How to edit photos like a pro (without paying for Photoshop)

It's not a secret to the design world, but most of the general Instagramming public is unaware that Adobe released industry-leading photography app Lightroom - Photoshop's prettier cousin - on mobile back in 2017.

(Oh yeah, and it's free. Go download it now on Google Play or the App Store.)

Lightroom is basically all the photo-editing features of Instagram, but much nicer and way more technical and comprehensive. It's also non-destructive, which means that you can save a copy of your stunning new photo without it changing the original file. The quality of the photo is also untouched, whereas the minute you upload to Instagram your photograph's dimensions are squashed and it becomes low resolution at only about 500 pixels. (I.e. - if you zoom in even a little, it will be blurry.)

Lightroom can be a bit confusing to use at first with all the knobs and sliders, so I'm going to take you through editing a photo step-by-step. Here we'll go from my original photo of the Twelve Apostles to a brighter and more vibrant one which conveys a bit more of the wonder of actually being there (because mobile cameras never do anything justice).

Oh yeah. And I'll be doing this using only the free features.

Step 1: Import your file

Open Lightroom and select the little album icon. It'll take you to all your phone's storage folders. Open the one containing your photo (usually just 'camera') and find the photo you want. Select it then press 'add'. If you want to import multiples, just check both of them.

The interface you'll see when you open Lightroom Mobile. You'll want to click the photo button with the + in the bottom right corner.

Your photo will now be in Lightroom ready to go. It'll stay there from now on, so you won't have to scroll through your feed again to find it if you want to edit. Hooray!

Step 2: Start editing

My favourite way to start editing is by applying a profile. This is basically like a filter in Instagram, where it automatically updates settings for you to make it look a certain way. There are about 4 times more profiles in Lightroom than in Instagram though. Joy of joys.

Pick a profile you like, and play with the slider at the top to adjust the intensity of the edits. Do you want just a touch of vintage, or a full vintage drowning? Your choice. Just remember we'll be doing more manual edits later so you might like to start with something reserved and build on it later.

For this photo, I chose Artistic 04 which is pretty much my favourite profile. The reason I chose it for the beach in particular is that it highlights blues and oranges which are prevalent in this photo because of the sea and sand. Instantly, the sand looks glowier and the ocean is more multidimensional in colour. Fun art tip: blue and orange are chromatic opposites of each other, too, which means they make each other look brighter when they appear next to each other. Same goes for red/green and yellow/purple.

My final choice - Artistic 04. Oh how I love thee. I turned the intensity down to 73 to account for colour and brightness changes I'll manually make later.

Step 3: Lighting

After applying a profile, I tend to adjust light. Press the tick in the corner to apply your profile changes and then go into the 'Light' tab with the sun icon. There are a couple of options you can play with here to change the look of your photo.

Exposure - The brightness of the photo. Turn this down if it looks too bright (overexposed). Turn it up if your photo is looking a little dark - like if you shot it in low light and you can't see all of the details.

Contrast - The difference between the light and dark colours. Move the slider to the right to see your photo pop. Move it to the left to make it more muted.

Highlights - The brightness of the lighter parts of the photo.

Shadows - The brightness of the darker parts of the photo.

Whites - Controls the white point of the photo. If you slide this to the right, colours that are nearly white will go completely white. If you slide it to the left, there will be more colour variation.

Blacks - Controls the black point of the photo. If you slide this to the left, colours that are nearly black will go completely black. If you slide it to the right, there will be more colour variation. Basically the rule for highlights, shadows, whites and blacks is left-more dim right-more bright.

I didn't touch exposure, upped contrast and highlights, hugely decreased the amount of shadowing, increased whites, and decreased blacks.

What does this mean for my photo?

Firstly, reducing the shadowing means you can see the variations in tone and colour in the cliffs. This is important to me because I could see it with my eyes when I stood there, but it was lost when I took a photo. Look at the difference.

