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How are your Lightroom skills? Do you make your photos shine, or do you spoil them with your heavy-handed technique? Could you even tell the difference?
Browse through Flickr, or any other online photo sharing site, and you’ll see the same mistakes made again and again: poor exposure, too much saturation, dodgy HDR, and more.
They’re all easy to avoid, but only if you can recognize them in the first place. Let’s take a look at 10 of the worst Lightroom mistakes you need to avoid.
1. Not Straightening the Horizon
There’s no more obvious sign of a snapshot than a crooked horizon, and it should be the first thing you fix in Lightroom.
Straight lines look more pleasing, and sometimes straightening them is a simple matter of logic. As a general rule, you should always straighten the horizon in landscapes (especially if your shot features the sea, since the sea doesn’t flow downhill).
When there’s no obvious horizon, like in an architectural shot or an indoor portrait, look for things like frames, shelves, roofs, and so on, and straighten them either horizontally or vertically.
Select the Crop tool, then the Straighten Tool located alongside the Angle slider. Now draw a line on your image along the horizon. The image will rotate so that the horizon line is now completely straight. Note that the corners of the image will get cropped when you do this.
And what if you deliberately wanted askew angles? Make it so that’s it’s obviously deliberate. Being one degree off looks like a mistake, while 15 degrees looks like artfully considered framing.
2. Ignoring the Histogram
You should always keep your monitor calibrated when you’re processing your photos. If your monitor is set too bright or too dark it’s very difficult to judge the correct exposure levels. That’s especially true if you’re only going by eye, as many users do.
The easy way to avoid this problem is to use the histogram for guidance. It’ll show you if your shot is overexposed, underexposed, or if the highlights or shadows are being clipped.
It can also alert you to a poorly calibrated monitor. If the histogram indicates a balanced exposure but your eyes are telling you to make the shot darker, it can be a sign that your monitor’s brightness level is set too high.
This is especially important when you’re planning on printing your photos. One of the most common complaints is that the prints come out too dark, and it’s almost always a result of us having our monitors set too bright.
3. Using Too Much Clarity
The Clarity slider is everyone’s go-to tool for adding punch to an image. Clarity is a variation on the contrast tool that focusses on the midtones. It helps bring out detail and texture without affecting the image’s highlight and shadow areas.
The resulting effect is not dissimilar to sharpening, and using too much Clarity is often confused with over-sharpening (which we’ll come to later).
This is especially true of the older, pre-Creative Cloud versions of Lightroom. Clarity used to be very blunt instrument that would create harsh edges and halo effects around objects. It has improved a lot in recent versions, but the effect of too much Clarity is still obvious from a mile off.
So while a little Clarity is almost always a good thing, steer clear of dragging it all the way to +100. Better yet, use the Adjustment Brush and paint Clarity into only the areas you want: you can use Clarity to make a model’s eyes pop, for instance, but applying it to their skin would only enhance any wrinkles or other blemishes.
4. Making the Skin Too Soft
Moving the Clarity slider too far to the right is bad, but so is sliding it too far to the left.
Negative clarity is frequently used to smooth skin. Lightroom even has a Soften Skin setting that whacks the Clarity slider all the way down to -100, while also adding a little sharpening.
The process goes like this:
- Select the Adjustment Brush.
- Choose Soften Skin from the Effect menu.
- Check the box labelled Show Selected Mask Overlay (so you can see exactly where you’re painting).
- Adjust the brush size then paint over the face.
- Uncheck the Overlay box, and you’re done.
The trouble is, the effect can be too strong. You want to make your model look good, but you don’t want them to look like they’ve been carved out of a block of wax. To avoid this, zoom into the image and slowly increase the Clarity (you should still be well into the negative numbers) until you start to see just a little bit of texture and shadow reappearing.
Above, you can see the difference. One the left, we have just enough softening. On the right we have too much, and the effect is quite obvious.
5. Adding Too Much Color
Lightroom has two basic tools for working with color. Saturation adjusts every color in the image by the same amount, and should be used very sparingly.
Vibrance adjusts colors based on how much of each color is already in the image, raising the vividness of the least saturated colors while leaving the most saturated ones alone.
You’ll get better results by using Vibrance rather than Saturation as it’s more controlled and understated. Yet it’s still possible to go too far — it’s just a small step along the slider from “bright and sunny” to “radioactive.”
It’s so easy to overdo the colors without realizing. A simple trick to get around it is to set the Vibrance to whatever level you think you’re happy with, then immediately tone it down by 10 or 15 points. You’ll barely notice the difference, and it certainly won’t hurt your photo.
