z Photo Workflow with Lightroom

With the introduction of digital photography, so did the onset of photo editing software. It’s easier now, than ever, to realize your vision, or to correct an error. In addition to learning good camera techniques, it is also important to be skillful with digital photo editing programs. I shoot in RAW format only so it’s standard practice for me to do post-production processing. In this article, I discuss about my workflow in Lightroom.

Photo Workflow with Lightroom

Photo Workflow with Lightroom

Many photographers publish EXIF data in their pictures. In the EXIF data, for example, the camera brand, the lens that was used, the focal length use measured in mm, aperture, shutter speed, or if a flash used. And the time when the picture was taken, are indicated.

Studying these data next to the photo can be quite enlightening, but they do not tell the whole story. Virtually, every photo is edited, especially if they were taken using the RAW format. This enables subtle adjustments to add that extra bit of detail in the shadows. But also includes extensive processing that virtually changes every part of the picture.

Purists will say, true beauty lies in the original photo. As it was captured on camera, as shown in its raw reality. In addition to that, it is imperative to take a picture the best way you possibly can. I am of the opinion that if you have digital tools at your disposal, you might as well take advantage of them to enhance your photos (unless you use your photos for photojournalism, where a faithful representation of reality is important.).  It is always wise to begin with a good starting point, so why shouldn’t you make the effort in taking photos the best way you possibly can?

RAW Format

I shoot in RAW format by default. This gives more options for post-processing because you can gain additional 2 stops of dynamic range. This makes it possible to show more detail in the photo, than if I would photograph with JPEG. This also allows me to take full control of the final outcome, even if the camera I used would not have allowed it.

Extensive processing, such as changing the colors of the sky, or cutting-out some elements from a photo, are also possible. In my photos, I often look for more contrast, and brighter colors , than the standard settings available in my camera.

My favorite editing program is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. It’s a comprehensive package that allows you to organize, edit, print, or arrange photos in slide shows, or on the web. The editing capabilities in the package are specifically tailored to photographers. The software makes it easier to work with, for example, Photoshop. With the addition of local operations in version 2.0, it is almost as powerful as Photoshop. You do not necessarily have to use Lightroom for the said operations. One can also use Camera Raw, (standard with Photoshop, free download for Photoshop Elements) which offers the same editing  capabilities. You will only miss the organizational capabilities of the Lightroom database,  itself.

While shooting, I usually, already have an idea of the kind of editing I plan to do. If necessary, I can under-expose or over-expose the images, depending on the desired result. This saves me time in editing.


Everything starts with importing my RAW photos. In the import screen of Lightroom, I label the photos using certain keywords to make it easy for me to find them. Since, sometimes, the many different topics in a photo session are general, I use the same keyword which I will use later to identify which photos I will include in a set (or photo group.) Although, I must confess that I do not always do it as extensively as I would like. I also link copyright, and  additional information to the picture.

I wrote on this site before, about the all new Adobe camera profiles. These are now part of my standard workflow. I include all the pictures using a preset when importing on Canon Landscape, which applies brighter colors to selected areas in my photos. This works especially well in the landscapes that  I shoot, but usually, also works just fine with other photo subjects. Of course, it still depends on the style you are aiming for. If I am not satisfied with the results, I go through the list of other profiles that would best suit my pictures.

Kinderdijk Edited With Lightroom


By default, my photos are stored by date. I have an umbrella ‘2009’ folder, it contains ’01-January,’ ’02-February,’ etcetera, and in that folder, I have a ’00-session/location name’ folder that contains the pictures. The photos get a default name ( eg. ‘KINDERDIJK’) then Lightroom appends a sequenced number (KINDERDIJK-1, KINDERDIJK-2 etc.). While importing, the RAW file is converted to Adobe’s digital negative (DNG), so that the photo file can be opened or read by other devices, even after Canon or Nikon become defunct companies. The advantage of this , is that the file size is also slightly smaller than the RAW files.

