Guides & Tutorials

Lightroom for Underwater Photographers – How to Start?

Getting started in Adobe Lightroom CC may seem overwhelming at first, but after reading through this quick start guide you’ll be editing your underwater images like a pro in no time.

Oftentimes, I hear frustration from underwater photographers who have made the leap from JPEG to RAW, but don’t know what to do with the files once they’ve created them. In this article, I’m going to take you through some suggested steps to process your RAW images. But, first let’s talk about organizing and importing the files.


Keeping your images organized and off your computer will save you many headaches. Compared to JPEGs, RAW files take up a lot more space. Investing in a couple of external hard drives will likely save you and your computer a lot of frustrations.

Depending on how much you shoot, having one active hard drive and one backup drive per calendar year is a good place to start. To keep things simple, I rename each with the year and their function. For example, “Active 2019” and “Backup 2019.”

The active hard drive travels with me, while the backup stays outside of the home in a safe place. I tend to keep plenty of SD cards with me when I travel, as they serve as my backup until I get home and can transfer a copy of the images to the other drive.

The Library Module — (E Key)

The Left Panel — Importing

If you’ve never created a catalog in Lightroom, the software will prompt you to do so prior to your first import. Once you’ve done so select the location of your files from the various drives listed on the left panel.

You can either import directly from your camera via a usb cord, directly from an SD card, or from an external hard drive. Once you’ve selected the location of the files you have a few choices on how to import them.

The Center Panel — Adding, Copying, or Moving

When importing images from a drive, Lightroom gives you the choice to copy, move, or add images to the catalog. Here is a breakdown of what each means:

  • If your images are exactly where you’d like them to remain, simply choose to Add them to the catalog.
  • Move gives you the option to move the images to a new location and add them to the catalog.
  • Lightroom also allows you to Copy the images to a new location and add them to the catalog. This will keep the images where they currently reside on your drive, and also create a new location – essentially creating two copies of the file.

If you import directly from an SD card, you will not be given the choice to “Add” or “Move” images. The files need to reside somewhere besides an SD card, so the only option is “Copy.”

Keep in mind, regardless of what you choose, the files will simply be referenced from their location and only the location of the file and its EXIF data (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, date, and time) will be stored in the catalog—keeping its size small.

The Right Panel

After you’ve selected the images and sorted out how you’d like to import them, you’ll need to move over to the panel on the right. In the right panel, scroll over to the dropdown box besides “Build Previews” and switch this to “Standard.” Next, if you are working with external hard drives, you’ll want to select “Build Smart Previews.”

Building Smart Previews will allow you to work on the files even when the hard drive is disconnected from the computer. Being able to edit images without the drive connected comes in very handy on flights or during any sort of situation where attaching an external drive would be cumbersome.

I also recommend selecting “Don’t Import Duplicates.”

For right now these are the basics, but as you get more familiar with the software, don’t forget to take a look at some of the other options available to you in the right panel.

Now you are ready to click Import!

The Develop Module — (D Key)

Once your images have been imported, you’ll notice various tabs along the top panel. When it comes to editing images, you’ll need to select the “Develop” tab. Choose an image you’d like to edit and either click the Develop tab or press the “D” key on your keyboard.

Before we begin, it’s important to point out that all adjustments made in Lightroom are non-destructive—meaning you can always undo whatever you did previously or even reset the image entirely. Now that we’ve cleared that up, let’s begin editing!

The Right Panel

You’ll notice Lightroom has arranged the Develop panel into different sections beginning with Basic Adjustments. As you progress with your editing journey, you’ll want to learn more about the different panels, but for now the Basic panel is an excellent place to start editing your images, and is where we will spend the majority of this tutorial.

Global vs. Local Adjustments

While editing is different with every image, I’ll be walking you through a basic edit. For the sake of this introduction, we will be discussing adjustments that are made on a global level. Most adjustments can also be made on a local level with the use of the adjustment brush, radial filter, and graduated filter; however, this is a bit more advanced and out of scope for this article. I will however, briefly touch on the Spot Removal tool for removing annoying bits of backscatter.

