The first thing you want to do is set the white balance. This is especially important if you’re not shooting in daylight because most lightbulbs skew the white balance in one direction or another. In this example, I deliberately messed up the white balance while taking the photo to show you just how effective this can be.
Start by selecting the eye dropper tool and clicking on an area of the image that’s supposed to be a neutral grey. It’s ideal if you took a test shot with a chromatically neutral grey card, but even if you haven’t I find that most shots have something in it that will work to set the white balance (the rim of a white plate, the edge of a pan, a white counter top, etc).
Once you have the white balance roughly set with the eye dropper (or if you’re shot doesn’t have anything chromatically neutral in it), you can go and fine tune your white balance using the Temp and Tint sliders. The Temp slider makes a photo warmer or cooler by shifting the balance yellow(right) or blue (left). The Tint slider will shift the color towards magenta(right) or green(left). It takes a little experimentation to get used to these controls, but try starting with small adjustments. Keep in mind that the human eye sees colors relative to other colors and not as absolutes, so if you stare at a photo that’s too warm for long enough, it will start to look normal. That’s why I’ll usually develop my photos in 2 sessions. The first to get everything looking good, and then a second session to double check that they still look good after doing something else for a while.
The next six sliders in the Tone section all control the exposure of your image. Before we get into the specific controls for exposure, let’s take a look at the histogram at the top right of the develop window. The histogram is a visual representation of the different tonal regions in your photo. The graph shows you how much of your image is in each tonal region and is a great way to quickly see what tones in your photo are problematic.
The right and left borders of the histogram represents the white point and black point, and since nothing can be whiter than white or blacker than black, any part of the image that bleeds over these boundaries will start losing detail. In most cases (assuming you have a photo with both light and dark areas), you want the graph to span as much of the spectrum as possible, with the peak towards the middle, and without having it bleed off the left or right edges. If you are shooting a very light image (e.g. white plate on white background), the peak will be more towards the right. If you are shooting a dark image (e.g. black plate on black background), the peak will be more towards the left.
The Exposure slider gives you broad control of the exposure of your image, allowing you to shift your whole image brighter or darker. In the example, the photo was under-exposed, so I moved the slider to the right to increase the exposure. Likewise, moving the slider left will decrease the exposure for a photo that’s been over-exposed. Notice how the histogram shifts from peaking on the left to peaking in the middle as the exposure is corrected.
The goal with the Exposure slider is to get the mid-tones of the photo where they should be: in most cases in the middle of the histogram. This may cause problems with the highlights and shadows, but we can fix that with another slider, so don’t worry too much about those. For instance, with this photo, getting the mid-tones correct comes at the expense of highlights that are over exposed, but we’ll go back and fix this later.
Once the exposure of the mid-tones looks good to you, you want to adjust the contrast. Moving the contrast slider to the right makes both the light areas of the image lighter and the dark areas of the image darker. In the histogram, you’ll see your graph spread to the left and right as you increase the contrast. Remember, in most cases you want the graph to span the spectrum from left to right without bleeding over the edge. If you find that one side bleeds over the edge before you can get the other side up against the edge, don’t worry about it too much as you’ll be able to reign in either end of the spectrum in a little bit.
While it’s not the next slider in the develop pane, I usually move onto the clarity slider at this point as both the contrast and clarity sliders effect the contrast of the image. While the contrast slider is “static” in that it equally effects the contrast of both light and dark areas of the image, the clarity slider is “adaptive” effecting different tones in the image to differing degrees. The best way to see the difference is to play around with both sliders. I use both sliders when processing my photos but I tend to use the clarity slider sparingly as the effect can quickly look artificial. It will however give your photos and HDR look if that’s what you’re going for.
The next four sliders Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks allow you to fine tune specific tonal areas of your photo. In the previous few steps, I told you to focus on getting the mid-tones right. But getting the mid-tones right, usually comes at the expense of blowing out highlights or losing detail in the shadows. Thats where these four sliders come into play.
To show you how these four sliders correspond to different parts of the tonal range, I’ve labeled the areas in the histogram above. Blacks and Whites effect the very darkest and lightest parts of the image, while Shadows and Highlights effect a broader swath of the dark and bright areas of the photo. If you ever get confused about which slider effects what, just mouse over the slider, and Lightroom will highlight the portion of the histogram that the slider effects.
I usually start by adjusting the Whites and Blacks sliders as they effect the upper and lower bounds of your tonal range and will allow you to quickly fix any spillage off the left or right sides of your histogram. Just look at the histogram and reign in bright areas or dark areas of your photo that bleed over the edge of the histrogram by moving either the Whites(right side of histogram) or Blacks(left side of histogram) slider. Once they look good, you can go in and further fine tune the light and dark areas of your photo using the Highlights and Shadows sliders.
In the example photo, the histogram isn’t bleeding off the edge, so there’s no need to fiddle with either one. Instead, I move onto the Highlights and Shadows slider. By moving the Highlights slider to the left a bit, it takes the exposure of the brighter areas of the photo down, without effecting the white-point. I also moved the Shadows slider to the left to darken the shadows a bit and produce more definition in the photo, without bleeding past the black-point and underexposing the darker areas.
The last two sliders, Vibrance and Saturation, both effect the saturation of colors in your photo. Used in moderation, boosting the saturation of a photo is a great way to make food look more appetizing by intensifying the colors.
The Vibrance slider is adaptive, so if you move the slider to the right, it figures out which colors in your photo are least saturated and then increases the saturation of those colors. Moving it to the left figures out which colors are most saturated and decreased their saturation. This allows you to give your photos a natural boost in saturation without clipping any of the colors.
The Saturation slider on the other hand is static and increases the saturation of every color in your photo equally. That’s why it’s best to stick with the Vibrance slider to make saturation adjustments(unless you deliberately want to oversaturate your photo for artistic reasons).
The colors in our example are already pretty saturated and overdoing it will make the mango look like it’s glowing, so let’s have a look at the before and after based on the changes that we’ve made.
Quite a difference huh?