RAW Photo Workflow In Lightroom, Part Three: Developing Your Workflow

Developing your creative workflow
RAW Workflow Interpretation

Figure 1. Each development offers a different mood, feel, interpretation or narrative. Thus, the tools we use to adjust our files serve us best if viewed as artistic vehicles rather than technical instruments.

The term “workflow” refers to the method by which we approach the steps of our work. Whether they seek an elaborate solution to working with a large archive or a streamlined solution for working with a more modestly sized library, photographers yearn for the smartest and most efficient approach. Of course, this can be frustrating for the photographer trying to figure out the right way versus the wrong way to approach RAW workflow, because there are as many methods as there are photographers. In both instances, and whether or not we are talking about file management, developing or file-sharing workflows, I suggest considering a creative approach to workflow instead of “what’s right and what’s wrong.”

To develop creatively means you develop with your own ideas in mind. There are tons of books available on the market and videos online, but duplicating the techniques of others will only take you so far. In terms of developing, for instance, your knowledge of the tools in the Lightroom Develop Module is not nearly as important as having clarity on your image’s subject, what your image is about, what feeling you want to convey or what mood you want to project. You know your work and can thus envision a development better than anyone, and you should trust that.

In the first article of this series, I suggested typing “images of darkroom printing notes” into Google. The results show a wide variety of images of prints that are covered in scribbles. These scribbles are a blueprint or a recipe that darkroom photographers use to guide their printing workflow. They are a record of how to mask, dodge and burn, and tone an image. Printing notes were imperative for the creative photographer when making prints in the darkroom, and in my opinion, not much has changed.

When I prepare to work on an image in Lightroom, I first study it. I reflect on whether I should emphasize color, subdue color or remove color altogether to bring attention more to a pattern, shape, texture or tone. I consider what areas I should dodge or burn to draw the viewer’s attention either toward a subject or away from it. I create a plan, or a set of mental “printing notes,” in my head before I open a panel or touch a slider in the Develop Module, because my mental notes help dictate which tools I should use and how I should use them. With all this in mind, the trick is not in knowing what the tools do technically but what they do artistically. Let’s go through some of the ways to approach RAW file development creatively.

RAW Workflow: “Printing Notes” And A Conceptual  Approach

Being clear on your image’s subject and meaning starts before you hit the shutter. As I compose the vast majority of my images, I make an effort to always ask myself: “What is the subject of this image and what is it about?” Once I know the answers, framing things with my camera becomes much easier. By knowing, I can critique each element within my frame to determine its need or value. If it has no supportive value to my narrative, I change my position or zoom my lens and crop it out of the frame the best I can.

In a sense this is exactly what I do before developing. Here is a list of questions I think are helpful to ask yourself as you open your images in the Develop Module:

  • Am I creating a color or black-and-white image?
  • Does the composition need cropping or rotating?
  • What is the condition of brightness throughout my image and locally?
  • What is the state of color throughout my image and locally?
  • Should I render vibrant or muted colors throughout the image or locally?
  • What is the state of my shadows and highlights throughout the image and locally?
  • How is the overall contrast?
  • Should I emphasize depth throughout the image or locally?
  • Should I emphasize textures or soften them throughout the image or locally?
  • Should I dodge some areas or burn others?

As you can imagine, you need to have some clarity on subject and meaning to know how to answer these questions. Just duplicating a technique you saw in an online video will not be enough. If you don’t know what your subject is, then what, through developing and through dodging and burning, are you drawing your viewers’ attention to? What do you want their eyes to fall on? If you aren’t clear if your image is about a subtle tonality, rough or soft textures, warm or cool colors, subtle intricate details or hard or soft edges, then what will you emphasize and what will you reduce?

Crop & Straighten Panel

Even with clarity on subject and meaning in the field, we don’t always end up with the perfect composition. Sometime our horizons aren’t perfectly straight. Sometimes our lens won’t extend for enough to crop out unwanted things on the edge of our frame, and sometimes we want to create a custom aspect ratio such as a panoramic or a square. The Crop Overlay Panel does it all.

