11 Essential Lightroom Classic Tips For Photographers

by Andrew S. Gibson
11 Essential Lightroom Classic Tips For Photographers


Editor's note: Our October sale is on! Get 30% off our all Lightroom Classic ebooks, presets and video course with the code ml30. Click here to learn more. Thanks for reading, Andrew.



These Lightroom Classic tips are the things that I wish someone had told me before I started using it. I’m sharing them with you today because they are essential to setting up a good workflow. They will help you make Lightroom Classic work for you rather than fight it because you don’t understand how it works properly.

Throughout the article I’ve linked to other tutorials that expand on the tips, so you can read about them in more depth. It doesn’t matter whether you have Lightroom Classic or an older version, like Lightroom 6. These tips are all valid (except for the last one).

By the way, if you’re new to Lightroom Classic, you have a huge advantage as it means you can establish a consistent workflow from the start.

Lightroom Classic tip #1: Keep things simple

Whatever you do, keep things as simple as possible in Lightroom Classic. It’s easy to over-complicate things, especially in the Library module, where you have so many options for rating and categorizing photos. Don’t create extra work for yourself by taking the complicated route – you’ll save yourself a lot of work by looking for the simplest way to get where you want to go.

So, how can you make Lightroom Classic simpler to use? Here are some ideas.

  • Use Folders for storing photo files, and Collections for organizing them. The screenshot below shows my Folders panel (left) which uses a date based hierarchical folder structure (see tip #2) and my Collections panel (right), which uses a combination of date and theme based Collections (see tip #7).
Lightroom Classic Collections and Folders
  • Use Flags, not star ratings, to mark photos that you want to keep or develop. Put developed photos into a Collection so you know where to find them.
  • Only use color labels and keywords if you really need to. This is especially true for keywords, which can get complicated fast.
  • If you decide to use star ratings, color labels and keywords then make up your mind how you’re going to use them and stick to that system from this point onwards. Time spent up front setting up your system will save you a lot of time in the future.

Learn more: Nine Reasons To Use Keywords In Lightroom Classic


Lightroom Classic tip #2: Save your photo files in a single master folder

Lightroom Classic is a tool for organizing, viewing, searching and developing photo files. All of these tasks are more difficult if the folders containing your photo files are scattered over various locations.

The solution is to use a hierarchical folder structure. That’s where all the folders containing photo files are saved in a single top level folder. This makes it easy to find your photos when you need to and, most importantly of all, back them up.

For example, if you want to back up your entire photo collection to another hard drive it’s as simple as copying the top level folder.

Ideally, your photos should be stored on a hard drive other than your system drive, either on an external hard drive or a second hard drive in a desktop system. This saves you using up too much space on your system drive and slowing your computer down.

This diagram shows the hierarchical folder structure I use.

Hierarchical folder structure

Learn more: How To Organize Photos For Lightroom Classic


Lightroom Classic tip #3: Don’t move or rename photo files using your computer’s operating system

To understand why you shouldn’t move or rename photo files outside of Lightroom Classic you need to know what Lightroom Classic does with your files when you import them, and how the Catalog works.

Lightroom Classic’s Catalog is a database that contains information about your photos. This information includes the file’s name and the location where it’s saved. Change either of these and Lightroom Classic won’t know where to find your photo.

You can fix it by telling Lightroom Classic where your photos have been moved to (or what the new name of the file is) but this can quickly turn into a major headache and waste of time. Do it properly in the first place and get used to using Lightroom Classic’s Folder panel to move or rename photo files.


Learn more: The Ultimate Guide to Renaming Photos in Lightroom Classic


Lightroom Classic tip #4: Set Lightroom Classic to back your Catalog up to the same hard drive that you store your Raw files on

With Lightroom Classic, all you need for a successful backup is a copy of your original photo files and your Catalog (minus preview files). Best practice is to save your photo files on an external drive, and set Lightroom Classic to backup your Catalog to the same drive (use the hierarchical system explained in the previous tip). That makes it super easy to copy both photo files and Catalog backup to another hard drive to create another backup.


Learn more: What Is The Lightroom Classic Catalog?


Lightroom Classic tip #5: Keep a copy of your original photo files and your Catalog off-site

It’s not pleasant to think about but what will happen to your photos if somebody breaks into your house and steals your computer and all your hard drives? Or what it your house burns down? A good backup system will help you survive these catastrophic events if you’re unfortunate enough to experience them.

The key is to make sure you have a copy of your photo files and Catalog stored off-site on an external hard drive. You might store it in a desk drawer at work, or at the house of a friend or relative, but the important thing is to do it. You also need to regularly update that drive and make sure it’s still working okay.

I also recommend using Backblaze to automate back ups of all your hard drives off-site to Backblaze’s servers. The great thing about Backblaze is that it’s automated, always up to date and off-site. It gives you both security and peace of mind.

If you have any doubts about your backup plan, then read my article A Secure Photo Backup Strategy For Photographers. It’s essential reading if you’re not backing up your photos properly.

Backing up photos and Catalog

Lightroom Classic tip #6: Use a single Catalog

Earlier versions of Lightroom Classic slowed down as the number of photos in the Catalog grew, but that’s no longer an issue. Lightroom Classic is for organizing and searching your Raw files as well as processing them, so it makes sense to keep your entire image collection together. You can only have one Catalog open at a time, so if your images are spread across multiple Catalogs you can’t search your entire photo collection.

