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”.

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

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.

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.

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 →