Why Lightroom Workflow Doesn't Matter

I was looking through my notes for my upcoming Lightroom seminar in Houston next month and I got an idea for today’s topic. One of the things I’ve added into the discussion at some point during the day, is the fact that Lightroom workflow (in the Develop module that is) doesn’t matter. Yep, it doesn’t matter one bit. Why? Because your settings in the Develop module aren’t “applied” by the order in which you add them. For example, we’re always taught to sharpen last in Photoshop. In Lightroom, it doesn’t matter if you do it first, second or last. Same with white balance, exposure, you name it. You can apply them at any point you’d like because they don’t build on top of each other. They’re all separate and whether you set the Exposure slider to +1.5 first or last won’t change the way it affects your photo.

That said, there’s kind of an unsaid order in which we do things. In fact, the Develop module is laid out in a pretty good order to start with. It almost leads you down the right path from top to bottom. For me, the only time I mess with the order is right in the beginning. I go to the Camera Calibration panel and adjust the Camera Profile settings (if I’m shooting Raw because they don’t work for JPEGs). Then I hop back up to the top and start working my way down. Usually it involves White Balance, then Exposure and everything in the Basic panel. Maybe a quick Tone Curve adjustment for some extra contrast, noise reduction and lens correction (if needed), and that’s usually it. If I’m going to Photoshop, I save all retouching, vignetting, and sharpening for there. If I’m not going to Photoshop then I’ll do the vignetting and sharpening in Lightroom last. But not because it matters that I do them last. It’s just because they’re closer to the bottom.

So what about you? Do you have a preferred order? Top down? Or something else? Let me know.

Author: Matt Kloskowski

Matt is the full-time Director of Education for Kelby Media Group and a Tampa-based photographer. He's the Editor-in-Chief of Lightroom Magazine, the lead instructor on the Adobe Photoshop Lightroom LIVE Seminar Tour and author of several best-selling Photoshop books. Matt also hosts the world's top Lightroom blog, LightroomKillerTips.com, where he's built up a massive library of Lightroom videos, presets and tips. In addition to teaching Photoshop, Lightroom and photography seminars around the world, he's an instructor at Photoshop World and one of the full-time staff writers for Photoshop User Magazine.

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51 Comments

  1. Just a quick note. I personally prefer to add the sharpening last in Lightroom also, cause if applied in the beginning it slows things down a lot. Even thou I have reasonably fast iMac, the editing might get really sticky.

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  2. I create a lot of HDR images and it is imperative that the first thing I do after importing and converting to DNG is to apply the automatic lens correction to the original images. If you try to apply automatic lens correction to an image after merging the brackets, Lightroom will not find the correct lens presets to use.

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  3. Dear Matt, thank you for the post.

    I think that now with non destructive softwares the meaning of workflow changed.
    Before workflow used to be the ONLY path to get to specific results.
    Nowadays workflow is just the subjective easiest way to get your photos modified but it not less important.

    I shoot in RAW and I have a similar workflow as you are sharing with two exception. I do not use Camera Calibration at all. is it a limitation in your opinion? Is it the same if I leave it untouched?

    My workflow:
    1 – Import as DNG
    2 – Lens correction (I prefer to have it done before adjusting the light)
    3 – WB
    4 – Basic Panel in the order they are showed
    5 – Start a batch action in PS where I run Dfine and Sharpener Pro plugins and save as TIFF or JPG
    6 – For the 5 stars pictures I skip point 5 and I run and fine control Dfine and Sharpener Pro myself.

    Ciao!!!

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  4. I thought the order did matter when talking about sharpening and noise reduction, as long as noise reduction is kind of blurring, and sharpening seems to heighten the noise. I never get to know if the sharpening was applied before or after noise reduction. Doesn’t it matter either way?

    Thanks a lot.

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  5. Yep – I’m a top down man – but then I tend to bounce around like a rubber ball! And once I’ve finsihed it usually looks just the same as when I had finished the top down first time through!!

    Great posts! Keep ‘em coming.

