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A Complete Beginner's Guide to Toning and Cropping in Lightroom

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Lightroom is an application loved by photographers of all levels because it streamlines and improves workflow from start to finish. Whether you are a professional photographer with a busy calendar or a hobby photographer looking to manage photos of your family and friends, it can help you to improve your work. In today's tutorial, we're going to take a look at Lightroom's cropping and toning features and find out how to use them to their fullest.

Getting Started

For the purpose of this tutorial, we'll assume that you already have Lightroom. You will of course also need some images imported into your catalog. If this is your first time working with Lightroom, you will need to import images to work with. You can do this either by going to File-> Import, or pressing the Import button on the left panel while in the Library Module.

For all of these examples, I'm going to use a Senior Portrait session that I shot over the summer. These tools are all parts of Lightroom that I use on a daily basis, and I'll show you how they help me in my workflow.


In my opinion, one of the best functions of Lightroom is the crop tool. No application makes it easier to get the crop right for my photos and preview them as I do so.

One important note is how Lightroom differs from Photoshop or other pixel level editing tools. In those applications, cropping the images revolves around trimming the image to a pixel size. Lightroom, in contrast, focuses on cropping to a certain aspect ratio. In short, an aspect ratio is the "shape" of an image, and describes how wide it is versus how tall it is. A 1:1 aspect ratio means that an image is 1 unit wide for every 1 unit tall, resulting in a square shape.

A square is not a common shape for a photo, although it can be a great way to experiment and try new photo cropping ideas. The images coming from most digital SLR's is 1.5:1 or 3:2. This is an image one and a half times wide as it is tall (given that it hasn't been rotated to portrait orientation, of course).

Let's start exploring Lightroom's crop tool. My first suggestion would be to select the photo you would like to crop on the filmstrip and create a virtual copy of it. This is accomplished by right clicking the thumbnail for it on the filmstrip and selecting "create a virtual copy". By doing this, you preserve the original crop, and can now create an alternate crop. If you're sure that you don't need the original crop of the image, don't worry about creating this virtual copy.

Creating a virtual copy by right clicking the image preserves the original edit while creating a copy that can be edited independently.

Next, go ahead and switch to the Develop module of Lightroom by clicking Develop in the upper right corner, or pressing “D” to enter the develop module. To use the crop tool, click on the overlay icon on the right side, or press "R" on your keyboard.

The crop button can be found on the right side while in the develop module.

With this tool open, we can both crop and straighten our images. After entering crop mode, you will see the tool's overlay appear on your image.

After opening the Lightroom crop tool on an image, an overlay will appear with handles at the edges. We can drag these handles in order to crop the image.

The crop grid has several handy features that can help us improve our images in the cropping process. The grid is a huge tool that allows us to align points of interest and apply better crops. The photography "rule of thirds" tells us that interesting points in the photo should be applied to the intersection of the lines. We can also press “O” on the keyboard to cycle through some alternate crop lines Lightroom offers, each of which illustrates different cropping principles which you might be interested in researching.

The intersecting lines on the rule of thirds grid show us possible strong crop points. The focal point of an image can be placed in the intersection of the lines in order to create a strong crop. This is hardly an absolute rule, but can be a good starting point.

Before proceeding with cropping the image, let's turn our attention to the options on the right panel. For this image, I want to preserve the aspect ratio, meaning I want to keep the "shape" of the image the same. I'll set the option to "original" and make sure that the lock is enabled.

The crop options allow us to tweak how we crop our images. Here, we have set the crop to be the same aspect ratio as the original, and have locked the padlock to keep us from creating crazy custom crops that deviate from our original aspect ratio.

The bright area of the crop grid here represents the potential target crop. If we choose another aspect ratio like 1:1, the shape of the grid changes to a square. Here, we've set our crop shape to "1 x 1" to create a square crop.

If we set the aspect ratio to custom and unlock it, we can draw the frame to whatever shape that we want and create a totally custom crop. This will let you crop it just the way that you want, but may create issues later in printing if the crop you've created isn't a standard print size.

When finishing a crop, just press "Done" on the crop options panel at right, or press "R" on the keyboard again to complete it.

When I crop, I lock the aspect ratio to the same as my camera's native ratio by setting it to “original” and locking the padlock. This allows me to preserve the most resolution, and if I want to crop again later to a different format, this best allows for it.

Finally let's not overlook the ability to apply easy rotation to correct undesirable tilts or straighten out horizons.

Again, let's bring up the crop tool by either pressing "R" on the keyboard, or by clicking the crop tool on the right panel. This again enters the crop mode. From here, there are a number of methods you can use to apply tilt correction:

My original image:

1) You can click just below the midpoint, outside of the photos to see the tilt handle appear. Just use your mouse to click, hold, and apply tilt correct.

