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Adjustment Syncing and Selection in Lightroom

In How-To, Photo Taco Podcast by Jeff HarmonLeave a Comment

Jeff Harmon answers a listener question about how it is that adjustment syncing between two or more photos should work in Lightroom.  He describes some important details about how photo selections work, the role of the “active” photo in selections and adjustment syncing, and some reasons why it may be that adjustment syncing may fail.

Episode Resources


Hey everybody, welcome to another episode of Photo Taco on the Master Photography Podcast Network. I am your host, Jeff Harmon, thanks so much for spending a few minutes of your day with me.  In today’s episode I am going to answer a listener question about Lightroom. It came from the Photo Taco Facebook group and if you aren’t already a member of that Facebook group, you are missing out on a lot of the show that goes on there.  

We have a large community of photographers just like you who are learning and growing together.  I often pull ideas for show topics from questions that arise there and answer questions by pointing listeners to shows they may have missed.  I would love to have you be part of that community by searching in Facebook for Photo Taco Podcast and then asking to join the group.

You will have to answer a question of who is a host on the Master Photography Podcast network so that we keep the bots and spammers out of the group.  Really want it to only be listeners of the show who are in the group. In case you missed it, Jeff Harmon is one of the correct answers to that question.  If you don’t answer the question, I won’t let you into the group.

Listener Question

Warning: It this question is a long one.  It is a question that has been on my list for months now.  It is also a question that has been asked by more than one person which is what made me decide to dedicate an episode to answering it.  I am going to read the entire question first to provide the full context of the episode and then I will tackle each question or topic David does an excellent job raising here.

David Leadingham:

I have a question with Lightroom Classic CC.  I’ll use a barrel race as an example. For this one race, because of the terrible lighting in the arena, I’m set up to just take pictures of one of the barrels.  I’ll snap off about 5-7 shots as the rider goes around the barrel on their horse. When I go to edit the photos, since they’re all of the same barrel, same spot, same lighting, etc, I’m assuming I can use pretty much the same settings for each shot.  Am I on the right track with this?

In Lightroom, I select all the photos, maybe around 300 or so, “auto sync” is on, and I click “auto” in the tone section.  They all should be pretty much the same setting, right? With all the photos still selected, if I am just on one photo, if I manually change the exposure, to let’s say +1.00, I see the progress bar advance at the top left, all the photos should be set at +1.00, right?  But they aren’t.

Now, if I turn auto sync off.  Edit one photo, then select the rest and hit the “sync” button, shouldn’t that do the same and make all the settings on the rest of the photos the exact same as the first one?

I’ve been doing it this way for the past several years, and I swear I’ve never seen the issue of every photo matching up till recently.  Have I been doing it wrong all these years and there’s a different method for doing this? Edit, additional info I also just tried doing the cntrl+shift+c to copy all the settings, highlight a bunch of photos and then cntrl+shift+v to paste the settings and I get pretty much the same results.  It’ll sync some of the photos, but not all of them.

If I copy the settings, then select all the photos and “reset” them, that works on all the photos.  Then, if I select all the photos again, and paste the settings, it sets all the photos with the exact same settings.

Same Lightroom Settings For Each Shot?

David’s first question in there was if he is even thinking about the post-processing correctly here.  He has taken a lot of shots at a barrel racing event where the exposure is as close to identical as you can get outdoors.  The only thing that would have made those exposures closer would be shooting indoors where the photographer has full control over the lighting using flashes or strobes.

Still, your thinking is right on here David.  Well, right on so long as you have your camera settings setup in a way that makes the shots consistent from one frame to the next.  The easiest way to make sure that is true is shooting in manual mode. If the lighting isn’t changing from minute to minute outdoors then shooting in manual mode will make sure your camera doesn’t change the exposure for you and make it harder to sync your adjustments once you are in Lightroom.

Now let me be clear here, I am NOT saying that if you aren’t shooting in manual mode you are doing it wrong or any less a photographer.  I really hate it when I hear photographers say that. You aren’t a real photographer or don’t really know what you are doing unless you are always shooting in manual mode.  That is simply not true.

There are times when shooting in semi-automatic mode is not only a fine choice, could be the better choice.  If you are outdoors and there are clouds rolling by overhead so that the lighting in the scene is changing pretty rapidly minute to minute, likely a better choice to let the camera figure out what the exposure settings should be rather than miss shots because you are constantly having to watch that light meter and make adjustments manually.

