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Living with Photography: Learning Adobe Lightroom

By Norman Chan

Since I've started saving photos to RAW instead of just JPEG, my photo editing workflow got a bit more complicated. Here's how I'm wading through Lightroom and RAW processing.

Let me take a deep breath, because this is not an simple topic to broach. Since I've started shooting with my Canon 6D, and based on the recommendations of many of you, I've been saving all my photos to both JPEG and RAW formats. My mirrorless camera also could save RAW images, but I never really used it for numerous reasons. Primarily because I was already accustomed to my workflow for quickly posting photos to accompany stories on the site, partly for file storage and management considerations, but also because I knew that adopting a RAW workflow would require both new software and knowledge of new image processing techniques. I simply wasn't ready to tread those deep waters.

But took the dive I did, and just like the jump from an APS-C-sized sensor camera to a full frame one, it's difficult to see myself going back. Processing photos is a lot of fun, and even therapeutic. So here's what I've learned from dabbling in RAW photo processing for two months, which just skims the surface of what you can do with a RAW file that you can't do with a JPEG.

A RAW file, unlike a JPEG, is not an image file in the traditional sense. It's not a single standardized file-type that you can open with any image editor or web browser--each camera company and even individual camera models store RAW data differently. Instead of the file denoting the color values of individual pixels, a camera's outputted RAW file encompasses all the light data captured by a camera sensor run through that camera's image processor. Data from different parts of the color spectrum aren't combined and flattened with luminosity settings--that's to be done on your computer. And so special RAW photo software is needed to process that data into a visual image, and lets you tweak that data to manipulate the final image.

But just as different cameras store RAW data slightly differently, RAW photo editing software have different algorithms in their engines to interpret that data. Adobe's Lightroom and Apple's Aperture will read RAW files in their own way before giving you an image to work with. That's not hugely consequential since all RAW editing software will let you tweak in myriad ways to eventually get your desired result, but it's important to remember that not all RAW converters are created equal. Some are favored for speed, some for compatibility with software suites, and some for unique features like direct camera tethering.

In my case, I chose to start with Adobe Lightroom 4, which is one of the more popular RAW converters. I chose it because it's cross platform (I image edit mostly on my Windows desktop), and because Adobe dropped the price of Lightroom significantly last year with the version 4 release. Even without an educational discount, you can find it for around $160, and I've seen it drop to below $100 during holiday sales. If you favor another RAW editor, please share why you like it in the comments!

Lightroom 4 isn't just a RAW photo editor, it's also a very good file manager. The first thing that happens when you plug in a camera or memory card is the import process, which transfers photos (both RAW and JPEG) to the directory of your choosing. As a file manager, Lightroom has many sorting and tagging options. I have it automatically file photos away according to date taken, and then create groups based on events for processing. In tests conducted by DPreview, Lightroom 4 wasn't as fast as some other RAW editors to import photos, but that's because the software also creates high-resolution thumbnails for each image in the library, which are also customizable. Imports can take several minutes for a few dozen photos, but the ability to instantly preview thousands of photos in high-resolution makes it worth it.

This is also a good place to point out that an SSD is extremely useful for RAW processing. I originally had my photos stored on a 1TB hard disk drive, but the software chugged when calling up 25MB file after file to edit. Now I keep my Lightroom library on a 256GB SSD.

Lightroom 4's features are split up into modules that are listed on the top right of the window. In addition to the aforementioned Library, there are modules for photo layouts for direct book publishing, a world map module for geotagging, and others I haven't really used. That's because the very most important module--the one I spend 95% of my time in--is the Develop window. This is the core functionality of Lightroom, where you edit individual photos in almost a hundred different ways (no joke).

From what I've read, the tools in Lightroom 4's Develop module is actually a bit different from Lightroom 3. I haven't tried Lightroom 5 beta yet, so it may be different there as well. Adobe adds new tools, refines others, and consolidates functionality with each release. Workflow and techniques that apply to one version won't necessarily apply to others--even the same setting values will produce different results. There are so many guides online that explain each of the settings in the Develop module in thorough detail, but for the purposes of this column, let's run through what I find useful (and understand) in Lightroom 4.

The Develop tools are all on the right pane, starting with an editable histogram graph at the top. This will be familiar to anyone who's used the Levels tool in Photoshop (except with multiple color channels), and Lightroom does a good job associating the different parts of the histogram with different slider settings below it. For example, dragging the far right of the histogram is tied to the White levels, while dragging the middle is tied to Exposure. Changes in the sliders--my preferred method of tweaking--affect the histogram too.

Underneath the histogram, there's a bar with tools for rotation/crop, spot/red eye removal, and the powerful Adjustment Brush. I've only used the rotation and crop tools here, but will be experimenting with the Adjustment Brush next. That can be used to create masks for adjusting values for only user-defined parts of a photos, like just the background or just a face.

