Photography Skills

Adobe Lightroom Tutorial

Adobe Lightroom Tutorial (a.k.a. my dirty little secret)

Before and After

I have a confession to make… I’m actually a terrible photographer. I honestly can’t be bothered fiddling with stuff like manual focus, white balance and even a proper exposure, especially when photographing my dinner which is getting cold right before my hungry eyes.

My solution is to take a bunch of photos while following a few guidelines, saving the nitty-gritty details to handle on my computer when I’m less hungry. The software I use to process my photos on the computer is called Adobe Lightroom and while a bit pricey, it makes it easy to make great photos.

This isn’t intended as a full tutorial on taking good food photos (there are lots of other ones already out there). But if you’re getting serious about your food photography and want to process photos on your computer, this guide should help you get started.

Steak Before

Steak After

Taking photos
These are some guidelines I follow with the intent to process the photos on my computer (as opposed to on-camera processing), but some of them should help you even if you’re not planning to do this.

  1. Shoot RAW. Think of a RAW file as a digital “film” as opposed to a JPG file (which is similar to a photograph that’s already been processed). As with film, having the unprocessed negative gives you a lot more leeway in the white balance and exposure of your final print, making it easier to make bad photos usable and good photos great.All digital cameras work more or less the same way. Think of the sensor in your camera as a piece of graph paper with an image being projected on it. Each box in the grid captures the brightness of light being projected on it in 3 different colors (red, green and blue). Then most cameras will automatically process this data making guesses on what it thinks will look best. As part of this process, the 3 channels of color are combined and any extra information that the sensor originally captured is tossed out. To make more photos fit on your memory card, cameras also use a form of compression that will make the files smaller by throwing out even more information. What you’re left with is a photo that has very little room for adjustment since most of the original sensor data has been merged, or tossed out.

    By setting the camera to save RAW images, all the information that the sensors originally captured is being saved, so once you have it on the computer you can process the photos yourself (after all, you know better than your camera what the photo is supposed to look like).

    There are a few drawbacks to consider though. For instance the files are much larger in size, some cameras won’t save unprocessed images, and there’s the extra step of processing your photos after you copy them to your computer.

  2. Even if your lighting isn’t great, try to at least get your subject evenly lit. By shooting in RAW format you will be able to compensate for underexposure/overexposure of photos, but if your photo is unevenly lit (i.e. with dark areas or hot spots), this will be much harder and your finished image will not look as natural.
  3. Take lots of photos. I don’t spend a lot of time adjusting camera settings, but I do try to get the exposure in the ball park and then I take at least 15 photos (with at least 5 shots from each angle). This helps ensure I get at least one shot with the focus in the right place and gives me a few angles/lighting setups to play with.
  4. Try to get something that is neutral white or gray in your photo. If this isn’t practical, take a photo of something white using the same lighting and setup that you’ll use for your actual subject. The reason for this is that you can auto correct the white balance in Lightroom, but you need something neutral to calibrate the correction off of.

The obvious one here is using a digital SLR instead of a compact point and shoot, but here are a couple other less obvious tools you can use to improve your photos, even if you don’t have the budget for a digital SLR.

  1. I have a $10 table lamp I got at Ikea with one of those rice paper shades. The shade makes for a perfect diffuser for evenly lighting your subject. You don’t want to shine a lightbulb directly on your food or you’ll get glare and hotspots that are brighter than other areas. The “daylight” bulbs get you closer to the right white balance but if you’re shooting RAW this doesn’t really matter too much since you can always fix it in Lightroom. I like to handhold the lamp so I can control how the light hits the food and where the shadows are, and if you have an assistant this is even easier.
  2. White posterboard. If you only have one light source (or even if you have more) using white posterboard to reflect light softens shadows and helps evenly light your subject. If you don’t have an assistant to hold it, just cut out a triangle of posterboard and glue it to the bottom of the back side to keep it propped up.
  3. If you have a digital SLR, try to get a lens with a very wide aperture throughout the zoom range. I use a 50mm prime lens with a maximum aperture of 1.4 (smaller number = better). This allows me to shoot at a reasonable shutter speed and hand hold my camera even in my dungeon of an apartment.

