Make It Impactful: Optimizing Images with Lightroom

By Charles Purdy

Sometimes you capture the perfect photo in just one click—but perfection usually takes a little more effort than that. We asked three top-notch photographers—Katie Orlinsky, Gareth Pon, and Ted Chin—to show us how they take a photo from good to great, using Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC. Then we invited our readers to try some of their tips on a photos of their own, for a chance to win (the entry period for this contest is now over). The winner, chosen by Orlinsky, Pon, and Chin, received a one-year Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, a $1,000 Adorama Camera gift certificate, and a one-hour mentoring session. (We will be running four Make It Impactful contests in the summer and fall of 2017. One of the four winners will be randomly selected to win our grand prize: a trip to Adobe MAX in Las Vegas!)


We asked participants to use Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC—which you can get here (a free trial is available) to perfect a photo, using the tools that made sense for their image.

This photo of Alaskan sled dogs is almost perfect—but with the help of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC, perfection is within reach.

Participants shared before and after images on Twitter or Instagram with the the hashtags #makeitimpactful and #contest. (The winning image is featured at the bottom of this page.)

Now read on to learn how these three photographers used Lightroom to perfect this image.


The trio started with a picture of sled dogs that Orlinsky had taken along with many other photos of dog mushing in Alaska. “A client asked me for an image that captured Alaskan dog mushing,” she says. “They wanted it to include dogs running and the epic Alaskan landscape. I knew I had images that fit the bill

Her first step was getting her photos into Lightroom and choosing the one to work on. She uploaded her images into Lightroom by choosing File > Import > and selecting a source on her hard drive. She selected All Photos, made sure Add was highlighted at the top of her screen, and then clicked on Import.

(Learn more about importing photos into Lightroom.)

Lightroom allows you to sort photos by multiple criteria—including file name, date, rating, and color label. Orlinsky likes to sort and cull photos quickly, applying ratings and colors to her photos using key commands (1 to 5 are ratings; 6 to 9 are colors).

Click on the image to watch as Orlinsky begins the process of sorting her photos. “I always choose the images that speak to me and that I’m proud of,” she says. “In my experience, any time I’ve tried to give someone what they want while thinking to myself, ‘If only it were up to me,’ the final product is a failure. Here, I’m working with my top images from the past three years that I’ve been photographing mushing, which I have saved in a folder called ‘Mushing Selects.’”

After assigning ratings to her images, Orlinsky isolated only images with a certain rating. Then she put those images in a subfolder (by clicking on the plus sign to the right of Folders and choosing Add Subfolder) and continued reviewing. She finally narrowed her choices down to three and then to one.


Pon imported Orlinsky’s photo and switched to the Develop module (View > Go To Develop). Before he began making adjustments in the Basic panel, he moved the exposure slider left and right to get a feel for the photo. “Ideally, you want to make sure your image is at a good exposure before you start playing with it and making other adjustments,” he says.

1. The Histogram panel—the arrow icons at the top control peaking warnings. 2. This row of icons contains the Crop Overlay tool and the Graduated Filter tool (as well as the Radial Filter tool: more on that later). 3. The sliders in the Basic control panel.

Next, he dragged the Highlights slider to the left and the Shadows slider to the right to recover details in the brighter and darker parts of the image. He played with the White and Black sliders to maximize the dynamic range. To ensure that he didn’t overdo these edits, he checked the peaking warnings boxes in the Histogram panel—with those on on, overexposed whites in an image appear red, and underexposed blacks turn blue.

Pon used the Crop Overlay tool (the box icon at the far left above the sliders) to rotate the image and straighten the horizon. Then it was time to add some drama with the Graduated Filter tool (which Pon says is his “favorite”).

Click on the image to watch as Pon makes his first adjustments to the image, using the Highlights, Shadows, Whites, and Blacks sliders.

The Graduated Filter lets you make all kinds of adjustments but confines them within a rectangle (click on the rectangular icon, fourth from the left, to access it). The adjustments are strongest in one part of the rectangle and gradually fade out, so the final effect is convincingly subtle.

After selecting the Graduated Filter, choose any of the adjustment sliders, and click and drag to create the filter. The longer the distance between the start and end point, the more gradual the effect. Drag the pin to reposition the adjustment, drag the outer line to shorten or lengthen the effect distance, and drag the center line to change the filter’s angle.

Pon says, “I always look at where I can complement the light that’s already in an image. To do that, I find where the shadows are falling. In this image, long shadows fall to the left, so I want to accentuate this with a complementary exposure coming in from the right of the image.” Click on the image to watch Pon use the Graduated Filter to increase the exposure on one side of the image and to intensify shadows on the other side.

Pon continued making edits, bringing up a side-by-side before-and-after view to check his progress. (To do this, make sure that the Before And After view mode is activated by clicking on the arrow at the bottom right of the image window. Then click on the rectangle with Y icons.)

Click on the image to watch Pon make edits on an image in a split-screen, before-and-after view.

“I wanted to get back some detail in the sky,” says Pon. “The best way to do that was to add a Graduated Filter over the sky and then increase the Dehaze setting.”

Pon finished his portion of the edits with a judicious use of the Dehaze slider (in the Develop module’s Effects panel), which adds detail and crispness to an image.


As a perfecting touch, Chin wanted to use Lightroom’s Radial Filter to draw viewers’ eyes to the image’s focal point—the dogs and the sled tracks—and to add drama to the photograph.

While you’re in the Develop module, click on the Radial Filter icon or press Shift-M to access the Radial Filter tool.


A Radial Filter works much like a Graduated Filter. You create and adjust a spherical shape, and then you apply adjustments that affect only the area outside of the shape or, if you select the Invert Mask option, the inside of it.

Chin says, “I like my photos to have higher contrast, so I’m going to adjust the sliders to achieve the effects I want.”


To duplicate a Radial Filter, click and Command-Option-drag (or Control-Alt-drag on a Windows computer) it. Chin used two identical Radial Filters on areas of snow in this image.   

He increased the contrast in a Radial Filter that encompassed the sled dogs, and he used two more filters to intensify the color and contrast in the sky.

By creating Radial Filters and choosing Invert Mask, Chin can boost contrast and saturation in select areas of the picture, such as the sky.   

Chin applied several radial filters in concert with other adjustments to increase contrast in select areas of the image and to boost color—such as the blue in the sky.

(Learn more about basic photo editing in Lightroom, including the Graduated Filter and the Radial Filter.)

The image: before and after.  


Our judges chose this image by Kyle Slavin as the winning “perfected photo.” Congratulations, Kyle! (To see more winners, visit the Make It Impactful Contest Winners page.)