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Using Lightroom for the First Time: Part 1

Prior to 2007, when Photoshop Lightroom 1.0 was released, photographers had to rely on an assortment of image processing programs to import, rate, sort, process, share, print and upload their images to the web. For example a photographer might use Canon’s Digital Photo Professional (DPP) to initially import images from a flash card, ACDSee Photo Manager for sorting and rating and Adobe Camera Raw and/or Photoshop for processing. This doesn’t include finding tools for creating slideshows and online proofing!

Jumping between applications was always clunky and awkward, not to mention inefficient. Photographers shooting in Raw format found it especially challenging. No one enjoys sitting in front of their computer processing digital photographs for hours and hours using a complicated workflow. When Lightroom became available, even as an early beta, professional photographers everywhere jumped at the chance of bringing these common chores under one umbrella.

Tour of Adobe Lightroom User Interface

Lightroom’s user interface is an amazing example elegance and functionality. It’s no secret that many of the engineers responsible for developing Lightroom are photographers themselves. It is also well known that Adobe actively solicits user feedback and implements changes in the form of regular updates. Taken together, this translates into a well polished program that has the potential of speeding up your workflow.

At first glance Lightroom can feel a bit overwhelming, especially if you are familiar with using Photoshop. Rest assured that the interface has been specifically designed for photographers and will help maximize your time while processing and working with large image collections. The best way to get familiar with Lightroom is to jump right in.

In this column, I am going to give you a brief tour of Lightroom’s user interface and discuss preferences and catalog settings. When you finish, you should be comfortable with the overall layout and feel confident changing preference and catalog settings. I recommend reading through each section with Lightroom open so that you can refer to it along way. Let’s get started!

A Quick Peak at Lightroom’s User Interface
The user interface is divided into nine distinct areas with the main image workspace or Content Area located in the center of the screen. The Filmstrip can be found along the bottom and provides a thumbnail preview of your images. Double click on an image in the Filmstrip or press “E” to bring up the Loupe View in the Content Area. Press “G” and the Content Area fills with thumbnail images. This is referred to as the Grid View.

Tour of Adobe Lightroom User Interface

Just above the Filmstrip is a context sensitive Toolbar. The Toolbar allows you to quickly jump between Grid (G), Loupe (E), Compare (C) and Survey (N) views. We will talk more about how Compare and Survey view works further along. Users can also keyword, sort, label, and adjust the size of images found in the Grid view from the Toolbar. Simply click the small upside down triangle located at the end of the Tool bar to add and remove features.

Lightroom Toolbar

Lightroom functions around seven core modules located in the top right corner of the screen: Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print and Web. The modules are conveniently aligned in the order of a photographer’s typical workflow. The Library module is the place to import, export, sort and manage your collection of images. All the heavy processing is performed non-destructively in the Develop module. The Map module allows you to sort and manage your photographs based on location. In the Book module, you can turn a collection of images into a book that’s ready to be printed.

The Slideshow module has tools for creating digital slideshows to share with friends or clients. You can print everything from contact sheets to full size fine art prints from within the Print module. Finally, in the Web module you can create and upload HTML and Flash based websites to display your work online. Virtually everything a professional photographer needs to manage, sort, process, share and display their images is available within these seven modules.

Lightroom Modules

You can access each of the modules with your mouse or by using keyboard shortcuts. Cycle through each of the modules by holding Control + Alt (Command + Alt on the Mac) and the 1-7 keys. For example, pressing Control + Alt + 2 (Command + Alt + 2 on a Mac) takes you directly to the Develop module. One of Lightroom’s biggest strengths is that there are keyboard shortcuts for nearly every task. Learning and using keyboard shortcuts can save you a tremendous amount of time – especially if you are working with hundreds or thousands of images. Go to Help > Lightroom Module Shortcuts to display a list of shortcuts for the module you are working in.

The Menu bar is located at the top left corner of the screen. Menu options are context sensitive and change depending on the module you are working in.