Once the pictures are uploaded, and the preview is created, (Lightroom will show a notification window when uploading is complete.) I go through the list, and make my first selection, whether the photo is a ‘pick’ or a ‘reject.’ I label it as a ‘P’ if I want to keep that picture; I give it an ‘X’ if it’s not good from a technical-standpoint (under- or over-exposed, blurred, subject moved, etc.) In principle, I save all the pictures, just in case I’ll need them later.

Often times, I find myself changing my mind about some pictures, weeks after I initially rejected them, and process them later for enhancement. I then set the filter on ‘flagged,’ so I immediately see which pictures I want to keep, and work on. The photos that I want to keep get a star edit (with the ‘1’ key). From there, I set another filter, then go over each photo with a ‘D’ to set it to develop a module, for editing.


I spend about 2-3 minutes per picture, depending if I can apply a  preset right away, or if I customize the settings. Lightroom displays the editing options in the Develop menu in a specific order, which I usually also follow. The first thing I consider is the composition. I check if I have applied the rule of thirds, if there isn’t too much negative (blank or very dark) space in the image, if a horizontal crop won’t work better than the vertical cropping I chose, etc.

I will discuss my editing workflow based on this first picture of a windmill in ‘Kinderdijk,’ taken at sunrise, on Boxing Day. The light is derived from the barn’s interior, and light is also reflected on the water that’s visible at the bottom of the picture. There is a lot of dust, as well.

First Photo


The changes:  mask and straighten

The first thing I did was cropping the photo. In the original image, the windmill was reasonably set in the middle. However, it looked better when it was in a corner of the photo. This was achieved by cutting away some parts on the picture’s left side. All the pictures I posted on Flickr, and my personal blog all have a 3:2 ratio (usually 750x500px.) The cropping is therefore set with the lock enabled, so that the aspect ratio stays the same.  As a result, when adjusting the width, I  needed to cut parts of the black bottom of the picture off, which is a good way to remove this very dark part of the picture. In the custom cropping, I left the barn as it is, including all the elements, on the right side of the photo.

White balance

Generally, I leave the white balance on As Shot, in combination with the camera profiles I prefer on my Canon EOS 5 d. I try Automode first, but if this doesn’t work, then I slide the White Balance (WB) adjustments a little at a time, to achieve my desired results, and to fine-tune my settings. White balance is usually subjective, it depends on the atmosphere I want to create in my photos. Usually, this is just a bit to the right (=warmer). In this case, I have the white balance on ‘As Shot.’ Then, when the white balance is exactly right, I have an 18% gray card that I hold in the light that I shoot at, so I can use the White Balance Selector (W) accordingly. Lightroom, then ensures that the white balance is correct.


The next step is using the Clarity tool, one of my favorite tools. This option polishes the local contrast in an intelligent manner. It adds contrast between the light and dark parts, this then adds ‘depth’ to a photo, which makes the subject really ‘jump-out’ of the picture. Depending on how strong the contrast you want, you can scroll through it, in this case, it is at +40 because the image is already in stark contrast. The great thing about Clarity, is that it sharpens the image without the negative effects of the Sharpen option (subtle color difference close to the subject, making it appear as if someone is is pasted on the photo.)

Clarity in Lightroom

By the way, you can also apply negative Clarity in Lightroom 2.0. This way, the image is just softened, which is useful when doing, for example, portrait photography, to camouflage the subject’s skin imperfections.

Dust Removal

Since my trip to Scotland in October 2008, there has been a persistent speck of dust that’s on my camera sensor, which I haven’t been able to get rid of with a rocket blower. This means when I use wider aperture openings, fabrics on the photos I shoot, appear shiny when viewed on the computer. Especially, when viewed against the sky, where, unfortunately, dust abound. To correct this, I usually use the Heal option, of the Spot Removal (N) function. This makes the color of the surrounding parts, and the speck of dust blend together, so the latter won’t be obvious. Performing this step with this tool, especially in Lightroom 2.0, produces better result.


