How to use Adobe Lightroom: Everything beginners should know

Flowers on a glass table.

Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Adobe software is synonymous with professional photographers, marketers, and image editors — and there’s good reason for the connection. 

Throughout the years, Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom have become favored tools in the hands of photographers to polish their images to the point where other companies — such as Loupedeck — have created decks compatible with Adobe software to streamline workflows. 

As a professional photographer, I use both Photoshop and Lightroom, although I lean more toward Lightroom for event work, such as festivals, weddings, and portraits, alongside photo restoration work. 

Even just learning the basics of Lightroom can drastically improve your photography. So let’s get started. 

Also: How to use a Canon camera: Beginner tips and tricks

What is Adobe Lightroom and what do I need to run the software?

Adobe Lightroom is part of Adobe’s wider creative app ecosystem (Creative Cloud), which also includes Photoshop, Illustrator, Express, Bridge, and Premier Pro. 

Lightroom is a photo editing suite for making basic adjustments, such as tweaking exposure and contrast, cropping, or fixing images by eradicating spots and flaws. You can make small brightness adjustments and fix chromatic aberrations to batches of photos, or you could zoom in on single images to deal with tiny flaws, such as removing lint from a groom’s jacket, for example, and everything in between. 

Also: The 7 best photo editing apps

Over the years, Lightroom has evolved from standalone desktop software to an agile platform that also harnesses cloud and mobile technologies. The learning curve can still be steep, but in comparison to 2015 and earlier software versions, Adobe had taken pains to improve usability. 

You should explore Adobe Lightroom if you want to edit and retouch your photos to a high standard. I consider the software critical in my own photography workflows, especially when it comes to events.


Lightroom download page.

Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

You can sign up for a subscription to Lightroom or take advantage of a seven-day trial. You will be asked to set up an Adobe ID and password using an email address and then Creative Cloud, Adobe’s creative app platform, will download. This software hub is followed by the Lightroom package, as well as any other creative apps you choose to install. 

The installation will take a few minutes, or longer, depending on your internet speed. You can also choose to either allow or disallow the Adobe Genuine Service (AGS), Adobe’s attempt to clamp down on pirated software. 

When it comes to Lightroom, you can choose to either use Classic mode for desktops or the cloud-based Lightroom app for on-the-go mobile editing. 

I personally prefer Lightroom Classic, but purely because I have all of my photography tools set up on a Windows tower PC, separate from entertainment and work. 

You will now see the Creative Cloud interface, accessible via the internet or your desktop. This will show you the apps you have access to and whether or not updates are available for your software. I’d keep these up-to-date, as they can include bug fixes, performance enhancements, and new features. 

Creative Cloud interface.

Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

 The workflow interface

Test image of cat lying on a couch in Lightroom.

Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

The new Lightroom user interface is far less cluttered than previous Classic versions, giving you more room to examine your main image. As you can see in the image above (with my cat as the test image), the majority of settings are now found in a vertical toolbar to the right.

While we won’t be exploring every feature of Lightroom, there are some you should know when you start out. 

Importing photos

To start, go to the first tab in the left-hand, top menu, File, and select Add Photos. You can connect your camera directly, drag-and-drop images from your PC, or sync images across Lightroom and your Android or iOS mobile device. On Windows PCs, you can use the Ctrl+Shift+I shortcut to browse for images. 

Images are automatically synced to Creative Cloud.

Pro tip: You should always produce photos in RAW format. RAW saves far more information than compressed file formats such as JPG/JPEG, and the more information available in a source photo, the better for editing and changes. They will also be of a higher resolution and more suitable for printing. 

By default, images are displayed in a film strip at the bottom of the UI, giving you a larger area to display the image you’re working on. If you double or right-click an image here, you can select options, including image rotation, deletion, and auto-enhancing. 

You can also choose to open a photo in Photoshop before importing it back into Lightroom. I’ve found this feature particularly useful for layering and superimposing subjects from one image to another.

The same settings can be found under Photo in the top menu tab. You can also select Reset if you are not happy with your editing, or use the shortcut Ctrl+R on Windows to the same effect. 

Pro tip: The auto enhancement feature will use machine learning (ML) to try and improve your image’s overall quality. Images will be saved in a DNG format and at a higher resolution if the attempt was successful. 

