17 Lightroom Editing Secrets to Take Your Photos to the Next Level

Do you want to produce stunning edits in Lightroom?

Edits that will make your photos look amazing?

You can.

bird in lightroom editing suite

Because it turns out there are a few Lightroom secrets that expert photographers use over and over again.

Now, these secrets aren’t complicated…

…but they can make a huge difference to your photos.

edited dahlia

Are you ready to take your photography to the next level?

Let’s dive right in.

(Note: All of these instructions assume that you’re already in Lightroom’s Develop module. So if you’re not, head on over!)

1. Use the Tone Sliders to Make Your Photos Pop

The Tone sliders are the bread and butter of Lightroom.

And while they might seem unimpressively simple…

…they can really make your photos pop.

poppies that pop from lightroom editing secrets

Now, the Tone panel includes six different sliders:

  • Exposure
  • Contrast
  • Highlights
  • Shadows
  • Whites
  • Blacks

But I just want to talk about two of them:

  • Whites
  • Blacks
lightroom with whites and blacks sliders circled

These two sliders modify the extremes of your photo. Drop the Blacks slider, and the darkest parts of your photo will darken.

black sliders dropped

Boost the Whites slider, and the brightest parts of your photo will brighten.

white sliders lifted

The two of these together are a potent combination.

You see, most images suffer from a lack of punch. They’re good. But they’re not jaw-droppingly great.

And one of the biggest culprits?

A lack of contrast.

This is great to know, because it’s so easy to correct in Lightroom. In fact, this is often one of the first steps in my Lightroom editing workflow:

Increase the whites.

And decrease the blacks.

lightroom editing secrets blacks and whites moved

Now, don’t be too heavy-handed on the Blacks. You don’t want to create unnatural looking shadows. The goal is to get it just right.

If you do this, you’ll lend your image that extra bit of pop.

2. Use Complementary Split Toning for a Gorgeous Subtle Glow

Have you ever noticed that professional photography tends to look…special?

There’s something about it, some ineffable quality that makes it look wonderfully polished.

Take a look at the website of Brandon Woelfel, professional portrait photographer:

brandon woelfel portfolio screenshot

Like his work or hate it, you’ve got to acknowledge: There’s something special about it.

Well, I’m here to tell you:

That something special?

It’s called color toning (also known as color grading).

And it’s really, really simple. All that you do is change the color of the highlights and shadows in your photos–which can be done in the Lightroom Split Toning panel.

lightroom split toning panel

Simply click on the Highlights and Shadows boxes. Then go ahead and test out various split tone options. Watch as the colors of the highlights and shadows changes.

For example, you can make the highlights yellow:

yellow highlight editing example

Or the shadows blue:

blue shadows editing example

However, the best split toning combinations often use complementary colors. That is, they use colors that sit opposite one another on the color wheel.

Yellow highlights and blue shadows tend to work well together. As do orange highlights and green shadows.

In general, you want to keep things subtle. Try to enhance colors that are already in your photos, rather than creating an entirely new palette.

split toned flower

Split toning is a pretty easy trick–but it can make a huge difference in your photos.

And speaking of colors, if you want to do some more advanced editing:

3. Use the HSL Sliders to Enhance Your Colors

The HSL sliders are a super-underutilized tool in Lightroom.

You can find them in the HSL panel, right above the Split Toning panel:

HSL panel lightroom editing secrets

In the HSL panel, you can modify the hue, the saturation, and the luminance (brightness) of individual colors.

Here’s what’s so great about the HSL sliders:

They allow you to subtly tweak the color palette in your photos. You can:

  • Take greens and make them bluer
  • Take reds and make them oranger
  • Take purples and make them redder

(And so much more!)

Oftentimes, you’re stuck with a photo that’s almost there…but not quite. For instance, the colors in the photo might be a bit too messy. They might feel chaotic.

Or one of the colors might seem a bit muddy.

Enter the HSL sliders.

tricolored heron detail

If your colors feel chaotic, you can simplify the color palette–by merging two colors into one.

