Lightroom is today’s digital darkroom, and the latest version is so powerful you can do almost all of your processing in it, save for only a few procedures still requiring Photoshop. In his comprehensive creativeLIVE Lightoom 5 course, Jack Davis suggests a basic routine for processing in Lightroom — a process he calls “The 5-Step Tango.”
These five steps are all located in the Develop module (found in the Basic Panel), moving from top to bottom. This is just a starting point, a clean edit, after which you are able to add creative enhancements and fixes.
1. White Balance and Crop
Crop your image first, because it affects the histogram due to the removal of pixels. By cropping first, you’ll have a more accurate histogram to work with. There are several crop overlays from which to choose and different ways to crop. You can also choose to straighten the picture at this time by rotating the Crop box or using the Angle Tool.
Creating a custom white balance in camera is a good start, of course, but if you shoot RAW you will have enough data for large adjustments of white balance in Lightroom. Move the white balance Eyedropper Tool over various parts of the image, and you will see how it will change in the Navigator in the upper left corner. You can get very creative with white balance this way.
2. Auto (Undo)
Some photographers frown at the use of Auto, but Jack proposes using it as a possible starting place, keeping in mind that there is an Undo function if Lightroom comes up with an unwanted edit. Jack says, “Cut the computer some bloody slack. It doesn’t know what you shot.” Auto often provides a good starting point, after which the sliders can be manually adjusted.
3. Exposure, Clarity, Shadow, Highlight
Put simply: Exposure affects midtone values; Contrast is the distinction between tones, exaggerating the hills and valleys of midtones; Highlights are the 3/4 tones; Shadows the 1/4 tones; and the Whites and Blacks are just that.
Clarity increases the contrast at edges, like “High Pass popping.” Use Clarity before adjusting Shadows and Highlights, which can bring back some of the detail that Clarity can plug up. Jack calls himself “greedy” for using Clarity, but he frequently photographs landscapes and buildings — creating images that lend themselves more to Clarity than other kinds of composition. Be light-handed with Clarity on portraits of people, for example.
Remember to watch how the histogram changes as you’re making these changes. It will show any and all clipping — changes in pixel values — something you want to avoid. Also, you can hold down Opt/Alt while moving the sliders and that will uncover any clipped pixels.
Adjust Whites and Blacks to taste, Jack advises. These two tools are useful for some special effects.
Vibrance is intelligent saturation. Or, as Jack says, “Vibrance cares.” While Saturation brings up all the colors linearly, Vibrance is more judicious with skin tones. This is very important when retouching portraits. This tool is not so good for sunsets, though, because it doesn’t affect oranges and sometimes goes too far with blues.
Vignetting helps differentiate between subject and background. It’s the only part of Jack’s Tango that lives outside of the Basic panel — all the way down in the Effects panel. His favorite Vignette style is Color Priority, because it’s subtle. Highlight Priority can be good, too, especially when it comes to preserving highlights, but according to Jack, “Paint Overlay is evil.” You can adjust five aspects of the Vignette: Amount, Midpoint, Roundness, Feather, and Highlights. Or, new in Lightroom 5, Jack shows how the Radial Filter gives even more options for creating a vignette.
Remember, this is just a starting point, a way of globally optimizing of your photo. It gets you 90% of the way to a beautifully-processed picture, after which you can make targeted adjustments. Those adjustments can be done in Lightroom too, and Jack goes over those in-depth in his Lightroom 5 class.