6. Making Bad HDRs
HDR photography is very popular. High dynamic range increases the amount of detail in both the shadow and highlight areas of an image, and is particularly effective for scenes that your camera would normally struggle to expose correctly. But there’s a right way and a wrong way to do it, and in Lightroom it’s very easy to get it wrong.
Pull down the Highlights slider, crank up the shadows, add some Clarity and Vibrance, and you might end up with something like this:
Yeah, don’t do that. If you like the HDR effect, take a bit of time to learn how to do it properly. You can produce some striking results while still managing to retain a natural look.
7. Over Sharpening
Every image from a digital camera needs sharpening. When you shoot in Jpeg it happens in-camera (although you may still need to add more in post), and when shooting in RAW you need to add it when processing the photo.
Too much sharpening, however, is a bad thing. It produces harsh, ugly outlines, adds halos around the edge of objects, creates a painterly effect in detailed areas (like foliage), and can also exacerbate noise in high ISO images.
There are two things you can do to improve your sharpening:
- Zoom in to 100%. Sharpening is more powerful than it may appear, and the effect may not be immediately noticeable when zoomed out.
- Use the Masking option. Hold the Alt key an drag the Masking slider to the right. The white bits will be sharpened, the black areas won’t. This enables you to limit sharpening to only edges and textures, while leaving alone smooth areas like sky.
Moreover, it’s important to remember that sharpening cannot fix blurry images. If your camera missed focus, or if there’s motion blur caused by slow shutter speeds, then no amount of sharpening will help. In fact, it will probably make it worse. Either embrace the softness or just delete the photo.
8. Overdoing the Effects
Lightroom has a lot of effects that can improve and enhance a photo, but use them in a heavy-handed way and they end up looking bad.
One prime example is the Vignette tool. You can use it to subtly draw the viewer’s eye toward a particular part of the image, but it can also make your photo look like it was shot with a very cheap lens, or even like a still from an old silent movie.
Unless you’re deliberately going for the vintage look, set the Feather slider to around 80–100 and keep the Amount lower than you’d expect. The effect is a lot stronger than it initially looks — around -10 to -20 is often enough.
A similar principle applies to the Graduated Filter tool. It’s great for darkening or adding drama to bright skies, but it can go wrong. For a natural look make sure you use a larger, smooth gradient, rather than a shorter, more abrupt one that will look fake.
Also, if you inadvertently capture foreground objects in your gradient, switch to the Adjustment Brush, set a positive total on the Shadows slider, then paint over the object to cancel out the effect of the gradient.
9. Creating Noise Through Overprocessing
One of the most unpleasant side effects of many of the above mistakes is that they can seriously degrade the quality of your photos. Lightening the exposure, lifting the shadows, increasing saturation, or even cropping too heavily can all cause noise to become prominent, even when there was no noise visible in the image to begin with.
You’ll find things can go downhill fast when you’re working with a JPEG or a high ISO shot (or, worst of all, a high-ISO JPEG).
If you do find yourself with an image that’s noisier than you’d like you can try and tame it with the Adjustment Brush. This tool enables you to apply different levels of noise reduction to different parts of the image. For example, a clear blue sky can withstand very heavy noise reduction, while a smaller textured area should be treated more lightly so you don’t lose detail.
But the best solution is to avoid creating the noise in the first place.
10. Cropping to the Wrong Shape
Our final mistake mostly applies for those photos you’re planning to print. It’s tempting to freely crop an image to remove unwanted objects and to improve the framing. But it can bring unexpected problems.
When you’re using online photo printing services and buying ready-made frames, you’re limited to a set number of standard sizes and aspect ratios. Even printing and framing a seemingly standard 16 inch x 9 inch image can be a challenge.
Lightroom’s Crop tool has a bunch of presets that correspond to the most common printing ratios, like 1 x 1 inch, 10 x 8 inches, and 7 x 5 inches. Stick to these if you’re intending to print.
Keep It Subtle
It’s easy to make mistakes in Lightroom. You become so focused on the job that you all sense of perspective, cranking the sliders higher and higher without realizing the real effect it’s having on your photos.
Ideally, photo processing should be invisible. The more you do, the better it needs to be. By being aware of some of the pitfalls of Lightroom processing, you’re now better placed to spot them and avoid them in future.
Do you make any of these mistakes in Lightroom? What mistakes do you see others making that we should also know about? Tell us about them in the comments below.