If you are looking for top Lightroom workflow tips to optimize and speed up your editing process, you need to read this article.
What is Lightroom Workflow?
Lightroom workflow is a sequence of steps you need to complete, from the moment you captured the RAW image with your camera to the publishing of the final photo. The workflow steps include importing images, culling, keywording, processing, editing, and finally exporting and publishing.
Lightroom Workflow Tips
Lightroom has been around for almost 20 years and, by now, is a mature and sophisticated program. You could easily write an 800-page book dedicated exclusively to Lightroom tips and tricks.
For today’s article, I selected 15 of my favorite Lightroom workflow tips. These tips are the most impactful to my photography and my business, and they are ones that I use on a daily basis.
1. Speeding up Lightroom Performance
For many photographers, including myself, Lightroom is the single, most important application. It is the center of not only our editing workflows but our photography businesses as well.
We use Lightroom for organizing, editing, publishing, and printing photos. Plus, it can be connected to a variety of services with the help of plugins.
The biggest annoyance we have with Lightroom is its slow performance and lagging responsiveness.
I am always critical of Adobe, a company with the greatest resources in the industry, for failing to address the performance issue after years of empty promises.
Since we cannot rely on Adobe, we are forced to look for solutions by testing different configurations and sharing our findings.
A couple of years ago, I published a dedicated article on the topic. Even though most of the tips from the article are still relevant, all the improvements are marginal. They might help you increase Lightroom’s performance by 1% to 2% at most, but this is only a drop in the bucket.
Today, I will share my top tip for improving Lightroom performance by a factor of at least two.
For me, the most dramatic change in Lightroom user experience occurred when I changed my desktop computer’s main hard drive from an old, mechanical spinning drive to a new generation Solid State Drive (SSD). The SSD uses technology similar to what you will find in any flash thumb drive and, as a result, is much faster and more reliable.
The main challenge with an SSD is that the technology is still relatively new and SSDs are more expensive compared to the old spinning versions. This means that I cannot afford to buy the 8TB SSD version to store my entire photo library.
When Lightroom is installed on a fast SSD drive but still has access to the RAW photos on a spinning hard drive, the effectiveness of the SSD setup diminishes.
Here is my solution.
When I return from a trip with thousands of new photos, I create a temporary directory on my 1TB SSD drive and import all the new photos there. This means that I can fully enjoy the SSD experience and its blistering speed. I keep the new photos in the temp directory until I am done processing and editing them. This might take weeks or even months. Once I am finished, I move them into the main library on the 8TB spinning drive.
I recommend the EVO Samsung SSD models because they have the best migration software. This allows seamless migration from the old drive without having to reinstall the operating system. Also, it does not require technical knowledge. I’ve done this successfully twice.
2. Use AUTO Tone Mode
AUTO Tone is probably the most obscure and least used feature in Lightroom. You can find it in the Develop Mode under the Basic Panel. By pressing the AUTO button, you let Lightroom decide what edits to apply to the selected image.
AUTO Tone was available in Lightroom for a long time and was pretty much a useless feature that produced unpredictable results. But, with the advances in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, AUTO Tone is getting better and better at evaluating images and applying the appropriate edits.
Do not disregard AUTO Tone. Try it with every image because, in most cases, it will give you a great starting point for your editing process.
If you want to take this even further, create a Develop Preset with only the AUTO Tone edit recorded. Apply it to all your photos during the import process to give every new photo a unique editing baseline.
3. Use Selective Saturation
When we shoot JPEG, the camera takes the data collected from the sensor and runs it through the camera processor. The processor converts the raw data to the image, applies different edits including saturation and contrast based on predefined algorithms, and saves the image as a JPEG file. When we shoot RAW, it is up to the photographer to decide what edits to apply to any specific image.
One of the most important decisions we have to make is how to properly address image saturation.
You probably noticed that saturation can make or break your image. When applied properly, it can bring any image to life. But, at the same time, it is also very easy to destroy a photo with oversaturation.
Every Lightroom user knows the two main tools to control saturation in photos—Saturation and Vibrance, which are located under the Basic Panel.
The Saturation slider equally increases the color intensity to all the colors. The Vibrance tool applies saturation disproportionally, prioritizing colors with lower intensity.
When you use the Saturation, the Vibrance, or a combination of both, you end up with a photo where all the colors have boosted saturation. It is difficult to emphasize one specific color or group of colors for a better visual impact.
To have better control over color saturation, I use a different approach. I use the HSL (Hue, Saturation, Luminance) panel. This panel allows me to selectively control the saturation for every color of the image.