What I am saying here is that the best way to make sure you will get a benefit of synchronizing your adjustments across large numbers of photos is making sure you get the same exposure across all of those photos and your best chance of that is shooting in constant lighting conditions in manual mode.

If you do that, then David is absolutely right here, you can make adjustments on one photo and be very successful in getting those same adjustments to make all of the other photos just like it look exactly the same.  This is a very common need and why it is Adobe has provided a few different ways to sync adjustments built into Lightroom for many years.

Selecting Photos in Lightroom

David didn’t know he was asking this question next, but it is a critical thing to understand when you are going to sync adjustments over multiple photos and that is how you select photos in Lightroom.  

We all use computers a lot, and selecting things is pretty second nature really.   On a computer you can select things but clicking and dragging with the mouse, but clicking on something at the beginning of a selection holding down the shift key and clicking the last of the selection, or by clicking on one thing and then holding down the CTRL key on PC or the Command key on Mac and selecting things that aren’t sequential one at time.  

Lightroom is no different in that regard.  Though there are 3 different status indicators for selected photos where with most programs there are only 2 with selected and not selected.  In Lightroom, the indicator of selection is the color of the border around the photo in the filmstrip view of the Develop module or the grid view of the Library module.  

There is a dark gray border that indicates NOT selected.  There is a brighter shade of gray that indicates selected.  Then there is the brightest shade of gray that indicates the photo is selected and is the “active” photo.  That is where it is a little different in Lightroom than other programs on your computer.

That “active” photo, indicated by the brightest shade of gray, determines which photo is being shown in the develop module and is the source of the settings to synchronize to other photos.  Most of you may already have known all of that. What you may not have known is how you can change which of the photos is “active” without deselecting your group of photos – a really handy feature.

To change the “active” photo in the selected group, you click on the thumbnail of the photo – not the border of the photo.  The group of photos that are selected will stay the same and now the photo that was clicked on is now the “active” photo.

If you want to de-select the entire group, click on the border of a photo.  That will deselect all of the photos and select only the photo of the border you clicked on.  It isn’t an “active” photo because you have to have at least two photos selected to have an “active” photo.

What is Adjustment Syncing?

Adjustment Syncing is copying adjustments made on one photo and pasting them to another photo.  Lightroom offers numerous ways to do this and I will walk you through a few in the next section.  An adjustment is anything you do in the Develop module.  The sliders, the adjustment brush, the radial and gradient filters.

Adjustment syncing has been a core feature in Lightroom for many years.  Photographers don’t want to worry about re-starting their edits with every photo, especially when a group of photos are basically the same.  Learning how to sync adjustments helps photographers work through their post-processing more quickly when done well.

The one thing adjustment syncing in Lightroom does not do is a long-term sync between two photos.  Lightroom does not allow you setup a relationship between two or more photos where if you alter something on the one it will always alter it on the other.  The Auto Sync feature gets close to this, but not quite.  Let’s go through the most common methods to sync adjustments in Lightroom.

How To Sync Adjustments?

David’s real question was how Auto Sync is supposed to work and is he using it correctly?  Before we get to the scenario he presented with auto toning and his expectation of Auto Sync, let’s go over how you turn on Auto Sync for those who don’t know what it is.

In the Develop module, on the right hand side below all of the panels when you have only one photo selected you have two buttons.  There is a Previous and a Reset button. The Reset button will remove all adjustments that have been made to photo, pretty self-explanatory.  The “Previous” button is a little more complicated to explain.

The “Previous” Button

The Previous button pastes all of the adjustment settings that were made on the last photo that was last selected to the currently selected photo.  The scenario would be something like you are looking at a photo that is very similar to another photo you have already adjusted and you would like to paste those adjustments here.  You would select that photo you already adjusted, then select the photo where you want those adjustments to be pasted, then click the Previous button. Lightroom will happily paste all of the adjustments made in the previously selected photo onto the photo you now have selected.

I personally don’t ever use the Previous button for three reasons.  First, I prefer keyboard shortcuts to mouse clicks. I am faster with keyboard shortcuts.  David actually mentioned these shortcuts in his question of CTRL-Shift-C on PC or Command-Shift-C on Mac to copy adjustments and then CTRL-Shift-V on PC or Command-Shift-V on Mac to paste them on a photo.  

