Alright, you’re a newer photographer and you’ve just unloaded your first batch of images into Lightroom.
Now, what the heck do you do? What does clarity and texture mean? What on earth is this weird curvy line thing? Why would I ever want to add grain?
Chances are that you’ve asked a LOT of those questions if you’re new to editing in Lightroom. Luckily, I’m here to explain what literally every single one of these settings actually does (with sample/example photos).
Do note that this covers “Lightroom”, the modern version that works on both desktop and mobile (so, not Lightroom Classic). This post is massive, so feel free to use the table of contents below to skip around.
Let’s dive in.
Preliminary Tips & Disclaimers
Before diving deep into the actual editing settings and whatnot themselves, we have to go over a few basic tips and disclaimers.
Always Shoot RAW
First off, always shoot RAW photos. I have an article that goes more in-depth, but the basic explanation is that RAW photos tend to have “more data”.
More data pretty much means they’re a lot more flexible in editing versus JPEGs. Always shoot RAW if you plan on dabbling in any sort of post-processing.
Editing Can’t Fix Bad Photos
Although sensor technology and photo editing software consistently get better every year, you still can’t fix an absolutely terrible shot.
Chances are, if a shot is incredibly out of focus or horrifically overexposed, you might not be able to save it in post (underexposed shots, however, can often be saved so long as they were shot in RAW).
Learn to Edit Without Presets
Nowadays, you can find about a million different presets anywhere across the internet that you can immediately download for free.
Presets are awesome, and they can spruce up your photos really quickly, but they’re not perfect. Every photo is different and there are no one-size-fits-all presets.
Thus, it’s important to understand the basics of editing so you can, at the very least, get a good “base” of edits before applying a preset (if you choose to do so). Plus, learning to edit allows you to slowly discover and perfect your own style.
The “Light” Settings
Anyway, let’s get into it. First up on the list is the “Light” category in the edit panel.
To put it simply, this panel (mostly) concerns just the “lighting” (obviously) of your image. This is anything from the darkest bits of shadow to the brightest highlights.
There is a bit of color manipulation in the “tone curve” (we’ll get to that in a bit) but this is largely a color-unrelated panel.
The first setting under the Light category is Exposure.
Exposure is pretty basic. It’s pretty much like sliding a brightness slider on your image.
Although best combined with other settings, it can be a quick and easy setting if you just need to adjust the basic brightness of an image.
The contrast slider is a simple alternative to adjusting the tone curve (which we’ll touch on a bit later).
What the contrast slider does is pretty much make the dark parts of your image even darker while making the bright parts even brighter.
Bumping the contrast up is an easy way of making your image “pop”, but just make sure not to overdo it. Reducing contrast makes the image look more “flat” and even. Both looks can work, it just depends on the vibe you’re going for.
Highlights are the bright parts of an image (but not pure white).
The highlight slider allows you to, as you’d expect, adjust these bright bits to be darker or even more bright.
There is a lot you can do with highlights, but one of the most common applications is darkening skies in a landscape image. Do note that overexposed parts of an image (pure white) are difficult to recover.
Shadows are the opposite of highlights as they are the darker parts of an image (but not the pure blacks).
Dragging this slider to the right will increase the brightness on all dark parts, whereas dragging it to the left will make them even darker.
Post-processing software tends to have an easier time recovering the dark parts of an image versus the brightest parts. For this reason, you’ll often hear the advice of “expose for the highlights”.
Keep in mind that dragging up the shadows will introduce noise into the previously dark parts of the image. Notice in the image below that there is a bit of grain in the previously dark parts of the photo.
The “whites” slider may seem similar to highlights at a quick glance, but it actually controls quite a different tonal range.
It controls the white point of the image, which is moreso tied to the overall brightness of the lighter parts of an image.
In an attempt to make it a bit more simple, think of it like this: highlights control a subtle range, while the white slider pushes the white (brightest/overexposed) parts of an image even higher or lower.
Below you can see a comparison of maxing out the highlights vs white sliders.
Last but not least, we have the black slider. You may be wondering, much like whites vs highlights, what is the difference between blacks vs shadows?
The shadow slider adjusts all dark parts of your image, while the black slider adjusts only the pure black parts. As in, the part of the image that gets zero detail because it is literally black.
