Digital photography has changed a lot in the last 20 years (duh). Camera technology has improved dramatically, but so has the software and machines that interpret the fruits of our photographic labors.
Somewhere right before the 2010’s, we entered what I think of as the “Photoshop Era.” Adobe Photoshop was starting to gain popularity, and the expression, “photoshop it” started getting thrown around.
In fact, in 2008, Merriam Webster added “photoshop” to their dictionary as a verb. What I think happened in this period was that photographers who had been working before the advent of programs like Photoshop pushed back on the whole concept. “Real photographers don’t use Photoshop.” You ever hear that one? I know that I have.
There is certainly something to be said about photographers who take too many liberties with the power of post-processing software, and those who misrepresent their work.
But, like it or not, post-processing has become a critical component of the working digital photographer’s workflow, and can set apart the amateur image-creator from the more advanced. In today’s industry, “shooting to edit” is the norm. When done correctly, you can unlock creative potential you didn’t know was possible. It just takes a little practice.
In light (see what we did there?) of Lightroom’s recent updates, we figured it was time to refresh our Lightroom learning content. Read on for more, or jump to sections:
This article will be broken up into a few different sections:
- First: SHOOT RAW! Seriously!
- Introduction, with tips for beginners.
- Recent Updates to Lightroom in 2022.
1. SHOOT RAW. SERIOUSLY!
Everyone always says to shoot in RAW, but why?
Shooting in RAW produces a file that has recorded all of the data from a camera’s sensor, so essentially you get a file with the most information possible. Shooting in JPEG produces a file that is compressed and slightly altered by your camera.
Overall, having the most data will allow for the most control when working with the file later, allowing for the most correction ability in post-production/editing, and to make the largest files possible if you ever plan to print a large image.
That being said, JPEG is probably the most widely recognized image file type and generally the format computers can read, print from, and the fastest way to upload to social media. Often RAW files cannot be read by our computers without a special program or first being converted into JPEGs, so you cannot see your shot.
So why bother with the extra step?
It comes down to having the most control to edit and maintain the highest quality of the image. On many cameras it is possible to get two files, one RAW and one JPEG for each exposure. When placed side-by-side the JPEG may actually look slightly better when compared directly to the RAW image. This is because the camera takes the data from the sensor, compresses and alters it slightly, usually by increasing contrast, sharpness, and saturation.
The final product is a smaller, enhanced image, with the information it deemed not necessary, deleted. The RAW file contains all of the unedited data.
Having full post-processing control on your images is particularly important for underwater photography.
The automatic JPEG compression settings (and even many auto camera settings) are developed to create the best image based on the types of images the majority of the world takes – which are not underwater. I find I am generally not satisfied with the changes a camera automatically gives when compressing to JPEG.
This is also why using in-camera auto settings (and even automatic correction settings in editing software) for underwater images often do not work – the auto modes were created to improve topside photography situations. Underwater is not typical.
So, as underwater photographers, we want all the information we can get to edit and improve our images. The capability to alter the white balance is very important in underwater photography as our images are often more blue than we desire.
Controlling temperature in post is best done with RAW files. JPEGs usually have a white balance applied during compression and much of the color data is deleted. While it is possible to do more white balancing on JPEG files, often the results are not as desirable as when working with a RAW file. My camera allows me to take an image in RAW and JPEG at the same time. Here is applying the white balance to both:
Each specific camera also will have limits on the files it can produce, RAW or JPEG based on it’s sensor size and camera capabilities.
A camera that can only shoot an 8mp image will not produce a RAW file with the same ability to edit as a 26mp image. However, be sure to be shooting the largest quality possible. Memory is cheap with 128g SD cards costing very little and multiple terabyte external hard drives going for considerable less than what we used to pay for much smaller drives.
Buy the extra hard drives and take larger image files.
