Five Simple Steps to Developing Photos Using Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom is a versatile piece of software for manipulating and archiving your digital images. Used by many professional photographers, it provides quick access to the common features of digital image processing. If you’re a newcomer to digital photography this might help you get started.

I wrote this piece back in 2011 with help from colleague Jason Edwards (National Geographic Face of Pure Photography). I thought I'd update it, as a few things have changed on the Lightroom interface. The techniques haven't altered much though - it's still a good bit of simple practice that will help you make good use of your images.   

Published by Simon Mustoe

There are so many settings in Lightroom, it is a bit daunting for the new user. To add to the complexity, there is really no absolute way of treating digital images … only a set of recommended procedures and principles.

This short article sets out the common few settings used to process or ‘develop’ digital images. 

The first thing you need to know is about RAW images. As the name implies, they contain a lot of RAW data, data that is lost when a JPG is created, when an image is cropped or altered in any way. Your RAW image is your master and as long as you keep this, you will always be able to go back to how things started.

Note, digital image processing can be extremely technical but for most users, 95% of the process can be achieved with a few short steps. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you need to manipulate images to a great degree … in fact, minimal processing is best. If you're serious and you want to supply something useful to a designer or publisher, you're best leaving them (the experts) to do the manipulation they need. 


There are a few cold hard facts about digital photography that might help you begin to understand why it’s important to tread lightly when processing your photos.

  • You wouldn’t destroy an original slide, so don’t destroy your digital image. Shoot in RAW format and only make changes to a copy. LightRoom does this automatically – RAW files are maintained but adjusted and you export the changes e.g. as JPGs. You can roll back to the original at any time … cool!
  • If you ever took slide photos, you'll know that the reference point for processing scans of your slides was the slide itself. Unfortunately, with digital images, the reference point is your brain. You are going to have to remember what things looked like at the time and try to create something close to ‘true’. So pay attention to colour and light at the time. True images are often more appealing.
  • As with slide or digital, as soon as you scan / put something on another screen, all the colours will be different … sometimes markedly. If you don’t know if your screen is properly calibrated, then you can’t be sure that a substantially altered image won’t appear poor somewhere else. You might need to calibrate your screen. Again, don't make big adjustments to colour or saturation or you might regret what it looks like somewhere else. 
  • The colour-rendition on digital cameras varies between individual cameras (though probably not to the extent that it will concern amateur users) but more importantly, between makes. This can be quite significant. Profiles for individual cameras may be downloaded by searching the web and added to LightRoom presets. This will standardise your processing to a degree.


Silk purses and pigs’ ears

In terms of ‘processing’, digital photos are no more versatile than a scanned slide … in fact less versatile as they lack as much depth of contrast and resolution.

If you over-expose your image, you can pull it back to a degree* but a hole in your digital image is still empty … so you must take care to properly expose your shots at the time.

[*It's interesting to note that with slides over-exposed areas would often contain detail but under-exposed areas did not. With digital, it is the opposite, so if you are going to err on the side of caution, under-expose your digital shots.] 

In other words, the better you balance your shot in the field, the less time you will have to spend ‘correcting’ it and the better it will ultimately look. Every time you adjust a digital image you are losing data. It’s better to keep as much data as possible.

Consult your camera manual and set your parameters correctly, minimising the amount of processing you are likely to have to do. Take photos as though it was film but enjoy the freedom to experiment without the additional cost.

Try not to ‘push’ your camera beyond its limits – where possible, shoot with a reasonable ISO (less than 400) to avoid noise in the blacks on your image. Although latest versions of Adobe Lightroom have some great noise reduction facilities and digital sensors are improving all the time, you are still a slave to data loss if you always rely on this. Truth is, unless light is very low, you don’t need to set ISO very high. With practice, you’ll learn to set ISO to suit the shooting conditions.

The following procedures will, on the whole, get your photos developed to a reasonable standard but only work for images taken in daylight. If you use software other than Adobe LightRoom the same principles would apply but the naming conventions may be different.

