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5 Ways Your Lightroom Editing Is Ruining Your Images

By Max Bridge on April 14th 2016

Lightroom is a fantastic program for editing your photos. However, it is so easy to ruin your images through over-editing, and I see it done time and time again. You’d think that these mistakes are solely the domain of the amateur, but I often see these sins committed at the hands of photographers who are not. Putting our stamp on an image is fine, but here are  5 mistakes you need to avoid.

The Hammer That Is The Contrast Slider

Shooting in raw, as you should be doing, can leave a fairly flat image upon import into Lightroom. The temptation, therefore, is to grab that contrast slider and, with great enthusiasm, begin to drag it over to the right. In itself, there is nothing wrong with the contrast slider, however, when compared to Curves, the control it provides is more comparable to a sledgehammer. Drag it too far over to the right and you’ll be crushing your blacks, blowing out highlights, producing unflattering skin tones and increasing saturation. Some of those effects may be something you want but, in my opinion, doing them all with one slider is a recipe for disaster.


In the image below I ramped up the contrast slider and, hopefully you’ll agree, it ruined the photo. I prefer to use Curves and the sliders within Tone to bring the contrast of my image to a level I desire. It always depends on what I shoot / am editing, but with portraits, I begin using the SLR Lounge Preset System, then tweak the Tone and Curves Sliders if necessary.


Personal style always plays a large role when editing. I won’t sit here and say, “you’re wrong to do X,” if you like the result, who am I to say otherwise? All I can say is that I like my editing to compliment my subject and, usually, excessive use of the contrast slider is not a good idea. Use with caution.

Clarity, The Brother Of Contrast

Using Lightroom to edit your photos, especially as an amateur, is quite a liberating experience. The user interface is so easy to get your head around, and what may seem like magic, is be achieved by the drag of a slider. Clarity, is one of those magic sliders that people, normally the less experienced, fall into over-using. You use it on one or two images and think “that looks great!”. From then on it rears its head in every photo you produce.


Clarity increases the midtone contrast, meaning, excessive use won’t generally blow out your highlights or clip your blacks. But what actually resides in the midtones? That will be different for every image and subject, and in the case of portraiture you’re quite likely to find skin tones, hair, clothing, etcetera, contained within the midtones. As such, while it may make the rest of your image look interesting, it will make your subjects look bad, and it’s a common problem.

Excessive use of clarity, looks cheap, ugly, unflattering, and is often used in a vain attempt to make a substandard photo look good. In fact, excessive use of most of these things is done for the same reason. If we don’t know what we’re doing taking the photos, Lightroom will often come to the rescue, but the trouble is, the temptation to push the edit too far is too great. Editing very rarely saves a bad photo, unless you are an editing wizard. I’ll spare you the ‘get it right in camera,’ speech.

With portraiture, you will more often find me adding negative clarity than positive. Negative clarity will smooth out those midtones a little and is normally very flattering to skin. As with everything in this list, however, you MUST use a light hand. Heavy use of negative clarity will result in ugly, plastic looking, skin. As a guide, and it does depend entirely on the image, my maximum in either direction is about 30. Normally I work within -10 to +10.

Over Saturation = An Ugly, Unrealistic Mess

I will always favour the Vibrance slider over the Saturation slider in LR as one can be far more liberal with its use. There are somewhat complex explanations of Vibrance to be found online (I may have googled it to include one myself), but I’m going to stick with my gut and describe it in the simplest terms possible. Vibrance is intelligent saturation. Increase saturation and all the colours in your image will become more vivid. Increase Vibrance and more attention is paid to those colours which are already less saturated. In addition, Vibrance protects skin tones more than saturation does.


Now you know the difference between the two, I’m fairly certain which slider you’ll be leaning toward. For demonstrative purposes, I over- saturated the image below so show the horrible mess.


Due to the time of day and location, this scene was naturally very vibrant. By adding too much saturation, the photo became unnatural and detracts from its subject; your eye is drawn more to the overall saturation rather than our subjects. Whereas in the image below, “correct” Saturation / Vibrance, color and contrast are used to draw your eye to a particular area.

Some photographers seem to believe that the more vibrant an image is the better. Instead, I would suggest that the better option is to use things like saturation, contrast and sharpening to lead the viewers eye. That can’t be done when those things are applied globally. Perhaps take a  selective approach, brushing-on effects.

Please Don’t Do This, Ever!

I really, really, really hate HDR created in Lightroom. Using the sliders in Tone I regularly see these, frankly horrible, HDR effects created. Again, if that’s what floats your boat, by all means carry on, and I will hold back the urge to hurl…


Our cameras are amazing these days. We can recover so much detail from the shadows and the highlights, it’s incredible. That said, that does not mean we should. If you walk outside now, there will be areas (even to your eye) which are “blown out”, shadows which are “clipped” – I use quotation marks as it seems odd to describe our vision in those terms – Point is, that’s natural. It is unnatural to see every single detail in an image.


You may be thinking I have a big problem with HDR, though I don’t. The problem is with using one image to create a faux HDR in Lightroom. That is too often done by maxing out, or nearly maxing out, the tone sliders; Highlights -100, Shadows +100 and so on. The result is something which looks bad just like the photo above. Compare that to the far more natural image below.

Yes, there will be times when you want to recover some info in the Highlights or bump up the Shadows a little, and while that’s fine, be aware that going too far will have a detrimental impact. Remember, it’s ok to have some areas clipped, and often it’s desirable.

If you’re wondering, the type of HDR I like usually involves exposure blending with multiple images.

Sharpening, The Final Immortal Sin

The final mortal sin which uncontrolled Lightroom editing often falls victim to comes in the form of sharpening. We all want our images to start relatively sharp. That’s why people pixel peep, as it’s known, and seek out glass which provides the sharpest images possible. Given that, it’s understandable that people often take sharpening too far.


