Lightroom is the most popular photo editing software for digital photography, used by beginners, serious amateurs and professional photographers alike. It’s also a powerful database for storing and finding photos easily. What sets it apart from Photoshop, Adobe’s best known photo editor, is that Lightroom editing is non-destructive.
However, there’s much more to Lightroom that makes it the industry standard in photo editing. So, let’s diver deeper to answer what does Lightroom do.
What is Adobe Lightroom?
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, its full name, is part of the Adobe Creative Cloud suite of applications available with a monthly subscription.
There are two versions of Lightroom, however, Adobe wasn’t creative with the names and they’ve changed them a few times. Plus, both are referred to as Lightroom, despite having slightly different names. So it’s confusing at first to know which version of Lightroom you need.
The two different versions of Adobe Lightroom are:
- Lightroom Classic is the desktop only version used by professionals and is the full package (literally!) with powerful editing and database features
- Lightroom, which used to be called Lightroom CC, is a scaled down version of Lightroom Classic, is cloud-based and can be used on desktop and mobile
Both versions of Lightroom are included in the monthly subscription fee as part of the Photography Plan, along with Photoshop and 20GB of cloud storage. Adobe offers a free trial, so you can try all three software packages for a limited time for free.
The Lightroom Develop module screen for editing digital photos
Why use Lightroom?
5 features that make Lightroom so popular with wedding and portrait photographers are:
1. Non-destructive editing
In Lightroom you can make adjustments to your photos without altering the original file. This means you can experiment with different edits and go back to the original photo if you’re not happy with the results.
More on this in a moment.
2. Raw file support
For the best quality photos you need to shoot in RAW, but not all editing software supports RAW file format. Lightroom, however, excels at editing RAW image files with extensive image manipulations for the best results. Edited images can be exported in different file formats, but most often as JPEG files for clients, printing or sharing online.
3. Batch processing
For a fast workflow, process and apply edits to multiple photos at once (batch processing) saving time in the editing process. This makes it especially popular with wedding photographers who need to process a large number of photos at a time.
You can use Lightroom’s large variety of default presets, buy presets for a particular look or develop your own to quickly apply a particular look to photos.
5. Integration with other Adobe software
Lightroom works seamlessly with other Adobe applications, such as Photoshop, so you can easily move between programs for more advanced retouching.
Lightroom Library module screen for organizing and selecting photos
What does Lightroom do?
Lightroom streamlines your editing workflow and helps you develop your portrait photography style. Key features include a comprehensive photo management system, powerful editing tools, a catalog system for organizing photos, and a mobile app for editing on the go.
Lightroom is a powerful database for storing and organizing photos for easy retrieval and offers several ways to manage photos. So you’re bound to find one that makes sense to you.
Easily import, organize, and search through photos using a variety of criteria, including folders, collections, file name, date, location, keywords, star rating, color rating, camera type, lens type and even camera settings used.
Collections and folders
Lightroom has folders and different types of collections for different uses.
Folders reflect the same hierarchical filing system as on your computer and work in the same way.
Collections are like temporary folders and include:
- Standard collections for manually gathering images together
- Smart collections for automatically grouping photos based on specific criteria. Use default criteria such as star or color rating, or set custom criteria, such as type of lens used.
Photo editing tools
Lightroom’s editing tools are extensive and can help you get professional-looking results consistently. Here’s a quick rundown of what Lightroom is used for, including editing and image organization:
On the right of this Develop module screenshot you can see the basic panel editing sliders, which is a good place to start after importing photos
Lightroom is great for beginners new to editing, because you don’t have to do advanced editing if you’re not ready. All digital photos need some level of editing and beginners can start with the basic editing tools.
Basic photo editing tools for beginners include adjusting exposure, contrast, color settings, as well as crop, straighten and sharpen photos. You can also remove unwanted objects from photos.
Three editing tools all photographers will enjoy are:
- Basic color-correction: Make color adjustments to photos like making them warmer or cooler by adjusting white balance, vibrance, hue, saturation and luminance. You can also part automate the process by selecting different color profiles for color images and black and white photos for your desired look.