And if a color feels muddy, you can get rid of the mud with a move of your mouse.

For example, I often find that flower stems are a muddy green.

But with a slight push of a Hue slider, I can make that green become slightly richer:

black-eyed susan with rich greens

I can do the same to the vegetation around this bird:

HSL slider example

The best way to find possible tweaks is to experiment. Play around. You’ll soon find a few tweaks that you’re a fan of–and many that you’re not.

Then you can use these tweaks consistently. As a bonus, your photos will start to have a nice, consistent style.

4. Use the Tone Curve to Add Punch to Your Photos

I’ve talked about adding contrast to your photos with the Tone panel.

But here’s another way to work with contrast–one that allows for a bit more subtlety.

contrasty sanderling

(Which isn’t to say that the first way won’t work. It will. But sometimes your images require less heavy-handedness.)

It’s called the Tone Curve.

You can find the Tone Curve panel right here:

tone curve panel circled

Now, the Tone Curve allows you to change the levels of brightness in different parts of the image. The leftmost parts of the tone curve correspond to the darkest parts of the image. And the rightmost parts correspond to the brightest parts of the image.

By setting points on the Tone Curve, and by dragging upward and downward, you can change the brightness of the corresponding parts of the image.

One of the simplest (and most effective) curves is the S-curve. It adds some nice contrast to your photos.

First, click on the curve in the three spots shown:

tone curve panel points

This will set points all along the graph.

Then drag the rightmost point slightly upward.

And drag the leftmost point slightly downward.

This’ll make sure the curve is in the shape of an ‘S.’ And it’ll give you a nice, contrasty image.

S-shaped tone curve graph

But be careful! You don’t want to overdo the contrast.

Some contrast is nice. Too much contrast is not.

And since we’re on the topic of the Tone Curve:

5. Use the Tone Curve to Create a Lovely Faded Look

Portrait photographers love this trick.

And I don’t blame them. Because it really does add a beautiful, aged feeling to photos.

All you have to do is find the point on the leftmost edge of the Tone Curve:

leftmost tone curve point circled

Then drag the leftmost point slightly upward.

Watch your image as you do this. It’ll take the blacks and fade them–so that that blackest points in your image aren’t true black. They’re a dark grey.

lightroom editing secrets fade

Neat, right?

6. Use the Radial Filter to Emphasize Your Subject

Now it’s time for another popular trick:

Using a vignette to enhance your subject.

(A vignette is a darkening of the tones at the corners of an image.)

Vignettes move the eye away from the edge of the frame–and point it at your subject, the focal point of the photo.

Fortunately, Lightroom gives us a super-easy way to create a custom vignette. You simply use the Radial filter.

First, click to activate the Radial filter:

radial filter circled

Then drag so that it surrounds your subject. In general, it’s good to give your subject a bit of breathing room.

radial filter example

Scroll down to the bottom of the main panel, and make sure that Invert Mask isn’t ticked.

Then simply drag down the Exposure slider, until you have a subtle–barely noticeable!–vignette.

exposure slider dragged down

7. Use the Spot Removal Tool to Clean Up Your Subject

If you do a lot of photography, then you’ll understand this frustration:

Subjects are never perfect! In flower photography, there is always dirt and blemishes on the flowers. In landscape photography, there are always stray leaves on the ground. In portrait photography, there are always minor skin imperfections to deal with.

That’s where the Spot Removal tool comes in.

Simply click on the Spot Removal icon:

spot removal icon circled

You can change the size, the feather, and the opacity of the Spot Removal brush using the Brush sliders.

brush panel circled

Make sure that the tool is set to Heal. I generally choose a brush size that’s slightly larger than the spot I’m trying to remove. I’d recommend putting Feather to 50 and Opacity to 100.

Then simply paint over the spots…

spots disappearing

…and watch as they disappear.

image after spot removal

8. Use the Clarity Slider to Make Your Photos Crisp

Here’s a quick tip for you:

The Lightroom Clarity slider is a great way to give your photos a little extra pop.