You many think, “That’s all fine, but I still don’t want to edit my photos,” but what about in the future? What if you become an obsessive editor down the road? Or it turns out those shadowy photos you got were of the last living dragon-ant-fish (I made this up) on earth and someone wants to pay you millions of dollars for a high-res photo…but you only saved it as a small jpeg file. If you really do not want to edit, I have two suggestions:
- On most cameras you can choose to shoot in RAW and JPEG at the same time. So for each image you take, you get two files. Do this and save your RAW files – just in case – for the future.
- Shoot in RAW anyway, but immediately convert them all to JPEGs. Programs like Lightroom can easily and fairly quickly do bulk processing and, again, keep the RAWs somewhere else and work with the JPEGs.
RAW files provide the best base for exporting high quality images of different types such as different color spaces (which are required for, say, printing an image versus putting it on the internet.) You may only want to upload an image on Instagram today, but a magazine may see that image and want to publish it, and they will need a higher resolution file as, perhaps, a TIFF file instead of a JPEG.
While it is possible to export a TIFF from a JPEG, the image will be degraded. Editing program capabilities are only going to continue to get better, so having those original RAW files will be the best way to take advantage of future technology and another reason to make sure everything is backed up in double…or triple…or more.
- Always take digital images at the highest grade possible. As said before, memory is cheap, and you may never know what images you may want to re-visit in the future.
- If you cannot break away from JPEGs, set your camera to shoot in both JPEG and RAW and save your RAW files for the future.
- Try to get the correct exposure but err on the side of underexposing images. Pure white is recorded as null or zero and cannot be edited. Shadows and dark can often be drastically recovered in post-processing from RAW files.
- Never save over an original image file. Most editing programs are non-destructive, meaning the changes or edits you make to an image are done on a virtual or mirror copy of your file. To save those changes the program produces/exports as another file. If you save over an original file, you can never go back and have the all-information RAW file again (unless you saved a back-up copy somewhere else).
- Back up all your images on another drive in case you accidently save over an original file or something happens to the drive the images were originally saved to. In fact, back up twice.
- Always edit from the original file, not an exported/edited file. Multiple image compressions can create noise, color distortion, and degraded image quality.
Hopefully this helped clear up why you should be shooting in RAW. Happy underwater shooting and editing! Read on for more specifics with Adobe Lightroom.
2. Getting Started with Lightroom
Getting started in Adobe Lightroom CC may seem overwhelming at first, but after reading through this part of our guide you’ll be editing your underwater images like a pro in no time.
Oftentimes, I hear frustration from underwater photographers who have made the leap from JPEG to RAW, but don’t know what to do with the files once they’ve created them. In this article, I’m going to take you through some suggested steps to process your RAW images.
But, first let’s talk about organizing and importing the files.
Keeping your images organized and off your computer will save you many headaches.
Compared to JPEGs, RAW files take up a lot more space. Investing in a couple of external hard drives will likely save you and your computer a lot of frustrations. Depending on how much you shoot, having one active hard drive and one backup drive per calendar year is a good place to start. To keep things simple, I rename each with the year and their function. For example, “Active 2019” and “Backup 2019.”
The active hard drive travels with me, while the backup stays outside of the home in a safe place. I tend to keep plenty of SD cards with me when I travel, as they serve as my backup until I get home and can transfer a copy of the images to the other drive.
The Library Module — (E Key)
The Left Panel — Importing
If you’ve never created a catalog in Lightroom, the software will prompt you to do so prior to your first import. Once you’ve done so select the location of your files from the various drives listed on the left panel. You can either import directly from your camera via a usb cord, directly from an SD card, or from an external hard drive. Once you’ve selected the location of the files you have a few choices on how to import them.
The Center Panel — Adding, Copying, or Moving
When importing images from a drive, Lightroom gives you the choice to copy, move, or add images to the catalog. Here is a breakdown of what each means:
- If your images are exactly where you’d like them to remain, simply choose to Add them to the catalog.
