A detailed guide to editing food photos in Lightroom

How to use the edit panel in Adobe Lightroom for food photography

I recently shared the 3 edits I make to almost every photo in Adobe Lightroom CC.

But there is so much more you can do in Lightroom. This post will go through all the other adjustments that can be made using the edit sidebar panel.

I often adjust these setting somewhat when I’m editing food photos, but the amount really varies depending on how the photo I started with works out, and on the aesthetic I want to create with the final image.

Here’s a run-down of all the options available in the Edit sidebar panel, and exactly how to use the edit panel in Adobe Lightroom CC – strap in because its a lengthy post!

Opening the edit panel

First, you need to get the Adobe CC photography package (that’s Photoshop & Lightroom for under a tenner) using my affiliate link here.

Then, import your photos or navigate to the image you’re working on, and crop & rotate until you’ve got the perfect composition.

Finally, open the Edit sidebar panel by clicking the icon in the top right (illustrated below), or using the keyboard shortcut ‘e’.

open the Edit panel in the right sidebar
Open the Edit panel in the right sidebar

Editing food photos in Lightroom

There are 6 panels under the edit panel in Lightroom: Light, Colour, Effects, Detail, Optics & Geometry. I’ll go through them one by one, but just click the links to jump down to that section.

Using the Light panel in Lightroom

Light is the first section in the Edit panel. Light is essential to photography, and the Light panel allws you to adjust the lighting settings after taking your photo.

Do bear in mind that, as with any other edits or adjustments, we’re not here to fix bad photos, but to enhance good ones. If the lighting was just too dark or too bright and the image wasn’t captured properly, there isn’t really much you can do about that.

I’ll write more in-depth about shooting in RAW later, but for now, just know that adjusting the light (and other settings) is more likely to be possible for photos shot in RAW than for JPGs or PNGs.

Additionally, bear in mind when shooting, that its much easier to properly-expose an under-exposed photo later than it is to properly-expose an over-exposed one. If a photo is really bright and over-exposed, the detail is blown out and can’t really be added back in later, whereas you can raise the exposure on a dark, somewhat under-exposed photo and keep much of the detail that was captured.

This is something that I struggled with for a long time (and still do to some extent). I prefer the look of light and airy pictures, which means I have a tendency to over-expose rather than under-expose when shooting. Just remember, too dark is better than too bright!

The Light section of the Edit panel
Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Whites, Shadows & Blacks can be adjusted from the Light section of the Edit sidebar panel

Exposure

When using manual camera settings, the exposure refers to the amount of light hitting the camera’s sensor. In Lightroom, its kinda the same – only you’re artificially adjusting the amount of light later.

The higher the Exposure setting, the lighter the picture will appear – too much and the image will totally wash out. The lower the Exposure setting, the darker the picture will appear. Again, set it too low and the image will be too dark to see much.

Image with very high exposure
Set the Exposure too low and the image will appear very dark
Image with very high exposure
Set the Exposure too high and the image will appear washed out

Contrast

The contrast in an image refers to the difference in brightness between light and dark areas. Technically, it determines the number of shades in the image.

The higher the Contrast, the more definition there is between light and dark areas in an image – too high and the picture will look exaggerated, too low and it will look flat and dull.

Image with very low contrast
Low Contrast gives soft definition between light & dark areas, and can look flat
Image with very high contrast
High Contrast gives lots of definition between light & dark areas, but can look exaggerated

Highlights

The Highlights slider is very similar to the Whites slider (below), in that they both allow you to lighten (or darken) the brightest parts of an image. While this is true, the Whites slider only adjusts the true ‘white’ parts of the image, where the Highlights slider adjusts all the brightest pixels – whether they’re ‘white’ or not. That means that adjusting the Highlights can be useful to return some detail to a bright part of an image.

Lowering the Highlights makes the brightest pixels in the image appear darker. Raising the Highlights makes the brightest pixels in the image appear lighter.