Second, I like to choose which of the adjustments I want to copy and paste.  I frequently don’t want to copy the cropping adjustment I made on one photo to another and if I use the keyboard shortcuts then a dialog box comes up asking which of the adjustments I want to copy.  

Third, and probably most important, I don’t keep track of what photo I had previously selected.  I am usually bouncing all over the place while I am editing, comparing photos and such. It would be extra steps, extra time for me to make sure I had the right photo selected previously.  Now you know what that Previous button does and you can choose if you want to use it in your workflow.

The “Sync…” Button

What do these buttons have to do with Auto Sync?  That Previous button at the bottom of the right hand panel in Lightroom changes when you select more than one photo to one that says “Sync…”  That Sync button is similar to what the Ctrl-Shift-C/Command-Shift-C keyboard shortcut does where you can pick which adjustments you want to make, but it copies from the “active” photo and pastes to the selected photos.

You can also make this happen automatically.  As you make adjustments to the active photo Lightroom will paste that same adjustment to all of the selected photos without having to hit that button.  To enable this you click on the toggle just to the left of the Sync button. The button will change its name to Auto Sync. Once the button reads Auto Sync it is enabled and any adjustments you make to the active photo from that point until you disable Auto Sync will get replicated to the selected photos.

The “Auto Sync” Button

Now that you understand how it is supposed to work, let’s get back to the example David provided in his question.  After selecting a group of those barrel racing photos, he hits that toggle next to the Sync button so that it reads Auto Sync, then he clicks on the “auto” button in the upper right of the Tone panel in the Develop module.  

This “auto” button asks Lightroom to analyze the “active” photo and automatically adjust the sliders in that panel (exposure, contrast, highlights, whites, blacks) to make the photo looks its best according to the engineers that built Lightroom.  His expectation is that however Lightroom decided to automatically change those sliders would be synchronized across all of the selected photos, and he is exactly right. That is how it is supposed to work.

Auto Sync Failures?

I tested this myself as I prepared for this episode and on a small set of photos it worked beautifully.  Here is the test I ran, which you could do just to make sure you fully understand how Auto Sync works. I purposely messed up the sliders in the Tone panel on 5 photos.  I randomly changed all of those sliders on each photo. I selected the 5 photos, enabled Auto Sync, then hit the “auto” button in the Tone panel and those 5 photos synced nearly instantly with very good exposure adjustments for my photos.  

Now remember, Lightroom only analyzed the active photo in the selection for the automatic tone adjustments and then pasted those same slider adjustments to the other selected photos because Auto Sync was on.  Lightroom did not analyze all 5 photos to see what the slider adjustments should be for each one. That is not the same thing as going into each of the 5 photos individually and pushing the auto button in the tone panel.

OK, so it worked great for me, why didn’t it seem to work for David?  By his description it seems as though he is using it correctly. He also didn’t think his difficulty was limited to Auto Sync as he has seen problems using the keyboard shortcut to copy and paste adjustments, Ctrl-Shift-C/Command-Shift-C and Ctrl-Shift-V/Command-Shift-V, where the adjustments didn’t seem to paste to all of the photos.  The only way he found to do this was to use that Reset button on all of the target photos and then paste the adjustments to them. He wondered at the end of his question if this is how he has to sync those adjustments.

Possible Reason 1: Too Slow

Let me offer a couple of things to keep in mind that may explain David’s experience.  The first thing that may be causing him challenges is that Auto Sync is a pretty slow function in Lightroom.  He mentioned that Lightroom showed a progress panel in the upper left when he had Auto Sync on and that he waited for that to finish.  I am not a huge fan of Auto Sync because of how slow it is, especially when I am manually changing individual sliders.

Lightroom is unbearably slow when you do cropping or any of the local adjustments like radial or gradient filters, adjustment brushes, etc.  I strongly advise using Auto Sync for a very short amount of time. If you leave it on during your entire editing session it will make Lightroom horrifyingly slow, and you are far more likely to mess up adjustments that you may already be happy with.

Auto Sync works acceptably well with a small number of photos, like the 5 in my test, and something like the “auto” tone adjustment that David wanted to sync across the photos.  I suggest a better way to have the photos auto-toned would be to do that as an import step because Lightroom will look at each specific photo when doing that auto toning.  Another option would have been to use the Library module to change the exposure of numerous photos at once.