Secondly, increasing the contrast helps add to the pop introduced by the profile - without everything going too orange or too blue. If I'd simply slid the intensity up on my profile, the colours would look different but the lighting (which is what I actually need) wouldn't. The contrast also helps show those cliffs above.

Finally, increasing the highlights makes the picture look bright and lively. The sand shines, the crests of the waves are crisp and the sky looks beautifully soft and bright.

Step 4: Colour

The profile has done a good job of brightening those colours, so I'm not going to do much colour editing. However, I'll still be taking you through each dial and what it means.

Temp - Short for temperature. This adjusts how warm or cool the photo feels. Look at the difference if I slide it to the left (cool) vs the right (warm). I ended up sliding it very, very slightly to the left, just to highlight those blues.

Cool photo on the left. Warm photo on the right.

Tint - whether the picture looks more green or purple. I didn't use tint this time, but here's what it does - useful for making fun effects, especially that fairy-like tint on the purple side.

Vibrance - increases the saturation of low-saturated (dull) colours. This means it can make the dull features of your photo look gorgeous. I upped my vibrance a bit.

A bit of vibrance helps the coastline shine.

Saturation - Increases the intensity of all the colours in your photo. Use this very carefully because oversaturation can look tacky, unless you're going for that kind of effect. Oversaturation is especially bad on skin tones. If you've taken a photo of a human and oversaturate it they will look like an Oompa Loompa.

This is my photo with the saturation on full blast. If it were a photo of a human, they would look awful. This actually doesn't look too bad - it just doesn't look natural.

Step 5: Finishing touches

Have you noticed anything wrong with the photo at this stage? Hint: take a look at the horizon. It's not straight. We need to adjust that. Go into "Crop" and use your finger to twist the image around slightly until it looks straight. It's worth noting that it may line up with the grid but still look crooked - in that case, keep twisting or untwisting until you're happy. The most important thing is how it looks optically, not mathematically - and eyes do funny things. You can also change the dimensions of your image here by cropping things out using the little handles.

Adjusting the photo so that the horizon is straight.

I probably should have done that first, but I'm impatient and I just want to colour things in. Not sorry.

I generally don't touch anything else, except for perhaps going into 'Detail' and sharpening the image a little if it's not the clearest. Be careful with this, though, as just like with Instagram it gives an artificial effect that can just look strange.

Step 6: Finish it off

At this stage, you can either play around with the few other free features or just save your photo and get ready to share. Once you're finished, press the three little dots in the top right corner and select 'Save to Device'. You can choose to keep it at original size or shrink it below 2048 pixels - which is still nearly double the size of a computer screen so you shouldn't have any issues with quality at all. It'll save your shiny new photo to your phone, and you can go back into Lightroom and continue to edit it (or revert it back to how it was) at any time. Also, the new photo will be in your phone's Lightroom folder - not your camera.

Now go put it on Instagram with a witty caption. Isn't it pretty?

Now that's more like it.

Other Stuff

  • If you really need to edit sharpness, I'd actually recommend another app called Snapseed. This is by Google and can also be downloaded for free. I find it better for adjusting the physical look of the photo before light and colours happen, and it doesn't have restricted features like Lightroom does.

  • Unfortunately, apps can only do so much for a photo. If it's really, really blurry and really dark, or way too overexposed, the best option is probably just to try to take another shot. This is why taking multiple photos at a time is a good idea.

  • Some people sell presets they've created for Lightroom. If you have a google you can find a whole range of creative presets people have made that allow you to change to look of your entire photo in one click or tap. I really like the ones made by FairyPresets on Instagram as Laura shows off the before and after in all her posts, which is super fun.

  • The difference between Photoshop and Lightroom is that Photoshop is more about image manipulation and Lightroom is more about image adjustment. You can't Photoshop your head onto a cat in Lightroom.

  • If you do have an Adobe subscription, you can sign into your CC account and access Lightroom Mobile's full features. It can also sync your progress to your desktop too. Winner!

Got any questions? Comments? Want a tutorial for something else? Tell me below and I'll respond.