Image with Highlights set very low
Lowering the Highlights makes the brightest pixels in the image appear darker
Image with Highlights set very high
Raising the Highlights makes the brightest pixels in the image appear lighter

Shadows

As with Highlights & Whites, Shadows & Blacks are very similar but have distinct functions. When you adjust the Shadows, you are adjusting the darker-toned areas of the image – areas which still have detail but look dark.

Adjust the Shadows slider down to lower the tone of those dark areas, making them even darker and losing some of the detail. Adjust the Shadows slider up to raise the tone of the dark areas, and make the detail of those areas more visible.

Image with Shadows set very low
Adjust the Shadows slider down to lower the tone of those dark areas, making them even darker and losing some of the detail
Image with Shadows set very high
Adjust the Shadows slider up to raise the tone of the dark areas, and make the detail of those areas more visible

Whites

Again, the Whites slider is very similar to the Highlights slider. Use them to lighten (or darken) the brightest parts of an image. The Whites slider only adjusts the true ‘white’ parts of the image, which can be useful for brightening underexposed images – but be wary of also adjusting the overall colour tones of an image when adjusting the Whites slider.

Lowering the Whites brings down the bright tones in the white pixels in the image – making the image appear overall darker. Raising the Whites brightens the tones in the white pixels in the image – making the image appear overall lighter.

Image with Whites set very low
Lowering the Whites brings down the bright tones in the white pixels in the image – making the image appear overall darker
Image with Whites set very high
Raising the Whites brightens the tones in the white pixels in the image – making the image appear overall lighter

Blacks

The final slider in the Light section is for Black tones. The Blacks slider is very similar to the Shadows slider but again has its own functionality & uses. Where adjusting the Shadows slider affects the darker-toned areas of the image, adjusting the Blacks slider makes the true black areas of the image (with little-to-no detail) lighter (or darker).

Adjust the Blacks slider down to make and black pixels in the image appear darker. Adjust the Blacks slider up to make and black pixels in the image appear lighter. You can also adjust the overall exposure of the image to reveal more (or fewer) details in the Black sections.

Image with Blacks set very low
Adjust the Blacks slider down to make and black pixels in the image appear darker
Image with Blacks set very low
Adjust the Blacks slider up to make and black pixels in the image appear lighter

Using the Colour panel in Lightroom

The Colour panel has two main functions for editing food photography.

The white balance – controlled by the Temperature and Tint sliders – can be used the fix the colour & quality of the light used to shoot.

The Vibrancy & Saturation sliders both affect the intensity of the colours in an image (though in slightly different ways). They can be used to change the overall aesthetic of an image – whether it should be popping with colour or more muted.

The Colour section of the Lightroom edit panel
Temperature, Tint, Vibrance & Saturation can be adjusted from the Colour section of the Lightroom edit sidebar panel

White Balance

I covered white balance in more depth in this post on the three adjustments I make to (almost) every photo in Lightroom, so I’ll just give you a quick review here.

White balance deals with the colour of the light in an image. Particularly when using artificial light sources, an unnatural colour can easily be cast on your photos, which can make the whole image look slightly ‘off colour‘.

We talk about white balance, not colour balance, because this discolouration is usually most obvious in things that should look ‘white’ to the naked eye.

You can set white balance manually on your camera before shooting. Even if you do that, you will likely need to make slight white balance or colour adjustments later.

There are a number of ways to adjust the white balance in Lightroom: using a white balance pre-set, using the dropper to select an area of the image that ‘should’ appear white, or manually adjusting the colour mix of Temperature and Tint.

Temperature

In photography, the colour temperature refers to the warm or cool tones in an image, affected by the light source used when shooting the photo. The colour temperature of a light source is measured in Kelvin.

The Temperature slider runs on a scale from blues to yellows. A higher Temperature setting has a ‘warm’ orange-yellow glow, and a lower Temperature setting gives your pictures a ‘cold’ blue glow.

Image with temperature set low
A lower Temperature setting gives your pictures a ‘cold’ blue glow
Image with temperature set high
A higher Temperature setting has a ‘warm’ orange-yellow glow

Tint

Tint is the other aspect to white balance. While photography shot in natural light will likely only need to be corrected for temperature, using any artificial lightsource will likely require an adjustment in the Tint setting.

