Adobe Lightroom 4 Tutorial

Adobe Lightroom Tutorial

As a food photographer, I often get asked about the cameras and lenses I use. While there’s no doubt that better cameras have the ability to take better photos, most people are going to see a far bigger improvement in their photography by shooting in raw format and learning how to use photo processing software.

Adobe’s Lightroom is a powerful photo processing tool that allows you to fix a whole host of white balance and exposure problems, while enhancing good photos to make them great. The photo above shows a comparison of a photo straight off the camera vs. the same photo after it’s been processed using Lightroom. If evaluated by itself, the photo on the left isn’t terrible, but by making a few adjustments in Lightroom, I was able to bring out all the detail in the sauce and make it look even more appetizing.

One of the great things about shooting raw is the fact you can go back and improve photos you took years ago as image processing software improves. It’s like a time machine that lets you go back and correct old mistakes. I have some photos I took with one of my first DSLRs back in 2006, that I revisit with every new version of Lightroom. The latest version has an uncanny ability to resurrect details in overblown highlights that I was convinced were unrecoverable, all without giving the photo an artificial “HDR look”.

Buy Adobe Lightroom 4

This tutorial will cover all the basic tools that you’ll need to learn, whether you’re transitioning from an old version of Lightroom, or you’re new to the art of photo processing. Since I’m a food photographer, I’m going to be writing this tutorial assuming you’re shooting food as well, but many of the tools and techniques covered here will help anyone get started using Adobe Lightroom 4.

Table of Contents

  1. Raw versus JPEG
  2. Importing and Organizing
  3. Sorting and Filtering
  4. White Balance
  5. Exposure
  6. Saturation
  7. HSL Panel
  8. Crop
  9. Remove Crumbs
  10. Sync
  11. Export

Raw versus JPEG

For those of you who are new to photo processing, the first thing you should know is that Adobe Lightroom is a tool that is intended for processing raw photos. While you can still use Lightroom with JPEG and other image formats, it’s overkill. The limitations of non-raw file formats will keep you from taking advantage of the powerful features in Lightroom. If your camera does not have the capability to save raw files, you should save the money you were going to spend on the software and put it towards a camera that will let you save raw images.

While there are many long technical definitions of what a raw image is, put simply, it’s an image format that saves all the data the image sensor on your camera captures. A raw file is like having butter, sugar, flour and eggs. You can’t eat them as they are, but they’re the makings of a cake (and a great many other things). When you let your camera process your photos and save them as a JPEG, it’s like you’re letting the camera bake the cake for you. It’s less work, but you’re stuck with the cake the camera decides it wants to bake. Sure, you can still frost the cake, just like you can still run a JPEG through Lightroom, but the changes are merely superficial.

When you have the camera save the image sensor data as a raw file, it’s putting the butter, sugar, flour and eggs at your disposal to do with as you please. It’s up to you to turn those ingredients into a cake, but for your efforts you’ll be rewarded with exactly the photo that you want. It also gives you the future flexibility of coming back and changing the photo to give it a different flavor, or to take advantage of a newer version of your photo processing software.

Importing and Organizing in Lightroom 4

Lightroom 4 Directory Structure Tutorial

The file management capabilities within Lightroom are pretty rudimentary so I like to copy my photos off my memory card directly onto my computer and organize them into dated folders before importing them into Lightroom. Because I take a lot of photos, it would quickly become impossible to find the one I’m looking for if I didn’t keep things tidy.

The way I do that is by organizing my photos by year. Within each year folder I have a separate folder for each shoot labeled by year, month and then the subject of the shoot. For example, a set of Chicken Teriyaki photos I took on June 11th, 2012 would be stored in the following structure:

//Photos/2012/2012.06.11-Chicken Teriyaki

I have folders organized in this fashion going back to when I got my first digital camera in 1996 and it’s never done me wrong. You should obviously use a structure that works best for you, but the key is to have some kind of structure.