Lightroom Menu Bar

The Left and Right Panels are located on both sides of the Content area and contain the tools you need based on the module you are currently in. The Library Filter is located directly above the Content area in the Library module when you are in Grid view. Here you can search for images by keyword, rating, label, date, camera and lens.

Tour of Adobe Lightroom User Interface

The Identity Plate is located just below the Menu Bar at the top left corner of the screen. You can customize the look of the Identity Plate by going to Edit > Identity Plate (on the Mac go to Lightroom > Identity Plate).

How to Change the Identity Plate in Lightroom

The Status Indicator temporarily replaces the Identity Plate when Lightroom is actively working on a process to provide users with visual feedback on its progress. Collectively, Lightroom’s seven Modules, the Menu Bar, Identity Plate and Status Indicator make up the Top Panel.

Lightroom Operations in Progress Bar

The Panels and Filmstrip can quickly be resized by dragging the border with your mouse. For example, to increase the size of the Filmstrip, simply grab the border above the thumbnails and pull upward. Click the little triangle located along the top, bottom, left and right sides of the screen to enable Auto Hide. When Auto Hide is selected, the Panels and Filmstrip roll out of view when you are not actively hovering over them with your mouse. Click the little triangle again to turn off Auto Hide. You can enable Auto Hide on individual Panels and the Filmstrip giving you complete control over your workspace.

Press the Tab key to make the Left and Right Panels disappear. Press it again and they reappear. The same trick works using Shift + Tab. Pressing Shift + Tab hides all three Panels and the Filmstrip devoting the entire workspace to the Content area. Using these shortcuts is a great way to dynamically control the size of the Content area while you are working.

Tour of Adobe Lightroom User Interface

By now you should be generally familiar with Lightroom’s user interface. Let’s take a moment and examine preference and catalog settings. Before you can really dive in and start processing images, it’s important to understand how preference and catalog settings work and fine tune them to suit your workflow. I must warn you in advance that this next section is a little geeky and contains a bit of technical jargon. I encourage you to stick with me – I am certain it will be worth your time and effort!

Lightroom Preferences and Catalog Settings
Since Preferences and Catalog Settings determine how Lightroom behaves, it is a good idea to take a look at these settings sooner rather than later. On a PC go to the menu bar and select Edit > Preferences (on a Mac go to Lightroom > Preferences). Once the Preferences dialog box opens you will see five separate tabs (located at the top of the box).

Preferences: General
General settings are located under the first tab. Here you can select your language, decide whether or not you wish to show the splash screen at startup and determine if Lightroom automatically checks for updates. You can also select sounds for Lightroom to play when an image finishes importing and exporting.

Preferences: Presets
Under the Preset tab users can apply auto tone adjustments to images as they are imported. The auto tone button is located under Develop and Quick Develop and automatically adjusts Exposure, Recovery, Fill Light, Blacks, Brightness and Contrast. You might be surprised how well Lightroom does making these adjustments. In many cases auto tone is helpful in fine tuning exposure. This can translate into saving time if you are processing a large group of images. Select Apply auto tone adjustments if you want your images to be adjusted using auto tone as they are imported.

Develop Controls in Lightroom

When the Auto Grayscale option is selected, Lightroom automatically applies a monochrome grayscale mix when images are converted to grayscale. Lightroom does a pretty decent automatically converting to grayscale so I recommend leaving this box checked. You can always come back and tweak the grayscale settings in the HSL/Color/Grayscale panel located under the Develop module.

The next two options allow you to set preset defaults for different cameras and ISOs. For example, I have two identical Nikon DSLR cameras purchased just a few months apart. Both cameras tend to shoot slightly dark even when the exposure is set properly. It’s even more complicated than that because one camera under exposes differently than the other.

By checking Make defaults specific to camera serial number, I am able to setup Lightroom so that images are given a set exposure bump when they are imported. The degree and amount of the exposure increase is based on the camera the images were shot with. You can also set defaults specific to the camera ISO setting. Quite frankly, most photographers will never need to worry about these two options.