    Andy

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  6. Hi Matt

    I thought that the order was important, now I know it?s not if feel I have a lot more freedom to do things the way I want.
    Thanks.

    Tony

    P.S. Just got a Wacom 4, using it in CS5 a lot but not LR3, a few tips on using il LR3 would be great.

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    • Tony:

      I use a Wacom Intuos 4 for both programs, too. Some LR3 tips from Matt would be appreciated.

      The one thing that really frustrates me with using it in LR3 is the zoom function does not work the same way as it does in CS5. Probably because LR3 zooms in steps, not progressively like CS5. I did a workaround in the properties dialog, but it’s a bit clunky.

      –John

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      • I Have the same frustration John. Maybe Matt has a solution, if not he could lead us all to lobby Adobe.

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  7. Like yourself Matt, I don’t really have a set pattern/workflow in Lightroom when it comes to working my way through the Develop Module; I generally jump from slider to slider, adjusting what I feel looks obvious from the offset.

    There is one part of my workflow that remains the same throughout though and that’s how I import. I generally create a folder for the images and within this folder are three others: RAW, EDIT, EXPORT. I initially import all the RAW images into the appropriate folder, and then import this to Lightroom. Then I’ll pick the ‘keepers’, work on them in Lightroom adjusting the basics and then Export all of them into the EDIT folder. It’s then I open Photoshop and finish the images off before syncing this folder in Lightroom.

    I guess this can sound like a long winded way to work but (for now at least) it’s a system that works for me. The edit folder is then automatically backed up onto an external drive at 9.30pm each night and this is mirrored onto another HD; paranoid? Me? You bet :)

    With regards to ‘editing’ in Lightroom though…as I said, no set pattern to it.

    Cheers,
    Glyn

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  8. I work through the Develop Module in a similar manner as you. I usually start with the Camera Calibration as well. One of my wish-list items is that we could rearrange the Develop Module areas. So for example I would move the Camera Calibration up to the top, and leave everything else where they are at. It would reduce my scrolling through the module at the very beginning by quite a bit. As they say, every second saved is a second earned.

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  9. The one element that I tend to skip back and forth on is at the beginning. I usually will do any cropping right at the beginning then go back and keyword. This way, I figure that I’m not mislabeling something I might “crop out” later.
    Then I usually head straight down the Develop panel. Lightroom seems to be set up to work very for me this way.

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  10. I jump around a lot. When i first started using Lightroom I started at the top and worked down but quickly found that as I added lower adjustments it affected how I wanted to tweak ones higher on the list. Now I start with the first thing that I feel needs adjusting then move on to whatever next catches my eye in no particular order.

    I sometimes deliberately overdo something to make it easier to do something else then undo the first. I.E. If I notice some dust spots in a sky I will deliberately over darken the sky so the dust spots are easier to find & correct, then lighten it back to where I want it. My flow is “find a problem>fix it>repeat” until it looks the way I want it to look.

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  11. Matt:

    I follow the same top to bottom workflow that you do (probably because someone taught me that way last year! ;) ). Interesting that it really doesn’t matter in what order that you do the adjustments, though. If I do bring anything into PS, I always bring it back to LR3 to add any sharpening and/or vignetting. I just prefer the way that LR3 handles it and that I have the ability to look at the picture in Lights Out mode.

    –John

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  12. If you use Auto tone, do color balance first…it does matter in this case.

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    • Hi Jason,

      Thanks for much for writing that post and sharing the link here! It’s certainly helped my workflow time drop a bit.

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  13. Hi Matt,

    Hey that was some good info … ! I’m like you, since LR 3 I do the same as you. I go to Camera Calibration, then to Lens Correction and then to White Balance. Once I get to White Balance, I use my shot of my WhiBal card and set the White Balance. If I like it, then I move on to Exposure etc. If I don’t like it, then I make a change and move on. I do remove noise next using Define 2 or if I’m doing a batch then I’ll use Noise Ninja. I then make all the rest of my adjustments and then do sharpening last. Old habits are had to change. :-) Even if I go into PS to make some adjustments, I still use Lightroom to sharpen using Nik Sharpening Pro 3.