You can find it in the Presence panel:

presence panel

While the Contrast slider works on all the tones in an image, the Clarity slider increases contrast only in the midtones.

It’s a perfect way to bring out texture in a photo. And it’s one of those general-purpose tools that I recommend you use frequently.

boosted clarity

As usual, don’t push it too far.

But a bit of Clarity will make your photo look clear and crisp–which is exactly what you want.

roseate spoonbill detail

9. Use the Vibrance Slider to Produce Amazing Colors

Time for another quick tip. Because while the Clarity slider is perfect for making photos crisper…

…the Vibrance slider is perfect for boosting color!

You see, when you increase the Vibrance slider, it selectively saturates the image.

colorful tulips

Instead of saturating all the colors, it just saturates the more muted colors–that is, the colors that are in need of a boost.

(This is in contrast to the Saturation slider, which boosts all colors equally, and can make images look garish and unpleasant.)

And this looks great. Because most photos really can benefit from a color boost.

So find the Vibrance slider in the Presence section:

presence circled

Then shift it to the right.

vibrance boosted

And watch your photo come to life.

10. Use a Graduated Filter to Add Pizzazz to Your Images

Do you ever feel like your photos are a bit…boring?

You’re not alone. Plenty of photographers have this issue.

But one easy way to enhance your boring images…

…is to use Lightroom’s Graduated Filter tool.

The Graduated Filter allows you to carefully place “light” along one side of the frame. And it gives a wonderful artistic look.

It’ll also add some depth to flat images.

Here’s what you do:

First, click on the Graduated Filter icon in the Tools panel.

graduated tool circled

Next, boost the exposure by around 1.00 (though feel free to experiment with other options).

Finally, click and drag across your subject. This will introduce the “light.”

graduated filter

The farther you drag the filter, the more subtle the look. I suggest dragging until the look is seemingly natural. The goal is to create something artistic, but not fake.

You can always test the filter from multiple angles:

graduated filter

And I want to emphasize: Different angles and settings will give different looks.

You should experiment with changing the temperature and the tint of the filter – and see how that alters your photo.

11. Convert Your High-Contrast Photos to Black and White

Black and white photography is all about contrast.

Why?

Because when you strip away colors, light is all you have left. And so low contrast photos just look…flat.

Whereas high contrast photos?

They look amazing.

Whenever you have a high-contrast photo, I recommend doing a quick conversion to black and white–just to see how it looks.

Fortunately, Lightroom allows you to do this with the click of a button.

Simply open the Presets panel (on the left side of the screen).

presets circled

Then open the Lightroom B&W Presets section.

Finally, click on the B&W Contrast High preset.

And watch as your image is transformed.

black and white willet

If you like, you can even hike up the contrast a bit more. Just push the Blacks and Whites sliders to the extreme.

Or, if you don’t like that particular black and white look, there are a number of other useful black and white presets:

black and white willet

And:

black and white willet

Try them! You never know how things will turn out.

12. Lift the Shadows to Add Detail to Dark Areas

One thing that a lot of photos suffer from?

Not having enough detail in the dark tones.

swans without enough shadow detail

This will cause images to look a little muddy–a look which you should try to avoid.

But Lightroom offers a quick fix:

The Shadows slider.

It brings up those dark tones (without brightening the whole image).

Simply find the slider in the Tone panel. Then boost the shadows until you can see some details.

lifted shadows

13. Use the Temperature Slider to Give an Artistic Look

White balance is the process of balancing out any color casts in an image. This is generally evaluated by looking at the whites.

Are the whites true white? Are they yellow? Are they blue?

Now, Lightroom offers a way to balance the whites in your photos:

The Temperature slider.

temperature slider circled

Photographers generally use the Temperature slider to create neutral white tones. That is, tones that look pure white and natural.

However…

You can also use the Temperature slider to create an artistic look. One that emphasizes your feelings when you took the photo.

This is something I highly recommend!

