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Editing Essentials: How to Develop Your Photos in Lightroom

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Intimidated by Lightroom's Develop module? Don't be. Scott Kelby shows you how to manipulate all of those scary-looking buttons, checkboxes, and sliders to improve your hard-to-fix photos.

Everything we have done up to this point—every click of a button, every slide of a slider, every drag of a dragster, has all been leading up to this one single moment. The moment when you leave the relative safety and comfort of the Library module and venture into a wild, untamed territory that many seek but only few survive. This, my friends, is the Develop module—a scary and intimidating place with more complicated-looking buttons, checkboxes, and sliders than the Space Shuttle and a 747 combined. Now, if you’re thinking that all this looks too technical and advanced for you, you’re right. Nobody understands this module. I don’t know what it does. Adobe doesn’t know. I think a lot of the sliders are just put there for looks, and moving them doesn’t actually affect anything in the photo whatsoever. For example, try moving the Deflatulator slider all the way to the right. I’m not sure it really does anything, but it sure took the wind out of me. Okay, that was pretty lame, but wait—I have more. Open an image shot in RAW format, set your exposure and shadows, then try dragging the Cutlery Sharpening Amount to 75%. I’ll bet your image still looks dull, and it just doesn’t cut it. Are you getting any of these puns? I hope you are, because I swear, they’re cracking me up.

Setting Your White Balance in the Develop Module

You take a photo into the Develop module when you’ve got some serious adjusting to do, so don’t be fooled by the fact that the top panel in the right side Panels area is named “Basic.” Those “Basic” controls are more advanced than the controls found in Adobe Photoshop CS2/CS3’s acclaimed Camera Raw plug-in, so I vote that they be renamed “Essentials” or “Critical,” because the term Basic is a bit misleading. We’re going to start with perhaps the most essential Develop module setting: white balance.