    Thanks again for the info … I never knew that the order of adjustment in LR didn’t matter.

    Dennis

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  14. I usually do the top down method also. Again, it is more due to the layout of LR than any set in stone methodology. If Adobe chnage the layout of the develop panels, I would still probably go top down.

    Although, I would typically start with white balance and exposure compensation. It is hard to make other adjustments to an image when you know the color is wrong and it is too dark or light.

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  15. Hey Matt,

    After I posted my comment, the “Leave a Comment” box filled in with Chip’s information including his email address. Might want to have the web guys check that out.

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  16. It certainly doesn’t matter in terms of changing pixels. After all, it’s just a series of commands in an XML file (or equivalent).

    However, there’s no way I can judge a hue/saturation change without color correcting first, and if I tried, the color correct would mess up the H/S changes.

    So, as you say, following the sequence in the panel makes a lot of sense. However my flow has two exceptions. First, same as yours, is lens correction. In my flow, selective edits via the adjustment brush comes later in the flow.

    Thanks again for a post that has me thinking of why I do what I do, and how to make it better.

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  17. Matt,

    Looks like some technical problems with your wordpress site here. I submitted a comment to this post, and when the page refreshed the comment form was filled in with the information left by the previous commenter. It had Chip’s name and private email address in the form fields. Now every time I return to this post, even after clearing my cache, it still is showing Chip’s details.

    Jason

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  18. Hi Matt,

    Yepp, top down seems is a very good workflow for me. Why not follow the obvious flow? After installation of LR3 I though first apply the lens correction if needed. I think it works pretty well for my Nikkor 24-70 but not so well for my Nikkor 12-24.

    // Tony Johansson

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  19. The order does matter if you do any editing in an external application which requires Lightroom to render a TIFF file. White balance, noise reduction, sharpening, camera and lens calibration all need to be done before creating that TIFF. Exposure and color settings matter less, so you can adjust them after making your external edit (depending on the edit and adjustments you want to make, sometimes you have to) but there are still subtle differences I’ve noticed between Lightroom’s handling of RAW files and TIFF’s that people should be aware of and plan accordingly.

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  20. 2 things: just like you, I usually go to the bottom first to the camera calibration then back to the top, which annoys the hell out of me, why can’t we decide which panel goes where, tons of applications already let you do this.

    And second: like Troy, I had someone else’s name (Steve K.) AND email address already filled up in the leave a comment section ( so I imagine that someone will now have my email address) you should fix that..

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  21. Matt,

    I agree with your work flow sequence. I add one change. I too go to Camera calibration first too but then straight to Lens Corrections to see if the lens I shot with is profiled. After those two I start my color and exposure adjustments.

    Any chance you could lobby Adobe to maybe not to change the order the Develop components ship in but to ask them if they could make the order of the seven adjustment panels user customizable. I like the histogram and tools at the top but I’d like to make the sequence changeable to suit a users personal sequence. This would help to make the develop sequence more comfortable for many users rather than jumping around and less chance of skipping a step.

    Good post. It made me stop and think about how Lightroom could be made even better.

    John

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  22. Hi Matt – good points! While I agree with your basic premise, and it’s true that Lightroom will always apply your Develop adjustments in the optimal order when exporting final files, there are some reasons that the workflow can make a big difference in the final results:

    1. It’s always best to apply only the minimal amount of processing you need to make the image look the way you want. Some adjustments produce very similar changes to the appearance of the photo so it makes sense to use only the best tool for the job, rather than compounding multiple adjustments that are doing similar things.

    2. In general, you don’t want to apply adjustments that produce counteracting results; it’s a waste of time, and in some cases can degrade the appearance of the image. For example, you probably wouldn’t want to increase Brightness then decrease the midtones using the Tone Curve.

    3. It’s always best to process tone and color separately. Usually, you should make tonal adjustments first – adjust the range of brightness levels before moving on to adjust color. You’ll find that in many cases, when you get the tone right, the colors will fall right into place. (The exception this is photos with a very skewed white balance, in which case it makes sense to do white balance first.)