- Noise reduction: Lightroom’s noise reduction tool is highly effective and improving noise in photos, especially with the latest version of Lightroom that has Denoise AI. Not only can you reduce the amount of noise for a cleaner, smoother image, you can also increase it or even add grain for atmosphere and grit.
- Create duplicate images without impacting hard drive space, and experiment with different ways to edit an image for different looks
If you look at the tone curve panel on the right of this screenshot of the Develop module you can see that I’ve adjusted the blue channel slightly to add a subtle blue tone to this black and white image
Lightroom offers many advanced editing tools for global edits, which I’ve listed further down. One of the great powers of Lightroom is being able to work on specific areas of an image with local adjustment tools.
My favorite two examples of advanced photo editing in Lightroom are masking and creating different types of presets.
- Masking: Lightroom masking is an AI driven editing tool that really speeds up editing time and applies edits to specific areas of an image, which can also be synced across multiple photos
- Brush tool: Use the brush tool on specific areas of your photo. The multitude of edits you can make includes adjusting exposure, saturation, softening skin and changing colors. And you can save brush settings as brush presets for your most used adjustments to save time with future edits.
Lightroom’s catalog system is designed to easily keep track of and view all your photos in one place.
While you can create multiple catalogs to organize your photos by project, client, or any other criteria that makes sense to you, the fewer catalogs you have the easier it is to work in Lightroom. Once of its main functions is after all a database for storing and organizing photos.
Lightroom’s backup system automatically backs up your catalog (but not your photos) so you never lose your photos’ develop settings. You need to backup photos separately, preferably to a second hard drive.
Lightroom’s mobile app enables photo editing on the go, making it easy to work on photos anywhere and share on social media.
Because the mobile app is cloud based, you can edit and organize your photos on your phone or tablet, then sync the changes to your desktop version of Lightroom and across mobile devices.
Lightroom photography workflow
Many photographers love spending hours at their computers editing photos. I’m not one of them. I want to process a shoot and apply my favorite edits, like color grading, fast so I can head out for the next photoshoot. So, for me a fast workflow is essential.
Lightroom is ideal, because it’s geared to managing your photography workflow efficiently while also getting beautifully edited images that make photography so satisfying.
Screenshot of the Import window in Lightroom. In this example I’ve selected a folder on my computer to import photos and have chosen to Copy them. I could also have chosen to Add or Move the images
Importing from memory card
You can import photos to Lightroom from a memory card, an already existing folder on your computer hard drive or external hard drive. You can also import directly from your camera, but it’s better for your camera and memory card not to do it this way.
8 steps for importing photos from a memory card to the Lightroom catalog:
- Connect your memory card reader to your computer and insert your memory card
- An import window will open and you’ll be prompted to import your photos
- Or click on the Import button in the Library module to open the import window manually and select the photo folder on the memory card
- Select Copy, Copy as DNG, Move or Add photos to catalog
- Choose an existing destination or create a new destination folder for your photos
- Select the photos to import
- Apply import preferences such as smart or standard previews, metadata presets and keywords that you want to use
- Click import and let Lightroom do the rest
Organizing photos with star ratings
Using star ratings is a great way to select favorite photos to keep and edit. It’s not the only way, but I find it so much easier to cull photos by rating them rather than just straight up deleting them from the start.
My star rating system for culling photos efficiently:
- 1-star rating for portraits that are sharp
- 2-star rating for photos with good composition, lighting, pose and expressions
- 3-star rating for photos that I’ll keep and edit
Editing in the Develop module
After selecting the keepers from a photoshoot, open the Develop mode to start editing.