  • Step One. Before you dive into this chapter, make darn sure you read the previous chapter (Quick Develop), because many of the tools you’re going to use here were explained in detail there. If you 100% for sure read that chapter, then charge ahead! Go to Photoshop Lightroom’s Library module and click on a photo you want to do some serious adjusting to, then click on the word Develop at the top right of the interface, or better yet just press the letter D on your keyboard, to jump over into the Develop module. (By the way, the model shown here is Debbie Stephenson, NAPP’s seminar tour team leader, and I took this shot live onstage during the Los Angeles leg of my Photoshop Power Tour seminar.)
  • Step Two. Like the Quick Develop panel, the Basic panel lets you set the white balance using either the WB pop-up menu or by adjusting the Temp and Tint sliders, shown circled here. If you forget which way to drag to make a photo warmer or cooler, look at the color bar inside the slider itself for a visual clue. Both sliders show the color you’ll get if you drag in either direction (if you wanted to warm the photo, you’d drag the Temp slider to the right toward yellow; to cool it, you’d drag left toward blue, as shown).
  • Step Three. Just to see how it works, go ahead and drag the Temp slider to the right, and watch how the photo warms up. It works the same way in Quick Develop, but there if you forget which way to click, you’re on your own. Now, let’s reset the Temp slider to its original location by double-clicking directly on the slider control knob itself. By the way, this little “double-click to reset the slider” trick works for most of the adjustment sliders in the Develop module, so this is a really good tip to remember.
  • Step Four. Okay, so the WB pop-up menu is used the same here as in Quick Develop, and the Temp and Tint sliders still adjust the color temperature, but the big advantage here in the Develop module is the White Balance Selector tool (it’s that huge eyedropper that lives in the top-left corner of the Basic panel, as you can see in the previous step). To use it, you can just click on it and your cursor changes to that tool (as shown here).
  • Step Five. As you move the White Balance Selector tool over your image, a pixel magnifier appears (as shown here) called the “Loupe” (named thus just to make things a little more confusing). This Loupe shows you a highly magnified view of the pixels your cursor is hovering over. It also displays the RGB readings of those pixels, measured from 0% (solid black) to 100% (solid white). So, to set your white balance with this tool, first you’d need to find a neutral area within your photo (ideally a light gray area). I usually try and find a light gray area where all three readouts (R, G, and B) are right around 60 to 65%. Chances are you won’t be able to get all three readouts to be exactly the same number, but at least if they’re close, you’ll know you’re in the ballpark.
  • Step Six. Once you find a neutral light gray area, just click once (as shown here) and it sets an accurate white balance (more on this in a moment). Before we go on, in the toolbar below the center Preview area there are options for the White Balance Selector tool, but they only appear while you have the tool selected. First, you can change the level of magnification by clicking-and-dragging the Scale slider (shown circled here). Perhaps more importantly, you can make the Loupe (a.k.a. the annoying Loupe) go away by turning off a simple checkbox. Also, when you do click within your photo, it instantly returns the White Balance Selector tool to its home in the Basic panel. If you’d like the option of trying other neutral areas to see how they look without having to grab the tool again every single time, just turn off the Auto Dismiss checkbox. Then, when you’re done, either return the tool to the Basic panel or click the Done button in the toolbar.
  • Step Seven. Okay, now before you go clicking away, how would you like a live preview of how your white balance setting will affect your photo before you even click it? Well, get the White Balance Selector tool, move it over an area of your photo (here I’m hovering it over the left side of Debbie’s hair), then take a look over at the Navigator panel at the top of the left side Panels area. You’ll see a live white balance preview as you hover the tool over different parts of the image. That way, you can see if the area where you’re thinking of clicking will actually make your photo look warmer or cooler. In the example shown here, you can see in the Navigator panel that the photo would look much cooler (bluer) if I were to click in her hair (which obviously isn’t a light gray).
  • Step Eight. Now, here’s the thing about white balance: you can find a perfectly neutral light gray area, choose that to set your white balance, and you’ll have an accurate white balance. But accurate doesn’t necessarily look good. Your grays might be dead on, but your flesh tones might look dead awful. That’s why many wedding and portrait photographers (who prefer that their subjects have a warm skin tone) use special lens accessories (like the ExpoDisc Digital White Balance Filter – Portrait) or intentionally warmer gray cards (called “warm cards”) that leave your subject’s skin with a warmer look. The bottom line is white balance is a creative decision made by you, the photographer, so if you use the White Balance Selector tool properly, and you think your subject looks too cool, then just drag the Temp slider slowly to the right a little bit until it looks right to you.
  • Step Nine. When I’m setting the white balance using the White Balance Selector tool, I usually try clicking in a few different neutral areas just to see how they differ. Sometimes, clicking just a few pixels away from your first choice can give you a slightly cooler or warmer white balance. In the example shown here, I made three virtual copies of our photo, and clicked the White Balance Selector tool in slightly different places in each one, so I could compare the four versions side-by-side in Survey view and choose the one I like best. By the way, virtual copies are just that—they’re not real copies of your photo (that would eat up too much hard drive space). Instead they’re just virtual “metadata only” versions of your original photo, which are great for experimenting with different techniques (like different white balance settings) without ballooning the size of your photo library. If you like the adjustments you made to a virtual copy, you can choose to apply them to the real photo when you export it. Cool, eh?
  • Step Ten. To create a virtual copy of your real photo, just Control-click (PC: Right-click) on your photo, and choose Create Virtual Copy from the contextual menu that appears (as shown here). By the way, you can also do this in the Library’s Grid view or in the filmstrip. Your virtual copy is automatically stacked with your real photo in the Library module’s grid, so finding these virtual copies is easy. Plus, the Grid view and filmstrip thumbnails for virtual copies have a small curled page icon in the bottom-left corner (shown circled in red in the inset) to let you know you’re not working on the real photo. You can create as many virtual copies as you’d like, because they don’t add any file size to your photo library.
  • Step Eleven. Don’t ever hesitate to try different white balance settings, because you can always return to the original “as shot” white balance setting by either choosing As Shot from the WB pop-up menu (as shown here), or by double-clicking on the letters “WB” (shown circled here) which appear to the right of the White Balance Selector tool in the Basic panel. Of course, if you ever just want to start over, and return the photo to how it looked when you imported it, just click the Reset button at the bottom of the right side Panels area. By the way, this Reset button is always there while you’re working in the Develop module, so anytime you want to start over just click on it and all your Develop module changes are undone.
  • Step Twelve. The bottom line is this: white balance is a creative decision made by you, the photographer, so if you use the White Balance Selector tool and think your subject looks too cool, then just drag the Temp slider slowly to the right a little bit until it looks right to you. Okay, now let’s set our white balance. Find a neutral gray area (I chose a light gray area of the background), and click once on that area. Although the photo looks “technically” accurate, in real life Debbie’s skin is quite tan, so to match what she looks like in person, drag the Temp slider slowly to the right until the skin tone looks warmer (as shown). The most important thing is not that the white balance is accurate or that the RGB numbers add up. It’s that your subject looks at least as good, if not better, in the final print as they do in person, and that’s a call that only you can make. Now, on to the rest of the Basic panel (see, I told you the name “Basic” was misleading).
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