Defaults: A Double-Edged Sword

Whenever you import new photos into Lightroom, they always come in with the same basic set of settings. Every control is generally set to zero, with a few notable exceptions, such as the controls in the Detail panel. And these default settings seem to be the same for every camera. But did you ever wish that you could change that?

At their most basic level, customizing your Lightroom and Camera Raw defaults is child’s play. For instance, if you want your photos to come in with a bit more Contrast or Vibrance, setting that up as a Develop default is easy.

Here are the steps to create a simple Develop default in Lightroom. (Note that Lightroom and Camera Raw share Develop defaults, so they can be set up with either processor. We’ll use Lightroom in these examples.)


Start with one photo selected in Develop from the camera that you want to create a new default for. Each camera model that you use will have its own defaults, so this is important.

Fig. 1

Fig. 1 Click the Reset button to make sure you’re starting with the defaults. Or, better yet, shift-click the Reset button to start with the Adobe defaults.

Fig. 2

Fig. 2 In the Develop panels, set any new defaults you want for that camera, for example, +10 on the Vibrance control.

Fig. 3

Fig. 3 Choose Set Default Settings from the Develop menu. Notice in the Set Default Develop Settings dialog that it clearly shows you the camera model you’re about to create a default for.

Fig. 4

Fig. 4 Click Update to Current Settings, and you’re done.

So the process is very straightforward, and you now have new default Develop settings for that camera. But when you dig into it just a little deeper, you start to find out that Lightroom and Camera Raw defaults can be a lot more powerful—and complicated—than they appear on the surface. This is because of two preferences that govern how defaults behave. One will make defaults specific to a given camera serial number, and the other will make defaults specific to the ISO setting. These two preferences make Develop defaults a lot more powerful, but with power comes responsibility, right? So, in each case, there are pros and cons to using the preferences.

Fig. 5

The Pros

First, Develop defaults are user- and machine-specific, which means they will apply to any Lightroom catalog that’s opened, or any RAW photo that’s opened using Camera Raw, under one user account, on any given computer. This can be useful for any facility where several photographers share the same computer, such as at a newspaper or in a school computer lab. In these cases, there are almost always photographers with more than one of each of the popular camera models. By turning on the preference to make defaults specific to the camera serial number, each photographer with a Nikon D3, for instance, will have his or her own Develop defaults (Fig. 5).

Second, the option to make defaults specific to the camera ISO setting is particularly useful for photographers who do a lot of shooting at high ISO settings. By default, Lightroom applies the same amount of sharpening and noise reduction to every photo imported. Many photographers may want to customize that default noise reduction for one or more ISOs, and this preference gives you that capability.

When you turn on these two preferences and start with a RAW file, the Set Default Develop Settings dialog adds that very specific information, telling you precisely what default you’re about to create.

Figs. 6a & 6b: Here, Lightroom is about to create a default for RAW files coming from just one Canon EOS 5D Mark III serial number and only at ISO 1600. Photos from any other 5D Mark III or shot at any other ISO won’t be affected. (Note: JPEGs get their own default.)

Fig. 6a
Fig. 6b

This means you can make as many Develop defaults as you want and clearly gives you a great degree of control over very specific camera settings. But as you may be starting to guess, it also has its drawbacks.

The Cons

We’re back to that thing about how Develop defaults are user- and machine-specific. This means they don’t travel with your catalog. These days, more and more photographers are taking their entire catalog with them on an external hard drive when they go on location, especially now that we have the new Smart Previews feature in Lightroom 5. So if you move your catalog around from machine to machine, you’re either going to have to manage without your defaults or figure out a way to take them with you.

With the ISO-specific default preference, it’s either all or none. So once you turn on this preference, each ISO can have its own specific preference, which is great, if you want to do something like set different amounts of noise reduction for a few specific ISOs. But what happens when you want to have your cake and eat it, too? Once you turn on this preference, if you then want to make every photo you shoot with your 5D Mark III have slightly more Vibrance or any other setting for that matter, you have to build that into a new default for every single ISO that you use!

Fig. 7

There’s no user interface for the defaults mechanism! This essentially means that you have no visibility into what defaults might currently exist on your system, or what settings they might be applying to any given import! Any default that you create is simply stored as an XMP file in the Defaults folder for the current user (Fig. 7).

The path to the Defaults folder on the Macintosh is: Users/<user name>/Library/Application Support/Adobe/Camera Raw/Defaults/.

The Windows path is: C:Users<user name>AppDataRoamingAdobeCamera RawDefaults .

It’s for this reason that I always recommend using the shift-click Reset routine before you create any new Develop default. Doing so will ensure that you’re always starting from the true Adobe defaults and not a default that may have been set up previously by you or anyone else using your computer.

Go to to find George Jardine’s tutorials on Lightroom and his blog.