White Balance

I generally like to begin editing an image by adjusting the white balance. For this adjustment, Lightroom gives you a couple of options. To set the white balance you can either adjust the temperature and tint sliders, select a white balance preset from the dropdown list, or select the eyedropper tool.

I recommend using the eyedropper and then if necessary fine-tuning the white balance with the temperature and tint sliders. I very rarely use the presets, if at all, and don’t recommend them.

With the eyedropper tool selected, scroll over to a white or gray portion of the image and click on it. Make sure the area is not too bright, otherwise Lightroom won’t allow you to select it. You can easily review the before and after image by clicking the backslash (\) key.

If the white balance doesn’t look right, either continue to select different white or gray parts of the image or use the sliders to fine-tune it. There is no right or wrong selection—as with all editing its purely subjective. There may be times when the “proper” white balance doesn’t quite fit the look you are trying to convey; and that is perfectly okay. Photography is an art form after all.

Take a look at this image before and after I white balanced it (off of the whale sharks belly):

You can see a very obvious difference between the two images. The image on the left is prior to white balancing, while the image on the right has been white balanced.


Next up, you may want to take a look at the different profiles available to you just above the eyedropper. Each profile changes the look and feel of the image. Toggle through them and choose whichever you are happiest with.


After white balancing your images, now is a good time to make any necessary crops to your image. Cropping (R key) is a great tool that helps to reframe your subject, but don’t overdo it. A good rule of thumb is to maintain at least two-thirds of the original image.

While it might not seem obvious at first, a lot of photographers can tell when an image has been over-cropped. Just because you can crop, doesn’t mean you should. Try to work on getting the composition right in-camera and then fine-tune it in post.


Exposure Slider

This slider is typically used if the image is over or under exposed, but as with all of the adjustments we will discuss some are simply used to create a particular aesthetic. If an image is dramatically exposed to one side or the other, you likely won’t be able to salvage it. But, if you are shooting in RAW you can usually bring back up to two stops without any issues. Lightroom allows for up to five stops in either direction, however I’ve found anything beyond +/- 2.00 is a poorly executed image and is likely better off in the trash bin.

White and Black Sliders

Next, I tend to skip over the contrast slider and adjust it at the very end of all of my edits. I’ll also bypass highlights and shadows for now, and jump down to the whites and blacks. Underwater images usually appreciate a slight decrease (-10) in the black level. When you move the slider to the left, the blacks in the image will deepen, and when moved to the right it will lighten them.

The white level has a lot to do with the overall brightness of the image while the highlights refer mostly to the brightest part of the image. Again, it really depends how you approach your editing, but I’ve found adjusting the whites before the highlights (and only if needed) works out better.

Highlight and Shadow Sliders

The highlight slider targets the lightest parts of your image, while the shadow slider adjusts the darker parts. Increasing the shadows in an underwater image is done so by moving the slider to the left. This can work nicely for darkening negative space. Moving the slider to the right will lighten up darker parts of the image. 

Texture, Clarity, and Dehaze

Texture is the newest of the Presence Tools and is great for increasing or decreasing the appearance of texture in an image. If you play around with the sliders you will notice Texture is the most understated of the three tools. Move the slider to the right to increase texture or move it to the left to minimize medium-sized details.

As you get more familiar editing images, you may want to try to create a local adjustment with the texture slider for minimizing backscatter. Moving the slider to the left will reduce the appearance of backscatter. For more information, I wrote an article about it – here.

If you’d like to bring out more detail in your image then Clarity is your tool. However, if the image is very busy, you may want to reduce the clarity. This tool tends to reduce the saturation of an image, so you may want to adjust for that in the Vibrance and Saturation sliders.

To soften images, drag the Clarity slider to the left. To make details pop, move it to the right. This is another tool that can be easily overdone. I tend to use values between -10 to +35, but will deviate depending on the image.

Dehaze is also a neat tool that can either add or remove haze from an image. It tends to also increase/decrease colors more than the other two tools. Yet, it’s particularly powerful for underwater images that appear dull. It essentially boosts the contrast and color that is lost because of the water between your lens and the subject. As with the other tools, use it sparingly.