Some photographers will lower the slider to add even more contrast, while some will bump it up a little to get a more “filmic” look to the darkest parts of an image.
Alright, so the sliders are pretty easy to understand, but what on earth is this curvy line with a bunch of bumps? That, my friend, is known as the tone curve.
The tone curve looks extremely complicated, but it becomes a lot easier to understand when you think of it as a collection of all the previously explained sliders.
In Lightroom, a tone curve has 5 small dots. Here is what they do, in left-to-right order: blacks, shadows, mid-tones, highlights, and whites.
This curve allows you to get more precise control versus just dragging the sliders. You can click anywhere on the curve to add another point. The best way to learn this is to experiment!
As you can see, adding just a few “points” to the tone curve allows you to get some super-precise tweaks that the sliders just can’t accomplish.
Do note that, as you can see, it is possible to also tweak colors via the tone curve, but we won’t delve too much into that. At its core, the same basic concepts apply, but instead of changing the “brightness” of various points of the image, you’re changing the color (highlights set to light blue while shadows set to orange, for example).
Light Settings Summary
So, now you know how to handle the most basic settings on Lightroom: the “light” category settings.
Typically, just tweaking the tone curve alone allows you to get a really solid base for your photos. Of course, there’s nothing wrong with just using the sliders if you want to keep it simple!
Here is a quick after/before visual of what just tweaking the tone curve can do for your image. (swipe)
The “Color” Settings
Next up, we’ve got the color settings.
This is where you can really nail down a style and “vibe” for your photos.
The first slider is color temperature. Every photo will have a starting color temp (you can, of course, set this in the camera).
You can drag the slider to the left to make the image “cooler” (more blue) or you can drag it to the right to make the image “warmer” (more orange).
Color temp is a very creative tool that I’d suggest fiddling with in pretty much all your photos. Even if you make no other edits, a small tweak to the temp can change the entire vibe.
Take the two images below, for example. In one, I kept the color temperature “normal”, and in the other, I reduced it to create a more “cold and isolated” feeling.
The tint slider shares a similar concept to the temp slider, except it covers magenta & green instead.
You can certainly use the tint slider for artistic reasons, but I’ve generally found it to be commonly used for fixing skin tones when using certain cameras (older Sony bodies definitely gave off some slightly weird colors…).
Fluorescent lighting, in particular, is pretty infamous for casting slightly green tinges. Below is an example of a “fix” for green-tinted light (although I think the green can still look artistically cool).
Next up, we have saturation, probably the most aggressively and incorrectly used slider by new photographers (chill, I’m joking!).
To put it simply, the saturation slider adjusts the “intensity” of colors in the image. Drag it to the left and you’ll find colors look more dull. Drag it to the right and they’ll pop more.
It’s incredibly easy to overdo contrast, so it’s definitely a tool you have to be careful with. Below is a -100/+100 comparison.
But wait, you ask, what on earth is vibrance? It seems like it’s just the same thing as saturation, right? Not quite, let me explain.
Vibrance vs Saturation
The biggest difference is that while saturation affects the entire image, vibrance only affects the less prevalent colors.
What this means is that vibrance can be used to spruce up the more “dull” parts of an image without largely affecting the “saturation” of everything. It more or less makes certain colors pop more than others.
Sometimes, pushing your vibrance up by +20 and dropping your saturation slightly leads to a more even “pop” of colors. Or, do the reverse! Sometimes I like to drag my vibrance down and my saturation up to create a sort of color pop/selective color type effect.
Swipe through the gallery below to see: vibrance maxed, saturation maxed, and then a -90/+90 split.
Now, we’re going to look at the color mixer. This tool is rather fun because it allows us to tweak (to a certain degree) individual colors.
You’ll see eight small circles denoting different colors. If you click on one, you’ll see three sliders: hue, saturation, and luminance.
Hue will change the… well, hue, of the selected color. If you selected red, the hue slider will let you move to the left for purple, or to the right for an orange-ish tint.
The saturation slider changes the, you guessed it, saturation of that color while the luminance changes the “brightness”.
You can do A LOT with shifting hues using the color mixer. Below is an example of how you can completely change the feeling (summer vs fall) of an image by dragging a single slider.
Although tangentially similar to the color mixer, the color grading tool is an entirely different beast. This grading tool allows you to select a hue/saturation for the shadows, mid-tones and highlights.