    4. You should always try to work global to local – big to small. Make the adjustments that produce the most significant effects first, then work your way to the fine details. For example, if you plan to crop the photo, try to handle that early in the workflow, since it changes the composition, affects the histogram and affects the potential need for retouching. If you save cleanup and fixing minor details until later in the workflow you’ll save time. For example, you wouldn’t want to waste time cleaning up dust spots that you only end up cropping out later.

    Another important exampel of this is sharpening – you shouldn’t try to refine your sharpening until you’ve got the tones locked down. This is due to the fact that sharpening is inherently based on contrast (specifically along edges)… if you get the tone and contrast right in a photo, it will automatically increase the appearance of sharpness. Don’t try to perfect sharpening before getting your Exposure, Blacks, Brightness and Contrast correct.

    5. Some adjustments can produce hideous artifacts in the image. One example is using the HSL panel to darken individual color ranges, which can often create lots of noise and halos. These unsightly effects can be exaggerated by other adjustments.

    Sure, you can Develop your images in whatever sequence of adjustments you like and in many cases you’ll find yourself going back and forth between the panels. That’s fine. But in the interest of saving time, it makes sense to pre-visualize the end result you’re looking for whenever possible and try to reduce the number of steps you use to achieve that result. The fewer adjustments you need to make, the less time you’ll spend on each photo and you’ll get the cleanest, highest quality output possible.

    Most importantly – in Lightroom or any other imaging software – if you apply an adjustment and it doesn’t produce an improvement in the image, make sure to turn it off or reset it. You don’t want any adjustments being made that don’t contribute a positive effect to the final result. If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to see-saw back and forth, making one adjustment just to fix the negative effect of another.

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  23. I usually go top down, however I think Calibration ought to be first.

    Not sure I understand why sequence doesn’t matter. Internally, LR must apply the corrections in some sequence, so there must be some interdependencies.

    Two things I’d like to see in LR:

    1) the ability to reorder the develop module menu so that you can sequence the steps in your preferred sequence
    2) the ability in the History panel to turn develop actions on and off

    If there is no sequence dependency, you’d think these would be easy to implement (esp. #1)

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  24. I always set white balance before I make basic exposure adjustments. The reason is that it can affect clipping on a channel by channel basis. Try it for yourself, open a sunset photo and notice how you can blow out the red and green channels by moving the temperature slder to the right. I frequently find I need to adjust the Recovery or Blacks sliders to fix excessive clipping after making WB changes.

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  25. This is mostly true, but not entirely. It is true from the standpoint that nothing can’t be undone, but it’s not true from the standpoint that you won’t be better off leaving some things until last.

    One of my few gripes with Lightroom is that when you move to the next photo and do “paste settings from previous” it includes all settings. This is useful in all but one situation: Spot Removal (q). The chances of having two photos with the exact same spot-healing requirements are pretty slim.

    Sure, dust from your sensor is always in the same place, but the target where you are cloning from is variable and can lead to some ugly results.

    The reverse is also true… you can paste settings from previous and destroy your meticulously placed spot removals.

    The place I’ve found this to be the most trouble is when I’m pasting fine-tuning and tweaking several photos, testing out develop settings from one photo on others.

    Spot removal is the only thing that I say leave until the end. It’s nothing that can’t be undone and redone regardless of order, but if you paste and forget to check that, you could end up sending glitchy or spotty prints to the printer.

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  26. Workflow most cer4tainly matters. Some adjustments affect other adjustments. Try setting exposure and/or brightness, then adjusting white balance. Go look and see if your exposure is different. You can end up with clipped highlights by making a simple change to white balance, or by making adjustments to lens corrections.

    Workflow absolutely matters.

