Welcome to Lesson 4 — Essential Strategies in Developing Images for Print

Developing (post-processing) your images optimally and creatively is a critical step that greatly determines the quality of a print. Too little contrast or brightness and your prints will look flat, dull, or dark. Too much contrast or saturation, and your prints will appear garish and unnatural.

Creatively developing your images also involves emphasizing what’s important in the image and giving the viewer a sense of where to look and why. This becomes easier if you ask yourself these questions with every image: 1) what is the image about, and 2) what do you want to convey to the viewer?

Once you have a strong sense of the answers (or potential answers,) you can then interpret the image with creative and intentional adjustments that will produce a more compelling image and print.

While it is impractical for me to cover every aspect of editing here, I want to share some basic tips I think are crucial. I hope they give you a good overview of my approach which you can then adapt to what works best for you and your images.

Right now, 99.9% of my image editing is completely done in Lightroom Classic. My workflow has become simpler, more creatively focused, and fun. This is because 1) the tools in LR have evolved to become very powerful and effective for 99% of my editing needs, and 2) using one application helps me avoid complexity bias, which is our natural tendency to look for complex solutions to seemingly complex problems.

Yet it’s often the simpler solution that eliminates variables and allows our brains to remain creatively engaged, rather than become lost in technical complexity. So with that said, here are some strategies to consider.

Developing Tips & Strategies

All of the tips and tools mentioned below are found in the Develop Module of Lightroom.

Basic Panel

  • Take a “global” approach to developing an image so that the overall look and feel is representative of your vision. This means you get the image looking as best as possible as a whole before you start to work on specific parts of the image. In Lightroom, this is achieved entirely in the Basic Panel.
  • Set the Exposure properly for the general mid-tones in your image—how bright or dark the overall image is. Together with the Temperature control, this also sets the overall mood of your image.
  • Set the White and Black points to expand and optimize the tonal values. In general, set the white point as high as possible before you get clipping in the highlights. (Turn on the highlight clipping indicator in the histogram in the upper right section of the Develop module.)
  • Do the same for the black point—set it as low as possible before clipping appears in the shadows.
  • Use the Highlights and Shadows sliders conservatively to recover or soften highlights and add more “light” into the shadows.
  • Once the above is done, then and only then apply Contrast, Vibrance, and Saturation judiciously to make the image richer and vibrant to taste.

Detail Panel

It is important to apply proper sharpening to your images to produce a great looking print. Additionally, aesthetic sharpening can be achieved using the Masking control to create more depth and visual interest in your print.

  • Amount: controls the overall strength of the sharpening effect.
  • Radius: defines how many pixels on either side of an “edge” the sharpening will be applied to. In general, images with lots of detail (nature and busy urban scenes) benefit from a lower radius (0.5-1.0), while less detailed images (portraits, abstract) benefit from a higher radius (1.5-2)
  • Detail: enhances the overall sharpening effect when using a low radius. I generally adjust to 50 or more for landscapes.
  • Masking: reduces the sharpening effect on smooth areas of the image, which makes your image more interesting since it will have varying amounts of sharpening based on detail. This, in turn, will produce more natural looking prints.

Using the Local Adjustments Tools

Dodging and burning (or lightening and darkening) are the most powerful tools to strengthen the “path” a viewer follows through an image. It’s also a great way to add depth and dimension to an image. Subtlety is your best strategy here - you want your adjustments to be invisible to the viewer, yet have a visual impact on the image.

I use the adjustment brush and graduated filter for most edits to local areas, like skies, water, and the main subject.

  • Adjustment brush - best for adjusting specific areas that have irregular shapes - trees, rocks, people, etc.
  • Graduated filter - great for skies and other areas that align along straight lines, but also remember that it can be modified with the erase brush for greater flexibility.
Before dodging & burning in foreground. Click for larger version.
After dodging & burning. Click for larger version.

Additional Thoughts on Image Editing

  • Recommended defaults by "experts" may be good starting points, but always judge for yourself—only you know what works best for your image. The same goes for Develop Presets—one size does not fit all.
  • When making adjustments, the value of the adjustment may be relevant as a reference (ie. Vibrance=30,) but use your eyes and aesthetic judgment to make the adjustment. If an image works best with Vibrance=0, then so be it. Same for Vibrance=90. What matters is what the image looks like, not the number. Take control of your tools, instead of letting them control you.
  • Another great strategy is to allow some time between when you finish editing an image and when you print it. A few days to a week often provides a bit of objectivity which is always helpful.
  • Finally, proceed with extreme caution with anyone that says "never do this," or "always do this." That's the surest path to creative stagnation and repetition. Growth is found when you get out of comfort zones and routines.

I know I’ve only scratched the surface here of what’s possible in any sophisticated application like Lightroom. But what I want to stress is that “less is more” when it comes to editing your images. Subtlety and suggestion are far more powerful than shouting.

Leave something for the viewer to discover on repeated viewings.

It is not necessary to speak loudly, but it is essential to speak clearly. —Skip Lawrence

Master these essential tips and your prints will improve drastically while looking natural rather than over-processed.

Regular practice is the key.