How to Use Lightroom: Basic Panel
An Introduction to Lightroom’s Basic Panel
The develop module is where photographers spend most of their Lightroom post-processing time. It is conveniently divided into functional panels controlled by tabs on the right hand side of the screen. At the very top, we encounter the basic panel.
The basic panel is where we start making our photos look as good as we imagine them when we shoot them! Tame this part of Lightroom and you will be able to achieve beautiful, punchy photos that can stand on their own or set the necessary groundwork for any further work. Simply put, the basic panel is the foundation before any other processing. This article explains the basics of the basic panel so that you can immediately get to work. Let’s start from how you access it. Assuming you have imported your photos in the Library module, all you have to do is choose the photo you want to process, click on Develop at the top right of the Lightroom window (or press D) and then click on the Basic tab on you right. The basic panel sits below the histogram and above all other develop tabs. As you will notice, it is divided in three sections called WB (white balance), Tone and Presence:
Let’s start from the white balance section. Despite the sophistication of modern cameras, correcting white balance is a very frequent and necessary activity. The temperature and tint sliders balance between blue-yellow and green-purple respectively to arrive at a neutral white color. You can surely slide those arbitrarily, however Lightroom provides you with very useful tools to do the job. Click on the eyedropper tool on the top left of the panel and then click on a section of your image that is supposed to be white, black, or any shade of neutral gray in between. In the example below, obtaining a correct white balance setting is a matter of clicking on one of the white walls on one of the many white buildings:
If you like the result, continue to the next section, otherwise try more sample points until you achieve the look you like! In the case of RAW file processing, Lightroom provides an extra convenience. If you click on the two small arrows just above the temperature reading you will see the following dropdown menu:
This menu contains ready to use white balance presets for many common lighting scenarios! In the case of my example above, clicking on the daylight WB preset gives me a precise white balance setting and allows me to save precious time. Even if you do not completely agree with the preset, it is typically a good starting point that requires only minor adjustments. In the case of JPG files, there is no Kelvin degree reading for the temperature and the dropdown menu does not contain presets, but it still has the auto option which is always worth trying if you are stuck:
The Tone section works great by keeping an eye on the histogram above it. Histogram interpretation is beyond the scope of this article, however a good summary of the role of the Tone section is typically the attainment of a satisfactory histogram form with good contrast and satisfactory coverage from black through to white pixels.
Exposure and contrast are slightly separated from highlights, shadows, whites and blacks adjustments for a good reason. You can think of them as the “strong” tonal adjustments. Exposure gives an overall lighter or darker look to the image, while increasing or decreasing contrast increases or reduces respectively the tonal spread. The highlights, shadows, whites and blacks adjustments are open to your interpretation of the image. They can be used to lighten dark areas, increase contrast in the image by playing with dark and light areas or even get specialist stylistic looks sometimes we expressly want to have (high key, low key, etc.). Watch the tonal difference between the two images below, one has very limited contrast and is very flat, while the second one has correct pixel spread over the entire histogram:
The Presence section has three extremely useful controls that have the charisma to finish your image with a very powerful tone. You can think of clarity as midtone contrast. It makes images crisper and more detailed. Vibrance is the second magical slider of the section. Imagine it as a selective saturation adjustment. Whereas the saturation slider adjusts colors globally and crudely, vibrance increases the intensity of the weaker tones and is inherently suitable for rather drastic adjustments. Prudent increase of clarity and vibrance can be the decisive factor between a simply good or a great image. The image below is what I arrived at with a few quick adjustments of the basic panel:
Let’s not forget that the basic panel also has a B&W section on the top right. Clicking it automatically converts the image to a pure B&W version, with color adjustments (vibrance and saturation) disabled. White balance adjustments remain active and it is recommended to change those before the B&W conversion.
If you are really out of processing ideas, you can always use the Auto button next to the Tone badge. Lightroom will automatically adjust the image to what it thinks is a good punchy photo. Sometimes it works great, some times less so. Bear in mind that the auto adjustment tends to make photos too bright and overshoots the white slider to impress. In any case, it can be a good quick starting point that you can use to then tune to your wishes.
In a cautionary note, it is important to know that both contrast and saturation are crude adjustments that can adversely affect your basic panel experience. They can easily lead to the dreaded “Photoshopped” look that every photographer would like to avoid. Therefore, it is best to use them very lightly and as auxiliary adjustments to the sliders available in the Tone and Presence sections.
Overall, the basic panel is really fun. The best way to learn how to use it is to try what its sliders do, compare results and revisit to try new things. Once a slider is moved, be prepared to come back and readjust after other sliders have been moved. Being comfortable with basic adjustments does not only pave the way for further adjustments in other panels. It is a guaranteed route to great looking photos with minimal work.