Experienced Lightroom Classic users can break this rule if they have a good reason. For example, a wedding photographer might create a separate Catalog for each wedding, then archive the Catalog along with the photos when the job is done. Occasionally you might create a second Catalog to use while traveling on a laptop. But for most photographers a single Catalog is all you’ll ever need.


Learn more: How To Merge Lightroom Classic Catalogs


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Lightroom Classic tip #7: Use Collections and Collection Sets to organize your images

If you are new to Lightroom Classic you’ll be accustomed to organizing your photos into folders on your hard drive. In Lightroom Classic though, things are different. The Library module is the only module that gives you direct access to the folders on your hard drive. The others all use Collections.

Adobe set up Lightroom Classic this way because it wants you to organize your photos in Collections. The advantage is that a Collection can contain images that reside across a multitude of folders and bring them together in a way that makes sense for you. You can organize your images by date, subject matter, people’s names or any other way that is useful.

If you’re a Lightroom Classic subscriber you can also synchronize Collections so that you can access your photos on the Lightroom app for mobile, in Lightroom for web, in Adobe Portfolio and mobile apps like Adobe Spark.

If you’re not sure what a Collection is, then compare it to a playlist of songs. You only have one copy of a song, but you can add it to as many playlists as you want. Collections work exactly the same way.


Learn more: How To Organize Your Photos With Lightroom Classic Collections


Lightroom Classic tip #8: Learn what you can and can’t do in the Develop module

When developing your photos do as much as you can in Lightroom Classic. You should only export a photo to Photoshop or a plugin if you need to do something that Lightroom Classic can’t.

The reason for this is that developing images solely in Lightroom Classic whenever you can helps keep your workflow quick and simple.

Just as importantly exporting to other programs or plugins uses more hard drive space (as Lightroom Classic has to convert your Raw files to another format like TIFF to make the export). This means that you end up with additional JPEG or TIFF files to keep track of and back up.

Plugins like Luminar, ON1 Photo Raw, Exposure X and Silver Efex Pro are great and open up all sorts of creative possibilities for you to explore. I don’t want to discourage you from using them, but it makes sense to make full use of Lightroom Classic’s powerful developing tools and only to export photos to a plugin when you need to.


Learn more: The Best Lightroom Classic Alternatives for Black & White Photography


Lightroom Classic tip #9: Retouch portraits in Lightroom Classic

There is no shortage of Lightroom Classic plugins designed to help you retouch portraits. Some of them are widely promoted and on the expensive side.

If you’ve ever wondered why these plugins get pushed so aggressively it’s because you don’t need them. Lightroom Classic has two built in Adjustment Brush presets that do the job of retouching for you. They’re called Soften Skin and Soften Skin (Lite) and are a quick and easy way to retouch a portrait.

It’s a great example of learning what you can achieve within Lightroom Classic, saving yourself time, hard drive space and the expense of purchasing another plugin in the process.

For example, I retouched the portrait below entirely in Lightroom Classic.

Portrait retouched in Lightroom

Learn more: How To Retouch Portraits In Lightroom Classic


Lightroom Classic tip #10: Consider converting your Raw files to DNG

The main benefit of converting your Raw files to the DNG format is that it helps Lightroom Classic’s Develop module run faster. DNG files contain a preview in a form called fast load data that enables Lightroom Classic to render Develop module previews up to eight times faster.

This saves you time when viewing and developing photos in the Develop module. There’s nothing more frustrating than zooming into an image then having to wait several seconds for the preview to render. Using DNG helps prevent that.

But before converting any Raw files to DNG you need to be aware that not all programs read DNG files. Examples include Canon’s DPP, which doesn’t support DNG at all, and Capture One Pro, which has limited support for DNG files. If you think you might ever use one of these applications to develop your Raw files, then don’t convert them to DNG.

If you decide to use DNG, the best approach is to start with your next import. Converting the Raw files already in your Catalog isn’t a good use of your time.

Using Smart Previews is another way you can make Lightroom run faster, and it doesn’t require converting Raw files to DNG to work.


Learn more: How To Make Lightroom Classic Faster Using DNG

Learn more: The Ultimate Guide to Using Smart Previews in Lightroom Classic


Lightroom Classic tip #11: Learn to use the Masks panel in the Develop module

So far all the tips apply to Lightroom 6 as well as Lightroom Classic. This tip is the exception as it relates to the new Masks panel in Lightroom Classic.

The Masks panel gives you lots of options for making selections that didn’t exist previously in Lightroom Classic.

Take the portrait below as an example. On the left you can see the original portrait, without masks. On the right you can see another version, made with two masks. The first mask selected the model, and I used it to make her brighter. The second mask is an inverse of the first and selected the background. I used it to make the background darker. Best of all, it only took a minute or two to do.

Lightroom Classic masks

The clever thing is that once you’ve up masks like this you can copy and paste the mask settings to another portrait, and they work. That’s because Lightroom Classic uses AI to automatically select the subject. Instead of applying the same selections to the new portrait, it recalculates them according to the content of the photo.

It’s amazing technology, and it doesn’t just apply to portraits. You can use it with just about any type of photo you can imagine.


Learn more: How To Use The Lightroom Classic Masks Panel


Mastering Lightroom Classic: Book One The Library Module ebook

More great Lightroom Classic tips, tricks and tutorials!

1 comment

Andrew S. Gibson May 22, 2019 - 11:43 am

Yes, you can start with our Lightroom ebooks which you’ll find in our store: https://www.creative-photographer.com/store/

If you’re looking for a video course then check out Kelby One, there is plenty of good stuff there.

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