Once you have your photos where you want them, open Lightroom and make sure you’re on the Library tab. Now you can simply drag and drop the files or folders you want to import onto the Lightroom window.

Importing photos into Lightroom 4

In the import dialog box that pops up, be sure that the “Add” option is highlighted at the top of the box, otherwise Lightroom will try and move or copy the photos into its own folder.

Sorting and Filtering in Lightroom 4

I dislike using a tripod and tend to hand hold all my shots, but I can’t tell you how many times I thought I had the perfect shot looking at the preview on the camera, only to find the shot was blurry due to camera shake once I’d transferred it to the computer. That’s why I usually take a couple shots with the same framing. Unfortunately this means I have a lot of near duplicates to sort through once I get the raw files onto the computer.

Because space is practically unlimited in today’s age of cheap hard drives, I know many of you (including myself) are tempted to hang on to every single photo you take. But raw files can be very large (mine are around 25MB each), and will quickly fill up even the largest hard drives. There’s another more important reason to pare down your photos though. Since raw photos need to be processed, it’s going to take you a long time to process and make adjustments for hundreds of photos. Also, if you ever need to come back and pick photos, you’ll be returning to the same jumbled mess.

That’s why I use color labels to sort out the bad apples before I even start processing them. In Develop mode, I use the left and right arrow keys to quickly scroll through the photos, applying a red label(keyboard shortcut: 6) to photos with obvious focus problems. To chose the best out of a set of photos with similar framing, I hit the spacebar to zoom in, and then use the arrow keys to move back and forth between the similar shots, choosing the one with the best focus and slapping the rest with a red label.

Lightroom 4 Filter Bar Tutorial

At this point I have Lightroom filter the photos, showing only the ones with a red label by clicking the red label in the filter bar. Then I double check to make sure there are no other filters checked, and then select all the filtered photos in the list of thumbnails. Right clicking with the mouse brings up a context menu and selecting “Delete Photos” gets rid of the duds. Now if you unselect the red label filter by clicking it again, you’ll see all the photos you’re left with. If you’re uncomfortable deleting your photos at this point you can also just hide the red labeled photos by selecting the “unlabeled” filter.

continue to Lightroom Tutorial Part 2 →

  • Lizzie Mabbott

    Brilliant! I always used light room to ‘auto white balance’, ‘auto tone’, crop and then export but this has really enlightened me. Thanks!

  • joannova

    Hi Marc, Thanks – this is a fine and thoughtful piece of work. Your explanations and terminology were so easy to follow. I hope you’ll do more of these.

  • Urban Swank

    This is great information! Thanks for taking my dark food photos to the next level!

  • Marie Asselin

    I’m a graphic designer so I know Photoshop very well. It’s confortable for me to use it to edit my pictures, but I’ve known for long that Lightroom is better for handling pictures, both for results and productivity sakes. I’ve been wanting to jump to Lightroom for almost two years, but I’ve always too busy, or lazy to do so! Reading your tutorial, I feel like I just have to, now! Thanks for sharing these very valuable tips.

  • Oui, Chef

    Even though I’m an Aperture user, most of these controls are the same so I will find this tutorial very helpful as I try to bring my blog shots to the next level. Thanks so much for sharing your wisdom on the subject. – S

  • Christina Johnson

    I adore Lightroom. I have been using Photoshop for years but it wasn’t until I started using Lightroom that it became reasonable to start actually doing mild editing all of the photos I take so I can really choose the best.

  • Coco

    This is great! I loved your presentation at FoodBuzz last year — it’s great to have a refresher! Will you be coming to SF this weekend?

    • Marc Matsumoto

      I’ve been meaning to write this since my presentation last year. Better late than never right:-) I won’t be at Foodbuzz fest this year unfortunately.

      • Coco

        Yes, definitely better late than never! Sorry we missed you at FoodBuzz this year — it was a good time. Lots of new faces. Hope to meet up again sometime when you’re in SF!

  • Darren Tran

    awesome… thanks!

  • Nb

    Great work!! I know so much about LR now

  • Susan P.