Tint runs on an axis from green to magenta. A high Tint number in Lightroom gives your photos a pink/purple glow, and a low Tint number in Lightroom gives your photos a green glow.

Image with a green tint
A low Tint number in Lightroom gives your photos a green glow
Image with a magenta tint
A high Tint number in Lightroom gives your photos a pink/purple glow

Vibrancce

Vibrance and Saturation are another pair of controls that do very similar things to your image – through not quite the same. They both affect the intensity of the colours in an image (increasing or decreasing the intensity) but in different ways.

First, Vibrance. Vibrance is the more subtle of the two controls and should be your first option for adjusting the colour intensity. Adjusting the Vibrance doesn’t put a blanket adjustment on the entire image, it only adjusts the intensity of colours that already appear to be muted. This is particularly useful for images featuring people (whether that’s the faces of happy diners of the hands of a busy chef), as the Vibrance doesn’t affect skintones either.

Turning the Vibrance up intensifies the most ‘colourful’ parts of the image, with less effect on any already less-saturated sections. Turning down the Vibrance decreases the intensity of the most colourful parts of the image, bringing the intensity of colour in line with any already less-saturated parts.

Image with Lightroom Vibrance setting lowered
Turning down the Vibrance decreases the intensity of the most colourful parts of the image, bringing the intensity of colour in line with any already less-saturated parts
Image with Lightroom Vibrance setting raised
Turning the Vibrance up intensifies the most colourful parts of the image, with less effect on any already less-saturated sections

Saturation

As with Vibrance, Saturation can be used to increase or decrease the intensity of colours in an image. Unlike Vibrance though, using the Saturation slider adjusts the intensity of all colours throughout an image – regardless of how intense the colours already are.

Turning up the Saturation increases the intensity of colours throughout the image – turn it up too high and areas of colour will lose definition, making the image ‘posterised’. Turning down the Saturation decreases the intensity of colours throughout the image – turn it down to zero for a black & white monochrome effect.

Image with low saturation in Lightroom
Turning down the Saturation decreases the intensity of colours throughout the image – turn it down to zero for a black & white monochrome effect
Image with high saturation in Lightroom
Turning up the Saturation increases the intensity of colours throughout the image – turn it up too high and areas of colour will lose definition, making the image ‘posterised’

Using the Effects panel in Lightroom

The Effects panel in Lightroom is mostly used to lend a filmic quality to your images. Adding some grain and a light vignette can give stylised food photos an air of old-fashioned film photography.

The Effects section of the Lightroom edit panel
Texture, Clarity, Dehaze, Vignette & Grain can be adjusted from the Effects section of the Lightroom edit sidebar panel

Texture

Texture and Clarity have similar uses. They can both be used to enhance the texture of items in a photo – like the weave in a fabric napkin, or the minute scratches on a vintage spoon. They can also be used to minimise the appearance of textures – smoothing the surface of a countertop, or of a liquid.

Adjusting the Texture has a more subtle effect on an image than adjusting the Clarity, allowing you to retain fine details whilst increasing or decreasing the appearance of textures.

More Texture makes an image appear sharp and less Texture makes it appear soft and hazy.

Image with low texture in Lightroom
Less Texture makes an image appear soft and hazy
Image with high texture in Lightroom
More Texture makes an image appear sharp

Clarity

Unlike the Texture slider, adjusting the Clarity affects the image contrast slightly, sharpening the edges.

Clarity works in a similar way to the Contrast slider, adding some sharpness to your image by adjusting the definition between light and dark areas. Unline the Contrast setting though, Clarity only affects the mid-tones of an image – which can enhance textures.

Higher Clarity brings out some of the texture in an image, though raising the Clarity too high can result in grainy quality. Lower Clarity removes some of the texture and adds a softness to the image, but can make an image appear blurry.

Image with low Clarity in Lightroom
Lower Clarity removes some of the texture and adds a softness to the image, but can make an image appear blurry
Image with high Clarity in Lightroom
Higher Clarity brings out some of the texture in an image, though raising the Clarity too high can result in a grainy quality

Dehaze

Dehaze is used to remove (or add) a hazy, fog-like quality to photos. It’s predominently intended to add detail back into landscape or outdoor images.