Still, enabling Auto Sync just long enough to hit that auto button in the Tone panel of the Develop module is a reasonable way to do this.  Especially when the exposure of the photos is nearly identical as David described.  Just turn it right off after making that adjustment sync.  This is a very reasonable use case and one that I validated worked well with 5 photos. But that made me have to go and test with a larger set of photos.

To do this test, I created a new Catalog because I didn’t want to change any adjustments on photos I was happy with.  I imported 523 photos from a high school basketball shoot. All of the photos from that shoot are underexposed, which I did on purpose, but this episode isn’t to explain why I did that on purpose.  This made for a perfect test. I needed to increase the exposure on 523 photos. I selected all 523 photos, enabled Auto Sync, and hit the “auto” button in the Tone panel of the Develop module.

Lightroom took a moment to sync those adjustments to all of the photos and to update the thumbnails of the photos I could see in the filmstrip.  As I went to check the other photos, every time I moved the filmstrip it took Lightroom a few seconds to update the thumbnails, but the sliders were all updated.  Then I remembered that I am using the Embedded Preview workflow.

If you don’t know what that is, then check out the Photo Taco episode on that topic. I’ll put a link in the show notes or you can go to and search for “embedded preview”.  Anyway, that workflow means I don’t have Lightroom build 1:1 previews until I am needing it in the Develop module.  Maybe if you have the 1:1 previews built Auto Sync is much slower and maybe even won’t sync correctly. Time for another test.

I removed all of the photos from the new Catalog I created for this test and re-imported them building 1:1 previews.  Waited for that horribly slow process of building those previews to finish, and then used Auto Sync to get a good exposure for all 523 photos again.  Worked about the same. Took a second ever time I moved the filmstrip slider to see more photos for Lightroom to update the thumbnails, but it synced every photo.

What if the problem is when you have thousands of photos in your catalog and try to Auto Sync a large number of them?  This meant another test. I made a copy of my main catalog that contains 93,144 photos in it, then went to the place in this copy of the catalog where these same high school basketball photos were at and re-ran the same Auto Sync test for changing the exposure slider.  It worked about the same as all of the other tests. I do think Auto Sync was a tiny bit slower here than either of the two previous tests, but it synced my change of the exposure slider so that it was exactly the same in all of the photos and I had to wait for Lightroom to update the thumbnails as I moved the filmstrip slider to check out the photos.

Possible Reason 2: Syncing White Balance

I couldn’t make Auto Sync fail.  However, syncing white balance can cause it to look as though it failed.  Auto Sync does not do any paste any relative adjustments. Meaning if you set the exposure slider to +1.0 in the active photo, Auto Sync will set the exposure slider to +1.0 no matter what the slider may have been set to already.  It won’t just add 1 to what the exposure slider is set at. This is an important thing to understand with white balance. If you set white balance in the active photo to the “as shot” setting then it is going to set all of the selected photos to “as shot” and if the white balance settings you had in camera were not identical across the photos then the white balance will look like it didn’t sync.

If you want to sync white balance using Auto Sync or any other form of adjustment syncing in Lightroom, you first need to change it to anything but As Shot to make sure that they will all get the same white balance settings.  The easiest is to change from As Shot to custom, which happens automatically if you make the smallest change to the sliders in the white balance panel.

All Else Fails: Preferences Reset

Finally, the last explanation I can offer to David is that after numerous upgrades and configuration changes Lightroom sometimes gets in a bad state.  A state where things just don’t seem to quite work right.  Makes it hard to tell the difference between bugs and this kind of condition Lightroom can get into, but if you are at the end of your rope and things don’t seem to be working like they should resetting your preferences is something you can give a try.

I have seen it recommended over and over on the Adobe support forums.  It is almost always the first thing the forum administrators and moderators ask a person with a problem to do.  To do this you hold down Alt-Shift on Windows or Option-Shift on Mac as you are opening Lightroom and a dialog box will come up asking if you want to Start Normally or Reset Preferences.  

Doing this will make you lose your preferences that you have set in the Preferences dialog box, so you may want to go there and make a note of your settings.  You will also lose your View Options settings, last used settings, FTP server settings, and some plugin settings. Probably not a lot there you care about and again, this is something photographers are doing all the time at the request of Adobe as a troubleshooting step.

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