I won’t dwell too long here, but I would like to point out a couple things. Above you can see a 100% crop of an image which I have over-sharpened on purpose. Note the halo around the ear and antlers, the increase in unappealing noise and the fact that the out-of-focus dear has not become sharp. That last point is important. You cannot bring something into focus which previously was not. If you’ve severely missed focus, my advice would be to play up to that, rather than force something which will not work.


If you have slightly missed focus, then you can recover some detail and bring an image more toward something you are happy with, but don’t try and save an out of focus image by over sharpening, the effects are never pretty.

The 5 Lightroom Editing Sins, Summary

As I said at the beginning, much of what I have said may fall into personal style. But I don’t think it does. I will not discourage you, but I can almost guarantee that if you currently do one of the above, you will regret it in years to come. Editing should always be seen as something which serves to compliment an already decent photo – not a means to save garbage.

There’s loads more education on Lightroom editing to be found throughout SLR Lounge, both free and paid for. In fact, when I first started I watched almost every free video that Pye put out. When I decided I needed to learn more, I bought some SLR Lounge tutorials. Here’s a trailer for one of our newest called Advanced Lightroom Processing, it may be of interest to you. Be sure to also check out the SLR Lounge Preset System in the store, click here.

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Max began his career within the film industry. He’s worked on everything from a banned horror film to multi-million-pound commercials crewed by top industry professionals. After suffering a back injury, Max left the film industry and is now using his knowledge to pursue a career within photography.

Website: SquareMountain 
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Q&A Discussions

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  1. Timothy Courtemanche

    I’ve always been pretty straight up with Lightroom, using it only for little adjustments, cataloging and exporting, but recently, I have been venturing deeper into it. My venture began when I was seeking to create just a slight more pop into my location portraits at events where I setup a complete studio on locations.

    I had looked at what some of the presets were doing, some stuff they did I liked, other stuff kind of sucked, all withing the same preset. So, I would apply a preset that I felt made some stuff look good, and they play with the sliders from there. What I discovered is adding just a touch of Clarity, along with a touch of Vibrance, really added something nice to my portraits. As I have tried my lovely new action on some candid portraits, I realized quickly that I only liked what it did with my standard, 3-4 light setup. Basically, my new preset was tailored for my lighting. I also found that if I have more than 3 or 4 people in the image, I have to turn that clarity back a bit.

    My formula, but the way, is +15/+10 (Clarity/Vibrance), My lighting is a pretty straight forward 3-light setup.

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  2. Warren Senewiratne

    Been using Photoshop for 16 years, but only 2 years of Lightroom and I love it. I prefer it to photoshop except for major edits and stamping/cloning/frequency separation – photoshop is unparalleled. Good video Pye :)

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  3. Daniel Thullen

    I must confess to many of those sins at on time or another. What is my penance? Hopefully as SLRL has taught me the wonders of Presets, my Lightroom editing has diminished and improved.

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  4. Lee Hawkins

    These are great tips for portrait photographers! With landscapes and cityscapes, it’s possible, and can even be smart to push things harder, but I think all of these tips still apply here too…upon closer examination, super-sharpened images fall prey to artifacts, and noise from pushing too much shadow/highlight recovery can easily get out of control. If you use dehaze on your landscapes, even with a somewhat light hand, your shadows will easily drift blue…which can be fixed somewhat with split toning…but still there has to be a balance, or your scene just falls apart. And I extremely rarely increase clarity on portraits…landscapes and architecture, sure…but just a touch of negative clarity can make people look so much better! Working on a calibrated IPS monitor makes these problems much easier to spot…so if this stuff is important to you, go get the right equipment so you can spot problems! Often it is when we print our images that over-editing will come back and bite us!

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    • Max Bridge

      Agree Lee. Thanks for the comment.

      My editing style is vastly different depending on what I’m doing. For example, I spent the last 5 hours editing a product photo. The level of detail I just went to I would (almost) never do with a portrait. I also pushed things in a way which I would never in a million years do with a portrait.

      There are, however, constants which we must be cautious with in every photo; over-sharpening, saturation and so on.

      I love your suggestion with the IPS display and printing . Excellent point.

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  5. Rick Burgett

    Another thing to be careful with is the dehaze slider. Also easy to go too far with.

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    • Lee Hawkins

      Amen! You get blue shadows well before you get past 50…so if you have a shot you need to push, make sure you add a yellow highlight split tone to compensate. Dehaze saved tons of images I shot last summer when the Midwest was often blanketed by forest fire smoke from the Rockies, but split toning made it possible!

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    • Max Bridge

      Definitely. I don’t really like the Dehaze slider. But it’s nice to have for instances like Lee has pointed out

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    • Lee Hawkins

      If you shoot especially urban landscapes in anything other than perfect weather, even just a little dehaze is awesome. It can pull some more blue out of the sky so the grey buildings don’t just blend right in.

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  6. Kyle Stauffer

    I fell victim to the highlight/shadow sliders when I bought my first DSLR and started using Lightroom.

    I, like you, now loathe the look of a single exposure HDRish image. When I see people talking about how terrible a Canon sensor is compared to a Nikon/Sony sensor, it’s probably because they crank the shadow/highlight slides to extrme on a regular basis for that look which a Nikon is more forgiving with.

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    • Max Bridge

      Ha ha Kyle! I love how you turned that point into a Canon Vs Nikon thing. :)

      For me, while I don’t like the one shot HDR look, I do like having the option to recover details which would otherwise be lost on the Canon sensor. Better to have it and not need it, then need it and not have it.

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