Digital Darkroom; Lightroom and Camera Raw Basic Adjustments

The basic ideas of Photographic editing has not changed a lot from the darkroom to the computer. Your digital editing solution is now your modern darkroom, a place where you develop every picture. Yes, all pictures need some kind of editing even if it is slight basic tweaks.

If you wish to watch the companion video for this post you can so here.

Printing Black and White prints in the darkroom you would expose the paper until you got an image with the blackest black and whitest white, set the contrast and crop. Editing digitally is no different with similar steps needing to be taken; balancing the light, managing the colours and enhancing core elements. People have different processes and do different things in different orders, yet the steps are the same. Really it is all down to personal choice.


Comparison of Camera Raw and Lightroom Editing panels

I am starting with basic editing and focusing on Camera Raw and Lightroom.
Lightroom and Camera Raw are starting points to develop a picture and a lot of things can be done here that are quicker and simpler than in Photoshop. That is not to say that Photoshop is not important but a lot of the time a picture does not need to be edit there.
People are sometimes put off by the name Camera Raw, thinking that it is only for the Raw format. In fact Camera Raw will allow you to edit Jpeg, Tiff and Raw files. The only difference in editing a tiff and jpeg is that the file cannot be pushed as much as a raw file can. If you are not shooting Raw and your camera allows you to, I would greatly advise using the raw format. Although I know there are many people who are apprehensive because they know the Jpeg format and it is easy to share without converting files. One Idea could be to shoot Jpeg and Raw together giving you the raw files for when you make the switch and want to take advantage of the format.

Lightroom and Camera Raw use the same coding under the hood and have the same settings as each other, they just look a little bit different. Lightroom has everything in one long drop down menu list and Camera Raw has tabs across the top.
For basic editing you just need to concentrate on the basic tab which is on the right for both Lightroom and Camera Raw (also the first tab in camera Raw).

Basic gives the following settings;

White Balance

This area works on the colour temperature of a picture, is it warm with yellow tones or cold with blue. The temperature settings are usually preset by what the camera’s white balance was set to. In the drop down menu you can select the colour balance preset you want. For example if it was cloudy switch to cloudy, sunny change to sunny or you can use auto and let the computer calculate what it thinks the settings should be. You can also do this yourself by using the eye dropper and select a neutral colour (about 50% grey).


Neutral-colourEven if you have done one of the options above you can also manually move the sliders right and left to get the best colour; if it feels to warm (yellow) move towards blue and if cold the opposite. The same actions can also be applied with tint; if the picture feels to magenta move towards green or the other way around.

It is always a good idea to set your white balance first so when you make other changes you can see what effect they have on the colours.

With my picture I choose to use the eye dropper and I searched for a neutral colour. As I moved around the picture I got a view of the individual pixels and at the bottom a percentage readout Red, Green and Blue colour mix. I was looking to find an area as close to 50% in each to give me that neutral colour.


Tone allows you to edit the light of the image, making things darker and lighter and increasing the contrast (the difference between light and dark)


When using the tone sliders, in the histogram the area that is being adjusted is highlighted.

Exposure – Exposure can be equated to Brightness and moves the central tones of the image brighter and darker. As you change the exposure you will notice the centre of the histogram at the top will move either right (brighter) or left (Darker).
Contrast – Contrast increases and decreases the difference between light and dark pixels; if an image is looking flat and grey increasing the contrast can make it pop more.
Highlights –Highlights control all the tones between the middle and whites. You can either make these tones brighter or darker. By making them darker you can reveal detail lost in bright areas and by making them bright emphasising the brightness of these areas.
In my picture I use highlights to brighten the lighter tones in the building next to the church.
Shadows – Shadows work on the opposite tones to Highlights. You can use shadows to lighten darker areas to bring out more detail or reduce shadows to emphasize those tones.
Once again in my picture I used the shadows to darken tones that are primarily in the foreground. In doing this I have added an illusion on depth.
Whites – Whites is used to set the white point. This is important as it says what the brightest tones possible can be. When setting a white point you need to be careful not to set it too high, in doing so you will start to lose tones as any past this point will be registered as white (also known as clipping). I set the white point by holding down alt on the keyboard while moving the slider. This turns picture black with bright areas showing up as white red green and blue. Those areas tell you that the tones there are absolute white. What you want is small areas with a few specks depending on the image.
Blacks – As with whites, blacks works the same but with the black point. When holding down Alt and moving the slider you get a white screen with the three colours showing, those colours show the area of absolute black.
Setting the White and Black points also creates contrast in the image.


Adjusting the black point, in the bottom right corner you can see the highlighted ares showing the where the tones are absolute black.


The presence settings control the intensity of tones.

Clarity– Clarity I like to a kin to midtone contrast. In adjusting the clarity of an image you are adjusting the contrast in the middle tones, the same that brightness controls. In increasing the clarity it can give the effect of sharpness with harder edges but it is not sharpening the image. The opposite if you lower midtone contrast, it gives the effect of softness yet nothing is blurred. It has become in vogue to use clarity to soften skin tones. Although this can work if applied lightly, a stronger setting can flatten the facial features and make the person seem alien.

Both vibrance and Saturation control the intensity of colours but both work in different ways.

Vibrance– increases the strength of colours unevenly until they all have the same value of intensity. This means that if a colour is less saturated that others, it’s saturation will be increased quicker than a stronger colour.
Saturation – Saturation on the other hand increases and decreases the strength of colours at the same rate.

With my picture I increased the clarity slightly to give a bit more shape to the buildings and separate them from the sky. I increased vibrance quite a bit to pull out the colours in the sky and reduced the saturation slightly to stop them from being over powering.


History panel can be found in the fly out menu on the left side of the window.


The great thing about working in Camera Raw and Lightroom is that at any point you can go back to the image and make changes. The history panel in Lightroom can be found on the left hand side and will show all adjustments ever for the image. Camera Raw unfortunately does not have a history panel but does have undo and redo arrows at the top of the window.

My normal work flow  for basic tweaks is to set the colour balance and then the whites and blacks before adjusting the exposure, then highlights, shadows and contrast. Last I change the vibrance, saturation and then Clarity. I may return to other settings and tweak them a little as well.
In the case of the image I am working on at the moment I went back and increased the exposure as it was feeling a bit too dark.

As I said at the beginning there is not right or wrong workflow it is just what works best for you.
In the next post I will be looking at using the curves and HSL/Colour adjustments to create a more styled image.

 The Digital Darkroom Series is all about learning and the part of learning is asking questions, if you have any questions let me know in the comment box below. 


Apart from cropping all adjustments made with options from the Basic panel

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7 thoughts on “Digital Darkroom; Lightroom and Camera Raw Basic Adjustments

  1. Nice informative post, thanks for taking the time to share. Question: when’s the best time to adjust saturation over vibrance, or vice versa? Worded another way, when would you use saturation and when vibrance?

    • If there are a few strong colours I would use vibrance over saturation as it it would boost the mutes colours more. If all the colours are bold I would use saturation. Saything this I tend to adjust vibrance quite alot and then taper the adjustment with saturation ie incrwase vibrance and then increase decrease saturation. I hope that helps.

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