For example, if I want to emphasize the vegetation in my landscape photo, I boost the saturation of only the yellows and greens. I might even reduce the saturation of the sky (blue color) to make it easier to draw the attention of the viewer.
4. Maximize the Tonal Range in Your Photos
Maximizing the tonal range means using the entire range of tones from pure black to pure white.
For example, when you take a photo on an overcast and gloomy day, the photo will have a limited tonal range of mostly greys without very dark or bright tones.
We can maximize the tonal range of any given photo by setting the black point and the white point.
Lightroom has a built-in functionality for setting black and white points. This is a semi-automated process.
Open the Basic Panel of the Develop Module.
Hold down the SHIFT key and double click the Whites label on the left side of the editing slider. Lightroom will automatically set the White Point by setting the Whites value to a maximum value that does not introduce pure white.
Next, hold down the SHIFT key and double click the Black label. Lightroom will automatically set the Black Point by setting the Black value to a minimum without clipping it (introducing pure black).
The result is an image with full tonal range.
If you want to learn how to use this simple technique when editing landscape photos, check out the following tutorial: How to Set Black and White Points in Lightroom
5. Use the Smart Contrast Technique
Contrast is another important technique that we apply on nearly every image we edit. Properly applied Contrast makes the image pop and creates a higher visual impact.
In Lightroom, there is a dedicated Contrast Slider in the Basic Panel. The way the Contrast functionality works is that it makes darker colors darker and brighter colors brighter by creating a higher tonal contrast between the dark and bright areas of the image.
But since we cannot separately control at what degree the program affects the dark and bright tones, it is often impossible to maximize the contrast without clipping the whites or blacks.
I use a different technique to have better control over the Contrast. I use the Region sliders in the Tone Curve Panel.
Here is my typical slide configuration for landscape photos.
First, I want to ensure I protect the brighter areas of the image from accidental clipping. I set the Highlight value to -44.
I also want to protect the dark tones. I set the Shadows value to +11.
Next, I start experimenting by increasing the value of the Lights and decreasing the value of the Darks.
Of course, every image is different and requires a different Region slider configuration. As a general rule, I boost the Lights at a much higher degree than how much I reduce the Darks.
By having the ability to adjust the bright and dark areas of the photo separately, it gives us much better control over the contrast adjustment process.
6. Use Batch Editing
I use a different method instead.
I most often use Batch Editing with photos taken at the same location. For example, when I have 50 new photos after capturing a sunset, I know that all the photos were taken in similar lighting conditions using a comparable shooting technique. This means the photos will require a similar editing approach.
When I am happy with the final result, I select the rest of the photos from the shoot and apply the same edits to all of them. I use one of the methods I outlined in this article: How to Batch Edit in Lightroom.
Using this Batch Editing method produces the best results. I hardly need to do any editing to the individual photos.
7. Use Selective Sharpening in Lightroom
As a general rule, I do not use Noise Reduction and Sharpening in Lightroom. I prefer Photoshop instead because I find that it gives me more control.
Let me explain.
When I sharpen my landscape photos, I always apply sharpening selectively. I never want to sharpen the area of the sky or the water; I may even soften these areas using noise reduction.
In Photoshop, I apply sharpening to the entire image first and then use the transparency masks to affect only the selected areas.
Even though Selective Editing in Lightroom is limited, we still have some control over-sharpening. After applying sharpening to the entire image, you can open the Details Panel and use the Masking slider to narrow the affected area.
Here is the main trick—hold the Alt/Opt key down when dragging the Masking slider to better visualize the affected area. The area affected by the sharpening will show in white and the unaffected area will show in black. By using high Masking values (90-100), you can limit the sharpening effect to only the edges of the photo.
I use this Selective Sharpening technique when I do not have time for Photoshop editing.
8. Use Import Presets
The preset functionality is a foundation of Lightroom. The program uses nine different types of presets (develop presets, metadata presets, filter presets, export presets, etc.) in various areas to help photographers speed up and automate the entire editing process.
I consider the Import Presets to be one of the most useful and, at the same time, the most underutilized tool by many photographers.
Without a doubt, Lightroom’s Import Module is the most confusing and least intuitive area of the program. It causes the most headache and confusion for new Lightroom users.
The best way to overcome the complexity of the Import Module is to create Import Presets and use them with every import.
9. Use the Histogram as an Editing Tool
In photography, the Histogram is the graphical representation of pixels distributed in any given photo based on its brightness.
The Histogram is a photographer’s best friend. When used in a camera, histograms help us produce well-exposed photos. When used in Lightroom or any other photo editing program, histograms help us fine tune or correct the exposure.
In Lightroom, the Histogram is more than an informational function. It is also an editing tool.
