Shedding Light on Adobe Lightroom

The most important tool in my kit is Adobe’s Lightroom CC.  It is the lifeline to my photographs, providing import, organization, editing and delivery for the thousands of images I’ve captured.

Lightroom is billed as a companion product to Adobe Photoshop.  It’s packaged with Photoshop in the Adobe Photography subscription plan.  Lightroom was designed from the ground up to be a standalone workhorse and many people use it as such.  But it is equally a great companion to Photoshop, allowing for many basic workflow tasks to be performed quickly in Lightroom before launching Photoshop for more complex edits.

Despite these positive features, I’ve spoken to people who describe Lightroom as frustrating and overly complex.  It seems this is because of 3 design decisions that Adobe made in terms of how Lightroom operates.

First, Lightroom does help organize photographs, but it is not a file management system.  The best way to describe Lightroom is that it is a catalogue.  For those old enough to remember, public libraries used to have cabinets of small cards, organized by subject, also called catalogues.

You would select your subject and in the catalogue, there would be one card for each book/magazine/article that related to that subject.  On the card, there would be a file number that would tell you what shelf to go to to find the book/magazine/article.

Lightroom is the same.  It expects that you will create a series of file folders (or shelves) outside of Lightroom on your computer.  This is where you place your photographs.  You can import your photographs to your computer without using Lightroom or by using Lightroom’s import tool, which is provided for convenience.  Regardless of how you do the import, you still need to identify and perhaps create the folder in which the photograph will be stored.  Lightroom then “catalogues” the location of that photograph in its database.

This is important:  LIGHTROOM DOES NOT SAVE A COPY OF THE IMAGE in Lightroom.   It saves a pointer to where the image is located.  It does create and save a “thumbnail” of the image so that you can visually identify that image later.

Second, like any library catalogue, Lightroom is most powerful when all of the information about the image is stored.  This means its file location, its size, the equipment used to take it, any copyright information, and most importantly, any special attributes like keywords and tags that you assign to help you quickly find the image later.  The catalogue is only as good as the information used to create it – so it’s important to take the time to do it right.  A year from now, when you are searching for that one image you know you shot, you’ll be able to find it easily.

Some of the “tags” that you can use are picks, star ratings and colour coding.  It’s up to you to decide how to use them.  Personally, I use them this way:

  • I use picks to identify the images I will work on; you can “pick” or “reject” any of your images and then filter on those selections; it’s a fast way of identifying the keepers
  • I use colour coding to identify what I will do with the image when I’m finished:  red for website, yellow for social media, green for competition, etc.; you can even create multiple versions of the image for different purposes using another great feature in Lightroom called “virtual copies”
  • I use star ratings to allow clients to rank their preferences as we review images together

The third design decision by Adobe is around image editing.  Understanding how Lightroom handles edits is probably the most confusing aspect of this wonderful tool.

As you know, digital images are comprised of pixels that define the colour and brightness of the image.  Even the most basic point and shoot digital camera now captures millions of pixels for a single image.

When you edit that image in Photoshop, some of the changes you make are “destructive” and remove pixels forever, while some are “non-destructive” and let you change your mind or try different things.  The long evolution of Photoshop has frankly resulted in some very strange menu options and workflow steps for non-destructive editing, so that many casual users stay away from the product completely.

But Lightroom was built with a single editing philosophy in mind: as long as you work exclusively in Lightroom and don’t do some of the edits in Photoshop, ALL edits are non-destructive, and you can change your mind as many times as you like.

Why is it possible for Lightroom to do this?

Because Lightroom is a catalogue of information about your images, at no time does the software actually alter your original image.  Instead, it “catalogues” the adjustments that you want (example: brighten shadows, darken highlights), and shows you a preview of what the image will look like when you actually apply the adjustments.  But it does not apply them until you are ready to publish, print or share your final image.

This is really important:  LIGHTROOM SAVES THE INSTRUCTIONS NEEDED TO CREATE YOUR FINAL IMAGE, BUT IT MAKES NO CHANGES TO YOUR ORIGINAL IMAGE.  When you are ready to publish, print or share your image, you “export” a copy of the original image with all the instructions applied.  During this export process, you can elect to overwrite your original image with the copy (if you keep the same filename and filetype), but Lightroom will warn you that you are about to do so.  The fact that you must go through an export process and then ignore the warning demonstrates that Adobe is doing everything possible to safeguard your original image.

If you don’t overwrite your original image, you can change your mind about an adjustment at any time, make the changes and start the export process again.

I get why some users are frustrated as they internalize how Lightroom was built.  There are lots of useful tutorials to help.  But at the end of the day, it’s still up to the user to decide how best to exploit the wonderful features of this tool.  A little bit of logical left-brained planning, alongside all that right-brained creativity, goes a long way.