Read this if You Find Lightroom Overwhelming

Lightroom is a massively important tool in my photography business. It is THE place I go to view, work with, and interact with my images. I love this software so much, I spend time teaching others how to be proficient with it.

My students often find it overwhelming.

In this article, I’d like to offer you some tips to help dispel the overwhelm right from step one.

Choosing Your Version of Lightroom

First, there’s the dilemma do you use Lightroom (formerly Lightroom CC) or Lightroom Classic — or a combination of both.

IF CATALOGING IS IMPORTANT to you — and by cataloging, I mean the ability to alter metadata, add keywords, and maintain manual and auto-organizing collections of images, then Lightroom Classic is your software. Lightroom simply does not offer these features.

IF MOBILE EDITING IS IMPORTANT to you — and by mobile editing I mean editing images on an iPad and having your images stored in the cloud for anywhere access, then Lightroom is your software.

IF NEITHER OF THESE THINGS MATTER it really comes down to which software you prefer working in and whether you’re okay with keeping your original images in the cloud exclusively or not.  

IF BOTH MATTER then you will likely need to adopt a workflow that includes both products.

Lightroom Mindset

If you’re going to use Lightroom, no matter which one, you need to adopt a mindset of partnering with this software rather than just using it. Lightroom is essentially a workflow tool — which means, it’s not an in-and-out tool like Photoshop. It is also not a replacement for Photoshop.

In my experience, the people I meet who are the most frustrated with Lightroom are frustrated because they find it difficult to move their images in and out of — and that’s because Lightroom is not designed to work that way. Or, they find that Lightroom’s learning curve is steep and they expected it to be easier and a replacement for Photoshop.

Lightroom serves several purposes depending on which version you pick. If you choose Lightroom (formerly CC), then it will organize and house your images as well as provide you with an interface to edit those images. If you choose Lightroom Classic it will organize and catalog your images as well as provide you with editing, search, and other features you will use in accessing and distributing your images.

All Lightroom workflows include an import followed by a manipulation stage, storage, and then an export for use stage. That last stage is what trips people up — you leave your photos in Lightroom until you’re ready to use them, and then you export for that purpose while your original edited image stays in the catalog waiting for its next edit or export.

Lightroom is non-destructive editing, which means it never alters your original file — not even by attaching a sidecar file like other Adobe Camera Raw software. This means the changes (edits) you make to an image exist in what I like to describe as an overlay which Lightroom records and then uses when asked to display or export that file. It is a beautiful process — once you understand it.

Start with Learning the Editing Features — and then Add the Power

If you’ve used Adobe Camera Raw (in Photoshop or elsewhere), you’ve used the same set of sliders and options you’ll find in Lightroom. Start by learning how these sliders work and what manipulations you prefer to place on your images. I encourage you to begin to recognize patterns in your editing right from the get-go.

Repeated actions — such as raising shadows and deepening highlights — that you do to every image are the perfect fodder for a preset (which you can also purchase if you don’t want to explore doing your own). This is where the power of Lightroom’s editing engine revs up. Presets allow you to quickly apply a set of predesignated edits to an image — which in turn reduces editing time, dramatically. Sync is another way to use the power of repeated settings, but it is disposable where presets will live on to be used again and again, shoot after shoot.

Explore How You Want to Organize Your Images

After you’ve spent some time editing, take a moment and explore how you want to organize your images. Here, the version of Lightroom you use will matter.

If you’ve chosen to work in Lightroom (formerly CC), you’ll use containers called folder and albums. Folders organize groups of albums. Images can be in one or more albums, giving you something akin to Lightroom Classic’s collections. A sample of how to use this would be having a folder for a specific workshop (ie, Dryhead 2022) and then inside that folder, albums for the days (ie, Monday, Tuesday, etc.). I also add an album for images I want to use on social media, images I want to give to the host family, and images I want to use for artistic inspiration. Again, an image can be in more than one album (example, in image in Monday’s album can also exist in the social media album).

If you’ve chosen to work in Lightroom Classic, the cataloging and organizational features are much deeper and beyond the scope of this article. Classic allows you to create a multitude of functionality and customization to how you organize your images including collections and smart collections as well as the ability to sort by attribute, metadata, gps, faces, and more. I highly recommend you access Adobe’s extensive training library to learn about all of Lightroom Classic’s cataloging features.

Decide How You Want to Pick and Cull

Regardless of how you store your images or which Lightroom you use, you always begin your workflow with picking and culling.

Lightroom offers you star ratings as well as Pick and Reject Flags to aid you in determining which images you want to keep and which you want to discard. Because CC stores all images in the cloud, you may want to remove your rejects from Lightroom to save on storage space. This means Pick and Reject are effective for culling. Star rankings will also work (ie, one star reject, two stars pic, three stars you know you want to give to client, etc.).

Lightroom Classic offers the same Pick and Reject Flags as well as star ratings and then adds color rankings as well.

You can also choose to only “pick” the images you want (not using the Pick Flag) on import as both products allow you to preview images and select or unselect before importing.

Get to Know Export

Getting your images out of Lightroom is crucial. Most images go from Lightroom out for purpose such as social media or print. The export dialog box in both versions allows you to choose a variety of settings to fit your specific needs.

If you are wanting to edit an image in Photoshop, use the Edit in … Photoshop command. In Lightroom Classic, if you save the image as a straight save (no save as) in Photoshop after editing, a TIF file with layers will be returned to your catalog in the same folder as the original image. In Lightroom, you may have to reimport the edited PSD file to your catalog.

As with all Adobe products, it’s not necessary for you to learn every single detail of the application to make good use out of it. I suggest starting with the editing panels because they will feel the most familiar to most photographers. From there proceed into the power of the organizational features and then move on to workflow tweaks such as pick/cull or export. Once you’ve mastered these simpler tasks, then go exploring for creativity.

YouTube (including my own channel) as well as Adobe (anything by Julieanne Kost) is worth exploring as you learn. Remember to take it slow and easy and not to overwhelm yourself from the beginning. I highly recommend you explore videos on both concepts (ie, non-destructive editing, using Adobe Camera Raw, image cataloging strategies) along with the technical how-to type videos. Sometimes it takes a little experience with both before the window to true understanding opens!

You’ve got this! And if you need help, I do offer private 1-to-1 Lightroom training.