How Long Should You Spend Editing a Photo in Lightroom?

The ideal situation is to take a photo that requires no editing whatsoever. But those shots are few and far between. In most cases, it's important to edit photos in order to develop them properly, but how long is too long when it comes to image editing? I'll be taking a look using Lightroom.

We've all been there: the third hour of carefully pushing sliders back and forth, selecting small sections of the photograph, tweaking it until it's just right, but as soon as you finish one section, suddenly, another part of the photo looks out of balance and you need to make changes to that. Adobe Lightroom is all about batch-editing photos quickly and efficiently, but it contains many helpful selective editing tools and features that give powerful, accurate edits to the retoucher. But how long should you really be taking to edit photos in Lightroom?

It Depends on Price

The price you give for a paid photoshoot and image delivery impacts how much time you should be spending on the edit.

When working on a paid job, you may want to limit the amount of time you spend editing photos. That is, if you've priced a job based on the time it will take you to photograph a subject, then edit and deliver the content, you can't spend longer than you've quoted for in editing time, or your hourly rate will start to plummet. Make sure you've put in an accurate price to start with that gives you enough time to edit photos before delivery. That way, you can work on those difficult shots (if there are any) without the pressure of rushing to finish things on time. Turnaround time is also an important factor in this regard, depending on the client.

How Much Time Have You Got?

Whether being paid for a job or not, the time you spend editing a photo ultimately comes down to how much time you have available to make the edit. If you have a couple of days to edit three photographs, then you can spend a lot of time tweaking tiny details in order to perfect them. But if you're squeezing in half an hour to process 300 images, then you will need to edit with speed and passion. The level of editing you undertake should then be quantized to fit in the allotted time available.

Is This a Masterpiece?

Something portfolio worthy or especially important to you or your client may need hours to edit properly, but a snap that isn't going to be seen by many people probably doesn't warrant more than a few minutes.

Let's say you're taking some stock images of flowers to upload to somewhere like Getty or Alamy. You'll likely not get much income from your shot unless you're lucky and it either goes viral or is in high demand, so editing time is then limited by the quality assurance levels of each stock company. However, you may be retouching a fashion portrait that needs extreme attention to detail, filling in hairlines, adjusting makeup, retouching blemishes on skin, and more. This type of editing is obviously going to take a lot more time before a single image has been produced to an acceptable standard. Think about your intended use for the photo and weigh if this is truly a masterpiece or just another snap to fill a space.

What Do You Enjoy More?

The amount of time you spend on an edit in Lightroom depends on how well you've shot it initially and whether you enjoy making the edit or not.

Shooting or editing? Some people love taking photos but loathe editing them, whereas others never pick up a camera and only edit images. If you're in the former camp, then it's likely you'll spend a lot less time editing your shots, and so, it's important to come up with quick ways to turn around photos. Use presets and make your own in Lightroom to speed up the process. Think about synchronizing settings across a bunch of similar images in order to reduce editing times and finish shots with your unique style by applying and then tweaking an edit preset such as a custom color profile or a user preset once you've achieved a specific look (washed-out blacks using the Curves panel, for example).

Knowing When to Stop

If you find yourself taking an age trying to fix a photo in Lightroom, you might be able to spend your time more wisely by simply reshooting it before processing quickly.

Image editing should be done to improve, enhance, or develop an already decent photograph. If you're spending hour after hour fixing things that are wrong in the first place, you need to assess whether you can just go back and reshoot it. Or, if you can't reshoot it, then study the shot and figure out why you're fixing problems and how to get around them while in the shooting process. Get it right at the source and you won't have to fix things down the line.

There's No Right or Wrong

While I have my own guidelines on how long I would spend editing a photo in Lightroom, there's no steadfast rule on the amount of seconds, minutes, or hours to spend on editing for the reasons I've already stated above. However, for those that want to push me to give specific numbers and guidelines, I'll say this:

  1. If the photo is generally well exposed and already has accurate color balance, then spend 2-3 minutes polishing it off in Lightroom before exporting.
  2. If you're fixing issues you encountered while shooting and you definitely need the photo, then use up to 30 minutes to get things put right; beyond that, you're just flogging a dead horse.
  3. For high-end retouching or to perfect that one portfolio-level photo, I would say one hour of editing is fine, especially if there's a lot of detail to do and you want to do as good a job as possible on it.
  4. For huge images, panoramas, and scenes that require multiple processing steps, such as stitching together, high-end retouching, and super-accurate color balancing and readying for professional print, then 1-2 days for one photo might be required. This all depends on your editing console (how powerful your computer is) and how long you have to wait between processes for the software to catch up.

As a rule of thumb, though, for the general hobbyist photographer using Lightroom, I would say take however long you're shooting for, divide it by two and then use that as your editing time, especially if you're a beginner and wanting to improve your editing skills. You're better off following image-editing tutorials to learn how to use Lightroom, as these will provide you with stock images to edit along with. This makes things a lot easier when it comes to editing your own photos, as you'll understand where each key editing feature is and how to use it.

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15 Comments

J.d. Davis's picture

The correct answer: As long as it takes.

David Pavlich's picture

Yep!

00rob00 Rob00Rob's picture

No more than 10 to 15 minutes for me otherwise it's a dub.

John Cliff's picture

how long is a piece of string?

brokenlandphotography's picture

"How Long Should You Spend Editing a Photo in Lightroom?" Never

Marc F's picture

Sometimes I use more than one day with various programs but it’s rather for a work of restoration of scanned images that are badly damaged.

Hunter Chan's picture

Am I the only one who edited a photo for two weeks??
...

Edo Photo's picture

One hell of a bizzare question. It's almost a stupid question.

Viktor Wågman's picture

5 Sec and then go to photoshop..

Alexander DiMauro's picture

Exactly! I use Lightroom only for organizing and picking what to edit. Then ‘open as smart object in photoshop”.

Viktor Wågman's picture

the less time you are in LR and the faster go to photoshop the better..

Viktor Wågman's picture

the less time you are in LR and the faster go to photoshop the better..

Peter Jones's picture

Simple: as long as it takes.

James Cowman's picture

If the design fails, as long as it takes to move it from Lightroom to the recycle bin.

Ian Spencer's picture

It would be more useful to discuss the issues of sitting for a long time looking at the screen. We all should be aware of how the eye works, and it soon tires of seeing the same colour, so trying to assess colour grading, for example, without moving away from the screen is going to be an issue as your eyes will naturally fade what they are looking at.

That also brings up the environment you are editing in, a pokey office with busy, book filled walls is going to affect what you see compared with a neutral, calm background.

Posture!

So many issues outside of the direct creative process to consider.