Let’s talk about Lightroom Edit 

Lightroom Edit is the first tab on the right you will want to become familiar with. Here, you have all the basic settings you need to adjust your photos, organized as easy sliders under Profile, Light, Color, Effects, Detail, Optics, and Geometry

The first tab you see is Profile, where you can choose to work with your image in either color or monochrome. However, if you pick Browse All Profiles, you can also start with a variety of other filters. 

Under Light, you will find the settings below. You can use the toggle to either reduce or increase each feature:

  • Exposure: Exposure can be used to manage the light in a captured image. If your picture is under-exposed, there’s not enough light, and if it is over-exposed, there is too much light — and either can result in it being difficult to see detail and will impact the quality of a photo. 
  • Contrast: Contrast can control and define the differences between light and dark tones in an image. Tweaking this can improve the overall balance of an image, but going too far can make objects look unnatural.
  • Highlights: Highlights are the brightest elements of an image. You can enhance them further or bring them down to balance an image. 
  • Shadows: Shadows are the opposite and are the darkest parts of an image. You can either deepen the shadows or lift them, making them brighter. 
  • Whites and Blacks: The Whites and Blacks sliders set the ‘truest’ white and black tones in an image. 

You can also try out Point Curve, which gives you greater control over the overall tone of an image, as well as to make changes only in specific areas. Be careful with this setting, though, as it’s too easy to ruin the balance of an image by going too far. 

Pay particular attention to exposure to properly balance an image, and then whites and blacks. More often than not, these are the only settings you need to tweak to vastly improve a photograph. However, as explained below, you should correct the white balance first. 

The Color tab will let you alter the white balance, which corrects images to make them look more natural (and easier to edit!). One of the first options shows white balance as shot, but you can change this to auto. You can also change:

  • Temp: the temperature of an image, such as making it cooler or warmer
  • Tint: Tinting an image can give it a color cast that you can select from the color wheel
  • Vibrance: You can increase or reduce the color vibrancy in an image
  • Saturation: You can increase or decrease saturation levels of color in an image

You also have color mixer for enhanced control over specific colors, hue, saturation, and luminance. For example, you could reduce the yellow cast of an image and bolster blues. 

Color grading is a relatively new but very fun tool to try out. You can add color tints to shadows, highlights, and midtones.   

The other main setting you should be aware of as a beginner is under Effects, where you can find Clarity. This enhances texture and can increase image quality by sharpening up an image. You can also use Sharpen or Texture to similar effects. Clarity is my preferred tool for picking out detail that enhances the overall image, such as the reflection of a wine glass on a table or the pattern in a groom’s tie. 

Pro tip: Under Effects, look for Vignettes. A vignette is a border around a photo that can either be caused inadvertently through camera equipment or implemented deliberately to focus on a subject — or create a particular mood. Black vignettes, for example, are popular in couple and wedding photography. You can create a black vignette by using the slider and going left, or alternatively, create a white vignette by going right. 

There are a few terms you should become familiar with when you are starting out in the world of editing. 

  • Exposure: Exposure is how much light reaches a camera sensor. In Lightroom, you can change the exposure to either darken or brighten an image, fixing under or over-exposure. 
  • Contrast: Contrast is the difference in tones within an image. Increasing contrast defines these tones.
  • Bokeh: Bokeh is the blurry background effect you often see in professional photos. This can be achieved with lenses or during the editing process by applying blurring tools or filters. 
  • RAW: RAW is a file format — like JPG or PNG — which photographers often prefer. Images are not compressed and so these source images save a lot of information. During editing, the more information, the better. 
  • Sharpness: The sharpness of an image defines how clear details are. Sometimes, however, it’s better to reduce sharpness levels for softer-looking or romantic photos.
  • Noise: Noise is the term used to describe distortion in images that can appear as specks or grain. You can increase or reduce noise in Lightroom. You might want to increase noise for grainy and edgy photos.


The second tab is Crop. Here, you can cut out distracting objects in your image, as well as rotate or flip an image. either via the slider or freehand. 

Crop feature being used on an image of a cat on a couch in Lightroom.

Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Healing Brush

The third option is the healing brush. You can choose heal, which removes small distractions by choosing a spot near it, or clone, which replaces the spot you need to correct with exact pixels close by. For example, I can use these tools to remove the scratches and marks from the sofa in the image. Lightroom’s AI won’t always choose the most appropriate spot, however, so you can drag the brushes to the ‘replacement’ spots you prefer. 

There is also a remove red eye tool right next to the brush. 