Specifically, Dehaze adds some contrast to the background of images. You can also reduce the Dehaze adjustment, to remove some of the contrast in the background of an image.

Low dehaze setting in Lightroom
You can reduce the Dehaze adjustment (essentially, adding haze), to remove some of the contrast in the background of an image
High Dehaze setting in Lightroom
Dehaze adds some contrast to the background of images – it’s predominantly used for landscape or outdoor images

Vignette

The Vignette reduces or increases the brightness at the edges of an image.

Use vignettes to bring focus onto the subject at the centre of an image, and somewhat obscure the edges of an image. Vignettes can also add an old-fashioned, vintage quality to your photos.

Adjust the Vignette down to remove brightness from the edges of the image for a dark/black vignette effect, and adjust it up to add brightness to the edges of the image for a light/white vignette effect.

Low vignette effect in Lightroom
Adjust the Vignette down to remove brightness from the edges of the image for a dark/black vignette effect
High Vignette effect in Lightroom
Adjust the Vignette up to add brightness to the edges of the image for a light/white vignette effect

As well as adjusting the Vignette slider itself, there is also a dropdown to adjust other aspects of the vignette effect. In these examples, I’m adjusting a low (black) vignette, but each of these settings can also be adjusted on a high (white) vignette, apart from the Highlight.

Vignette Midpoint

The Midpoint essentially adjusts the size of the vignette. A lower Midpoint gives a larger vignette and a higher Midpoint gives a smaller vignette.

Vignette with low midpoint
A lower Midpoint gives a larger vignette
Vignette with high midpoint
A higher Midpoint gives a smaller vignette
Vignette Roundness

The Roundness refers to the corners of the vignette shape. A more round vignette ultimately leaves a circular shape in the middle of the image (good for 1:1 square images), and a less round vignette leaves a rectangular shape in the middle of the image.

Vignette with high roundness
A more round vignette ultimately leaves a circular shape in the middle of the image (good for 1:1 square images)
Vignette with low roundness
A less round vignette leaves a rectangular shape in the centre of the image
Vignette Feather

Feathering is the amount of blending between the edge of the vignette and the centre of the image. A higher Feather gives you a more subtle blend, and a lower Feather gives you a starker line between the vignette and the image.

Vignette with low feather
Lower Feather gives you a starker line between the vignette and the image
Vignette with high feather
A higher Feather gives you a more subtle blend between the vignette and the image
Vignette Highlight

This slider is only used with a low/dark vignette effect. It allows you to recover some of the brightness of the image. The Highlights slider can make a vignette look more natural, as it allows for brighter parts of the image to remain bright whilst still undergoing some of the vignette effects.

Vignette with no highlight
0% Vignette Highlight
Vignette with some highlight
50% Vignette Highlight
Vignette with full highlight
100% Vignette Highlight

Grain

Though Grain is similar to Noise (which is adjusted in the next section), they are subtly different. While they are both based on the amount of light entering the camera sensor, the key difference is that noise comes from digital photography, while grain comes from old-fashioned analogue film photography.

Typically, the presence of grain is viewed as a bad thing in photography, but as with vignette effects, you may want to add grain to give your images a vintage appearance.

You can use the Grain slider to add grain into your image, and use the dropdown to adjust the size and the roughness of the grain.

Lightroom image with no grain
No Grain
Lightroom image with some grain
100% Grain

Using the Detail panel in Lightroom

The Lightroom Detail panel lets you remove any digital noise and make your images look sharper.

Some Detail correction (Sharpening and Noise Reduction) will be automatically applied by Lightroom when you import RAW images. You can override those automatic adjustments if required, though you shouldn’t need to for most images.

When you do need to make adjustments in the Detail panel, zoom in to 1:1 view (by pressing 1:1 in the bottom right of the screen, or CTRL++ on your keyboard) to see the level of detail needed.

