For most food photographers, Adobe Lightroom is the post-processing program of choice. Even for beginners, it’s relatively intuitive and easy to use.
Lightroom is excellent as a global editor. Its strength lies in its ability to make adjustments globally to the whole image in a way that is simple and intuitive. Post-processing for food photography is primarily about bringing out colour, contrast, and tweaking certain elements like highlights and shadows.
Lightroom is brilliant at all of this.
This article will concentrate on global adjustments in the Develop module in Lightroom. Adobe has organised the tools in this module into panels in consideration of workflow. You start with the adjustments in the top panel and make your way down.
In general, this is a good approach, but there are a few adjustments I recommend making to every image when you get started. This requires moving somewhat arbitrarily through the panels. You will also find that you need to go back and tweak previous adjustments.
Workflow is highly personal. After you’ve been editing for some time, you will find the workflow that works best for you.
White Balance in a very important aspect of post-processing your food pictures. I recommend shooting with a grey card and adjusting your white balance in post-processing. This removes incorrect colour casts and ensures that your whites are truly white.
A grey card is a piece of grey plastic you can buy at a camera supply store. It is exactly 18% grey, which is what your camera looks for when metering a scene. You can’t just use any old grey item.
In the image on the left, I placed the grey card in my scene facing my lens and took a shot. Later in Lightroom, I used the eyedropper tool in the Basic Panel and clicked on an area of the grey card to instantly adjust the white balance.
The image in the top right is the final version, with a few other edits. You can see how the white surface of the cheese looks less yellow. This is truer to what I was seeing when I was creating my shots.
One issue arises when you are shooting in restaurants or anywhere with overhead lights that you cannot turn off. The colour temperature of those lights will give off unwanted colour casts that will contaminate the scene.
The image below was shot in a restaurant with lots of windows and natural light. The artificial lighting in the restaurant made the image look green. I was able to remove this green cast in Lightroom.
If you don’t have a lot of whites in your image, you can also correct your white balance by taking the eyedropper tool and clicking on a neutral area in the image.
This will adjust the colour temperature in the whole image, but should not be relied on when shooting whites. It doesn’t always render them accurately.
Exposure and Contrast
The next slider is Exposure, which affects the brightness of the range of tones throughout your image. I often make this adjustment initially, and may scale it back once I have made my other adjustments.
My style is a moody, darker sort of photography. Therefore, I slightly underexpose my images to get the most out of my shadows in post. However, if your work is bright and bold, or light and airy, you may be working with a file that requires little tweaking in terms of exposure.
The goal is to always get your exposure right in camera. There is only so far you can push this slider before your whites are blown out and you start losing too much detail in the shadows. I typically don’t recommend going much over +1.00 for food photography.
If you find you consistently need to adjust your exposures that much, it means they are off. Rely on your histogram rather than the LCD screen on the back of your camera to assist you in this.
Contrast can be boosted in the Basic Panel or under Point Curve in the Tone Curve Panel. I recommend choosing one or the other. By nature, digital files are flat and one of the goals of post-processing. How much you decide to boost the contrast is a personal choice.
Consistent choices in contrast will come to define your style. For example, my editing style is high contrast and bright food. Other photographers prefer a more muted or softer approach.
Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks
When editing food images, you might want to start by bringing the highlights down and lifting the shadows. Again, the approach you use really depends on what kind of image you are working on. The important thing to remember is that you don’t want to blow out your highlights or lose detail in the shadows.
I recommend focusing on making tweaks in this panel rather than to Exposure, as it is more selective. After you have adjusted your exposure, this panel is a good place to start before you move through the other ones.
Clarity, Vibrance, and Saturation
Clarity is an important slider in Lightroom for food photography. It gives your image contrast in the midtones and adds detail. Although you would not choose to edit a portrait with 50+ clarity, I regularly use this as a starting point with my food photos.
There can be too much of a good thing, however. Excessive use of clarity can make food look dry and unappealing, and your image “crunchy” (too much contrast). For the image of the cinnamon sugar doughnuts below, I kept my clarity at +38 because the image was quite dark overall.
Vibrance is also an important slider in food photography post-processing. Unlike other photography genres, food photography tends to involve more colour treatment.