- Move gives you the option to move the images to a new location and add them to the catalog.
- Lightroom also allows you to Copy the images to a new location and add them to the catalog. This will keep the images where they currently reside on your drive, and also create a new location – essentially creating two copies of the file.
If you import directly from an SD card, you will not be given the choice to “Add” or “Move” images. The files need to reside somewhere besides an SD card, so the only option is “Copy.”
Keep in mind, regardless of what you choose, the files will simply be referenced from their location and only the location of the file and its EXIF data (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, date, and time) will be stored in the catalog—keeping its size small.
The Right Panel
After you’ve selected the images and sorted out how you’d like to import them, you’ll need to move over to the panel on the right. In the right panel, scroll over to the dropdown box besides “Build Previews” and switch this to “Standard.”
Next, if you are working with external hard drives, you’ll want to select “Build Smart Previews.” Building Smart Previews will allow you to work on the files even when the hard drive is disconnected from the computer.
Being able to edit images without the drive connected comes in very handy on flights or during any sort of situation where attaching an external drive would be cumbersome. I also recommend selecting “Don’t Import Duplicates.”
For right now these are the basics, but as you get more familiar with the software, don’t forget to take a look at some of the other options available to you in the right panel. Now you are ready to click Import!
The Develop Module — (D Key)
Once your images have been imported, you’ll notice various tabs along the top panel.
When it comes to editing images, you’ll need to select the “Develop” tab. Choose an image you’d like to edit and either click the Develop tab or press the “D” key on your keyboard. Before we begin, it’s important to point out that all adjustments made in Lightroom are non-destructive—meaning you can always undo whatever you did previously or even reset the image entirely.
Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s begin editing!
The Right Panel
You’ll notice Lightroom has arranged the Develop panel into different sections beginning with Basic Adjustments. A
s you progress with your editing journey, you’ll want to learn more about the different panels, but for now the Basic panel is an excellent place to start editing your images, and is where we will spend the majority of this tutorial.
Global vs. Local Adjustments
While editing is different with every image, I’ll be walking you through a basic edit. For the sake of this introduction, we will be discussing adjustments that are made on a global level.
Most adjustments can also be made on a local level with the use of the adjustment brush, radial filter, and graduated filter; however, this is a bit more advanced and out of scope for this article. I will however, briefly touch on the Spot Removal tool for removing annoying bits of backscatter.
I generally like to begin editing an image by adjusting the white balance. For this adjustment, Lightroom gives you a couple of options. To set the white balance you can either adjust the temperature and tint sliders, select a white balance preset from the dropdown list, or select the eyedropper tool.
I recommend using the eyedropper and then if necessary fine-tuning the white balance with the temperature and tint sliders.
I very rarely use the presets, if at all, and don’t recommend them. With the eyedropper tool selected, scroll over to a white or gray portion of the image and click on it. Make sure the area is not too bright, otherwise Lightroom won’t allow you to select it.
You can easily review the before and after image by clicking the backslash (\) key. I
f the white balance doesn’t look right, either continue to select different white or gray parts of the image or use the sliders to fine-tune it. There is no right or wrong selection—as with all editing its purely subjective. There may be times when the “proper” white balance doesn’t quite fit the look you are trying to convey; and that is perfectly okay. Photography is an art form after all. Take a look at this image before and after I white balanced it (off of the whale sharks belly):
You can see a very obvious difference between the two images. The image on the left is prior to white balancing, while the image on the right has been white balanced.
Next up, you may want to take a look at the different profiles available to you just above the eyedropper. Each profile changes the look and feel of the image. Toggle through them and choose whichever you are happiest with.
After white balancing your images, now is a good time to make any necessary crops to your image. Cropping (R key) is a great tool that helps to reframe your subject, but don’t overdo it. A good rule of thumb is to maintain at least two-thirds of the original image.