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At the bottom of the Preset dialog box you are able to restore the Lightroom defaults. This includes restoring Export Presets, Filename Templates, Local Adjustment Presets, Keyword Presets, Text Templates, Label Presets and Library Filter Presets.

Preferences: External Editing
Under the External Editing tab you can choose the default file format, color space, bit depth and resolution to Edit in Adobe Photoshop. You can also decide how images are opened in an Additional External Editor. My preference is to open and save images as 16-bit, PSDs utilizing the ProPhoto RGB color space. There are several compelling reasons to work in ProPhoto RGB. Over the last few years many advanced photographers have moved to working in ProPhoto RGB since it is slightly wider that AdobeRGB (1998) and is much closer to the colors most advanced DSLR cameras are capturing today.

This aside, the best argument for working in ProPhoto RGB is that it’s the closest Lightroom’s default color space. If you plan to jump back and forth between Photoshop and Lightroom, it just makes sense to stay in the same color space. If you are not sure which color space to use, you are generally safe working in either ProPhoto RGB or AdobeRGB (1998). Just remember to convert to sRGB before uploading your images to the Internet (done automatically in Lightroom). Right now, ProPhoto RGB is wider than most modern day printers can handle; however this will likely change in the future.

Tour of Adobe Lightroom User Interface

Choosing your resolution has a lot to do with how you plan to print your photographs. Since I regularly use an Epson inkjet printer, I set the resolution to 240 dpi (which is recommended by Epson). Most people are safe in choosing a resolution between 240 and 320 dpi – you are going to be hard pressed to see a difference in prints at either end of the scale. I recommend checking with your printer manufacturer or with the printing service you typically use to be sure. You may find it helpful to run several printing tests at different resolutions to see which one works best for your printing method.

Preferences: File Handling
Moving along to the File Handling tab, Reading Metadata and File Name Generation allows you to control how Lightroom reads metadata (such as keywords) and handles file names when improper characters are used. Near the bottom of the dialog box you will find Camera Raw Cache Settings and Purge Cache. You may be wondering what camera raw cache is and why it may be necessary to purge it. Over time Lightroom builds a central raw cache file based on changes you make to your images. This includes (but is not limited to) the addition of metadata and JPEG previews. As the central cache file grows in size, performance can diminish. Clicking the Purge Cache button may help restore performance. It shouldn’t be necessary to increase or reduce the Maximum Size of the cache file so I recommend leaving it at 1 GB.

Preferences: Interface
Under the Interface tab you can change the look and feel Lightroom’s interface. In Panels, you will find options for changing the Panel End Mark or Ornament and Font Size. Ornaments are located at the end of each panel and are purely decorative.

Learn How to Change Lightroom's Panel End Mark or Ornament

Dim the Lights
The next section gives you control over how Lights Out are managed. Lights Out provide a way to view you photographs without all the clutter of the user interface. You can change the Dim Level and background Screen Color to suit your taste. Cycle through Lights Out mode by pressing the “L” key. Pressing it once dims the lights to 80% (by default). When you press “L” a second time, the lights go out completely focusing all attention on your image. Pressing “L” a third time takes you back to the regular view.

Under Background you can change the Fill Color, which is located behind the image you are working on in the main viewing area. You can also add Pinstrips if you wish. The next section determines what information is revealed in the Filmstrip and whether or not images are shown in the navigator on mouse-over.

Lightroom Tweaks
Tweaks give you control over Font Smoothing (PC only), Typographical Fractions (Mac only) and how Zoom Clicking works. Use system preference for font smoothing extends your system’s font smoothing preferences into Lightroom. Typographical Fractions give Mac users the choice of displaying shutter speeds as full size fractions (1/4) or smaller traditional fractions (1/4). Check the box if you prefer the smaller style fraction.