The Golden Rule – Don’t make substantial adjustments to your images

A few percent change here and there is likely to be fine. Over-compensate and you risk making your images look awful unless you really know what you're doing and have all the necessary technical set up. 

  • Consider getting your screen calibrated*
  • Set your camera and screen colours to Adobe RGB 98, the industry-standard.

*If you cannot calibrate, you should set your screen brightness, contrast and colours to a reasonable mid-level but there is really no way of knowing if this is correct. Rendering ‘true’ colours depends on your ability to detect greens and magentas within colours and this can be all but impossible on a non-calibrated screen. If you do not have the luxury of calibration, it is probably best not to alter the images to a great degree. Adobe Lightroom will make some adjustments by default and these are usually quite reasonable.


First of all, make sure you click on the ‘develop’ tab in the top bar of Lightroom.

1. Set Tones (black and white points) This is by far the most important task of all and achieves 90% of your processing needs. 

Set black points: Hold down the option/alt key and move the “blacks” slider until pixels just start to appear. If there are really bright hotspots on your image, “Recovery” can add some texture to these but beware, this will also affect other parts of the image.

Set white points: Hold down the option/alt key and move the “Exposure” slider until pixels just start to appear. If there are really deep shadows you can tweak “Fill Light” but beware, this will affect other parts of the image.

2. Set Colour Temp and Tint

Set colour Temp to about 5100-5200 (daylight) and Tint to between 0 and -6. Note, professional use suggests that the vast majority of images are set to about these parameters. 

Tint is the most difficult of these settings. It requires careful attention to shades of colour and the user’s interpretation of what is likely to be ‘normal’. You need to pay careful attention to the amount of pinks and greens, particularly in white areas of the image. However, without a calibrated screen, it may be better to avoid this process as even tiny adjustments can make things look rosy pink or sickly green.

3. Set brightness and contrast

Adjust brightness and contrast to set the mood of the image … noting that your screen settings could also affect this very considerably. Remember to turn your monitor brightness up before doing this and don’t over-do contrast as this can easily ruin an image. 

You should never have to adjust these more than a few points. Note, LightRoom will already have determined an approximate setting for you.

4. Set Presence Set Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation. 

There are three settings under a heading “Presence”. LightRoom adjusts these automatically and the settings are likely to be reasonable.If necessary, they can be tweaked but usually no more than about 15%.

Clarity affects mostly neutral colours, Vibrance the brightest colours and Saturation all colours. If these are adjusted too far, there is a risk of ruining an image by removing texture from areas of colour or rendering a clearly false impression of colour.

5. Set Sharpness

Sharpening can be useful but not essential. If you do use it, set Radius, Detail and Masking to their lowest settings. Zoom your image to 1:1 then move the “Amount” slider until you see a switch in the sharpness (usually a distinct turning point). Do not over-sharpen or artifacts will begin to appear in the image. Over-sharpening is common amongst amateurs and can ruin images.


It really is entirely up to you what you ultimately do with your images. Many people are quite happy to only use them online, in which case everything is generally illustrated at between 72-96dpi (DPI is itself a science, like everything in photography). 

It's worth noting that if you want to use your images in print, then generally they need to be at 300dpi and at least 30cm, which is probably close to the limit of a moderate digital camera's ability. If you shoot RAW, the higher resolution is in reserve if you need it. If however, you decide to heavily crop images, you are throwing away data that you might need at some point. 

So generally speaking, if your intention is to set out to do more with your images than just show the on screen to friends, it's worth trying not to be dependent on cropping but instead, try to compose shots within your camera and lens limits, to make maximum use of frame size and composition.

It's often assumed that objects need to fill a frame but that's not true. When it comes to design and use of your images, you are going to find some of that space around objects very useful for composing text and other images.   


I've added this section briefly because it's such a big issue these days. The best way to store any data is off site but that's really difficult when dealing with large volumes. The next best thing is to invest in a RAID storage system. RAID systems are quite inexpensive now and they automatically create dual copies of everything. 

These are the kinds of systems you might want to invest in:

Wildiaries • April 2014