How to Use Lightroom: Playing with Light & Creating a Preset

Adobe Lightroom. You’ve heard of it. You see all the bloggers on instagram using it and raving about it. You even managed to download the free Adobe Lightroom CC app. But then it quickly became overwhelming because W-T-F are all these crazy settings and options? 

To be honest, Lightroom can be overwhelming for a beginner. Not because it’s hard or complicated. It can be overwhelming if you don’t understand photography basics because each setting can dramatically alter a photo. 

The goal of this multi-part guide (be sure to subscribe to my blog so you don’t miss the other parts of this series!) will be to show you how easily you can transform a photo by tweaking just a couple of dials in Lightroom Mobile. That’s right – you can do it straight off of your phone. Let’s jump into playing with light in Lightroom CC!

How to Use Lightroom to Change your Image with Just the Light Settings

The first thing you want to do is understand how to import a photo into Lightroom. This one’s easy – you just click the blue square on the bottom right with the plus sign. This will take you to your camera roll so you can select the image you’d like to work with. Here is my sample image that I will be editing in this guide to demonstrate subtle changes you can make by turning some dials:

Unedited, raw file from my Canon Rebel T5i, imported into Adobe Lightroom CC
Unedited, raw file from my Canon Rebel T5i, imported into Adobe Lightroom CC

This photo was taken mid-morning, outdoors, on a Canon Rebel T5i. It was taken without a flash, just as all of my photos are. It’s ALWAYS best to opt out of using a flash because you can edit so much of the lighting in Lightroom anyway.

The first thing I want to do to this photo is brighten it up a bit. The option you want to click on in Lightroom to do this is “Light.” If your photo has lots of shadows and you are going for a very bright look, you can start with the exposure dial. I turned the exposure on this shot up to +1.62 and here is the result by ONLY changing exposure: 

lighroom tutorial
Changing just the exposure has a huge impact on the photo already!

Turning up the exposure essentially behaves like a flash without affecting the quality of your photo. All of the colors look brighter and the shadows become muted. If your only issue with your photo was darkness or shadows, just changing the exposure should be able to save the shot!

The next dial under the Light section will be contrast. By increasing the contrast, you will be increasing the difference between the light areas of the photo and the darker areas, put simply. I personally love playing with the contrast. The reason is that when you play with the contrast of an image, you are able to to make changes to it that give all of your images a more uniform appearance.

For Instagram, I like to turn the contrast down to accentuate the colors in the photos rather than the shadows and darkness. By accentuating the colors, I am able to get a similar or uniform look in my photos. If you want very basic edits without looking overly processed, just matching the contrast In your photos should give you a nice and uniform aesthetic. 

In this photo, I’ve turned the contrast down to -58. You can clearly see the difference that this change to the contrast has on the image:

Changing the contract has further brightened up the image.

The next setting under Light is called highlights. Think about what you are doing when you apply highlighter to your face – you are brightening up areas that you want to pop. You can think of highlights here in the same way – it’s all the whiteness/brightness in the photo.

In this specific shot, there is a lot of white. In fact, there is so much that you can’t see the mountains off in the distance. Turning the highlights dial is the perfect fix here. In this edit, I turned the highlights all the way down to -100. What this does is remove that brightness so the mountains are visible:

The mountains in the distance become much more visible by turning the highlights down to -100.

This is a great feature to use when the light in the photo is taking away from the beautiful details in the sky, such as the clouds or a sunset. By turning the highlights down, you can make those areas darker so the details don’t get lost in the light.

The next setting is shadows. You’ve probably seen bloggers on instagram with a very bright and flat aesthetic. You can achieve this by playing with the shadows. If you brighten all of the shadows, your image will become even more flat and uniform. Here is an example with shadows brightened up to +100 (I don’t normally aim for such a flat photo but because of the background and colors, I love the way it looks):

The next two settings are to add/take away the whites and blacks in the shot. I don’t mess with these for most photos, but sometimes you can play with them to see if they enhance your photo. In this particular shot, I’ve turned the whites up to +35 and left the blacks alone. In the end, the result is:

Final result by just altering lighting in Lightroom Mobile.

Adobe Lightroom Mobile: Creating Presets

The great thing about Lightroom is that once you have edited a photo, you can use those edits to make yourself a preset. You can use your preset in all similar lighting situations to give you a similar edit. Presents, however, do not work well when the lighting situation is drastically different so it’s wise to always create new presets as you go and try them on a new image before editing it from scratch. You can usually use the preset as a shortcut and then freehand any additional edits you need.

In order to create a preset with your edits, click on the three dots in the far upper right-hand corner. In the menu, you will see an option called “create preset.” Click on that option. Make sure that everything you want to be included in your preset is checked off. I usually check off everything on the list unless i’ve done a very specific edit. Next, name your preset. Once you save, Lightroom will inform you that your preset was successfully saved.

To access your preset, scroll to the far right of the editing bar at the bottom and click on presets. Scroll down until you find the one you created, and apply it to any future images.

If you understand these basic lighting principles in Lightroom, you should be able to transform your images like a pro and save images that you may have thought were hopeless due to bad lighting situations. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my post about all of the different apps that you can edit for perfection in! Stay tuned for the next part in the Lightroom series coming next week!