Saturation and Vibrance Sliders

These two sliders can cause a bit of confusion, as they both appear to do similar things. However, if you move each slider to their extremes you’ll see their roles are in fact different.

The Vibrance slider will increase or decrease muted colors in an image, while leaving skin tones alone. Granted underwater this isn’t the usual subject matter, but it’s worth mentioning if you shoot people. And Saturation on the other hand will increase or decrease the overall color intensity in an image.

I tend to prefer images that are bit de-saturated, so I usually find myself decreasing both sliders—but typically by different amounts. If you prefer vibrant images you may want to bump up the sliders—but be careful not to overdo it.


To adjust sharpening, we need to leave the Basic Panel and scroll down to the Detail Panel. Click on the left pointing triangle and select the box in the upper left corner. Move your mouse to a part of the image that has a lot of detail and click on it.

As you’ll notice, a magnified part of the selected area appears in the panel. Keeping an eye on this magnified portion of the image, adjust the sharpening slider as you see fit.

I tend to either leave the sharpening at the default of 40, or bump it up slightly. But, that’s just personal preference. Do keep in mind this is one adjustment you don’t want to go overboard with. Sharpening will never fix an out of focus image! 

Lens Correction Panel

Some of the final edits I like to make are found inside the Lens Correction panel. Prior to exporting, I will select “Remove Chromatic Aberration” and “Enable Profile Corrections.” Sometimes I end up turning off the latter, but I choose to see how it changes the image before deciding.

Profile corrections adjust for lens aberrations and vignettes.

As you can see in the image below it seems to stretch the whale shark across the frame. I’m not particularly fond of this so I’d probably deselect it. You may like it better than the original, but again it’s all about personal preference.

By checking the ‘remove chromatic aberrations’ box, Lightroom essentially corrects for the lens’ failure to focus all of the colors in an image at the same point. The result is fringes of color along areas of an image where bright and dark areas meet.

Most of the time you won’t notice any changes when you select “Remove Chromatic Aberrations,” as the changes are quite subtle and only noticeable zoomed in. I suggest manual fine-tuning for this. At the top of the panel you will see “Profile” and “Manual.” Select Manual, and scroll down to the eyedropper beside “Defringe.”

Before selecting the eyedropper, magnify a part of the image where a light and dark area meet. Next, grab the eyedropper tool and select any purple pixels you see along the border between the dark and bright areas. If you need to fine-tune it more you can do so with the sliders just below the eyedropper.


Last but not least I like to make any final adjustments to the contrast of the overall image. Scroll back up to the contrast slider, just below Exposure in the Basic Panel. Most underwater images benefit from a bit of contrast. Sometimes I keep it light and other times I increase it quite a bit. I like a lot of contrast in my images, but there are times when I find an image has too much contrast, and I will end up decreasing it.

Spot Removal  

Most underwater images will have some bits of backscatter present. It can be very annoying, but there is a tool in Lightroom that can help to an extent, and that is the Spot Removal.

There are a few options to fine-tune the spot removal tool, such as the size and opacity of the treatment. Unfortunately, it can get quite tedious if your image has a lot of backscatter. At some point you may want to learn about removing backscatter in Photoshop, as it is easier and kinder to your image. But for now, I’ll walk you through the basic steps of using the spot removal tool.

First, find a piece of backscatter you’d like to remove from the image and zoom in a bit. Just below the histogram at the top of the right panel, you’ll see a row of icons—click the second icon from the left. Once you’ve selected a piece of backscatter, make sure it fits within the circle. If not, adjust the size on the right panel until it does.

After selecting the piece of backscatter, you should notice another circle appear. Lightroom will use this part of the image to heal the backscatter—so make sure it has a similar background. If it doesn’t match, simply drag the circle to a part of an image that does. Once you are satisfied hit enter and continue editing any remaining backscatter.

Exporting High and Low Resolution Images

Once you’ve made all of your edits, it is time to export the images for printing and/or sharing. You have many options here, however exporting both high and low-resolution images will likely be enough to get started.