In the Develop Module, if you move the mouse over the Histogram, you can select five different areas. By dragging the mouse to the right and left, you can visually adjust the following parameters—Blacks, Shadows, Exposure, Highlights, and Whites.
It is basically a gamification of the editing process. It is fun to see how reshaping the Histogram affects the corresponding photo.
10. Learn Only the Essential Shortcuts
I do not have to convince anyone that keyboard shortcuts can drastically speed up the use of any computer program. We all understand that. But learning keyboard shortcuts in Lightroom is more challenging than any other program including Photoshop. First, there are over 100 shortcuts in Lightroom. Second, the same shortcut can have different functions in different modules of the program.
My approach to Lightroom shortcuts is to learn only the most essential and useful shortcuts to your workflow and disregard the rest.
For example, my all-time favorite shortcut is “\” (backslash), which reverts the selected image back to the original state without changing the crop adjustments. It is the best way to check the results of your editing. The shortcut is called Before & After.
There is another useful trick on memorizing the most useful keyboard shortcuts in Lightroom. You can use the Panel End Mark function to display the cheat sheet with all your favorite shortcuts inside the side panels.
Check out the tutorial below to learn how you can download the cheat sheet of the most useful shortcuts and display it in Lightroom.
11. Use the Power of Alt/Opt Key
Keyboard shortcuts in Lightroom trigger certain functions in the program. They simply save time. But there is another set of keyboard keys that function quite a bit differently. They modify or extend the functions of the existing editing tools. I call these “keyboard modifiers.”
The most important keyboard modifier in Lightroom is the Alt/Opt key. The common role of the Alt/Opt modifier is as a reset function. For example, by holding down the Alt/Opt key in the Basic Panel, new reset options (Reset Tone and Reset Presence) appear. By clicking the new reset option, you can reset multiple editing sliders back to their default values. The Alt/Opt key triggers reset options in almost every editing panel.
Another useful function of the Alt/Opt keyboard in Lightroom is visualization. It helps you see the affected area of the editing function, such as sharpening, noise reduction, or split toning.
For a full list of the Alt/Opt functions, check out this article here: Lightroom’s Secret Weapon – Alt/Opt Keyboard Modifiers
12. Change Mask Color of Adjustment Tools
When Lightroom was originally released, it did not have any selective editing tools. Effects could only be applied to the entire image. For selective editing, you had to use Photoshop.
Over time, Adobe added a range of selective adjustment tools to dramatically change the usefulness and versatility of the program.
The Adjustment Brush, the Graduated Filter, and the Radial Filters are tools that made Lightroom an editing powerhouse suitable for any type of photography.
To better visualize the effect of the adjustment tool, you simply use the shortcut “O” (it stands for “overlay”) and Lightroom shows the affected area of the image in red (the default color).
If your image has predominantly red colors, it is difficult to visualize red against the default red. Use the shortcut “Shift+O” to change the color of the overlay. Your options are green, red, blue, and grey.
13. Use Solo Mode in Develop Module
Lightroom has nine total editing panels in the Develop Module. When you have all the panels open, it can be extremely difficult to find the editing slider you need. Plus, the entire editing process becomes an exercise in constantly scrolling through the extended panels.
Luckily, there is another option. Solo Mode allows you to have only one editing panel open at a time.
To access Solo Mode, right-click the header of any editing panel and select the Solo Mode option.
In my case, Solo Mode is always active and keeps my UI neat.
14. Use Guide Overlays When Cropping Photos
If I had to estimate, I would say that I use the Crop Overlay tool with 99% of the images I edit. Of course, I always try to get the right composition in the camera, but even when I succeed, each photo requires some tweaking.
Sometimes, I need to straighten the horizon or crop out a distractive rock. Other times I want to improve the composition by making it tighter.
This is when the Guide Overlay comes into play. The tool is a visual helper that makes our job of improving composition so much easier.
In my case, I most often use the Golden Ratio and Thirds.
15. Use Cap Lock Autoadvance Mode
When I need to go through thousands of photos to rate them as “rejects” and “keepers,” the Autoadvance Mode in Lightroom’s Library Module comes in very handy.
Hit the Caps Lock button to activate it.
With the Autoadvance Mode activated, hitting the “P” (“pick”) shortcut flags the image and automatically advances to the next image. This seems like only a small help, but it saves a great amount of time when culling a large number of images.
Lightroom Workflow Tips: Conclusion
I listed 15 of my favorite Lightroom tips—those that have the strongest impact on my photography. You do not have to memorize or learn all of them. Simply select the ones that can significantly improve your photo editing workflow and incorporate them into your editing process.