Lightroom can be a bit overwhelming the first time you open it up. It is the key, however, to turning an image into a photograph.
Your drone, and all cameras really, have a couple of flaws that make the image you see on the screen not quite as stunning as the moment felt.
Couple that with the limited image viewing capabilities of social media platforms like Instagram and Facebook, and you’re left struggling to convey the feeling that you wanted with your photographs.
I’m going to walk you through my process of taking an image from raw file to ready for social media, where like it or not, the vast majority of images will ever be seen.
Importing Images into Lightroom
The first step to editing your photos in Lightroom is getting them there. When you first open up LightRoom, you will be prompted to create a Catalogue.
This is where LightRoom will store all the information about how you’ve edited your images.
I like to save my Catalogue on an external drive where I also create a folder to store my raw images, and a separate folder where I store my edited final images for sharing.
Once you’ve got LightRoom up and ready, go ahead and plug in your micro SD card.
LightRoom should open up an Import window, but if it doesn’t, you can get there easily by making sure you are in the Library Panel (click on Library or type G) and then selecting Import in the lower left-hand corner.
Select the source where your images are found from the list on the left-hand column. In this case, I’ll choose SD_Card.
On the right, where it says TO, click and select the folder you made on your external drive to store your raw files.
I just label mine Lightroom and you’ll notice my external drive is labeled March 2022, which is when I started using this drive.
When it is full, I’ll get another drive, label it accordingly, and copy my Catalogue over, leaving a backup catalogue on my old drive.
Make sure that Copy is selected in the middle and then go ahead and click Import.
This will create a sub folder for each date when all the images on your SD card were taken, and then copy those images from your micro SD to your external.
Of course, you could just use your hard drive, but it will fill up faster than you think.
Once the import is complete, you will be back on the Library panel in the Previous Import Folder.
If you want to look at the images from a particular date, you can select that folder from the list on the left-hand side.
Preparing the Image
You will notice that for this particular shoot, I took 240 images. You will also notice that each row is actually the same image with a variety of exposures.
If you read my article on producing vertical images, you’ll recognize the technique of using the Auto Exposure Bracketing function. If not, go read about it.
Basically this takes care of the biggest issue with your drone’s camera, it’s lack of dynamic range.
Because I was shooting into the sun, the brightest image has a lot of over exposed parts and the dimmest has lots of under exposed.
I always start at the bottom and look to see if any of the images are properly exposed. You read my article on how to master manual shooting, too, right?
If not, I merge the brightest and dimmest images by selecting both, option clicking, and choosing Photo Merge > HDR. Or I just type Control + Shift + H to automatically do it.
Since I am planning on making a vertical pano of this image, you can see that the next two rows up contain the middle and bottom views, respectively.
I merge the brightest and dimmest from those as well, which produces three images that have details in all the dark and bright places.
Then I select the three images and again: Option > Click > Photo Merge. But this time I choose Panorama.
With vertical panos, I usually find that Perspective produces the best images, but sometimes I play around with the other projections. I make sure Auto Crop is selected and nothing else.
This will produce an image that is ready for me to edit. It also adds images to my nice, neat rows, which is why I always edit from the bottom of the list up.
Usually, I go up through my entire list of images, doing all the required HDR and Pano merges.
Each time I complete an image, I mark it using the star system by pressing the number 3. Later I can filter the Library to show only 3-star images.
Editing the Image
So this part is going to be a lot. I’ll take you through each of the panels in the Develop Module and give you an idea of what they can do and what I typically do with each of my images.
I don’t use some of the panels, but I’ll give you a quick blurb about what you can use them for.
You certainly don’t have to use all of the panels either. A quick edit in the Basic tab can be totally sufficient. It just depends on how much your image needs or you want.
To start, click on an image you want to edit and press D or click on the Develop tab up top.
You will be doing work with the sliders on the right so you can hide the panel on the left by clicking the little arrow in the middle.
The first thing I like to do is crop the image. The standard 4 by 5 aspect ratio is king on Instagram, so let’s go with that.
Click on the crop icon, which can be found below your histogram.
This will show you the full uncropped image (remember you auto cropped it before) and you can play around with how best to frame your image.
If the crop is horizontal instead of vertical, press X to switch it up.
For this image, which is all about those crepuscular rays, I want most of the image as sky, so I’ll line up the horizon with the bottom third line and make sure the sun is in the middle.
Once you are happy with your crop, click Done.
There are several tabs along the side. To make things less confusing, control click on the tabs and select solo mode. This will only allow you to have one tab open at a time.
We will start at the top with the Basic tab so click on it to open it.
This panel controls the main aspects of the image.
I almost always start by bringing down the highlights and lifting the shadows. I’ve selected the before and after view here to show you how the changes affect the final image.
You can do that by clicking on the YY box at the bottom of the screen, or you can toggle the original image by pressing the \ key.
This image is still fairly dark, so I’ll increase the exposure a bit.
Notice how the histogram now shows a centered bell-shaped curve. This is a nice target to shoot for.
Under the Presence portion of this tab, I usually increase the texture and dehaze and bring down the clarity a bit.
I also increase the vibrance and reduce the saturation by about half as much. I’ll say this a lot, but you can probably stop here and it be totally sufficient, but I’ll keep going.
The tone curve tab isn’t one I typically use, mostly because I feel like I can achieve similar results with just the basics panel.
But a go-to edit here is to click on the Point Curve menu and select medium contrast. It’ll make your image pop a little more.
You can think of the curve graph as like an input vs output. If you leave it a straight line, the input is the same as the output. The medium contrast curve darkens the shadows a bit and lifts the highlights, leaving the blacks, mid-tones, and whites fairly consistent.
As you can see, the difference is very subtle which is probably another reason I don’t often use it.