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Zoom clicked point to center is probably the most misunderstood tweak in Lightroom. When left unchecked, Lightroom zooms directly to the area you click with your mouse. For example, if you choose to click on an element near the edge of an image, Lightroom zooms in on that portion of the image leaving it under your cursor. Conversely if you decide to enable Zoom clicked point to center, the area you click will move to the center of your screen and away from your mouse cursor. It is a very subtle change in how the zoom tool works.

Catalog Settings
Lightroom stores your images in a “catalog.” Lightroom stores critical information about each file in the catalog. This includes metadata information, image previews, develop settings, keywords and ratings. Some users have reported that Lightroom runs sluggishly if you have an extremely large catalog. So what constitutes a large catalog? Based on personal experience and feedback I have read from other Lightroom users, it’s not a bad idea to keep catalogs to 30,000 images or less to avoid decreased performance. This doesn’t mean that Lightroom is limited to 30,000 images; it just means that you may experience performance problems if your catalog grows larger than this. The upside is that you can create as many Lightroom catalogs as you wish. To create a new catalog, go to File > New Catalog. To open a different catalog go to File > Open Catalog.

Understanding Lightroom Catalog Settings

Catalog Settings: General
If you are a PC user, catalogs are saved in My Documents > My Pictures. Mac users can find catalogs in the Pictures folder. You can see the default location of your catalogs by going to Edit > Catalog Settings (on a Mac go to Lightroom > Catalog Settings). The Catalog Settings dialog box opens showing you the default location of your current catalog, the date it was created and how large it is. One of most important settings under the General tab is how often Lightroom automatically backs up the catalog. A corrupted catalog is a nightmare you don’t want to have to deal with. All the time and effort you spend processing your images could be lost in a scenario like this.

I experienced this after processing several thousand wedding images. Unfortunately, I had to reprocess much of the collection. Since this disaster, I have changed my backup preferences to Every time Lightroom exits. Admittedly this is somewhat excessive; however it reminds me to regularly backup my catalogs. Regularly backing up your catalog is an insurance policy that you shouldn’t take for granted. Consider changing your backup setting to something other than Never. I also recommend changing the location of where your backup catalogs are saved to an external or secondary hard drive. By default, Lightroom saves the backup catalog in the same folder as the original catalog. As you can imagine, if your main hard drive fails; both catalogs could be lost.

If your Lightroom catalog begins running slowly or acting sluggish, you can direct Lightroom optimize the database. To optimize your catalog, go to File -> Optimize Catalog… Depending on the size of your catalog, this may just a few seconds or several minutes.

How To Optimize Your Lightroom Catalog

Catalog Settings: File Handling
The File Handling tab gives you control over the preview size and quality of your images. You can also decide when image previews are discarded. A good rule of thumb is to consider the resolution of your screen to determine the Standard Preview Size. For example, if your screen resolution is 1600×1200, it should not be necessary to set the preview size to 2048 pixels. It is also worth noting that changing the Preview Quality from Medium (the default) to High doesn’t seem change the overall quality in a noticeable way.

The size of your catalog is heavily influenced by the preview cache. Since most people generally don’t need 1:1 previews after 30 days, I recommend choosing to Automatically Discard 1:1 Previews after 30 days.

Catalog Settings: Metadata
Under the Metadata tab users can control how image data is handled. The default settings should suit most users.

You Made It!
I packed a lot into this column! If you have made it this far, you should be ready to start importing and processing images. In the next column I will discuss the Import process and talk about file formats, naming conventions, develop settings, building previews and keywording strategies. There is a lot more to come. Stay tuned!

Tour of Adobe Lightroom User Interface

About the Author
Steve Paxton lives with his wife and two children in the Seattle area. Steve has been a photographer for nearly 20 years. His experience ranges from wedding and portrait work to landscape photography.

Steve owns and manages the F/Stop Spot; a website dedicated to supporting photographers of all skill levels. You can find more of Steve’s work at Paxton Prints and Paxton Portraits.

One Comment

  1. Awesome stuff, Steve! I recently took a Lightroom class and got LR 4. Love it!


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