Vibrance is a better tool for your edits than saturation, as it’s more subtle. It tends to adjust the less saturated colours without intensifying the ones that are already saturated.
On the other hand, the saturation slider quickly cranks up the colour saturation in the image overall. This can easily look overdone and garish. For this reason, if I use the slider at all, I might only nudge it up a tad to about +4 or +5.
Saturation is a slider I recommend using with great care. I rarely go over 8+, if I use it at all. The difference between vibrance and saturation is that it affects the intensity of the colours. Red becomes more red, green becomes more green and so on.
Vibrance will first boost the saturation of the muted colours and then the other colours. Whether you use saturation or not depends on the image and the look you are going for. In general, a conservative approach works best for food photography.
The Tone Curve panel is the most powerful tool in Lightroom. It can give you the most power over the visual impact of a photo, yet can be the most difficult to master. You may find that the Tone Curve is where you end up doing most of your tweaking before you settle on a final look.
Teaching the tone curve in depth is beyond the scope of this article, but let’s start with a couple of main pointers you should be familiar with.
The Tone Curve is a square graph that maps out where the tones in your images lie. The bottom axis of the Tone Curve starts with Shadows at the far left and ends with Highlights in the far right. The Midtones fall in the middle, ranging from darker to lighter.
The tones get darker as you move lower, and brighter as you move up the axis.
You can control the lightness and darkness of your tones by adjusting the Point curve itself or adjust them with the sliders in the Region panel.
If you don’t have much experience with editing, I suggest starting with the Region sliders. They will have the same effect but ensure you don’t ruin your image with incorrect adjustments.
To make adjustments to the curve, click on the area you want to affect in your image and bring the point up or down.
When you start working with the Tone Curve, I recommend that you first assess the midtones in your image. Are they bright already? If not, click on the middle of the tone curve and bring the point up.
If they are already bright or too bright, you want to bring the curve down a bit. Move on to the rest of your image. Typically you will find that your curve looks somewhat like a soft S.
The popular matte look can be achieved in the Tone Curve panel by taking the very far left end of the line that represents the deepest blacks in the image and bringing it up a little. Then drag down the top right point representing the brightest whites in a scene.
You will also notice that there is an RGB option in the lower-right portion of the point curve. This is meant to help you edit the Red, Green, and Blue channels of your image individually. It performs the same types of adjustments to brightness and darkness, but on each separate colour.
You can use this if you want to edit a colour individually, or give your image a certain type of colour overall. It’s generally not that useful in food photography, where you want to keep your subjects true to life.
When it comes to the Tone Curve panel, a little goes a long way. Eventually you will find an approach that works for you.
HSL stands for Hue, Saturation and Luminance. This is where you balance the colours in Lightroom. You must make some adjustments in this panel if you want your images to pop.
There are two ways to make these adjustments in this panel. You can adjust them all at once under HSL, or each colour individually under the Color tab.
Hue is where you choose how warm or cool you want each colour in your image to be. For example, I find that greens typically look a bit off in my RAW images. So I slide the greens a tad more towards the left or right to get them looking more realistic.
To add more warmth, that is, more yellow to your greens, slide it to the right. For a cooler hue, sliding it to the right will add more blue.
Whereas the saturation slider in the Presence panel adjusts the saturation of the whole image, the saturation sliders here adjust each colour individually. Note that if you adjust a colour to be more saturated, this will affect the saturation of that particular colour throughout the whole photo.
In the image below, I felt that there was too much yellow in the hummus and orange in the breadsticks, so I brought these down a bit.
Whether in the Presence panel or the HSL panel, saturation requires a light hand.
In the HSL panel, Luminance affects the brightness of the colour.
This panel also has what we call the Targeted Adjustment Tool. You will find that most colours in your images are a combination of colours. For example, in this image of ginger cookies, the fabric looks quite blue. It is a common problem in food photography that fabrics do not render accurately.
I used the targeted adjustment tool to bring the blues and purples down to the true colour of the linen I was using. Of course, it also changed the amount of blue and purple in the image overall. I could have chose to keep the blues and purples as they were, or adjusted them to be even stronger.