I usually go to this tab next. The only thing I use here is the vignette, which I slide to about -10. It does a great job of drawing the eye to the center of the image.
It can definitely be overdone, however, so be cautious.
This tab can be viewed in a variety of ways. I like the HSL mode, which allows you to control the hue, saturation, and luminosity of each of the eight main colors.
Hue allows you to change the colors, turning your yellows towards orange or green, for instance. I often use this to make my foliage images pop by pushing my oranges towards red and my yellows towards green, as you can see below.
For the image we are currently working on, I wouldn’t use this at all.
I would however use the Luminance, specifically to darken up the blues in the sky. If you click on the circle in this tab, it allows you to select a color by hovering over it on the image.
When I click on the sky and drag it down, it shows me that the sky is both blue and aqua, and lowers them both.
I also did the same thing under saturation, this time clicking and dragging up on the sky, which increases the saturation of those colors.
With all of these, you definitely can push them too far. To bring them back to zero, just double-click on the color you messed up.
In fact, you can bring all of the sliders you change back to zero by double clicking.
I generally only use this to add some color contrast to sunrises and sunsets. This allows you to add a color cast to the midtones, shadows, and highlights.
For a sunrise/sunset photo, I almost always drag the circle from the center of midtones slightly towards orange, the highlights slightly towards teal (the complementary color) and the highlights VERY slightly towards pink (which is midway between the orange and teal).
For this particular image, I did the opposite. I pulled the midtones towards yellow, and the shadows towards blue, leaving the highlights mostly alone.
This is a tab I only typically use with images that were way under-exposed. It does have some useful features.
The default in LightRoom is to add a little sharpening to your image. Some of the image, the blue sky, for instance, doesn’t need sharpening. This causes the addition of unwanted noise.
To prevent that, you can mask out those areas of your image that don’t have much detail that would require sharpening.
If you hold option and drag the masking slider, it will show you a black and white image. The black portion will increase as you slide it over. I slide it enough to black out any part of the image where there shouldn’t be detail.
As there isn’t much noise in this image, I won’t need to use the noise reduction portion of this tab.
If you do, be careful, as it can wipe out detail quite quickly as shown below. Lots of noise reduction on top vs. no noise reduction on the bottom.
Most DJI drones have profiles already stored in LightRoom, which are automatically applied when you import them.
I often like to play with the manual lens correction as a way to correct distortions caused by the pano merges. In this case, I added +30 in distortion while maintaining the crop.
This is another tab that can be useful when dealing with distortions caused by merging panos, specifically when dealing with buildings.
In this image you can see that the two church towers are leaning outward a little bit.
By clicking guided and drawing lines on the two towers that I want to be vertical, the image is warped to make those two lines parallel.
I’m going to be honest here and say that I almost never use this tab. I played around a bit with it for this article, however.
I found that I actually kind of liked the way increasing the green primary hue a bit looked.
This image is quite ready for sharing on social media. We’ve gone through all the tabs, after all!
But the masking tool allows you to put the finishing touch on specific parts of the image. With the latest version of LightRoom, you can even take advantage of some of the newer artificial intelligent selection modes.
To start, select the circle with the dotted line around it.
We’ll choose to select the sky.
It usually does an amazing job, but in this image, it selected way too much. The portion of the image that is colored red is selected. We can subtract the bottom portion by using a linear gradient.
You can see the sky is now selected.
Now we can edit just the sky. Here I lowered the exposure and increased the contrast and dehaze to make those rays pop a little bit more.
To give you an idea of better execution of the AI Select Sky Function, here is another image where it worked correctly.
In fact, this image did a great job with Select Subject as well!
I’ll also add a linear gradient mask to the bottom of that original image we were working on.
Dropping the exposure a bit again helps to draw the eye through the frame. Linear gradients basically add whatever changes to a side of the image. When you click and drag, it fades out the effect.
You can see that I also added a radial gradient, or a circular version of the linear gradient, over the land where I wanted to add some light from the sun.
A little added exposure with a hint of increased temperature takes care of that.
Not used on this image but also available for masks are the brush, where you just paint the part of the image you want to affect, the color range, where you click on a color in the image and those parts are selected, and the luminance range, which works the same except that it uses brightness instead of color.
Okay, I think that image is done and ready for export, but before we do that, let’s copy those settings to use on another image.
When in the Develop Module on an image you have edited, you can type command + c and then click copy.
Then select those settings you want to copy over, select the image you want to paste those settings to, and press command + v.
I generally leave off Transform, Spot Removal, Crop, and Masks, as those are specific to a particular image.
Once you’ve edited up all your images, it’s time to export them for sharing.
I’ve seen lots of tutorials suggesting that you should export to Instagram’s settings, but I find that I get the best result when exporting at full resolution.
So, highlight all of your final images, option click and select Export > Export…
In the export dialogue box there are a number of tabs that can be just as overwhelming as the editing tabs in the develop module.
We will only need a couple of them. Make sure that in the export location, you have selected the Specific Folder that you created on your external drive.
Finally, under File Settings, make sure your quality is set to 100. I believe the default is like 70 for some reason.
And that’s it! Click export, and you are ready to share on social media. I just Airdrop the files to my phone and open up Instagram.
Keep in mind if you aren’t on the Apple Ecosystem, that you’ll need a transfer method that doesn’t compress your files.
You did a lot of work to get the most out of that image, so now is not the time to let an email server smush it into oblivion.
Social media may not be the healthiest way to share our images, but it is by far the fastest way to reach the most eyes.
If you’ve invested all this time and money into taking pictures with a flying camera, you might as well take the time to make those pictures as appealing to that all-mighty algorithm as possible.
One final tip when sharing through Instagram.
Leave the filters alone, but under edit, add just a bit of Structure to the image and it really makes it pop.