to leave it for me in the comments!)
Lightroom is organized into different modules that are presented as tabs on the top right of the screen. I spend my time primarily in the Library and Develop modules. The Library module, shown below, lets you view thumbnails of photos and is where you import/export images. It also lets you see an overview of each image: the metadata, histogram, and any keywords or comments you want to add to each image. The slide on the lower right hand side lets you adjust your thumbnail viewing, and the film strip at the bottom and the right and left hand panels can all be collapsed to give you an unhindered view of your images. (The GIF shows what the module looks like with and without all the sidebars collapsed.) I usually leave them in place unless I want to scroll through a shoot and check my images for consistency without anything else taking up screen space.
The Develop module is where the editing action happens. Once you click on Develop, the side panels change to include your editing tools (the film strip on the bottom remains the same to help you navigate between images quickly). Just like in the Library, all the panels are collapsible.
The left panel gives you access to your presets (I’ll discuss these in depth in another post) and if you scroll down, it shows you an image’s editing history so you can step forward and backward among changes. The right panel holds all your editing tools packed into little compartments that you can collapse and expand depending on your needs. (The above image shows the topmost compartment, the basic panel.)
Above the sliders are 6 icons that from left to right that are the crop tool, spot removal tool, red eye correction, graduated filter, radial filter, and adjustment brush. And at the very top is the beloved histogram. (Okay, maybe it’s just beloved to me, but the histogram is my life.) The histogram tells you at a glance how the data in your image is distributed across the blacks, shadows, highlights, and whites (AKA what the exposure is like) and lets you make refined tweaks by dragging each section of the histogram back and forth. I use this all the time to make adjustments to exposure and contrast without scrolling down to find those sliders.
I rarely use the other modules, though the print module can be useful to put together photo collages in Lightroom or format images for printing. I prefer to export my images from Lightroom and do any remaining print prep during or after exporting!
The next blog post in this series will break down in detail the sliders you find in the Develop module along with before and after images, so stay tuned!