This is an example of a creative decision you can make with this tool to make your images pop, or to achieve a more monochromatic look.
You will find the tool in the left hand corner of the panel. Click on the tool and move it over to an area on your picture that represents the colour you would like to work on. Click again and drag it up or down. The colour will change and you will see the sliders adjust themsleves at the same time.
Noise is the grain that can appear throughout an image. It is not often a problem when you are shooting with artificial lights. When working with natural light, grain can appear in your images if you are shooting at a higher ISO or you didn’t otherwise get enough light onto your sensor.
Thankfully, you can easily fix this with the noise slider on Lightroom, which will minimise the grain and give your image a smoother look. As with other sliders in Lightroom, a little goes a long way. Pushing the slider too high can result in a plastic look.
For this image, I set the Noise at 20. I shoot mostly with artificial light, therefore my ISO is set at a minimum. You will have more grain in your image the higher up you go with ISO.
Post-Crop Vignetting and Dehaze
Post-crop vignette is my go-to slider when editing my dark and moody food photography in Lightroom. Sliding it to the left adds darkness in the corners of your image, which can draw the eye into the frame. You can also control how wide or strong the vignetting appears in the Post Crop Vignetting panel.
I rarely recommend this Lightroom slider for light and airy images, unless you move it to the right a tad to take care of any darkness in the corners of the the image. This will ideally disappear when you use the Lens Correction button.
Sharpening is the final cherry on the cake, after you are one hundred percent satisfied with your image.
Far too many photographers use sharpening as a corrective tool for what it’s not meant to fix. Sharpening adds contrast between pixels and edges. This can add definition and causes an image to look more refined.
However, sharpening cannot make a blurry image look sharp. Nor should you apply it to every part of the image.
The mistake most new photographers make is that they apply sharpening to the whole image, either in Lightroom or upon exporting the file. Sharpening should be done selectively. Not all parts of the images will benefit from being sharpened.
We want to sharpen the food, but not necessarily the background and all the props.
To sharpen your image selectively, hold down the alt/option key and click on the Masking slider under Sharpening in the Detail panel. Drag the slider and you will see the image go black and white, almost like an x-ray.
The white area shows you the area where it is sharpening. I generally keep my sharpening between 80 to 90.
You can see in the image of the clams, I sharpened mostly the clams and the edges of the bowl. I didn’t find it necessary to sharpen too much of the linen or the background.
Keep in mind that the amount of sharpening you need to apply depends on the medium in which your image will appear. Print work requires different sharpening than web output, and is less forgiving.
When it comes to sharpening, the best advice I can give is to err on the side of restraint.
Presets and Syncing
Presets are basically a saved set of instructions that have been applied to one photo that can be added to other photos. Let’s say a preset is a photo-editing recipe. Presets are very popular with wedding and portrait photographers. They generally don’t work well with food.
If you do use purchased presets, you may find that they need tons of tweaking. So much so that it’s actually easier to not use them. You may also find that you buy a package of presets and only use one or two.
That being said, presets can be a great starting point. Study the settings of the presets you like and try to understand how each slider affects the image and gives the final result. Through this process you will learn which adjustments will give you the style you are looking for.
Once you have finished editing your image, you can apply the same settings to other images by saving them, or syncing them.
To save the settings, go up to the top right-hand corner of your screen and click on the Develop tab. Choose New Preset from the dropdown menu.
A box will pop up where you can name your preset and check off the settings in your image you wish to save. I save everything but white balance, graduated and radial filters, as well as transform.
The reason for this is because if I am applying the preset to different images, those images will require their own specific settings in these areas.
If you are editing several images and want to apply the same setting to all of them, you can do this by syncing them. To do this, highlight the images you want to apply the settings to.
The Sync button will appear. Simply click on it and the settings from the first image you clicked will be applied to the rest of the selected images.
Each genre of photography requires its own editing approach in Lightroom. This has been a summary of my approach, but it’s not how you must edit in Lightroom.
Hopefully this article can help you with post-processing your food photography by giving you the tools to approach the settings in Lightroom in a way that helps you with your workflow and makes your delicious food look as appetising as possible.
A note from Josh, ExpertPhotography's Photographer-In-Chief:
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