Were you shooting the middle of winter? On a snowy day? Then push the Temperature slider to the left–and create a cold, blue image.

cold temperature example

Were you shooting during a sunset? On a hot, dry day? Then push the Temperature slider to the right–and create a warm, summery image.

warm temperature example

The Temperature slider is easy to use. But it gives you a lot of control over your final image.

So use it well!

cormorant silhouette

14. Bump Up the White Slider to Add a Little Extra Oomph

I’ve given you a lot of tips for making your photos pop.

But let me give you one more. It’s super quick and easy–and I think you’ll like the effect.

All you have to do…

…is boost the whites.

whites boosted in dunlin photo

That is, go to the Tone panel. And push up the Whites slider to +50 or so.

whites circled

(Of course, the specific amount will depend on your photo. But +50 is a good starting point!)

This’ll take up the brightest parts of your photo–so that they approach pure white.

So if your photo has a white background, this will create a true high-key look.

Even if your photo has no whites, this is still a useful trick. It’ll help the tones in the image come to life.

rose with whites lifted

15. Create Your Own Presets for Fast and Powerful Editing

One of the many wonderful things about Lightroom…

…is its presets!

Lightroom comes with a whole host of useful presets. And you can find even more online.

But the best presets?

The ones you make yourself!

You see, Lightroom allows you to create your own presets–and to apply them over and over to your photos. This is extremely useful for testing out different favorite looks. It’s also great for ensuring a consistent style across your photos.

And, of course, presets let you edit really, really fast.

Creating your own presets is simple:

First, edit your photo in a style that you like.

Next, tap on the Plus icon above the Preset panel.

plus icon circled

Name your new preset.

preset naming option

And check off all the settings you’d like to include in your preset! If you want a preset that simply creates an S-curve, you can leave all items unchecked, except for Tone Curve. If you want a preset that gives you orange/green split toning, you can create that, too.

I promise you:

Presets will increase your editing efficiency by a ridiculous amount.

So create some. Right now.

And add to your preset collection over time!

daisy

16. Use ‘Lights Out’ to View the Final Image

When you’ve finished editing a photo in Lightroom, what do you do?

You may be tempted to move on to the next photo.

But I recommend you take a moment, and look at the photo in Lights Out view.

Lights Out blacks out the screen–so that all you can see is your image:

lights out mode

I find that Lights Out allows me to carefully evaluate my final photo, away from the distractions of the Lightroom interface.

It helps me see whether there are further changes to be made. Is the image bright enough? Is the image lacking shadow detail? Are the colors muddy?

Lights Out view reveals it all!

To activate Lights Out, simply press “L,” then “L” again.

To deactivate the setting, press “L” one more time.

17. Use the ‘Before‘ and ‘After Function‘ to Avoid Over Editing

Lightroom is amazingly powerful.

Which means that it’s easy to make your photos into artistic masterpieces.

And it’s also easy…

…to over edit your photos.

These are all common examples of overediting:

  • Adding too much vibrance or saturation
  • Adding too much contrast
  • Using too much split toning
  • Including a too-dark vignette

Now, it’s a fine line between a beautiful edit and an overedit.

So how do you make sure you never cross it?

Here’s my advice:

Use the ‘Before’ and ‘After’ function in Lightroom. This allows you to toggle back and forth between your original image and your edited image. And it’ll make any overediting really stand out.

after willet image

It’s also amazingly simple:

Just hit the ‘\’ key! This will switch to the original image. When you hit the ‘\’ key again, you’ll switch back to the edited version.

before willet image

I recommend you do this for every image you edit–to avoid any overediting issues.

After all, you want your photos to be as strong as possible!

aster abstract

17 Lightroom Secrets: Next Steps

Now that you’ve finished this article, you should have a sense of the many hidden panels, features, and tools that Lightroom offers.

And you should know exactly how to use them–for next-level images!

So here’s the next step:

Start editing some photos. I’ll bet you’ve got some masterpieces in your catalog!

willet in warm sunlight

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