Below are a couple of practical recommendations to help beginners use Lightroom in an optimal way and avoid making typical beginners’ errors. They’re based on my experience with teaching Lightroom to hundreds of photographers. This blog post will be followed by a ‘Lightroom Don’ts’ blogpost shortly, so stay tuned for that one.
1 Work as long as possible with only one catalog
Although you could work with multiple catalogs, only one catalog can be open at any given time in Lightroom. This means that you can only search and filter within one and the same catalog at any given time. The same goes for working with collections: these will also only work within the same catalog. Unless you know what (and why) you’re doing, you should work as long as possible with one single catalog. This will allow you to reap the maximum benefit of the various organizational tools in the Library module.
If for some reason (for example, to have more compact, faster catalogs) you want to work with multiple catalogs, it might still be a good idea to work with so-called “project catalogs” and a central archival catalog but this is a more advanced feature that a novice Lightroom user should probably avoid until you get a full understanding of the Catalog concept in Lightroom.
2 Do as much as possible upon import
Lightroom distinguishes itself from ordinary file browsers such as Adobe Bridge by the fact that images have to be imported into its database (the ‘Catalog’). This importing is nothing more than making references in the catalog as to where your images actually are. Since, as a Lightroom user, you can’t get around this obligatory import phase, you might as well make the most of it and perform as many tasks as possible during import. The Import dialog allows you to “order” the rendering of the previews that Lightroom needs in order to run smoothly. Furthermore, you can also make a backup copy of your images and add specific copyright information during the import phase. Finally, you can rename your images and even apply some initial post-processing, such as the automatic removal of lens distortions, by means of a preset.
3 Use keywords, collections, smart collections and virtual copies.
Lightroom’s database architecture allows for some unique file management options and it’s up to you to take advantage of them. Using keywords, you will be able to quickly retrieve specific images in your ever-growing image library. Collections allow you to bring images that reside in different physical folders together without having to physically duplicate or move them. Smart collections automatically put images together when certain conditions that you specified in the smart collection’s rules are met. Virtual copies are an ideal way to experiment with different edits of the same image without having to duplicate that image, something you cannot do in Adobe Bridge & Camera Raw.
4 Make maximum use of templates and presets.
Lightroom is a workflow application, and it is stuffed with options to speed up that workflow by means of templates and presets. As a rule of thumb, if you’re planning on doing anything more than a couple of times in Lightroom, you’re better off turning it into a preset. There are more than 10 different kinds of presets, ranging from the obvious develop presets over metadata templates to specific keyword sets. And let’s not forget the templates you can save to quickly retrieve specific layouts in the output modules such as Slideshow, Print and Web. Templates and presest not only make your workflow faster, but also more consistent. In a way, templates and presets are the Lightroom alternative to Photoshop Actions.
5 Work efficiently: do as much as possible in Lightroom…
When you’re editing images in the Develop module, try to do as much as possible with global adjustments: these are a lot easier to synchronize with (i.e. copy to) other, comparable images. Only when you run out of global editing options should you take on the local adjustments such as the graduated filter and the adjustment brush.
By working in Lightroom as long as possible, you keep your filesize down (because you’re working on a raw file instead of on a TIFF or PSD, which is typically 3 to 6 times bigger) and everything you do is non-destructive: you can always revisit your settings and change your mind: nothing’s ‘baked into’ the pixels. Every edit is just written in pencil in Lightroom’s big archive: the Catalog.
6 … But know its limitations.
There’s an awful lot that you can do in Lightroom, maybe even more than you ever thought possible. Yet, sometimes it will be faster and/or better to use other applications (the so-called plug-ins) that you can call from within Lightroom. And of course, there’s the mother of all Lightroom plug-ins: Photoshop!
7 Use all modules, not only Library and Develop.
There’s a lot of photographic fun to be had in the other modules as well: the new Map module allows you to geotag your images, manually or based on GPS data already present in your image. The Slideshow module not only lets you show images on your own monitor but also exports your presentations as video, including the music you used. The Print module and the Web module let you send images to a printer or even the internet, and the new Book module is perfect for automatically or manually laying out photo albums!
More tips? Read the ‘Lightroom Don’ts blogpost’.
This blog post is based on an excerpt of my new eBook ’Lightroom 4 UnMasked. A Complete Guide to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4′ which is available at www.craftandvision.com. $20 for over 300 pages (including 60 cases) of solid, no-nonsense Lightroom info. Suitable for beginning and intermediate users. More info about this eBook can be found here.