Adobe Lightroom Basics
To do the following you’ll need to have Adobe Lightroom installed on your computer. If you don’t have it you can buy it here.

The first thing I do when I import an image is to set the white balance. There are two ways to do this: the easy way and the hard way. We’ll just cover the easy way for this tutorial. Start by selecting the white balance selector tool (see image below), then click on either a white or neutral gray surface in your photo.

Lightroom white balance selector

This automatically calibrates the white balance of your images giving you a nice neutral white point to start from.

Sushi Original

Sushi White Balance Corrected

One problem with this method is that you need something truly white or neutral gray to click on in your photo. I shoot most of my photos on a stainless steel table with white plates, so that makes this part pretty simple for me, but if this doesn’t work for your setup, you can always take a calibration shot with something white or neutral gray in it then swap it out for your actual subject.

The other problem is that if you’re shooting stuff like cooked beef, you don’t want the white balance too neutral since it might make your meat look gray and unappetizing. In this case, once you auto set the white balance, move the Temp slider to the right a smidge at a time. By increasing the temperature, you make the image “warmer” giving it a more natural appearance. Conversely if you want to give your subject matter a stark “cooler” look, move the slider to the left.

The next step is to correct for any exposure problems. If your photo is too dark or too bright, you can increase or decrease the exposure by moving the Exposure slider to the right or left. Try to first get the midtones in your photo properly exposed using this slider (even if this means overexposing the brighter areas).

Sushi Exposure Corrected

Provided your subject matter was evenly lit, this should be enough to get the exposure just right. Unfortunately getting foods that are different colors and textures evenly lit can be a challenge sometimes, so Adobe has included 3 other sliders that you can adjust.

If you have areas of the photo that are too bright, move the Recovery slider to the right which will reduce the exposure of the brightest areas of your photo (hightlights). You can also move the Fill Light to the right which will make the midtones in your photo brighter without making making the highlights any brighter.

Changing these two sliders can have an unwanted side effect though. They can make your photo look washed out. To fix this, you can use the Blacks slider to deepen the shadows and if need be the Contrast slider to increase the contrast (though this can undo some of the work you did to with the Recovery and Fill Light sliders).

The last steps I take are some minor adjustments to the Clarity and Vibrance sliders to make the photos really pop off the screen. Getting into the details of how these two tools work can get complicated because they are similar in function to the Contrast and Saturation sliders, so I’ll simply explain them as being more natural looking alternatives.

Sushi with Clarity and Vibrance adjusted

I usually bump Clarity up into the +60 range which selectively sharpens the image and increases the contrast in the midtones without blowing out the highlights or increasing noise in the shadows.

Lastly, I’ll finish off the photo by moving the Vibrance slider to the right. This slider is also selective in that it effects colors that are less saturated more than colors that are already saturated thereby avoiding that fake look you get when certain colors get too intense. For example, let’s say you took a photo of strawberries and cherries. Because cherries are typically a more intense red than strawberries if you increased the overall saturation the cherries would look over-the-top. By using the Vibrance slider you can increase the intensity of the red in the strawberries without overdoing the red in the cherries.

If after using one of these sliders the color balance or exposure looks off, you can always go back and tweak those settings some more.

To make things faster, once you’ve gotten one photo to your liking you can then go and Sync the corrections you’ve made on one photo to all the other photos taken in similar lighting conditions.

To do this, just select the thumbnail of the image you made the corrections to at the bottom of the screen. Then hold the COMMAND key (CTRL key on a PC) and click on the thumbnails of the photos you want to sync. You should see the corrected image highlighted in a very light gray with the other photos you want to sync highlighted in a slightly darker gray.

Then just press the Sync button at the lower right corner of the screen.

That’s all for this tutorial, but if you liked this tutorial and want to see more, let me know and I’ll do a more advanced one that goes into individual color channel control for hue, saturation, and exposure.


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