Basic Lightroom – Introduction & White Balance

At its core, Adobe Lightroom is really a conjoined piece of software that provides photographers with two very distinct bits of functionality, cataloguing and RAW image processing. To illustrate just how unrelated these two arenas are, it is worth me pointing out that every one of the thousands of photographs that I capture annually is catalogued using Lightroom but that only a very small number of those photos – perhaps less than 5% – are subject to any sort of editing. In this series of articles, I am going to deal with the editing portion of Lightroom and walk you through the elementary steps that I follow with almost every one of the 5% of images that make it as far as the editing stage.

Before we start, I have to touch on one of the most contentious issues in photography today, file formats – specifically RAW vs JPEG. Now, both file formats have a place in contemporary photography, with each having its own very unique set of advantages; however, for anyone wishing to create more than simply a snapshot, the use of RAW files is all but mandatory. I am going to avoid a detailed technical analysis of why RAW files are superior, except to say that they capture more information than their JPEG counterparts. When the time comes to edit your photos, information is a prized possession and having it translates directly into increased editing potential and flexibility. Remember, a RAW file can always be used to create a JPEG, but a JPEG can never be used to create a RAW file.

A second, slightly philosophical matter that must also be attended to before we begin shifting sliders is the notion of a ‘recipe’. There is no one set of adjustments that can be applied to all images. Each and every photograph is unique and getting the best out of it requires tailoring the following steps to suit the characteristics of that image. Everything that I or any other purveyor of photographic wisdom suggests as a guide to processing pictures is precisely that, ‘a guide’. All advice must be tempered by common sense and if what I recommend looks wrong, then it certainly must be and should be adjusted to meet the demands of the photo.

With all the caveats taken care of, let us start looking at editing. Lightroom refers to the editing of a RAW file as ‘developing’ – a throwback to the days of film photography – and, as such, all the adjustments mentioned here take place within the Develop module. Within Lightroom, the Develop module can be accessed by pressing the D key or, alternatively, by clicking on the word Develop in the top right corner of the screen.

On the far right-hand side of the Develop module, one will find a histogram as well as the adjustment panels which feature a host of adjustment sliders. The sheer number of sliders gives one a clue as to the degree of control that Lightroom affords photographers. These controls are arranged, more or less, in descending order of importance, with Adobe’s design intent clearly being that users start their image adjustments at the top and work their way down.

Arguably the most important panel, and the focus of this series of articles, is the Basic panel, whose designation as ‘basic’ rather belittles the panel’s true status as the king of panels. The Basic panel is the cornerstone of RAW development and the effects of adjustments made here can be felt all the way through to the end product.

Adjustments within the Basic panel begin with colour temperature – labelled ‘Temp’ – and tint. Of all the basic adjustments, colour temperature and tint are perhaps the most difficult to master and this is because there is no scientific way to determine whether a given setting is right or wrong. Even at the time of capture, the moment that you release the shutter, the majority of cameras rely on the user to have selected the appropriate white balance because the camera itself has no way of precisley determining what that setting should be.

Further complicating the matter of white balance is the issue of individual artistic licence. It is entirely likely that by exaggerating the white balance – making a given photo appear warmer or cooler than the original scene – one can help to convey some of the less tangible physical and emotional aspects of a scene. For example, cool blue would be an odd choice of colour temperature if a photo depicted a beach sunset that a witness is likely to describe with the adjective warm. Making that same picture extra warm may, however, help the audience get a real sense of just what it was like to stand on that beach. The audience does not have the privilege of physically feeling the air temperature from the day the photo was captured and, as such, are missing a sensory input. Exaggerating the visual warmth by using the colour temperature may go some way towards making up for that lost sense.

 A visual representation of colour temperature.

A visual representation of colour temperature.

While for most of us the choice of temperature and tint winds up being an artistic decision and not a mathematical one, there are ways to arrive at a good baseline value from which to start fine-tuning. The first is to use the Auto option that can be found in Lightroom’s WB (white balance) drop-down box. Ordinarily, I am not at all a fan of auto anything but, in this case, the function generally does quite a good job of getting an image close to the ideal.

The second method – which I regularly use in conjunction with the Auto function – requires that one looks carefully at the bright regions of a photo and uses them to guide manual white balance adjustments. Colour temperature is easiest to discern in the regions of a photograph that are white or close to it. The objective is to use the Temp and Tint sliders to ensure that white areas of the photo are indeed ‘white’, and that they do not possess some or other hue.

Technically speaking, removing the hue from a picture – often referred to as a colourcast – can be done using any region of a frame and not simply the white sections. In fact, the best areas to use when correcting white balance are those considered to be neutral or 50% grey. Neutral grey is a grey tone exactly halfway between black and white and – assuming that you can identify such an area – Lightroom provides an eye-dropper tool to quickly and easily correct the temp and tint based on that grey tone. Clicking on the White Balance Selector tool and then clicking on a 50% grey region, known as a ‘target neutral’, gives Lightroom all that it needs to correct the colourcast perfectly accurately.

 An example of how an exaggerated white balance might suggest a feeling of warmth.

An example of how an exaggerated white balance might suggest a feeling of warmth.

At face value, the White Balance Selector appears to be the elusive mathematical solution to the white balance problem, but, unfortunately, it isn’t. Difficulties arise with the technique when trying to establish which regions of the image constitute 50% grey, something that my experience suggests is close to impossible to do. As far as I am concerned, the White Balance Selector approach is the least successful method for correcting white balance and one I would recommend avoiding.

Given that white balance is such an opaque concept, there is one further piece of advice I can give to aid perfection – walk away! Regardless of which method you choose to adopt, once you have made your white balance adjustments, walk away from the computer screen for a while so that your eyes and brain might rest. For reasons that I cannot explain, the human optical system seems to grow familiar with images and can hoodwink itself into believing that what it is seeing looks good. I cannot tell you how many times I have returned from a break only to find that the white balance adjustments I had made were ordinary and in need of further work!

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