While it might not seem obvious at first, a lot of photographers can tell when an image has been over-cropped. Just because you can crop, doesn’t mean you should. Try to work on getting the composition right in-camera and then fine-tune it in post.
This slider is typically used if the image is over or under exposed, but as with all of the adjustments we will discuss some are simply used to create a particular aesthetic. If an image is dramatically exposed to one side or the other, you likely won’t be able to salvage it.
But, if you are shooting in RAW you can usually bring back up to two stops without any issues. Lightroom allows for up to five stops in either direction, however I’ve found anything beyond +/- 2.00 is a poorly executed image and is likely better off in the trash bin.
White and Black Sliders
Next, I tend to skip over the contrast slider and adjust it at the very end of all of my edits.
I’ll also bypass highlights and shadows for now, and jump down to the whites and blacks. Underwater images usually appreciate a slight decrease (-10) in the black level. When you move the slider to the left, the blacks in the image will deepen, and when moved to the right it will lighten them. The white level has a lot to do with the overall brightness of the image while the highlights refer mostly to the brightest part of the image.
Again, it really depends how you approach your editing, but I’ve found adjusting the whites before the highlights (and only if needed) works out better.
Highlight and Shadow Sliders
The highlight slider targets the lightest parts of your image, while the shadow slider adjusts the darker parts. Increasing the shadows in an underwater image is done so by moving the slider to the left. This can work nicely for darkening negative space. Moving the slider to the right will lighten up darker parts of the image.
Texture, Clarity, and Dehaze
Texture is the newest of the Presence Tools and is great for increasing or decreasing the appearance of texture in an image.
If you play around with the sliders you will notice Texture is the most understated of the three tools. Move the slider to the right to increase texture or move it to the left to minimize medium-sized details. As you get more familiar editing images, you may want to try to create a local adjustment with the texture slider for minimizing backscatter.
Moving the slider to the left will reduce the appearance of backscatter. For more information, I wrote an article about it – here. If you’d like to bring out more detail in your image then Clarity is your tool. However, if the image is very busy, you may want to reduce the clarity. This tool tends to reduce the saturation of an image, so you may want to adjust for that in the Vibrance and Saturation sliders.
To soften images, drag the Clarity slider to the left. To make details pop, move it to the right. This is another tool that can be easily overdone. I tend to use values between -10 to +35, but will deviate depending on the image.
Dehaze is also a neat tool that can either add or remove haze from an image. It tends to also increase/decrease colors more than the other two tools. Yet, it’s particularly powerful for underwater images that appear dull. It essentially boosts the contrast and color that is lost because of the water between your lens and the subject. As with the other tools, use it sparingly.
Saturation and Vibrance Sliders
These two sliders can cause a bit of confusion, as they both appear to do similar things.
However, if you move each slider to their extremes you’ll see their roles are in fact different.
The Vibrance slider will increase or decrease muted colors in an image, while leaving skin tones alone. Granted underwater this isn’t the usual subject matter, but it’s worth mentioning if you shoot people.
And Saturation on the other hand will increase or decrease the overall color intensity in an image. I tend to prefer images that are bit de-saturated, so I usually find myself decreasing both sliders—but typically by different amounts. If you prefer vibrant images you may want to bump up the sliders—but be careful not to overdo it.
To adjust sharpening, we need to leave the Basic Panel and scroll down to the Detail Panel. Click on the left pointing triangle and select the box in the upper left corner. Move your mouse to a part of the image that has a lot of detail and click on it.
As you’ll notice, a magnified part of the selected area appears in the panel. Keeping an eye on this magnified portion of the image, adjust the sharpening slider as you see fit. I tend to either leave the sharpening at the default of 40, or bump it up slightly. But, that’s just personal preference. Do keep in mind this is one adjustment you don’t want to go overboard with. Sharpening will never fix an out of focus image!
Lens Correction Panel
Some of the final edits I like to make are found inside the Lens Correction panel. Prior to exporting, I will select “Remove Chromatic Aberration” and “Enable Profile Corrections.”
