Learn Lightroom (part 1) – Interface & Preferences

This is the first post in a series introducing Adobe Lightroom. Lightroom may seem intimidating at first, but once you get started you’ll realize how simple it really is to navigate through. Lightroom is designed to be the only piece of software you need for a complete digital workflow.

In this post we’re going to cover opening Lightroom for the first time, discuss the interface, and how to set up some basic preferences. Lets get started!

What is Lightroom?

Lightroom is an incredibly powerful multi-functional tool for photographers. It combines a content management system with a fully functional photo editing program to help you effortlessly create a start-to-finish editing workflow in one program.

Lightroom uses a database system called catalogs. Using catalogs allows you to have immense control over the organization of your library with powerful search and filter tools. All editing done in Lightroom is non-destructive. The original image data is never written to or changed. Any and all changes are stored to the catalog not the image file. Lightroom is also capable of performing batch processing tasks. Using presets, templates and sync operations it’s easy to apply settings to whole groups or a catalog of images simultaneously.

Lightroom consists of seven different modules, each for a specific part of the editing workflow. Everything needed in a basic editing workflow can be done in Lightroom from importing images, sorting and cataloging, making adjustments and edits, and exporting for web, print, etc..

How is Lightroom different from Bridge, Photoshop, or Camera Raw?

Bridge, Photoshop, Camera Raw and Lightroom are all part of the Adobe Creative Cloud suite of applications. Figuring out the differences between them can get confusing, so here’s a short explanation of each:

  • Bridge is a file browser like Explorer or Finder used for browsing and managing all types of files. If you’re looking for video, audio, or other types of files, use Bridge. If you want to organize your images, Lightroom is best.
  • Camera Raw is a set of photo editing tools almost completely identical to the tools found in the Develop module in Lightroom. Camera Raw can be opened using Bridge or Photoshop, but if you’re using Lightroom there is no need for Camera Raw.
  • Photoshop is the most complex of all the programs. For most basic editing tasks the tools in Camera Raw or Lightroom are more than sufficient. You will need Photoshop for some images, but only for applying complex modifications like compositing or stitching groups of photos together.

The Lightroom interface

When you open Lightroom for the first time the main window opens. This is where you will perform the complete editing workflow. There won’t be any visible images until we tell it what we want to import. The image below shows the default Lightroom layout with the modules and panels identified.

Lightroom interface

All of the panels in Lightroom are locked in their default positions. They can, however, be minimized or resized. The top and bottom panels stay the same no matter which module you are currently using, but the side panels change depending on the module. Generally, the left panel is for organizing, batch processing and presets, and the right panel is for applying settings, adjustments, or outputting layouts.


All of the work done in Lightroom is done within one of the seven modules. The selected module is always highlighted. By default, you should be in the Library module. Below is a brief description of the purpose for each module. The keyboard shortcuts for the modules are alt/opt + ctrl/cmd + 1-7. Each number corresponds to one of the seven modules from left to right.

Lightroom Modules

  • Library
    The library module is used for importing, sorting, and managing your images. There is a very limited set of basic editing tools in the library called the Quick Develop Panel.
  • Develop
    The develop module is where all of the major image processing is done. Cropping, tone and color, sharpening, noise reduction, creative effects, and presets are all applied here.
  • Map
    The map module is used to add and edit location data and to integrate GPS data with tracklogs. Personally, I rarely use this, but that’s just personal preference.
  • Book
    The book module makes it simple to create book designs with your images. Book designs can be exported as PDF or JPEG files or directly uploaded to Blurb.
  • Slideshow
    Slideshow is used for designing presentations that you can playback in Lightroom or export as a video, PDF, or JPEG.
  • Print
    The print module has various custom layouts and text overlays for creating simple high quality prints from your images.
  • Web
    The web module makes simple work of creating galleries for the web whether you use HTML or Flash.

Main Preview Area

In the library and develop modules, images are shown in the preview area. The bottom of the preview area has a toolbar where you can select how images are viewed. There are also tools for sorting, flagging, rating, and rotating images and adding a grid overlay. On the far right of the toolbar is an arrow that opens an options menu where you can select which options are shown on the toolbar.

Preview area toolbar

Identity Plate

On the left side of the top panel is the identity plate. By default the Lightroom logo is shown here, but it is possible to replace it with your own name and logo. The identity plate is specific to the individual catalog, so you can also use this area to display the name of the catalog or any other data you deem important.

Whenever Lightroom is processing a task like importing new images or exporting images the identity plate is replaced with an activity viewer. The activity viewer shows one or more progress bars as the tasks are being completed. If you ever want to stop a task in progress, just click on the “X” on the right side of the progress bar.

The identity plate and activity viewer

Left and Right Panels

The combined groups of the left or right panels are usually referred to as panel groups or panel sets. The entire left, right, and bottom panel groups can individually or simultaneously be collapsed. If you left click the outer edge of the panel, it collapses. If you right click on the same outside edge, it opens a menu with options to automatically show/hide the panel group or allow for manual operation. The menu also has options to sync the left/right panel so they both close and open together. If you hold down the left mouse button and drag on the inside edge of the left, right, or bottom panel you can change the size of the whole panel.

