This post outlines the general steps or phases I use to process a RAW file into a finished image. I took this photo at the Trona Pinnacles, while waiting for the Milky Way to appear. Not a particularly great composition (it gets better if you imagine the Galactic Center behind the peaks), I use it to demonstrate my processing without being distracted by the elements of a great image.
Establish the Working Base
On the left is the RAW file looking pretty dull and lifeless. The right shows the global edits used to establish the base for all future processing. As a starting point I use the Linear Profile for the Sony A7R3, apply Lens Corrections, and set Auto Tone in the Basic Panel. These steps make up my RAW defaults in Lightroom Preferences, and get applied automatically on import. As a first step and unique to each image, I tweak the settings in the Basic and Calibration panels. Next I use the HSL panel to adjust the colors. In particular I found that boosting the Calibration often makes the sky too blue, so I tend to drop the blue saturation in HSL. Optionally I might remove sensor dust at this point, or often save this for when I go into Photoshop. I want to emphasize that no local adjustment were made, and that usually takes every bit of will power to resist the temptation. I now have good working base from which I can go off in any creative direction I choose.
Refining the Image
At this stage I work to express my intent for the image, recreating the mood, removing or diminishing distractions and drawing the eye through the image. This is the fun part, painting local changes onto the image. Lightroom’s latest version replaces Local Adjustment tools with Masking Tools. Aside from a much improved interface and change in one’s point of view, under the covers they are similar. I had an ulterior motive with this exercise to experiment with the new tools and see how far I can go without using Photoshop.
In this example, I masked into the sky and peaks more magenta, subtracted out the effect on the bottom with a brush. Warmed up the highlighted faces of the peaks with a luminosity mask. Added more contrast/drama in the clouds at the top of the sky. I used a Label to indicate that Lightroom processing is complete. If I did not intend to take this to Photoshop, I would be sure to remove distractions with the clone tool, etc.
Turning It Up to 11
The final Lightroom image looks fine, but creating additional drama or “artistic flare” requires going into Photoshop. For the sake of demonstration, I only added one layer intending to use color contrast to create a stronger sunset, as if it were later in the evening.
The Gradient Fill layer uses a diamond shaped gradient in Soft Light mode. I reduced the layer Fill to soften the impact and used the Layer Blend mode to protect the shadows. Finally, in places I masked the gradient slightly to restore some of the warmth on the face of the Pinnacles.
OK, I admit this image is a little over cooked for my tastes, but I wanted to stress the difference from the original RAW file; as well as, show something that cannot be accomplished in Lightroom alone.
The post offers a general outline of the phases of my processing and the tools involved. Lightroom provides my cataloging and RAW processing to get that good working base. There are other RAW processing engines that you may prefer to get you to your working base. (I use DxO for my Olympus files). The intent and artistic phases can be implemented using Topaz, Luminar AI or a host of other tools.