High-resolution images should be used for printing images, while low-resolution images are ideal for sharing online or via email. Keep in mind each file size needs to be exported separately.

The first step for both high and low resolution exports is selecting where you want the images to go once you’ve exported them. I personally have a specific hard drive (and a backup) that I use for all of my exports. The hard drive is broken down by destination, and inside each destination folder I have high-res and low-res folders.

No worries if you don’t have this set up right now. You can always export to your computer and transfer later. Just don’t wait too long; otherwise the computer will eventually get bogged down from all of the image files residing on it.

You might be wondering why I don’t export them to the drive they came from. Over the years I’ve found it can be frustrating to have to locate the individual drives each time I need a particular image for something—especially if I am traveling and have no access to the drive. If you shoot a lot this may make sense for you. Otherwise, simply create a folder for exports on your current drive.

Exporting High-Resolution Images

Let’s begin with the details for exporting a high-res image.  With the image selected bring your mouse to the main menu at the very top left of the screen and click on “File.” Scroll down to “Export” and select it. This will open the export dialog box.

Once you’ve selected where to export your images, scroll down to file naming. I always include my own name, and filename on all of my images. Sometimes I add the date as well. Select “Rename” to choose how you’d like to name your files.

Next move down to “File Settings.” For high resolution images select “TIFF” from the Image Format dropdown. Choose “AdobeRGB” from Color Space and select 8 bits/component for the bit depth.

Moving on to Image Sizing, uncheck “Resize to Fit” and type in “300” beside pixels per inch. I tend to leave the “Output Sharpening” on and at a “Standard” amount. Then select the type of paper you will use—either matte or glossy.

Take a quick review to make sure everything looks right and click “Export” on the bottom right of the dialog box.

Exporting Low-Resolution Images

Exporting low-resolution images will be quite a similar process, but there are a few key differences. First be sure to select the appropriate folder, then under File Settings, change the “Image Format” to “JPEG.” Next, adjust the “Color Space” to “sRGB,” and move the “Quality” slider to a value of “70.”

Beneath the next dropdown menu (Image Sizing), check “Resize to Fit,” then select “Long Edge” from the dropdown menu. Below that enter “1080” into the box and select “pixels” from the dropdown list. In the Resolution section, to the right, enter in a value of “72” and verify that “pixels per inch” is selected.

We are almost there! If you’d like to sharpen the image for screens you can do so in the “Output Sharpening” section, but I’d recommend leaving it on standard. Once again, take a quick review to make sure everything looks right then click “Export” on the bottom right of the dialog box.

Watermarking an Image

Lightroom gives you the option of adding a watermark to your image; however you will need to have that set up prior to exporting the image. You can create that by selecting “Edit Watermarks” under Lightroom Classic (to the left of File). Once you have that created, head back to the Export Dialog box and select your custom watermark from the list.

Final Thoughts

Congrats on editing your first underwater image! It’s important to keep in mind that developing your own style of editing comes with time and practice. When I first started editing my own images years ago, they seemed to look and feel like the majority of underwater images out there—which at the time was fine for me. Now, after having mastered the basics of editing, I am able to fine-tune my edits to create a look and feel that is very much my own.

It is very similar to breaking the rules of photography. To get started you must know the rules before you can break them. Just remember there is no right or wrong edit—it’s all a matter of personal preference.

If you’d like to get more help with Lightroom I offer a private hour-long Skype session—you can learn more here.

Happy editing!

Joanna Lentini
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  1. David January 10, 2020

    As an UW photographer yet to make the jump into Lightroom, your article is helpful but can you confirm if you are discussing the “classic” desktop version of Lightroom or the new “cloud based” version? Are there any differences that you consider critical for UW photographers? FYI I am primarily a snorkeler so primarily using natural light.

  2. Ran Mor
    Ran Mor January 16, 2020

    Hey David!

    The two lightroom versions have pretty much the same capabilities.
    The Cloud based one has a newer interface, which many say is more intuitive, especially for those who have never worked with LR before.
    Those who are used to the old interface might feel more comfortable with the classic version.
    My recommendation would be to go with the CC version if you’re just starting out with LR.

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