This is similar in concept to what you can do with the color tone curves mentioned prior, but it’s a bit more simple to understand.
If you drag the shadows color wheel to red, the dark parts of your image will have a red tone. Drag the highlights to blue, and the bright parts of your image will have a blue tinge. You can even play with the balance/blending sliders to smooth out the look and get the results you want.
A very popular look, both in Hollywood and photography/content creation in general is the iconic teal/orange split. To achieve this, you push your shadows to teal and your highlights to orange.
The “Effects” Settings
So, we’ve covered light and color. Next, we’re going to be looking at the “effects” panel. This is a section that you’ll likely not touch for every photo, but it does have some neat potential if used properly.
Starting off, we have the texture slider. At first glance, it may just seem like you’re increasing or decreasing the sharpness, but there’s a bit more to it than that.
The texture slider specifically modifies the mid-sized details. Personally, I’ve found it most helpful when editing portraits. Bumping the texture down just a little bit goes a long way for softening skin without making it look unnatural.
On the flipside, it can also be used to bring out subtle details. In the photos below, the left image has reduced texture (softer skin), but the one on the right shows more detail in the clothes and food at the cost of rougher skin.
Next up, we have the clarity slider. This, much like saturation, is another one that is often hugely overdone.
What the clarity slider does is increase mid-range contrast. So, unlike the normal contrast slider (remember the light section?), it doesn’t increase lows and highs, just the mids.
Oftentimes, a slight bump in clarity brings out just a little bit more detail. However, it’s really easy to go overboard and excessive, so be careful.
In the images below, dragging the clarity slider brought out a lot of detail in the surrounding grass (notice the fire-lit flowers?) and in the flames of the bonfire itself.
The dehaze slider is a weird one. It took me a little while to get used to understanding how it worked and when I should actually use it, but now I love it.
As the name implies, the dehaze slider was originally designed to remove haze. The way it works is it targets flat-looking areas and applies increased contrast. Unlike the standard contrast slider, however, this tool won’t push the shadows darker and the highlights higher.
This makes it particularly useful in, obviously, removing haze, but it can also help in many other ways. For myself, I typically use it for: adding sky detail, making B&W more “punchy”, reducing glare (somewhat), and for making night sky photos pop.
Just like many other sliders, it’s easy to overdo it. Be careful, and don’t push the slider too far or you’ll end up with wacky images like the one on the right below (notice the strange banding/lines in the clouds).
Unlike the other options under the effects category, vignette is pretty self-explanatory.
If you don’t know, a vignette is a dark “ring” around the edges of an image. This is typically due to imperfections in lens design.
Although many photographers prefer to remove any lens vignetting, it can oftentimes be used as an aesthetic choice to draw attention to the center of the frame (especially popular in portraiture).
In the images below, a subtle vignette (drag slider to the left) has been added to the right in order to draw the viewer’s eye onto the subject. It’s a subtle effect, but it works. Once again, however, it’s easy to overdo it.
The last option in the effects section is the grain slider. This is another controversial one. Some photographers question the logic of adding grain (something you, traditionally, try to avoid). However, many of us (myself included) like to sprinkle a little bit of grain here and there.
What this slider does is literally just emulate film grain, and it does it fairly well. You can adjust the size of the grain (self-explanatory) along with the texture/roughness.
If you’re going for a filmic look, splashing a bit of grain on your image can really add to it.
The “Detail” Settings
Surely, at some point, you’ve taken a picture and either thought, “there is WAY too much noise in this,” or perhaps, “I wish this was just a bit sharper!”.
That, my friend, is where the detail settings tab comes in.
First up, we’ve got the sharpening slider. It should go without saying that this can’t make a blurry/out-of-focus photo sharp, but it can bring out a lot of detail!
Dragging it left makes edger softer and dragging it right makes edges, well, sharper. Typically, you should be careful about oversharpening, as it can look bad (subjective) and also introduce minor amounts of noise.
The radius slider simply increases the “size” of the sharpening. Pushing the radius slider to the right will often cause “larger” edges, especially on hard edges such as buildings. Be especially careful with this slider, as stuff can start to look pretty weird if you overdo it.
The detail slider does exactly what it sounds like. It increases the detail relative to edge size. Meaning, that a low value will just sharpen large edges, whereas a high value will sharpen everything.