Editing tools in the Develop module are organized in different panels according to their functions:
- Basic panel sliders – adjust white balance, exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks, texture, clarity, dehaze, vibrance and saturation
- Tone Curve panel – use the tone curve tools to add contrast with the standard tone curve and color grade with the RGB tone curves
- HSL/Color panel sliders – adjust the hue, saturation and luminance of colors in your photo
- Color Grading panel sliders – add separate colors to shadows, midtones and highlights of images or apply color grading globally
- Detail panel sliders – sharpen and either remove or add noise to photos
- Lens Corrections panel – automatically correct lens distortion or chromatic aberration with one click
- Transform panel – automatically straighten photos different ways in one click
- Effects panel sliders – add post-crop vignetting or grain to photos
- Calibration panel sliders – for a final touch when color grading and color correcting photos
What is non-destructive editing in Lightroom?
Because of the nature of non-destructive editing, when you edit photos in Lightroom you don’t alter the original image. So you can experiment with different edits and settings without worrying about overwriting original photos.
This gives you the freedom to be creative and try new things, which is why Lightroom presets work so well and have become so popular.
Here’s how the catalog works:
- The Lightroom catalog contains information about your photos, such as their location on your computer, metadata, keywords you’ve assigned, and edits you make.
- What you see in in Lightroom is a preview of the image and what it looks like with your adjustments, not the actual file. This is why you can make changes without affecting the original image.
- As you edit your photo, Lightroom records these develop settings in the catalog, like a recipe of instructions for a particular look. You can go back and make as many changes as you like at any time without affecting the original file.
- At any point you can export one or more photos at once in different sizes, as high or low resolution files for different uses and different file types for printing or sharing online, such as JPEG. This file will reflect all the edits you made and the original file (preferably RAW files if you shot in RAW format) will remain untouched.
Non-destructive editing is like following a recipe to produce a particular type of cake.
Lightroom features for different devices
The two different versions of Lightroom, i.e. Lightroom and Lightroom Classic, fulfil different purposes.
Lightroom is a highly effective, but scaled down version for desktop and mobile devices. The free Lightroom mobile app is ideal for editing photos on the go.
Key features of Lightroom:
- Lightroom on mobile can be used on both iOS and Android devices
- Sync photos and edits across all your devices using Adobe Creative Cloud
- Use presets to quickly apply a specific look to your photos
- Use the healing brush to remove unwanted objects from photos
- Perform basic edits like adjusting exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, etc
Lightroom Classic is a much more powerful desktop version than the Lightroom desktop version (like I said, the version names are confusing). Plus, editing on a larger screen in Lightroom Classic or the desktop version of Lightroom allows for more detailed work.
Key features of Lightroom Classic:
- Lightroom Classic is available for both Mac and Windows desktop computers
- Import photos from a memory card, your camera (but preferably memory card), or hard drive into a Lightroom catalog
- Edit photos in a catalog even when the photos are not connected to the computer
- Use Adobe Creative Cloud for cloud storage and syncing photos across devices
- Powerful database for storing and searching photos in different ways
Lightroom Classic modules include:
- Library module – organize, rate and view your photos and batch apply presets
- Develop module – adjust exposure, crop, mask, color grade, develop and apply presets, batch process multiple photos at once
- Local adjustment tools – crop, healing tool, red eye correction, masking
- Map module – search and view photos by location
- Book module – design and print photo books directly from Lightroom
- Slideshow module – create slideshows and export as video for personal use or to help you present photos to a client during in person sales sessions
- Print module – design layout templates for printing multiple photos in one for wall art or sharing on social media
- Web module – create a web gallery for sharing online
Wrapping up what Lightroom is used for
Adobe Lightroom is photo editing software for storing, organizing, editing, and sharing your photos.
Did you know that if you use JPEG file format, your camera edits your SOOC images? Among other things it adds contrast and sharpening, sometimes too much. It also strips a lot of information from the image, making it difficult to improve in post production.
Editing digital photos is an essential part of the digital photography workflow, so download the free trial and come back here for help with how to use Lightroom. Admittedly, there’s a lot to learn, so it can be a steep learning curve. However, you don’t need to learn everything all at once and I’ve written loads of Lightroom tutorials to help you!
Start with the Library module for importing, organizing and exporting photos. Then learn how to edit images in the Develop module. Soon you’ll get the hang of processing photos efficiently with stunning results.
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