Sometimes I end up turning off the latter, but I choose to see how it changes the image before deciding.
Profile corrections adjust for lens aberrations and vignettes. As you can see in the image below it seems to stretch the whale shark across the frame. I’m not particularly fond of this so I’d probably deselect it. You may like it better than the original, but again it’s all about personal preference.
By checking the ‘remove chromatic aberrations’ box, Lightroom essentially corrects for the lens’ failure to focus all of the colors in an image at the same point. The result is fringes of color along areas of an image where bright and dark areas meet. Most of the time you won’t notice any changes when you select “Remove Chromatic Aberrations,” as the changes are quite subtle and only noticeable zoomed in. I suggest manual fine-tuning for this. At the top of the panel you will see “Profile” and “Manual.” Select Manual, and scroll down to the eyedropper beside “Defringe.”
Before selecting the eyedropper, magnify a part of the image where a light and dark area meet. Next, grab the eyedropper tool and select any purple pixels you see along the border between the dark and bright areas. If you need to fine-tune it more you can do so with the sliders just below the eyedropper.
Last but not least I like to make any final adjustments to the contrast of the overall image. Scroll back up to the contrast slider, just below Exposure in the Basic Panel. Most underwater images benefit from a bit of contrast.
Sometimes I keep it light and other times I increase it quite a bit. I like a lot of contrast in my images, but there are times when I find an image has too much contrast, and I will end up decreasing it.
Most underwater images will have some bits of backscatter present.
It can be very annoying, but there is a tool in Lightroom that can help to an extent, and that is the Spot Removal. There are a few options to fine-tune the spot removal tool, such as the size and opacity of the treatment. Unfortunately, it can get quite tedious if your image has a lot of backscatter.
At some point you may want to learn about removing backscatter in Photoshop, as it is easier and kinder to your image.
But for now, I’ll walk you through the basic steps of using the spot removal tool. First, find a piece of backscatter you’d like to remove from the image and zoom in a bit. Just below the histogram at the top of the right panel, you’ll see a row of icons—click the second icon from the left. Once you’ve selected a piece of backscatter, make sure it fits within the circle.
If not, adjust the size on the right panel until it does. After selecting the piece of backscatter, you should notice another circle appear. Lightroom will use this part of the image to heal the backscatter—so make sure it has a similar background.
If it doesn’t match, simply drag the circle to a part of an image that does. Once you are satisfied hit enter and continue editing any remaining backscatter.
Selective editing and masking
Masking and selective editing tools in light room are great ways for more advanced users to make changes to different aspects of an image, in very specific areas.
Graduated filters let you pull a line across the image and edit just one side. It also blends the edits as it moves across the image. Radial filters let you draw a circle and either edit the space in the circle or outside the circle (click the invert box to choose). The Adjustment Brush lets you paint the edits on the image, with the most control of which parts receive the edits. You can make the brush larger or smaller and change the feather on the outside of the brush to blend and make the edits looks natural.
Exporting High and Low Resolution Images
Once you’ve made all of your edits, it is time to export the images for printing and/or sharing. You have many options here, however exporting both high and low-resolution images will likely be enough to get started.
High-resolution images should be used for printing images, while low-resolution images are ideal for sharing online or via email. Keep in mind each file size needs to be exported separately. The first step for both high and low resolution exports is selecting where you want the images to go once you’ve exported them.
I personally have a specific hard drive (and a backup) that I use for all of my exports. The hard drive is broken down by destination, and inside each destination folder I have high-res and low-res folders. No worries if you don’t have this set up right now. You can always export to your computer and transfer later. Just don’t wait too long; otherwise the computer will eventually get bogged down from all of the image files residing on it. You might be wondering why I don’t export them to the drive they came from.
