What Lightroom RAW photo import defaults are and how to adjust them

A RAW photograph is like a blank color-by-number picture; it’s not quite a blank canvas, yet far from being a finished, polished image. When shooting RAW, the screen on the back of the camera doesn’t actually display a RAW image, but an in-camera processed JPEG preview: A color-by-number already colored in. When you import those RAW files into Lightroom, then, the neutral-colored images can often feel disappointing, or even intimidating.

RAW defaults in Lightroom Classic allow you to customize how a RAW file looks when it is imported. You can keep that neutral starting point, or you can start with the preview that your camera showed you, even in some cases keeping the in-camera styles or filters such as black and white. Lightroom even allows photographers to set different RAW defaults for different cameras, or apply more noise reduction to photos taken at a certain ISO.

RAW defaults were introduced in February 2020, with adaptive ISO presets following later in the year, so even Lightroom experts may not know where the settings are hiding. Here’s how to customize Lightroom Classic with RAW defaults. (Sorry, Lightroom CC users, the option isn’t yet inside Lightroom CC.)

What are Lightroom RAW defaults?

The automatic processing of a RAW file as it is added to Lightroom is called a RAW default. The setting automatically applies a color profile upon upload to each image. This is nothing new, but where photographers could only previously import to a default Adobe color profile, the software now allows users to simply import with the color profile that was selected in the camera.

While a RAW default can be used to speed up the editing process and get to that polished image faster, the settings are similar to any Lightroom adjustment in that they are non-destructive. That means you have the same flexibility with the file no matter what RAW default you use.

For example, if you select the camera profile as RAW default, and shot the photo black-and-white in camera, the image will upload to Lightroom in black and white, but you can still convert that photo to color just by switching the profile. (Note that when using the in-camera black-and-white profile, you cannot access the black and white mix sliders without switching to a different profile, such as Adobe Monochrome.)

Don’t confuse RAW default camera profiles with the sliders in the develop panel. RAW defaults adjust the color profile, which you can select from the drop-down at the top of the right-hand editing sidebar in Lightroom — the setting, for the most part, doesn’t adjust the different sliders. If you don’t like the RAW default on that particular image, you can simply select another profile from the drop-down menu. If you do want to adjust the sliders on import, however, the RAW defaults dialog box will also allow you to apply a preset on import automatically, which will adjust the sliders.

How to adjust RAW defaults in Lightroom

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Go to Edit > Preferences from Windows, or Lightroom Classic > Preferences from a Mac. In the pop-up, navigate to the tab labeled Presets.

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At the top of the window, the Master drop-down menu has three different options:

  • Adobe Default: Unless you’ve changed these options before, this is the setting you are using now. Adobe Default applies minimal processing to RAW files.
  • Camera Settings: This option automatically imports RAW files with the color profile of the camera already applied. That means the photos look similar to how they did on the back of the LCD screen. If you changed the color profile in your camera, the changes will be applied to the RAW photo on import, including any black-and-white filters or film effects that you added. In-camera color profiles have different names depending on the brand of camera that you are using, but they call mean the same thing — Canon calls them Picture Styles, Nikon Picture Controls, Sony Creative Style, Fujifilm Film Simulation, and so on. Whatever the name is, that’s the color settings you will be applying to the photo on import.
  • Presets: This setting applies a Develop preset to every photo that you upload. It’s a good option only if you use the same exact preset on nearly every photo, or for using adaptive ISO presets.

Once you’ve selected the option that you’d like from the Master drop-down, any subsequent uploads will automatically have those options applied.

How to adjust RAW defaults for images based on ISO

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Wouldn’t it be nice if Lightroom automatically reduced noise on your photos based on what ISO the image was taken at? Actually, with RAW defaults, you can. You’ll need an adaptive ISO preset. Unfortunately, you can’t apply both a RAW default based on camera settings and an ISO adaptive preset.

Find images that were shot at the ISO to which you would like to set the adjustments. You’ll need at least two, one at a low ISO and one at a high ISO. You can use any image, but use a photo from your usual camera, since different cameras have varying levels of noise. (In the Library module, at the top where it says Library Filter, click on Metadata. In the drop-down by the lock icon to the right, choose Exposure Info. From the ISO column, you can now easily find an image shot at a specific ISO.)

Apply the noise reduction and sharpening adjustments that you would like to make for all photos taken at that ISO level. Zoom in to make sure that you get the settings just right, or you will have to tweak the adjustments on every photo. Because it’s an adaptive preset, photos shot at an ISO between the two settings you selected will have the noise slider adjusted accordingly — if it’s at an ISO halfway between the two photos, the slider will also be halfway between the two levels that you originally selected.

Select the two (or more) photos that were shot at different ISOs, then click on the plus icon at the top of the presets menu on the left and choose Create Preset from the drop-down. In the new preset window, uncheck all the boxes except for noise reduction and sharpening. (Alternately, you can leave those boxes checked to apply other adjustments to every image, but those settings are not adaptive like the ISO option.)

At the bottom of the preset window, check the box that says Create ISO adaptive preset. Don’t forget to name your preset at the top, and choose the group or folder that it will be organized into. Then, click Create.

Head back into the RAW defaults options (Lightroom Classic > Preferences or Edit > Preferences). Under the Master drop-down (or using the steps below for a specific camera), select the adaptive ISO preset that you just created.

How to apply different RAW defaults for different cameras

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Shoot with more than one camera? Lightroom will also allow you to apply a different RAW default to uploads from different cameras.

Check the box under the Master drop-down list in the same preferences window that says Override master setting for specific cameras. Once the box is checked, Adobe will generate a drop-down menu of every camera that you’ve uploaded to Lightroom previously. If you are working with two of the same model cameras and would like to apply different settings to them, check the box for Show serial number.

Choose a camera from the drop-down, then, just like setting all RAW defaults, select from Adobe default, camera settings, or a preset in the Default drop-down menu underneath (not the Master drop-down menu). Click Create Default and then repeat for any other cameras you would like to add a custom RAW default to. The rest will use the master default settings from the top.

To delete or edit an existing RAW preset for a camera model, use the arrow icon at the end of the row to adjust that option.

RAW photos have the most flexibility, but Lightroom Classic’s RAW defaults allow you to jump-start your editing from what the JPEG would have looked like.

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