RAW Workflow - Crop Overlay

Figure 2. The Crop Overlay Frame is interactive. You can grab either its sides or corners to rotate or adjust its size.

By clicking on the Crop Overlay icon (quick command key R), the first thing you’ll notice is a crop frame overlaid around your image (Figure 2). This frame is interactive. You can grab the corners or the sides to either shrink the frame’s size or rotate it.

The second thing you might notice are all the little things in the Crop & Straighten Panel (Figure 3). There are two main sections to this panel. The top row allows you to control the aspect ratio, and the bottom row allows you to straighten (or rotate) your cropping frame.

RAW Workflow Crop and Straighten

Figure 3. The two main sections of the Crop & Straighten Panel allow us to set and customize aspect ratios, or rotate and straighten our images.

For the top row, there are three things to know. By clicking on the icon on the left, you can click and drag a frame with a custom aspect ratio over your image. To its right is a small dropdown menu with prepackaged aspect ratios (Figure 4), or you can click on Enter Custom to make your own if the one you want isn’t listed. The lock to its right, when locked, allows you to move the Crop Overlay Frame without changing the aspect ratio, or if the lock is open, you can maneuver the Crop Frame in any way you like.

RAW Workflow Crop Ratios

Figure 4. Lightroom comes equipped with a list of standard aspect ratios to choose from, or you can create a custom ratio by first clicking “Enter Custom.”

The bottom row allows you straighten or rotate your Crop Frame in a couple of ways. By clicking on the Level Icon on the left, your cursor turns into a cross hair, allowing you to click and drag a line over the length of a crooked horizon (Figure 5). Once you let go, the image rotates to straighten the line drawn. The slider to its right is another way of rotating the image. Move the slider to the right, and the Crop Overlay moves counterclockwise over your image, or move it to the left to move the frame clockwise.

RAW Workflow Crop Level Tool

Figure 5. Clicking on the small Level icon allows you to click and drag over a crooked horizontal line to straighten it.


The way I develop a black-and-white image versus a color image can be very different, so I tend to make this decision up front. When you open the Basic Panel, the first things you’ll see are the options for Treatment, rendering your image as either Color or Black & White (Figure 6).

RAW Workflow Basic Panel

Figure 6. At the top of the Basic Panel are the options of treating your file as a color or black and white image. I suggest making this decision before all others.

Interpretive and Literal Color Approaches. Ultimately, color is subjective, and the creative photographer understands that color can affect the mood and feeling of an image and is a powerful vehicle for communicating a narrative. Figure 7 shows a series of images presented with different color temperatures. You can render an image with cool tones or warm tones, with vibrant colors or muted color, or you can shift the hue of a color channel or tone an image to create an eclectic affect.

RAW Workflow Color Temperatures

Figure 7. Here are six different color temperature renderings of the same image. From cool tones to warm, each offers a completely different feel from the next.

RAW Workflow White Balance Selector

Figure 8. The White Balance Selector tool is an easy auto feature that allows to you click on potential neutral toned areas of your image for instant color balancing.

For a more literal rendering of color, it’s all about the white balance. Lightroom does offer Presets akin to what your camera offers such as Daylight, Cloudy, Shade, Tungsten and so on, but I prefer to use the White Balance Selector (Figure 8). The trick to using the White Balance Selector is to find an area of the image that you would like to be neutral in tone—some shade of white, gray or black. With either path you choose, I suggest using a White Balance Preset or the White Balance Selector tool as ways of getting you in the ballpark. To dial in the details, look to the Temp and Tint sliders for fine-tuning.

Black & White. Converting images to black-and-white with Lightroom is terribly easy. Yes, you can click on Black & White at the top of the Basic Panel, but I suggest visiting the B&W Panel below it. As you click on B&W, the panel opens, revealing a series of color sliders. Simply move sliders left or right to lighten or darken tonal information within a specific color channel (Figure 9). This is an easy and effective way to design any black-and-white image before fine-tuning it with contrast adjustments or dodging and burning.

RAW Workflow Black and White Panel

Figure 9. For converting my images to black and white, I go straight to the B&W panel. The access to individual color sliders makes it easy to fine-tune a conversion.