The last option under sharpening is the masking slider. Masking allows you to more or less choose exactly what parts of the image should be sharpened.
While the effect is hard to notice by default, holding ALT on a PC (or Option on a Mac) while dragging the slider will display a visual overlay showing what should be sharpened.
White parts of the image will be sharpened, while the black/dark parts of an image will not. See the visual below.
Now, on the complete flipside of the coin, we’ve got noise reduction. Noise is the grain/discoloration you see when you take an image at a high ISO setting (typically in low light conditions). Noise reduction, while not perfect, allows you to remove most of that noise but at a cost to sharpness/detail.
The luminance slider is sort of the catch-all for noise reduction. Drag that to the right and you’ll see noise disappear, but you’ll also see everything lose detail. This can be somewhat countered by using the detail slider (it’s in a little dropdown menu underneath).
The color slider fixes, as you’d guess, color noise. Most cameras will autocorrect for color these days, but in case it doesn’t just bump the slider a bit to the right and it’ll make all the weird rainbow grain in your skies disappear.
The image below was shot at 10000 ISO. You can see the terrible noise on the original (left). For this I used: luminance at 63, detail at 75, contrast at 100, and color at 25. The sky still looks pretty rough, but it’s a huge improvement.
The “Optics” Section
Whew, we’re almost to the end, hang in there! The next category to look at are the optics sliders.
Remove Chromatic Aberration
This one actually isn’t a slider, it’s a checkbox! A chromatic aberration, according to the “real” definition is: “the lens failing to focus on all colors at the same point”. This translates to weird colorful fringing on the edges of objects, usually bright lights or reflective bits (like metal).
To be frank, with most lenses, you’ll likely never notice this box doing anything. That brings us to our next point, however…
The defringe slider is the one you’ll actually want to use to remove chromatic fringing on edges. Simply select a color (fringing is typically purple/magenta, but can be green as well) and then drag the slider as you see fit.
You can also adjust the hue range. This means that you can set the defringing to pick up a greater range of colors (for magenta, it can detect dark blue all the way to maroon). I’ve found that taking it off the base 30-70 hue range is typically unnecessary, however.
Although there is a myriad of uses for defringing, I mostly use it when photographing cars. In the pictures below, you can see the shiny chrome bit before and after defringing. It makes a huge difference.
Enable Lens Correction
The final option under the optics tab is a handy-dandy little checkbox entitled “enable lens correction”. This is just an easy one-click fix for distortion and vignette.
Although many lenses these days are optically incredible, they still suffer from distortion (usually wide angles) and typically, a minor vignette (usually when shooting wide open). Not every lens will have a “profile” in Lightroom, but any OEM and most decent third parties will.
Click once, and your distortion and vignette are fixed with no effort. In the image below (taken with the Tamron 28-75mm F2.8), you’ll notice that lens correction straightened the lines and removed the minor corner darkening.
It’s subtle but important.
The “Geometry” Settings
Ahh, last but not least, we have the geometry settings. Now, I failed geometry in high school, but luckily these sliders are a bit more simple.
First off, distortion lets you, well, play with the distortion. You can make an image all bulbous, or make it “push in” to a certain point. Playing with the distortion will create white space on the edge of your image though, so you’ll need to crop in.
The vertical and horizontal sliders stretch the image in their respective directions. I’ve personally pushed the vertical slider up a bit when I’m trying to exaggerate height (such as for mountains or buildings). It’s a powerful slider, but it, like many others, is easy to go overboard with.
The last few sliders are incredibly niche, so I’ll just rapid-fire them below.
- Rotate rotates your image (which you can do with the crop tool anyway).
- Aspect stretches your image to a certain aspect ratio.
- Scale just… zooms in.
- X/Y offsets simply slide the image (creating white space) in any direction.
In the comparison pics below, you can see how I “stretched” the mountains using vertical geometry.
Well, if you made it this far, congratulations! You hopefully learned a lot about the basics of Lightroom editing.
Remember that the best way to learn is to experiment. Like I had mentioned at the beginning, try not to fall into the trap of immediately using presets. Learn what each slider does, and, as you improve, you’ll be able to lock in your own look and aesthetic.
If you loved this article and are looking to learn more from us, check out our other general photography guides.
Thanks for reading, folks.