I determine the exposure by using the histogram. I check if there are parts of the picture that are too dark, or if there are too bright spots, especially if they are highlighted in the photo, they can be distracting. For example, when the Sun is too bright, that part of the picture becomes completely white. Using the Recovery option allows me to get some detail back by sliding to the right.

This changes the contrast, usually , I don’t reach the 100% mark, despite the fact that there are still white parts remaining. You can instantly scroll in the histogram. If you move your mouse over it, you’ll  see the different settings and their effects on the picture. The histogram serves the Tone options (Exposure, Recovery, Fill, Light, and Black), but you can also use the scroll itself.

Exposure Adjusted

In this case, I found the contrast between the mill and the sky, somewhat limited. The sky was a little dark for me. I’ve about a 0.5 stop added to the Exposure, to lighten the barn to + 0.42.

Tone Curve

To add more highlights, or shadows in selected areas of my photos, I slide through to the Tone Curve. The more pronounced the S-shape, the stronger the contrast. I notice that the quality of the lens hugely determines how strong the effect is. My Canon L lenses have a great impact on contrast, and a subtle difference is enough to greatly increase the contrast. With other lenses, to achieve certain effects, it’s sometimes necessary to make a stronger S-shape. The trade-off is always how much detail I want to keep in the dark, and light parts.

For the Highlights and Lights, I slide to the right; for the Dark, and Shadows, I slide to the left. When I do this, the light parts get lighter, while the dark parts get darker, therefore increasing contrast. I save the settings in the histogram to properly take note when the detail in the shadows, or light areas disappear. When detail is lost in black, I mark it in blue. When  detail is lost in white, I mark it in red.  In this case, I don’t care much about losing detail, because I was aiming to shoot a silhouette, but mostly, I use this to Fill Light, then slow down again to add extra detail. I usually go to the extreme settings, until only the outline of the subject is visible.


I hardly use the Sharpening options. I usually find the sharpness already sufficient,  and in addition, I also use Flickr’s sharpening tool. If I export from Lightroom with sharpening done, and the effect is ugly, I adjust it, but make sure that when I sharpen, masking is applied, and only the edges are touched. (  I will write more about this topic in the future.)

Local adjustments

I will discuss this, only briefly.  My favorite tool is the gray gradient filter. This enhances the contrast between the sky, and the background. I often make sure I get the right contrast, when I take the shot, instead of relying on digital editing. If I don’t get the right amount of contrast, I like, that’s the time I adjust the contrast, using photo editing software. If my original shot shows a sky with fairly dark clouds, with the use of a gray gradient filter, I can edit the photo to make it seem like there’s a violent storm about to descend.


For this picture, I did not use any preset, except setting the camera  profile to Landscape. A preset is a group of instructions- you can select using the different options in your camera. It can sharpen, lighten, make a vignette (depending on your preferred settings) – every time you apply it to your photos. In Lightroom, you can track a list of presets, by moving your mouse over a preset. You can see the effect it does before you actually apply the preset, by checking the preview.

I usually apply standard presets such as Direct Positive and Punch, to make the colors brighter, and add more contrast. But, I also use the preset for the gray gradient filter. Sean McCormack of Lightroom-Blog.com has a number of default gray gradient filter presets created. For only €6 (including VAT). You can download a set of gradual filter presets with hard, and soft ND 0.3, ND 0.6, ND 0.9 simulated filters in both Landscape, and Portrait format. He also has a Tobacco filter included. You can try them out for a demo.

End result

At the end of the process, I export the picture to a JPEG file 750x500px, to upload it on Flickr and/or my blog. In Flickr, I can directly export photos via the Export plugin. For my blog, I export the file to my desktop, and then export my photos using the PhotoQ plugin on WordPress to upload them on my website.

Editing your photo can spell the difference between good, and great. The secret  of  editing is to keep them subtle, and in small increments. In the end, these small changes add up to making your pictures a huge success.

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