My Basic Lightroom Workflow

Gerry van der Walt All Authors, Gerry Leave a Comment

During the last few months I have, on numerous occasions, been asked about my Lightroom workflow.

This has happened during courses and on photo safaris and I believe it is a very important part of the digital photography process as, if you are the same as me, you would like to get the most out of your images by taking as little time as possible to process them.

This doesn’t mean that I do not give my post processing the attention it deserves. On the contrary, I know how important it is – vital in fact – and over time I have found a workflow that allows me to spend a short amount of time processing and get great results.

So, in this post I’m gonna share my basic workflow in Lightroom.  This is the approach I take to pretty much all of my wildlife and nature images.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

But, before we get going just a few things.

For this post I am not looking at any special adjustments such as graduated filters or special adjustments brushes as this will be specific to each image.  That being said, if I were to use these tools I would normally stick them in somewhere between Step 2 and Step 4 below – all depending on what kind of image I am working on and how much local adjustment is needed.

Also, one of the first things I would normally do, should it be necessary, is to crop, straighten the horizon and remove any dust spots I might have in the frame.  This would be the very first thing I do when opening a file as I want to get all those things out the before I start working on my image as they can be very distracting!

So, with that all out of the way here goes with a basic workflow which will make the following changes to this lion image.

This is the original RAW image as opened in Lightroom 5.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photogrphy

So here we go…

Step 1 – Lens Correction

In order to remove any vignettes or distortion created by the lens, I normally start by ticking all three boxes under Basic in Lens Correction.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Depending on what lens you are using or what look and feel you are going for you can play around with the manual settings, but for my purposes – natural looking wildlife images – the standard profile corrections does a pretty good job.

Step 2 – Set Black and White Points

Before starting to play around with Exposure and Contrast I normally set my black and white points by holding shift and double clicking on first the Black and then the White slider.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

This defines true black and true white which, theoretically, means that all the other tones in the image will be correctly defined.

Normally you have to tweak it a bit as Lightroom does not know what the actual content of the images is or what you want to do with it, so here it is up to you to  move the two sliders a bit to get the desired, natural look.  Depending on your content, it does help to turn on clipping at this point by hitting “J” which will allow you to see the details that are lost in the shadows, which will be shown as blue areas, and the bright areas where the highlight have been blown out, which will be shown as red.

Step 3 – Exposure, Contrast, Shadows and Highlights

The next step is to get the exposure and tonal balance of the image correct and I do this by first adjusting Exposure and then, should it be necessary, the Contrast, Highlights and Shadows sliders.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

Again, you need to keep in mind that there are no presets or exact values that will work with any image and it is up to you as the photographer to process your images in order to get it as close to your original vision as possible.

Also, the ability of Lightroom’s Shadows slider to bring back details from dark ares is quite amazing but just because it can bring back all the details doesn’t mean you have to.  A lot of images actually look better with a little bit of darker areas so don’t get carried away and lift all the details from all the shadows.

Remember, keep it natural!

Step 4 – Temperature, Clarity, Vibrance and Saturation

At this point your image should already look quite a bit better and now it’s time to give it that extra bit of punch.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

To do this I will first look at a subtle White Balance adjustment by moving the Temp slider.  My goal, remember, is to create natural looking images so I am very subtle with this and careful not to overdo it.  From there I will, should it add value to the image, bump the Clarity slider up just a touch.  A small adjustment can make a nice bit of difference and, in some instances, you will find that dropping the Clarity slider down a bit can help as well.

After that I , almost as a rule, bump up my Vibrance slider to around +10.  This adds a nice bit of colour into the image without overdoing it.  Should it be necessary, and this will depend largely on the type of image I am working on, I touch the Saturation slider up just a bit.

A very small little bit.

Pause – Check and Reassess

At this point I normally hit Y to give me a before and after view of my image.

This is a great way to see the work I have done so far and I can then backtrack to any of the adjustments I have made and tweak them if necessary.  You should always, in the back of your mind, remember that certain adjustments will affect other ones.  Clarity, for example, can have an affect on the saturation levels in an image of you push it too far.

Once I am happy with my image and all the adjustments I have done thus far, I will move on to the next step.

Step 5 – Noise Reduction and Sharpening

Perhaps it’s cause I’m slightly old school but I always do my sharpening last.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photography

The first thing I do in the Details panel is to double check my noise reduction.  I have my Lightroom set up to automatically apply +25 for Color Noise Reduction which I find is generally quite sufficient.  I then take a quick look at Luminance, which is the slider that is going to remove the grain from your image, and touch this up if necessary.

From there I will sharpen the image by moving the Amount slider to +25 and the Masking slider to +75.  This is, for me, a good starting point and will then make smaller adjustments based on the type of images and desired result I have in mind.

Step 7 – Export Image for Desired Use

After marking the image and adding it to the appropriate Collection, I will then export the image for whatever use it is intended.

During export I will decide the final resolution and size of the image, export and save to the appropriate directory.

And that is that – a very basic look at my Lightroom workflow.

Check out the image below in which you can see a visual representation of the changes that each of the above steps made to the image.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photogrphy

All of the adjustments above then leaves me with this, my final image.

Gerry van der Walt - Wildlife Photogrphy

There are many ways to skin a cat and many more ways in which you can process your RAW files.

I have found this workflow, as a starting point to most images, works very well for me and leaves me with a short and effective way to not spend hours upon hours in front of the computer but rather behind my camera!

If you have any questions please feel free to leave a comment below.

Until next time.

Gerry van der Walt

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