The Detail section of the Lightroom edit panel
Sharpening, Noise Reduction & Colour Noise Reduction can be adjusted from the Detail section of the Lightroom edit sidebar panel. Zoom in to 1:1 view by pressing 1:1 in the bottom right of the screen before adjusting Detail settings

Sharpening

Similarly to the Contrast setting, Sharpening creates the illusion of sharpness and detail in your images by highlighting the difference between the lightest and darkest pixels.

To Sharpen, Lightroom identifies edges in the image and increases the contrast between light & dark pixels there. In this example, the sides of the bowl in the foreground against the dark cloth would be identified as an edge. Contrast, on the other hand, defines the difference between the lightest and darkest areas of the image – without grouping them into ‘edges’.

Adjust the Sharpening slider down to create less contrast between light and dark pixels at the edges in the image, making the details look less defined. Adjust it up to create more contrast between light and dark pixels at the edges in the image, making the details look more defined.

The Sharpening dropdown panel gives you three extra elements of control to the Sharpening adjustment:

  • Radius – The Radius of the Sharpening adjusts the thickness of the edge of the area being sharpened. A low Radius sharpens only the specific pixels identified for Sharpening and a higher Radius also effects the other pixels nearby.
  • Detail – The Detail of the Sharpening adjusts how much Sharpening is applied to the image. Less Detail means only the largest and most clearly defined edges (eg. the side of the bowl) will be Sharpened. More Detail applies Sharpening to every small edge of the image (eg. each strand of microgreens) – too high and you may start to create grainy ‘noise’.
  • Masking – Masking adjusts how much of the image the Sharpening applies to. Without Masking, every pixel identified as part of an edge will be Sharpened to the same degree. Add more Masking to Sharpen areas with the most clearly defined edges.
  • What the difference between Detail and Masking? At first glance, they seem very similar. The best way I can describe the difference is that adjusting the Detail slider selects which edges will have Sharpening applied to them. Then, once Lightroom knows which edges to Sharpen, turning up the Masking slider varies the level of Sharpening applied to those edges. Zero Masking applies the same amount of sharpening to all the identified edges and when Masking is increased, the more strongly defined edges will be Sharpened more, while the less strongly defined edges will be Sharpened less. This can help to reduce or remove any noise created by turning up the Detail.
Image with low sharpening in Lightroom
Adjust the Sharpening slider down to create less contrast between light and dark pixels at the edges in the image, making the details look less defined
Image with high sharpening in Lightroom
Adjust the Sharpening slider up to create more contrast between light and dark pixels at the edges in the image, making the details look more defined.

Noise Reduction

As mentioned above, the ‘noise’ in an image is somewhat similar to the grain. It is, essentially, caused by taking photos in low lighting conditions, and/or with the ISO set too high. Noise is a fuzzy, grainy distortion that appears in some digital photos.

There are two types of digital noise you might see in your photos. The Noise Reduction slider (in this section) reduces the luminance noise (which appears as small flecks of white or dark pixels) and the Colour Noise Reduction slider (in the next section), reduces colour noise (which appears as discoloured pixels, usually in solid areas of dark or light colour).

Though Lightroom does have these Noise Reduction settings, they aren’t perfect. It’s much better to get your camera settings right and avoid as much digital noise as you can in the first place.

Raising the Noise Reduction slider reduces some of the noise in an image by ‘smoothing’ the pixels. Raising the Noise Reduction too far can remove some of the fine detail in your image and create an artificial, glossy look. You can’t add noise into an image in Lightroom.

There are two additional Noise Reduction settings in the dropdown:

  • Detail – The Noise Reduction Detail slider allows you to finely control the amount of detail lost in smoothing pixels. Adjust it up to recover some details back into the image (but understand that this may add some noise back in too). Adjust it down to remove more detail for a smoother result
  • Contrast – The Noise Reduction Contrast slider allows you to control the amount of contrast lost in smoothing pixels to reduce noise. Again, adjust it up to add contrast details back in, but avoid adding so much Contrast that noise is increased. Adjust it down to lose more contrast.
  • Note, the Noise Reduction slider applies the pixel smoothing effect of Noise Reduction to the entire image, not just targeting specific areas where digital noise is clearly visible.
Image without noise reduction
Zero Noise Reduction – noise can’t be added into an image in Lightroom
Image with noise reduction
Raise the Noise Reduction slider to reduce the appearance of noise in an image by ‘smoothing’ the pixels – raising it too far can remove fine details & create an artificial, glossy look

Colour Noise Reduction

Like luminance noise, colour noise is caused by poor lighting conditions and/or too high an ISO setting. It appears in photos as multicoloured pixels in areas which should appear as a single flat colour. Again, you would be much better avoiding colour noise in your photos in the first place than removing it later.