Notice that the arrow turns to a double arrow which you can use to correct tilt.

2) Using the ruler tool on the crop panel, you draw a straight line to apply correction. This is super handy for landscapes.

At left, I used the ruler tool to draw a line along which to correct tilt. At right is the final image after the tilt angle was applied.

3) You can also manually enter a percent tilt in the options panel.

General Exposure Adjustment

I want to briefly touch on the general exposure adjustment tools in the Develop module. There are all the traditional adjustments like brightness and contrast, but there is also an easy accessed fill light slider. It brightens just the shadows. Then there is the blacks slider, which just darkens the shadows. Finally, there is the recovery slider just darkens the highlights.

There are also advanced adjustments for hue and saturation, a tone curve and much more. The explanation of all these tools would make for a great book. Most of these other tools are available in Photoshop. Hopefully, this tutorial will show you what Lightroom has to offer and how it presents adjustments in different ways.

White Balance Adjustment

Out of all of the tweaks that I apply to my images, one of the most important ones is white balance correction. If you're shooting RAW images, you can move this slider without quality loss, but it can also be used on your JPEG images as well.

What is white balance? First, let's learn just a little bit about color temperature. Each light source has a color temperature and cameras are set accordingly. Chances are, you've been running your camera's white balance in auto and that's fine, but we can also tweak it in Lightroom.

The white balance tool in Lightroom allows us to tweak the color temperature as well as apply tint.

I think that one of the best tools you can learn in Lightroom to improve your images is this white balance slider. Depending on the light that is present in a photo, white balance will vary greatly. If you are under fluorescent lights, they have a cooler temperature and will have to be accounted for.

A good starting point tool for white balance is the eyedropper. Select it and click something in the image you know is white or gray, and Lightroom sets white balance from that sample. Unlike using a white eyedropper in Levels in Photoshop, this eyedropper does not assume what you clicked in a pure white. It just needs something that supposed to be void of color. Basically, it does more to adjust white balance than exposure.

Different photographers have different tendencies for handling the white balance. In my portrait work, I have a tendency to push the white balance in the "warm" direction to apply a pleasing, healthy glow to skin.

In this image, I pushed the white balance to the right just a bit to subtly warm the image.

White balance can also be a creative tool that is used to style the coloring of images. Experiment with the different points on the white balance slider to see what impact it has on your images.

Cloning and Healing

Many users of Lightroom fail to realize the spot adjustment tools that Lightroom offers. As the application has grown, it has felt more like a complete workflow solution, and the clone and healing tools are particularly helpful for small retouches.

If you aren't familiar with these tools from other Adobe applications, the clone and heal tools are at the heart of many retouching toolboxes. Used for cleaning up spots and fixing imperfections, the clone and healing tools are great for making those spot adjustments that can help an image shine.

Lightroom's spot adjust tool in the develop module includes both the clone and healing tool. These can be used for perfect control over your images.

First, let's look at the clone tool. I used this tool to clean up very minor skin spots that everyone has. Near the model's eye, I used this tool by clicking the area I wanted to retouch, then Lightroom automatically picked a nearby region to sample. If Lightroom picked a region that wasn't great to sample from, all you have to do is drag the sample area (the bright white circle in the right screenshot) and reposition it until there is a good area to sample from.

The healing tool, also used for spot adjustments, is perhaps even better for cleaning up skin spots and making other precise adjustments. The healing tool takes into account the texture of the area that you are dealing with and preserves the texture of nearby areas. Both of these are fantastic tools to provide careful retouches and cleanups over specific areas.

Adjustment Brush

The adjustment brush of Lightroom allows us to apply many of the develop options built into Lightroom, but limit it to a localized area. It's not hard to see the potential provided by this tool. With it, we can correct regions of an image and style one area of the photo differently from other regions.

The adjustment brush options include almost all of the options provided to us in the development panel, except we can apply it to a localized area. After selecting all of your options and tweaking them the way you want, you can simply brush over regions of the photo to apply the selected effect.

In the above image, I tweaked the develop settings, which control the entire image. I felt that the region in the background was a little too bright, so I used the adjustment brush to brush the background very subtly darker.

The adjustment brush is one of the most fun to experiment with because you can tweak such precise portions of images. Lightroom continues to gain more powerful tools that allow for advanced image control.


With the cropping and toning tools, Lightroom's power to manage images is very strong. With speed and ease, we can apply custom crops, spot adjustments, and color correction via white balance.

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