Over the years I’ve found it can be frustrating to have to locate the individual drives each time I need a particular image for something—especially if I am traveling and have no access to the drive. If you shoot a lot this may make sense for you. Otherwise, simply create a folder for exports on your current drive.
Exporting High-Resolution Images
Let’s begin with the details for exporting a high-res image. With the image selected bring your mouse to the main menu at the very top left of the screen and click on “File.” Scroll down to “Export” and select it.
This will open the export dialog box. Once you’ve selected where to export your images, scroll down to file naming. I always include my own name, and filename on all of my images.
Sometimes I add the date as well. Select “Rename” to choose how you’d like to name your files. Next move down to “File Settings.” For high resolution images select “TIFF” from the Image Format dropdown. Choose “AdobeRGB” from Color Space and select 8 bits/component for the bit depth. Moving on to Image Sizing, uncheck “Resize to Fit” and type in “300” beside pixels per inch. I tend to leave the “Output Sharpening” on and at a “Standard” amount. Then select the type of paper you will use—either matte or glossy.
Take a quick review to make sure everything looks right and click “Export” on the bottom right of the dialog box.
Exporting Low-Resolution Images
Exporting low-resolution images will be quite a similar process, but there are a few key differences.
First be sure to select the appropriate folder, then under File Settings, change the “Image Format” to “JPEG.” Next, adjust the “Color Space” to “sRGB,” and move the “Quality” slider to a value of “70.” Beneath the next dropdown menu (Image Sizing), check “Resize to Fit,” then select “Long Edge” from the dropdown menu.
Below that enter “1080” into the box and select “pixels” from the dropdown list.
In the Resolution section, to the right, enter in a value of “72” and verify that “pixels per inch” is selected. We are almost there! If you’d like to sharpen the image for screens you can do so in the “Output Sharpening” section, but I’d recommend leaving it on standard. Once again, take a quick review to make sure everything looks right then click “Export” on the bottom right of the dialog box.
Watermarking an Image
Lightroom gives you the option of adding a watermark to your image; however you will need to have that set up prior to exporting the image. You can create that by selecting “Edit Watermarks” under Lightroom Classic (to the left of File). Once you have that created, head back to the Export Dialog box and select your custom watermark from the list.
Congrats on editing your first underwater image! It’s important to keep in mind that developing your own style of editing comes with time and practice. When I first started editing my own images years ago, they seemed to look and feel like the majority of underwater images out there—which at the time was fine for me.
Now, after having mastered the basics of editing, I am able to fine-tune my edits to create a look and feel that is very much my own. It is very similar to breaking the rules of photography. To get started you must know the rules before you can break them. Just remember there is no right or wrong edit—it’s all a matter of personal preference.
Adobe Lightroom: Updates
This is the biggest update to LR in 2021 and 2022, and it features some pretty cool tools.
First, if you’re new to masking in general, check out the brief section above! In Lightroom’s most recent updates, we’ve been really impressed by a few tools, mainly, the subject and sky isolation tools.
These actually work. Like, a lot of the time! These are tools that allow you to select, as the name implies, either a subject of your image, or the sky. In underwater photography, we don’t often have sky, but it works pretty well with blue water backgrounds behind a reef, for example. In split shots, it seems to work pretty well also.
The subject detection mask is also pretty neat, although not perfect for underwater photography. Check out the example from the same image, when, instead of using the sky mask, I select the subject mask (and note that it does this automatically – you don’t tell it what the subject is, it just identifies what it thinks is the subject):
What you’re seeing here is that, without telling LR anything, it thought that the jellyfish was my main subject. That is cool! It also picked up a bit of the highlight to the left of the jelly, so it’s definitely not perfect – but it’s a lot faster to unselect that small amount that mask the whole thing by hand. You may also notice that the layout of this panel is quite different from before:
This might not seem like much, but if you were using these tools you know how big of a change this really is. Organizing your masks all in a column in this way is a great feature, as is the new dropdown menus for selecting different masks. We can’t wait for what comes next!