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5 Practical Lightroom Tips for Beginners

Practical tips for Lightroom beginners

Lightroom is so powerful that many of its most useful features can take a long time to discover and are often hidden beneath a blanket of keyboard shortcuts and obscure menus. I first started learning Lightroom as a longtime user of Apple’s image-processing program Aperture, and when making the switch, I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of available options.

But after much experimenting, online searching, and good old-fashioned trial and error, I figured out a workflow that suits my needs. And if you’re struggling to get started with Lightroom, you can, too; you may not use every single feature and option available to you in Lightroom, but the key is to find the tools and techniques that work for you and learn to master them.

Below, I share five of the handiest Lightroom tips for beginners. Try out the features and techniques that I share, and you may find that they greatly enhance your own experience with the program!

1. Create import presets


You probably already know that Lightroom contains dozens of presets to get you started editing your photos. These can be quite handy when you need to make a quick adjustment or add an effect, but it’s important to realize that they’re not special filters like what you might find in Instagram or other image-sharing programs.

Instead, Lightroom presets are simply premade recipes using the various sliders and controls available to you in the program’s Develop module. The Cinematic CN01 preset, for example, is a collection of saved values from Lightroom’s Basic, Tone Curve, HSL, and Color Grading panels.

What this means is that it’s easy to create presets of your own. You don’t have to rely on some behind-the-scenes magic, but you can instead make a few adjustments until you like the result, save it as a preset, and then use it the next time you’re editing your photos. It’s a great way to speed up your processing workflow without sacrificing quality.

And did you know you can extend this function even further? It’s true. You see, you can automatically apply a given preset – even one you create yourself – to all your pictures upon import. This is incredibly useful if you have a given set of values that you like to use as an editing starting point – so rather than making similar adjustments to the Highlights, Shadows, Clarity, etc., for every image, you can simply apply default values to every picture on import.

It’s easy to do, too. Simply find the Apply During Import pane in the Import dialog, select a preset, then click the Import button!


2. Use number keys to fine-tune adjustments in the Develop Module

When working in the Develop module, it can be a bit tricky to get the exact values you want by manually moving the sliders. (After all, a bit of cursor movement can result in a huge adjustment…)

One way to fix this? Hover your cursor over the left side of the panes, then drag until the panels are much wider:


But if you don’t want to lose a lot of screen real estate to Lightroom sliders, you can try another handy trick: Simply use the arrow keys to adjust the number values in very small increments.

For example, if you want to adjust the exposure, simply select the slider value in the Basic panel, then press the up or down arrow keys to adjust it in increments of 10. If you want to adjust the Clarity, select the slider value, then press the arrow keys to change it in increments of 1.

Pro tip: For greater adjustments, hold down the Shift key while you press the arrow keys. This will cause the values to change more rapidly (for instance, the Exposure slider will go up by 33, the Clarity slider will go up by 10, and so on).

(By the way, you can also try holding down the Shift key while dragging the Develop module sliders; this will dramatically slow down the rate at which the sliders increase or decrease and can be another great way to gain more precision when editing.)

3. Customize the Develop module

If you’re overwhelmed by the massive number of options in the Develop module, you’ll love this handy Lightroom trick for beginners, which lets you reduce the number of editing options in the program.

Start by right-clicking on the name of one of the adjustment panels (e.g., Basic). Then choose Customize Develop Panel.

This will bring up a menu that allows you to disable the adjustment panels you don’t want. I’d recommend considering each panel individually; ask yourself whether you plan to use it regularly, and if the answer is “No,” then it’s a good candidate for deletion! That way, you can have a cleaner and less cluttered working environment, and you don’t waste time clicking on or scrolling past features you never use.


One additional tip: When you right-click the name of a panel, you also have the option to choose Solo Mode, which is a way to declutter the Develop module even more by collapsing all the panels except the one you’re currently using. With Solo mode active, every time you click on a new panel, the previous panel will be instantly shut! This one little feature has single-handedly saved me a lot of time and a great deal of headache.

4. Create Smart Collections to automatically sort photos

Lightroom’s Library module is a great place to keep your images organized. You can create virtual folders called Collections that can even be placed inside Collection Sets, and if that isn’t enough, you can even create Collection Sets to contain your Collection Sets.

But what I find even more useful than Collection Sets is the Smart Collections feature, which allows you to dynamically organize your images based on conditions you specify (e.g., a file’s ratings, the camera used to take a file, the file type, and more).

To create a Smart Collection, choose New Smart Collection from the Library menu, then specify the parameters you want to use. Any picture that meets your criteria – at any point in your editing process – will automatically be placed inside the virtual folder you created!


In the above image, you can see that I’ve created a Smart Collection that automatically sorts through all my photos and “collects” those shots that are rated at three stars and above, are flagged, were taken using an Olympus camera, contains the keyword “racing,” and is not a DNG file. Neat, right?

Smart Collections are a great way to enhance your organizational process, and they can really help you sort through your images to focus on the ones you want to work with.

5. Hold down the Alt/Option key when adjusting certain sliders

The effects of many of the adjustments in the Develop module are self-evident; increase the Exposure, and your image will get lighter. But what about the adjustments that are not so easy to see, such as the Radius slider in the Detail panel?

Fortunately, Lightroom offers a handy solution: Hold down the Alt/Option key, and you’ll see a real-time display of precisely what happens when you make the adjustment. For certain sliders, you’ll get a gray overlay that helps you evaluate your changes, and for others, you’ll get a black or a white overlay (where colors indicate areas that have zero highlight or shadow detail).


As I was editing this cupcake photo, I needed to make some tonal adjustments. I wanted to dial down the Black levels, but I didn’t want to make any part of the image completely black. By holding down the Alt/Option key as I adjusted the Blacks slider, I was able to see a real-time display of the areas of the image that had no detail:


In the above image, the bottom of the dessert has become completely black, which means it cannot get any darker, and the red areas will soon become entirely black if I continue to move the slider to the left.

If you ever struggle to perceive how your image is being modified by a certain slider, try holding the Alt/Option key and see what happens. It’s a trick that works for many of the sliders in the Develop module, and it can greatly assist you as you edit!

Lightroom tips for beginners: final words


These five Lightroom tips and tricks have made a huge difference in my own post-processing over the years – hopefully, they’ll help you, too!

So head over to Lightroom and try out some of these features. See if you can declutter your workspace, create some Smart Collections to organize your images, and have fun!

Now over to you:

What are your favorite aspects of Lightroom? Do you have any other beginner tips others might now be familiar with? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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