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  27. I have a pretty standard flow that I go through so what I did is build presets to remind me of how I like to edit. Not all the presets are real presets (they are just folders) but they document the path I like to take.
    1. Global Reset
    2. Auto Tone
    3. Camera Calibration
    4. Crop
    5. Lens Correction
    6. White Balance
    7. Tone Curve
    8. Clarity
    9. HSL
    10. Sharpening

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    • Building my own presets rocks in the develop module! This gives me predictable/repeatable results. But I also know that frequently my presets are merely a starting point. Even with my presets I still will work generally from top to bottom.

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  28. I bounce like a rubber ball, but I do make sure that I do my camera calibration and my lens corrections first. Calibration is important because I want my colors right before I start messing with them; lens correction needs to be done before I do any cropping.

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  29. I do not think you are entirely right that the order in which I push sliders in Lightroom doesn’t metter. I understand your argument that it doesn’t matter for software, where all the changes are applied at the export. But I think it matters in the sense that doing any adjustments changes the looks of the image in a certain way. I will try to explain ion simple examples. I will do sharpening last, because I want to adjust amount of sharpening to the noise I introduced by adjusting Tone Curve and Clarity. I will correct white balance and exposure before pushing Vibrance, as it will enhance all the color casts. I would be going back and forth between some modules, but overall I typically work from top to bottom.

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  30. Hi Matt,

    Great post as always. I, like you, follow almost the same process, and in fact only recently (through either a video or some other blog/post I read that you did) started to use the Camera Calibration as I never really put much stock (no pun intended) in it before. I didn’t even realize what it did until I had read something related to it. I obviously shoot RAW – since as you pointed out, it’s not available if you shoot JPGs.

    Nevertheless, glad to hear that there really isn’t a big deal associated with Workflow and it’s truly “whatever works for you” but by the looks of it, according to what I’m seeing as comments, most people tend to use the out of the box ‘top down’ approach. I do like the two comments posted earlier, first being it would be nice to have the Develop module customizable, and the second post (John LeJeune) that requested more tips / videos on Wacom 4 tablets. I just bought one a few months ago and love it…but pretty much use it out of the box and haven’t done anything with it in terms of customizing it for my use yet !!!

    Thanks, always a great learning experience with your comments !

    Cheers,
    M.

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  31. As others have said, Chip’s name and email address appear in the form. That’s weird. Really need to fix that. :)

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  32. Hi Matt,

    I’m looking forward to the section on the types of situations when you would go to Photoshop for editing when you’re in Houston. I posted a gallery of photos I took in Maine on my website yesterday. For these I did all the retouching (except for one where I had to clone out a sign) in Lightroom, including adding post crop vignetting before crossing over to Photoshop to blend and place in my SO template.

    I did think I could get better masking control in Photoshop – especially for applying gradient adjustments (not that I took the time to do so) – and I did perform my final sharpening in Photoshop just prior to output.

    Hopefully I’ll get the time to say ‘Hi’ during one of the breaks.

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  33. I personally do things in LR from the top to the bottom.
    Seems that Adobe set up the panel in the way you would want to do things ant way.

    1 ADJUST PHOTO
    2 ADJUST TONE CURVE (TO FINE TUNE #1)
    3 ADJUST COLORS (HSL)
    4 MAKE LENS CORRECTIONS
    5 ADJUST SHARPNESS/NOISE
    6 APPLY ANY EFFECTS IF DESIRED

    Ron

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  34. The Sharpening/Noise panel overall, “Detail” tangled with noise reduction, further mixed with Amount and Radius… where and what is the divine guiding light for settings? The many variables cloud the clarity of understanding. Concurrently, if an image is intended for further sharpening in CS5… how much do your push the Sharpening envelope in the LR side of the equation?

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  35. My workflow:

    I import photos as RAW files to specific folders which are named for example as ‘nature’ or ‘urban’. Subfolders are created by date. I also add some keywords to photos in this phase.

    After import I stack photos if they are taken from same subject or they are part of hdr or panorama. Then I start picking photos for editing. I simply flag them as pick. At the same time I flag bad photos as rejected and delete them afterwards.