As a beginner, once you’ve learned to play around with basic editing for light, color, and balance, you shouldn’t ignore presets — but as a word of warning, try not to rely on them too much.

Found in the first tab under Edit and Presets, presets will show you three options: Recommended, Premium, and Yours

The Recommended tab is a vast improvement on how Lightroom used to handle presets. You are automatically shown previews of how applying a preset will change your image. You can also pick from effect categories such as subtle, B&W (black and white), and Cinematic. Hovering over a preset reveals the change in your full image.

The Recommended featured being used on an image of a cat on a couch in Lightroom.

Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Under Premium, you can find other presets and styles, categorized in ways such as B&W, futuristic, lifestyle, and travel. 

When you become comfortable with Lightroom, you might want to pay more attention to the next tab: Yours. You can begin to create your own presets or import either free or paid presets you like. 

In the image below, you can see I have imported some of the presets I have used for wedding photography. Once I select one, an Amount tab opens, where I can increase or reduce the impact of a preset. Alternatively, I can visit the Edit bar and make further tweaks myself. 

List of presets in the Yours section of Lightroom for image of a cat on a couch.

Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

Pro tip: Don’t rely purely on presets to finish your image. Instead, consider them a base for the look you want and then edit the image yourself. Not only will you learn more about balancing and refining photos this way, but you will drastically improve the quality of the final product. Lightroom isn’t Instagram and presets are not intended as a way to finish images. 


The fourth option on the Lightroom tab is masking, which allows you to edit specific parts of your image without impacting others. Once you have selected an object or background, for example, you can choose to refine settings including exposure, contrast, shadows and highlights, as well as an image’s sharpness. Adobe also includes AI-backed smart detection for subjects and skies (roughly objects and backgrounds) and both linear and radial gradients for gradual transitions. 

Below, I selected my cat through the Select Subject with one click. You can also add to a mask by clicking + and selecting subject, skies, or the brush tool.

Select Subject feature in Lightroom with image of a cat on a couch.

Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

I was able to enhance my subject, increasing blacks, whites, and exposure. And then I added purple and green tints by playing around with the Tint and Hue bars. 

Tint and Hue bars in Lightroom on an image of a cat on a couch.

Charlie Osborne/ZDNET

If you’re not happy with how a mask has turned out, hover over the area, right-click, and select delete mask

This is a particularly useful tool for improving backgrounds, brightening up dull areas, or enhancing the sharpness of people and plants. In addition, you can apply the mask for bokeh, the practice of blurring backgrounds or objects to draw the eye away or conceal sensitive information.

Bokeh takes time to learn, but an easy way to begin experimenting is by using a mask on the area you want to blur and bringing sharpness/clarity right down to 0. You may have to apply this more than once to reach your desired effect.


The File tab will be used when you are finished and want to export your photos. You can select the image type, dimensions, and quality — the latter of which can be reduced if you want a smaller image suitable for uploading online, for example. 

It is also possible to add watermarks to your work and copyright notices.

Adobe Lightroom is not free software. You used to be able to buy Lightroom as standalone (classic) software, but as many other vendors have chosen to do, Adobe now offers its product on a subscription basis. 

Instead, you have to select a plan, whether it is access to Lightroom and Photoshop on desktop and mobile for $9.99 a month, or you sign up to Creative Cloud and gain access to Photoshop, Lightroom, Illustrator, InDesign, XD, Premiere Pro, and other apps, starting at $54.99 per month. 

However, you can try out Lightroom through a trial. Sign up and you have seven days to test the software, but remember to cancel your subscription within seven days for a refund. Otherwise, the subscription will automatically continue. 

I would say that although there is a learning curve for understanding and using the more advanced techniques and settings in Lightroom, and you also need to have a basic understanding of photography first, the software is still an excellent tool for beginners and professionals alike. 

The best way to learn is simply to do, and there are also countless free resources and videos out there to help you along the way — whether you need to learn how to remove red-eye or tweak vibrancy, or you want fresh ideas on boosting portraits and event shoots. 

Adobe Lightroom or Photoshop depends on how you think you are going to spend the majority of your time. If photo editing, such as for professional shoots or fixes, is your top priority — focus on learning how to use Lightroom.

However, if creatively manipulating images and photos is your style — perhaps, for illustration purposes, graphic design, or marketing materials — then I would lean toward Photoshop, which is less focused on tweaking images to their best effect and more about applying a huge range of creative tools. 

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