To expand or collapse any of the panels inside the panel groups, just click on the title. Right clicking on any of the titles will open a menu that allows you to select which panels are available. The lower half of that menu has several other display options to determine how the panels are displayed. The “expand all” and “collapse all” are self-explanatory. There are also options to “show all” and “hide all”, and the “solo mode” which only allows one panel to be expanded at one time. When you expand a second panel in solo mode, the previous one collapses automatically. I find solo mode to be the most useful setting. It keeps the layout clean and uncluttered and makes it easy to find everything.

Left and right panel layout

Filmstrip (bottom panel)

The bottom panel is also called the filmstrip panel. After you import images to Lightroom it will show thumbnails for all of the current images whether it be a folder, catalog, or collection. The filmstrip is the same in all of the modules.

the filmstrip panel

Just like the left and right panels, if you click on the bottom edge of the filmstrip, the panel will collapse. Clicking and dragging on the top edge of the filmstrip allows you to resize the panel.

Along the top of the filmstrip are sets of navigation controls. The left side has controls for displaying content on multiple monitors, a shortcut to the library grid view mode (G), and a set of arrows for navigating forward and backward. The right side controls are organization tools for flagging, rating, and labeling sets of images.

Navigator Panel

The navigator panel is the first panel in the left panel group. The navigator panel shows a small preview of the currently selected photo, but if multiple photos are selected, it shows the target photo. The controls across the top of the panel are used to select zoom ratios. By default there are options for fit, fill, 1:1, and 1:2. Clicking the arrow button opens a menu with additional magnification ratios.

The navigation panel

Lightroom Screen Modes

The Lightroom window has four screen modes. You can access any of them by navigating to the Window menu option at the top and navigating to “Screen Mode“.

  • Normal
    The application may not fill your entire screen. Like most other windows, you click and drag on the edges of the window to resize it. To move the window click and drag on the title bar at the top.

  • Full screen with menu bar
    Lightroom fills the entire screen and is not resizable. The title bar is hidden.

  • Full screen
    The same as the full screen with menu bar mode, but with the main menu bar hidden. If you need to access the menu bar, you can do so by hovering the mouse over the top of the screen. When you’re finished it becomes hidden again. Using the keyboard shortcut Shift+F will cycle through these first three screen modes.

  • Full screen preview
    This mode hides all panels and menus and shows a full screen preview of the current photo. Note that this mode is only available in Lightroom 5 or later. You can access this mode at any time by pressing the F key on the keyboard.


To access the Lightroom preferences dialog window, go to Edit > Preferences. The preferences window in Lightroom 5 has six tabs:

  • General
    The General tab has a language selection and startup options at the top. You can choose a default catalog or opt to have Lightroom open the previously used catalog upon startup. I personally prefer the option “Prompt me when starting Lightroom.” It opens a dialog box with a list of all your recent catalogs allowing you to choose which one to open.

  • General preferences tab

  • Presets
    The Presets tab has options for resetting Lightroom presets to their default setting. If you’re ever not sure what you changed, just use this tab to reset everything back to its original state.

  • Presets preferences tab

  • External Editing
    You shouldn’t need to pay attention to this tab just yet. It contains preferences for handling files in Photoshop and other external image editing programs.

  • File Handling
    The File Handling tab has import, file metadata, and file name preferences. What you should pay attention to right now are the Camera Raw Cache Settings options. If you have plenty of hard drive space available, set the maximum cache size to at least 10GB to increase Lightroom’s performance.

  • File Handling preferences tab

  • Interface
    In the top of the Interface tab you can choose the font size in Lightroom’s panels. The background settings allow you to choose a fill color and texture for the main preview area background.

  • Interface preferences tab

  • Lightroom Mobile
    The last tab, Lightroom Mobile, isn’t something you need to worry about right now.

File Formats

Similarly to Camera Raw, Lightroom was developed specifically to cater to a digital photography workflow. While other more broad image editing software like Photoshop or GIMP are compatible with dozens of video, image, and graphic file formats, Lightroom only handles those needed for a photography workflow.

Lightroom can import, process, and export the following seven types of files:

  • RAW
    Lightroom can handle RAW files from almost all digital cameras. RAW files are specific to manufacturer and individual model of camera. In order to maintain the most up-to-date RAW file compatibility, keep Lightroom updated regularly.

  • DNG
    DNG stands for digital negative. It’s an open source file format designed by Adobe. Although very similar to RAW format, it has several advantages. DNG files are smaller than RAW files and they don’t require a sidecar file to hold metadata. Converting your files to DNG when importing is a personal preference. It’s a good idea, but not absolutely necessary.

  • TIFF
    A TIFF or “tagged image file format” is a type of bitmap image typically used for transferring files between different applications. TIFF file can contain layers and vector graphics and come in 8-bit, 16-bit or 32-bit formats. Its flexibility and wide compatibility makes it ideal for editing files between several different software programs. If you’re planning on moving a file between Photoshop and Lightroom, TIFF is the best format to use.

  • JPEG
    JPEG files are compressed image files commonly used for web or screen display.

  • PNG
    PNG or “portable network graphic” compatibility was added to Lightroom 5. If you have a previous version, PNG files will not be compatible.

  • PSD
    PSD is a Photoshop document that comes in 8 and 16-bit formats. Only PSD files saved using the “maximize compatibility” option can be used in Lightroom.

  • Video Files
    Lightroom can handle several of the most common video formats including MOV, AVI, MPG, and AVCHD.

That’s all I have for part 1 of the Learn Lightroom series. Click here to continue to part 2 – Editing Workflow.