    Thank you so much! I really never understood how to work the histogram, and now I do! Going to try this out with the next batch of photos I have to edit.

  • David

    Great tutorial, great pictures! Thanks for sharing.

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  • Christoph

    Wow, great tutorial! I’ve never shot food, but you nicely described which slider in Lightroom does what in a general sense so that I can apply it to my landscape photos. Thank you a lot for giving this well-written introduction!

  • Dyane

    This is great – now I just need to get my hands on this stuff! My mom is a great photographer but we live 1,000 miles apart.

    My blog is

  • Dima Al Sharif

    Thank you for this tutorial, very useful with lots of insight. I am no photographer, and currently working on improving my photography for my blog, this is exactly what I need :)

  • the wicked noodle

    I’m only through Tutorial Part 1 but I’m already so jazzed that I found this post. Thanks so much for this, Marc! I’ve been an Elements user for some time but won Lightroom about six months ago (and am recently a new Mac user) and I’ve been putting off learning it. I started watching the videos but who has the time? I really wanted something from a food blogger’s perspective and I happened to come upon this post on a fluke. Happy dance!

    • the wicked noodle

      Hi Marc,
      I’m wondering if you sharpen your photos in Lightroom? I’ve always been under the impression that this is a must for photos taken with a DSLR. Can you provide any guidance for that in relation to Lightroom?



      • Marc Matsumoto

        Good question. Sharper isn’t always better as it reveals grain and compression artifacts. It can also make highlights on liquids look harsh. Personally I don’t mind food photos being a little soft. But when used in moderation it can also reveal detail in the texture of your food as well. When printing I usually apply some sharpening, but for web purposes (72 DPI) I personally don’t think it’s necessary.

      • Marc Matsumoto

        Also, your lens and camera setup will effect your need to sharpen or not. Cheaper lenses tend to be softer, especially around the edges, so sharpening in software can become necessary.

        • the wicked noodle

          Thanks Marc, good to know! I recently upgraded to the Canon 7d as well as the 24-105 lens – it would be really nice not to have to be so concerned with sharpening. I noticed yesterday that Lightroom offers the option to “sharpen for the web” when saving photos so I may try that in place of doing anything manually. In any case, I appreciate your response and feedback. Cheers!

      • Mike Sweeney

        When I switched from my crop sensor D300 which is not a slug by any stretch to my D700, my need for sharpening went WAY down. I used to use between 40-65 on sharpening with the D300. The 20s is typical now on the D700.. sometimes more but not often. This assumes web prints. If I’m printing to paper, then they get sharpened much more than you might think as paper tends to smear the image a bit.

  • Mike Sweeney

    Really nice tutorial and the clear screen shots really makes it. Thanks for sharing

  • Christabel

    Thank you for this helpful tutorial…I have just started a food blog, and I am looking to improve the quality of my pictures w/post-processing. This is a comprehensive tutorial with pictures that helps me visually understand the purpose of white balance, hue, saturation etc.

  • Mara @ What’s for Dinner?

    This has been beyond helpful! I’ve wondered about the nuances in Lightroom 4 and you made it easy to understand. Thank you!!!

  • FashionEdible

    This is an amazing article! Not only is it good for food bloggers, but I think any blogger can really benefit from it. Thanks so much!

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  • KB

    This has been extremely helpful. Thank you.

  • Wendell Principe

    hi, i followed your folder structure, just want to check how your file naming convention? thanks.

    • Marc Matsumoto

      I just leave the file names as they came off the camera sine the folder structure relays enough data for me, but you could certainly name the files as well.

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  • Ingrid

    Thank you!

  • Atiqur Sumon

    This is very helpful article i think any graphic designer an really benefit from it. Thanks so much!

  • M R Karim

    All tutorial are very professional i enjoy it and i would be apply this method my professional work. Hopefully we get more tutorial next time.

  • Chuewee

    That helpful for me, great job


I'm Marc, and I want to teach you some basic techniques and give you the confidence and inspiration so that you can cook without recipes too!

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