From Raw to Rawwwr: Lightroom 2 Raw Development for the Rest of Us

I have a casual obsession with Lightroom 2 and have had a load of fun tinkering with the Lightroom catalog database to extract information about my photographs. More recently, I’ve been writing over the past handful of weeks about my workflow in Lightroom 2 from the perspective of an enthusiastic but non-professional user. I’ve previously covered organization and keywords. This time around, the topic is using LR2 to work up raw photos.

Why would one shoot in raw? Raw is an image format meant to preserve as much original image data as possible; that information can be manipulated much more flexibly and effectively than the comparably limited range of image data contained in a JPG or TIFF image. A raw image with bad exposure or white balance can be salvaged, while a JPG — lacking the image information of raw — offers far less latitude for recovery. Meanwhile, JPGs produced by most digital cameras have some amount of sharpening, exposure, and contrast adjustment applied in-camera, while raw images are essentially straight representations of what the camera “saw” when taking the photo. This means that raw images will almost always need a bit of color tweaking and sharpening. Hence the eternal quest for a reliable, easy-to-apply workflow for “developing” raw images to best effect, and the subject that brings me to the MacBook today.

After importing and doing preliminary tagging, flagging and deleting of images, I start in on working up the raw images.

White Balance

White Balance is the first thing to tackle. The point of correcting white balance is to give the right color tone to the “neutral” (white or grey) colors in your image. In other words, you want white to look white. If the WB is off, your photos will have an unnaturally cool or warm cast.

In Lightroom 2, you can adjust white balance in both develop and library modules using presets for different light types, and in the develop module via the temperature sliders. (There are a couple of quick-develop buttons for temperature, but I generally avoid using them.)

The most common white balance adjustment I make starts with selecting the “tungsten” preset. This immediately removes the too-hot feel of photos taken in incandescent light — ie, most sources of indoor, non-flash light.

LR2 screenshot

After using the Tungsten preset, it’s usually necessary to make a few adjustments: This is when I use the Tint and Temperature sliders in the develop module for subtle shifts, often to add just a bit more warmth to the light by nudging the Temp control a tiny bit back to the right. It’s a good idea to swing the Temp control around a bit just to see what kind of difference it makes to give a bit more warmth or coolness to an image.

Mixed light provides a dilemma for white balance. Light from an overhead lamp plus natural sunlight through a window, for example, can be tricky to adjust. I find that setting the Tungsten preset will cool off the overall color cast, but will also amplify the parts of the image that are already a bit cooler — the natural sunlight — giving them a sharp blue tone, especially around highlights. My solution to this is to desaturate the blues a bit, which takes the edge off that coolness. In Lightroom 2, you have even more ability to make that correction by using the adjustment brush to spot-desaturate the highlights that are made too cold by adjusting to Tungsten. The below shot illustrates an image that’s been tweaked by first presetting WB to Tungsten, and then backing off the blue saturation just a few points.

LR2 screenshot

But wait, there’s more! While the Tungsten preset is good, it’s not always quite right. As alternative, use the White Balance Dropper — that’s the dropper button next to the WB selector in the develop module. Click it, then click a spot in your image that should be nice and neutral, a white or grey spot. Presto! Instant white balance. When I can’t quite decide on the right balance, I often use this tool on various spots of the image to quickly try out a range of white balances. The shortcut for the WB dropper is W, which you can use in both grid and develop modes.

Once you’re happy with the white balance of a given image, you can quickly apply those settings to the remainder of similar images with the “sync settings” command: Swap over to grid mode, select the corrected image first, and then click-select the others with similar light, and finally sync ( shift-cmd-S).

There’s much more to the raw workflow: Exposure, sharpening, and so on, and I’ll tackle some of those next time.