Colour Noise Reduction also has two additional dropdown sliders:

  • Detail – The Detail slider works the same way here as it does for luminance noise reduction: Slide it up to recover some of the details lost in smoothing the pixels
  • Smoothing – The Colour Noise Reduction Smoothing slider lets you adjust the appearance of the smoothness that noise reduction gives to the image

Raise the Colour Noise Reduction slider to smooth pixels and reduce the appearance of colour noise. As with luminenec Noise Reduction, raising the slider too far can remove some fine details and give your image an artificial, glossy look. You can’t add colour noise into an image in Lightroom.

Image without colour noise reduction
Zero Colour Noise Reduction – colour noise cann’t be added into an image in Lightroom
Image with colour noise reduction
Raise the Colour Noise Reduction slider to reduce the appearance of colour noise in an image by ‘smoothing’ the pixels – raising it too far can remove fine details & create an artificial, glossy look

Using the Optics panel in Lightroom

There are just two options in Lightroom’s Optics panel, and both are tickbox on/off options, rather than sliders.

The Optics section of the Lightroom edit panel
Remove Chromatic Abberation & Enable Lens Correction in the Optics section of the Lightroom edit sidebar panel

Remove Chromatic Abberation

Chromatic Abberation is when a purple or green halo or fringe appears around the edges in parts of an image. It usually appears when there is lots of contrast in the image, and the lens is unable to capture the full range of tones. In food photography, it can be particularly prevalent with ‘shiny’ objects in an image – like cutlery. If you can see a green or purple outline in your image, tick the box to automatically remove the appearance of Chromatic Abberation.

Enable Lens Correction

Every lens can naturally cause slight distortions and vignettes to an image. Lightroom’s Lens Correction automatically corrects any distortions – straightening lines and removing any vignetting. Make sure to select the type of lens you used to shoot the photo, when you tick the Lens Correction box.

Image without lens correction
Before Lens Correction
Image with lens correction
After Lens Correction – slightly darker shades at the corners (vignetting) is removed and lines (particularly the edges of the cloth) no longer have a slight curve

Using the Geometry panel in Lightroom

The Geometry panel allows you to do more detailed straightening and levelling than you can in Crop & Rotate.

It allows you to adjust a lot of options, like the Distortion, Vertical and Horizontal lines and the Aspect. The Geometry panel is particularly useful for adjusting images with lots of straight lines. I’m not going to go into them all here. To go over every adjustment in the Geometry panel could probably be a post of its own.

The Geometry section of the Lightroom edit panel
The Geometry panel allows you to do more detailed straightening and levelling than you can in Crop & Rotate – its particularly useful for adjusting images with lots of straight lines

This post has been a really detailed look at all the options available for editing and adjusting your food photos using the Edit panel in Lightroom. It seems like there are a lot of options, but in reality, there are just a few adjustments that I make over and over again. There are also a few ways to batch the process of editing your photos, using presets and copying edits, which is where Lightroom really shines over other editing software for food photographers. Sign up to my mailing list to get more tips, tricks and tools for food photographers.

This post is part of a series on using Adobe Photoshop & Lightroom for food photography. See the other posts:
Pixlr vs Photoshop: Why I made the switch
Importing photos to Lightroom
Sorting & organising photos in Lightroom
When & how to straighten, crop & rotate your food photos
The 3 Lightroom edits that make my food photos pop
A detailed guide to editing food photos in Lightroom



Get the Adobe CC photography package (that’s Photoshop & Lightroom for under a tenner) using my affiliate link here.

How to use the edit panel in Adobe Lightroom for food photography

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