Contrast And Clarity

Technically speaking, increasing or decreasing contrast either expands or contracts mid-tones. But adding contrast can also add the feeling of depth or richness within a frame. Adding contrast deepens shadows and extends highlights, which in turn can saturate color images, emphasize shapes and edges, and intensify overall tonality throughout the frame. Naturally, subtracting contrast will mute colors, deemphasize shapes and edges, and soften overall tonality. The two main tools for working with contrast are the Contrast slider in the Basic Panel or the Tone Curve Panel. Figure 10 shows variations of an image with some of each applied. Simply put, the difference between the two is that the Contrast slider shifts contrast throughout the image, while Tone Curves allows you to target contrast adjustments to specific areas of your tonal range.

RAW Workflow Add Contrast

Figure 10. Low contrast tends to flatten objects, while increasing contrast will add depth to a scene and emphasize shape and roundness in subject matter. Contrast will deepen shadows, expand highlights and saturate colors.

Lightroom also offers the Clarity slider for playing with contrast on a finer scale. For example, the Clarity slider is excellent at emphasizing or deemphasizing textures. In Figure 11, I used it to texturize water by moving the slider to the right or softening it by moving it to the left. One gives a feeling of hardness, the other softness.

RAW Workflow Clarity Adjustment

Figure 11. Clarity, which is really a finely tuned contrast adjustment, is the perfect tool to smooth out surfaces or accentuate textures.

Localized Corrections

In my humble opinion, the true power of creative development sits in the hands of the localized corrections tools. Just above the Basic Panel in the Develop Module, next to the Crop tool, you’ll find the Graduated Filter (quick command M), the Radial Filter (quick command Shift+M), and the Adjustment Brush (quick command K). With these tools, you can affect small, specific areas of an image, or perform adjustments over large areas.

RAW Workflow Localized Adjustments

Figure 12. There are three different localized correction tools that offer a rich and dynamic variety of control, allowing you to apply adjustments to large parts of your frame or to small and specific areas for fine detail work.

As you can see in Figure 12, there is no shortage of sliders to play with. As important as all the panels are in the Develop Module, the localized correction tools allow the most flexibility. You can play with Tint and Temperature, or make basic tonal adjustments like exposure, contrast, highlights and shadows, whites and blacks; you can adjust Clarity or Dehaze sliders, sharpen, add or subtract noise, reduce moiré or defringe (which we will talk about in the next article in this series), or you can colorize as specific or as broad a section of your image as you like.

Localized correction tools are precisely what you should use to answer most of those printing notes questions. Figure 13 shows a series of adjustments I made only using localized correction tools. I didn’t use the Basic Panel, Tone Curves or any other adjustments found outside of what’s available with localized corrections.

RAW Workflow Burn and Dodge

Figure 13. Almost of the creative or interpretive work that I do, where I dodge or burn, or draw my audience’s attention toward or away from a subject, is done with localized correction tools. This image was edited exclusively with such tools.

Creative Instruments

From first conceiving a composition to finalizing a development, the tools are important, but they are secondary. They are vehicles for feelings, moods and states of being. You can add depth, texture or color, or you can soften tones, edges or surfaces. By first asking yourself the right questions, and creating those mental printing notes, the tools you subsequently play with cease to be technical instruments. They instead become paths that support a narrative. Being connected to your vision for your work is the key.

• • •

Read All Articles In This Series

RAW Workflow In Lightroom, Part One: Creative Expression

RAW Workflow In Lightroom, Part Two: Creating Consistent Styles

RAW Workflow In Lightroom, Part Three: Developing Your Workflow

RAW Workflow In Lightroom, Part Four: Finely Tuned Details

Jason Bradley has a unique set of skills. He specializes in nature and wildlife photography both underwater and above; he’s the owner and operator of Bradley Photographic Print Services, a fine art print lab; he leads photographic expeditions around the world, and is the author of the book Creative Workflow in Lightroom, published by Focal Press. Visit BradleyPhotographic.com to see more of his work and find info on his upcoming workshops and expeditions, and BradleyPrintServices.com to learn about his fine art printing services.