Using Lightroom to Make Your Images Work for You

My name is Mariah Postlewait and I am an art historian, a photographer, and a photography scholar. In short, I work on photography. One thing that keeps coming up (during class lectures, with student presentations, at conferences) is poor image quality. Oftentimes the kinds of imagery a scholar may need simply do not exist and they must produce their own photographs for research.  Academics, however, are rarely taught or even presented an opportunity to be taught methods for creating, managing, and/or archiving such digital images—yet, there is a real need (as we’ve all seen) for these skills. All too often a presentation begins with an apology for the images—students, professionals, and professors alike suffer poor-quality images because they were either the only ones available or were self-taken. In any case, ineffective images can hamper an otherwise compelling presentation. As a photo historian, with a background in photography, I commiserate with academics who produce their own photographs (for research and especially for presentation purposes) and would like to share some of my methods for creating, managing, and archiving digital images. This will be the first in a series of posts meant to provide an introduction to and walkthrough of what I see as the basic tools and techniques necessary for creating images that don’t require an apology. And while there is a wide selection of useful programs for handling digital images, I want to focus on Adobe Lightroom for four main reasons:

  1. Accessibility. Many colleges and universities have Adobe subscriptions, making it widely available and (for the most part) easily accessible.  While you can subscribe on your own, be sure to take Lightroom for a spin first by taking advantage of their free 30-day trial.
  2. Lightroom = nondestructive editing. Unlike most mainstream photo-editing software Lightroom never changes the original image files, which means you won’t lose your original image by saving over it with an edited version. Lightroom requires users to create a file that acts as a virtual catalog (a .CAT file), and when you import photographs into it Lightroom creates a series of virtual bookmarks instead of saving full image files.  As you edit your images Lightroom tracks the changes and saves them as digital instructions.  Imagine you have a shelf full of printed books and need to eventually make copies of lots of them. You, however, have different copying needs for each book; some might need to be scanned in their entirety, some may only have one chapter that is of interest, some may need to be scanned in color, and some books might benefit from being scanned in grayscale. Regardless of what kind of copy you need to make, though, you never actually alter the original book. This is exactly how Lightroom handles your images. Adobe’s program remembers all of the decisions you’ve made and keeps track of them so that when you are ready for a final, edited version you can export it as whatever file type you like (.JPEG, .TIFF, etc.). And Lightroom will follow all your changes like a list of instructions and will create a new file. It’s liking giving your TA a list of books to scan with instructions on how to scan each one and then the TA keeps track of the list in case they would ever need to do so again. In the end, you end up with two files, the untouched original and your newly-created, edited version. Additionally, Lightroom allows you to create virtual copies of images, which is like making multiple sets of instructions for the same original file. This means you could edit the same image 4 different ways and have the ability to see and keep 4 different virtual copies along with the original and any versions you decide to export as new, unique files.
  3. .RAW. Lightroom allows you to work with .RAW files (many programs cannot read them), giving you the opportunity to produce higher overall quality images.  .RAW files are large; they contain more information than other file types. .RAW files are created in/by your camera (as long as it is .RAW capable) simply by switching some settings and telling your camera to produce that file type. (If only making .RAW files concerns you, don’t worry. .RAW files can be easily saved as .JPEGs and other files types later and .RAW-capable cameras normally have a setting to simultaneously create a typical .JPEG in addition to a .RAW file whenever you take a picture). And the more information you start with the more you can end with. This means that you can produce larger images with better resolution (so you could print them at a large scale or could zoom in to details with clarity.  .RAW images are also able to withstand extensive editing—so if you photograph in less-than-ideal conditions, your images may be saveable. Beginning with a .RAW image file as your parent image and exporting it to a .JPEG is very different from starting and ending with .JPEGs. (The pros and cons of file types, as well as lossy vs. lossless images, will be discussed in a later post).  
  4. Batch editing and processing. One of Lightroom’s greatest strengths is its ability to apply the same edits to multiple photographs at once.  For example, say you are working on illuminated manuscripts—medieval books with intricately and brilliantly detailed illustrations and borders that accompanied the text—and you take many photographs of a volume’s various illuminated pages.  When you later review the many photos you took, you realize that each photograph looks much too yellow or, more accurately, too warm.  Using Lightroom, you can select every photograph from that session and make a single corrective adjustment to all of the images simultaneously, as if you were making a change to a single image.  Similarly, Lightroom allows users to create and add metadata to multiple images at the same time. You can even create metadata presets to save you time.  You can save the basic metadata you want attached to every image, no problem.  If you’re working on multiple projects you could create a metadata preset for each project or you could make a basic metadata preset for everything and then make small adjustments or additions the metadata for each project. Metadata cannot only help to protect your images as being your images, (you can add ownership, authorship, and copyright information so that each image is embedded with information proving they originated with you), but can also help to make a digital archive searchable with files that are rich with information (such as date, location, keyword, subject, etc.) that can make your images more easily useable. Later posts will explain each of these processes in depth.

I only realized as a doctoral student that many of the programs and strategies that I learned as an undergrad in a studio art program were not common knowledge for other disciplines.  My digital photography skills became second nature and over time grew to suit my new work and needs. If this blog series in any way helps to improve the quality or usefulness of your research, publications, archive, or workflow; or you find other more efficient or accessible techniques; or you notice issues I glossed over or that could benefit from further elaboration please feel free to mention it in the comments—the more information and perspectives included the better. Following posts will address such topics as: selecting settings for your camera; physically positioning and using a camera; files types; managing files; and importing, editing, and exporting with Lightroom.