    Then I start to develop selected photos. The first thing is always crop and straighten. Then I basically move from up to down. Sometimes I start with switching profile but that is quite rare. After getting up to down I do another round with micro-adjusting slides. So first the big picture and then small details.

    Finally I export decent photos straight to Flickr and leave the else be in the catalog for later use.

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  36. My workflow is;
    First sort though Photomechanic.

    Import as DNG, automatically apply calibration developed using xRite Passport Checker, lens correction and a preset to simulate either the Nikon Portrait or Standard profile.

    Then it is;

    WB
    Exposure
    Highlight recover
    Black
    Fill-light
    Brightness
    Clarity
    Vibrance/Saturation
    Tone curve
    Noise reduction
    HSL tab

    At this poitn I’ll create a Snapshot call (Global adjustments – these are the settings I’ll use if I take an image into Photoshop).

    Next I’ll do local adjustments, spot removal, skin softening, darken sky and then finally I’ll sharpen, I’ll create another adjustment called Local adjustments).
    After that there will be additional adjustments for different crops, and also for virtual copies where I do B&W etc.

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  37. I usually start with the Camera Calibration, and then start from the top as well. I still leave the sharpening until last just due to the fact that at times, the adjusting of exposure and color will affect how I want the overall picture to look, along with any change that may affect any noise I would want to reduce.

    It doesn’t stop me from continuing to play with and adjust the photo after the sharpening, but I try to leave the main sharpening until the end.

    Now, if Adobe would just put in the ability to snap the panels where you would want them as they do with the tools and their panels in photoshop – that would be killer ;)

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  38. Ok, Matt K. preacher of presets – if you go to camera callibration every single time
    then why don’t you add that to your import preset – then save your self a step.

    if will adjust for any camera/lens you have – check with Lisa on that.
    then go on thru workflow…

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  39. All images that i import get my standard settings applied at import, bit of extra saturationa nd contrast. Then I work from top down, in the develop mode.

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  40. Matt – Thanks for confirming what I’ve long felt – that the develop panel “natrually” leads a user through the process of making adjustments. Your approach is almost exactly the same as mine: Selection (sometimes) of a different profile in Camera Calibration, followed by adjustments in the Basic Panel – most commonly white balance, fill light, blacks, vibrance and clarity. The “self-directing” design is one of the things that makes Lightroom my favorite program to work with. VERY intuitive.

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  41. I also tend to move from top to bottom, but I find I usually do WB last. It seems that my other adjustments can change the way the WB looks. I might do it first, but I very often go back to WB at the end.

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  42. While I agree with most of the post, I am not so sure about the relationship between noise reduction and sharpening. I’ve seen many times that with sharpening applied first, noise reduction does not work nearly as well. I have adjusted several of my presets to not apply ANY sharpening till after I use noise reduction which tends to be a manual process for my work flow. I use it sparingly and rarely is it the same setting on multiple images. If I apply sharpening first, things seem to get too “crunchy” on screen. Can you shed light on this?

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  43. I’ve skipped reading all the comments and wanted to jump right in and say thank you for pointing out the indiscriminating workflow tips. Until now I’ve always been cognizant and careful about the order of my adjustments and will sometimes start over or back up a few steps if I think the order of a specific adjustment will make a difference. I feel a huge relief after reading this article and am sure to cut my editing time down. OK… gonna go back and read the comments now. :-)

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  44. Funny because I just read/learned this in the Lightroom Missing FAQ book an hour ago. I would swear that I had read otherwise in Kelby’s LR3 book, but I suppose not… it’s very freeing!

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  45. Contrary to what you said, I think they DO build on each other in the sense that my eyes and brain are included in the loop. How can I make small adjustements in the colors if I have not even corrected the white balance? Everything will move again.

    For the sake of efficiency, and to precisely avoid this back-and-forth that could be interpreted as “freedom”, I think it is important to follow a pretty standard workflow. Concept like going from the more general to the more detailed, or cropping first are also nice ideas.

    Anyway, I think that you also wrote that you end up following a pretty much standard workflow.

    Cheers,

    Post a Reply

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