The most useful tool in the Develop module is the Basic settings. These are the sliders that correlate to the histogram: Color Temperature, Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks, Clarity, and Vibrancy. A combination of tweaks to each of these settings will cover the majority of your photo processing needs, unless you need to fine tune individual colors or add post-processing effects. A tip: when adjusting these Basics settings, you can use the + and - keys on the numpad to change their numerical value, and hitting the \ key will quickly alternate between the original and adjusted image. I prefer using the quick compare than laying out the before and after side-by-side, which you can also do.

Some online guides recommend going down the list of Basics settings as they appear in the toolbar, from top to bottom, as that's why Adobe logically laid them out that way. That is, first adjust color temperature/white balance, then Exposure, then Contrast, and so on. I have actually grown more accustomed to editing from the bottom up, tweaking the settings at the end of the Basics module first and color temp last. This is because the medium for my photos is the web--and photos look very different when processed for printing on paper vs. displaying on a backlit monitor. For the web, my experience tells me that higher contrast and more vibrant colors are more eye-catching than "flatter" photos, so I skew toward photos that "pop". So in the interest of publishing pictures with vibrant colors, I set Vibrancy to +25 to +30.

In my first month with Lightroom, I didn't tough the White and Black levels. These sliders accentuate the intensity of the "bright" and "dark" areas of the photo, which I thought was taken care of with Exposure and Contrast. In fact, in my WonderCon gallery for this year, I didn't adjust the White or Black values at all. But after looking at another cosplay photographer's gallery on Flickr, and seeing that he also shot with a 50mm f/1.4 with no flash, I was curious as to why his photos "popped" so much compared to mine. It turns out that bringing up the White value affects the "pop" of a photo tremendously, and now I start off by setting that value to 40-50. In the photo below, the biggest difference between the two is the change from a White level of 0 to 50.

Amping up the White levels makes color pop a lot, but also leaves parts of photos very blown out. This can be noticed on shiny or reflective materials in the photo, or on the parts of faces where the key (primary) light hits. Photos can also be blown out if the main light source is behind the subject, which is a situation you generally want to avoid, but sometimes can't. That's where the Highlight and Shadows settings come in. With Brightness bumped up, I usually tune down Highlights by at least the same amount, or around 50. Removing highlights completely isn't always ideal, either, since you don't want a subject to look like a matte painting with no depth. And while reducing Highlights can seem like magic, you can only bring out detail to a point, depending if there is any detail to bring out in the color channels. For example, in the photo below, the original photo is very blown out, but reducing Highlights reveals the glass windows behind the subject. Those windows appear to be a shade of blue/green because those are the color channels with detail in that range.

Additionally, I bring up the shadows a tad, too. Bumping shadow detail by 20-25 reveals details hidden on dark clothes and in dark hair. The same rule applies here as with Highlights--details can only be brought up if they exist in the data.

Next, I tweak Exposure and Contrast. Since I shoot 2/3 to a full stop down with Exposure compensation in Aperture Priority, I have to bring Exposure up in Lightroom from anywhere between .3 and .66 stops. This is all eyeballed and I end up hitting the '\' key a lot to compare with the original. For web photos, setting contrast to 10-15 helps a lot, too.

That covers what I'm doing to my photos these days with the Basics toolbar, which right now is to make RAW photos presentable for web. As you can surmise, there's a lot of room for experimentation, and it's a very manual process. But one tool I want to mention that is fairly automatic is Lens Correction. This toolbar consists of checkboxes where, when enabled, Lightroom with automatically correct the photo for distortion, vingetting, and chromatic aberration that its database knows is associated with your camera and lens. This feature is really awesome, though I tend to leave a the subtle vingetting in (you can blame Instagram for that). In the example below, you can see the metal bar is curved in the original photo on the left, and then straightened out after auto Lens Correction on the right.

So on to last week's photo challenge, posed to readers here and members of the Tested Flickr group. I admit that the task of photographing a desktop mouse isn't glamorous, but many of you stepped up to the challenge to take some interesting photos. I've seen and taken dozens upon dozens of photos of mice in the past decade, so it was fun to see your approaches. My favorite is the shot below, for two reasons. One is the cool use of the light below the mouse, which creates a nice reflection on the plastic. I also can't help but see a face in the mouse from this angle, with the micro USB port looking like a mouth and the two mouse buttons like two eyes. Good job!

As for my own entry, I tried to put the mice in a different context than sitting on a desk surface. Here, they're dangling off my desk from their braided cords, which I hope evokes two things: my favorite mice hanging like tools for a gaming "arsenal", or being hung like, well, real mice by their tails. Also notice that the mice look dustier and dirtier from left to right, with the Logitech G500s the cleanest because it's my newest mouse, and the Cyborg R.A.T. 7 covered with dust because I haven't used it almost a year. But it's still connected to my computer for some reason...

For the next challenge, let's take to the outdoors and make the most out of the spring weather. How about taking a photo straight down a street, but during the golden hour? Up to you what kind and where that street is, but dramatic sunrise or sunset lighting is a must!

That's it for this week. Living with RAW photo processing continues, and I'll have more lessons and insights to share as I continue experimenting with Lightroom and testing other RAW processors. As always, please join the Tested Flickr group if you haven't yet. See you next week!