Recreating Styles using Reference View in Lightroom - Digital Darkroom Academy

Recreating Styles using Reference View in Lightroom

You know that moment when you put on a jacket, put your hands in the pockets and discover $20 you didn’t realise you had? Those little surprises rock my world.

I had a moment just like that recently, although, on this occasion I didn’t find $20. Instead, I discovered a feature in Lightroom that I had no idea existed. Not as exciting as $20, right? Well, maybe not yet. But when you realise how this feature can really help you to analyse an image and develop a style, tone and colour palette for your own images you may be just as excited as I am.

So, what is it?

Recently I was helping a client create an image library they could use for their upcoming blog posts. Like a lot of bloggers, they use filters to process their images. It proves to be a quick and easy way to help businesses stay consistent with the look and feel of their brand. In this case they were using the popular VSCO filters – specifically the VSCO HB1 filter.

VCSO filter
This image was processed with the VSCO HB1 filter

The trouble they faced was the way in which the VSCO app worked. Their workflow looked like this:

  • upload hundreds of images over their (extremely slow) internet
  • wait for it to Sync with the VSCO app
  • apply the VSCO HB1 filter
  • re-sync the processed images back to a DropBox folder.

This would have taken hours and hours.

To save time, I suggested that I simply recreate the VSCO HB1 filter in Lightroom, save it as a Preset and batch process the client’s entire image library. They told me to get to work.

I made myself a cucumber sandwich, grabbed two copies of the same image (one with the VSCO HB1 filter, to use as a reference and one without a filter) imported them into my Lightroom library and hit the ‘D’ key to shortcut my way into the Develop module.

VSCO filter applied
Processed with the VSCO HB1 filter to use as a reference
unedited photo
Original image with no filter

Shift + R

In my attempt to resize my Lightroom window using the nifty keyboard shortcut ‘SHIFT + F’, my gigantic sausage fingers inadvertently hit ‘SHIFT + R’. Which, instead of satisfying my mild OCD by expanding the Lightroom window to tightly hug the borders of my laptop screen, it did something most unexpected…

It split the Develop module precisely in two equal halves. Which not only satisfied my mild OCD – albeit in an entirely and unexpected fashion – it prompted me to “Drag & drop a photo from the Filmstrip to set the Reference Photo”. As you can hopefully imagine, it was precisely this moment my jaw dropped as the realisation of what I’d just uncovered hit home. It all happened in slow motion – my cucumber sandwiches went soaring as I erupted to the sound of the Titanic chorus to celebrate this monumental find.

reference view in lightroom

Reference View in Lightroom

Welcome my fellow, jacket-wearing-cucumber-sandwich-eating, photographers to the Reference View in Lightroom.

The Reference View in Lightroom allows you to select two images simultaneously in the Develop module. One image to use as your Reference Image and the other will be your Active image (the image you are editing).

using reference view in lightroom
Reference image (left) and Active image (right)

Why is the Reference View helpful? 

The Reference View in Lightroom can be used in so many scenarios. Especially if you are just starting out with editing in Lightroom.

  • You can use the Reference View to examine one image whilst editing another in the same screen.
  • Never again do you have to use the Command/Control + Tab keyboard shortcut to switch to another application to check your reference image, style guide or mood board.
  • The Reference View in Lightroom can be used to ensure your images share a consistent look, feel and style when editing multiple photos from one collection.
  • Using a Reference Image is a brilliant way to practice and develop your editing style. Load an image that you like into the Reference View and try to recreate its colour palette or tone on one of your own images. Editing an image directly next to your reference image gives you instant feedback and it’s a fantastic way to learn which settings you need adjust to achieve a particular look.

What can the Reference View do for you?

Yes, the Reference view in Lightroom is a simple tool. It’s not even a tool really. However, if you’re in the early stages of your editing journey, trying to establish and develop your own editing style, or perhaps, like me, you simply enjoy little surprises – you’ll probably find the Reference view to be worth a lot more than $20.

Take a look below to see precisely how I use the Reference view to recreate the VSCO HB1 filter and turn it into a Preset for a client.

Recreating the VSCO HB1 Filter in Lightroom Classic

Step 1: Set up Reference View in Lightroom

Open Lightroom Classic, navigate to your Develop module and press the keyboard shortcut ‘SHIFT+R’ to open up the Reference View.

reference view in lightroom

Use the filmstrip at the bottom of your window to navigate to the image you would like to use as your reference image. Simply click and drag this image into the Reference Image window to set it as your Reference Image.

using reference view in lightroom
This image was processed using the VSCO HB1 filter.

Now it’s time to load your Active Image (this is the image you want to edit). Use the same filmstrip at the bottom to select your Active Image. This will now appear in the Active Image window.

using reference view in lightroom
RAW image straight out of the camera.

Step 2: Create Editing Notes

Spend a moment looking at the differences between your Reference and Active images.

What do you notice? What is it you want to try and recreate? Use a notepad or a simple text document to note down the key elements of the Reference Image that you want to practice, develop or recreate. Examples could be:

  • Is there a particularly strong use of one particular colour?
  • Is there a muted colour palette?
  • What are the Highlights and Shadows doing? Can you see lots of detail in them or are they murky or blown out?
  • Is the image warm or cool?
  • Is the tone bright and light or dark and moody?
  • Does it have lots of contrast or not much?

It’s a good idea to note down all observations that come to mind here. There are no right or wrong notes. This notepad will simply serve as a reference to you whilst editing your images.

Here are the notes I created for the example image.

work notes

Step 3: Basic Adjustments

The Basic panel allows you to make simple adjustments to the Exposure, Contrast, Highlights and Shadows.

When comparing your images (and reading the notes you created in step 2), you might notice minor adjustments that can be easily achieved using the Basic Panel. In the example, you can see that the Reference Image is slightly brighter and the colours are a lot less saturated. Therefore, to brighten up the Active Image and desaturate the colours, you can make small adjustments to the Exposure (+.10), Clarity (+6) and Saturation sliders (-22).

reference view in lightroom

The end goal here is to save our final editing adjustments as a Preset, which we can then apply to multiple images so they all have a similar look, feel and tone. Given that no two photos are absolutely identical, it’s a good idea to keep any adjustments in the basic panel relatively light and turn your focus to the Tone Curve panel to try and achieve as much of the effect as you possibly can. This is because heavy changes to the sliders in the Basic Panel could potentially create an inconsistent result when applying your final Preset to multiple images.

Step 3: Tone Curve

The Tone Curve is perhaps the most powerful tool in the Lightroom Develop module. By using the Tone Curve for the bulk of your editing, you can create very consistent tones and styles for your photographs.

The Tone Curve is essentially a glorified and interactive histogram. Inside the Tone Curve’s square graph, you’ll notice your histogram sitting in the background. In the foreground, you’ll have a diagonal line running from the bottom left to the top right. And exactly like your histogram, the left side of the Tone Curve represents your shadow data. The middle represents your mid-tone data. The right side represents your highlights.

using reference view in lightroom

The Tone Curve allows you to create control points along the diagonal line. You can then adjust these control points up or down to alter the value of the corresponding data in the background.

Your Tone Curve works in 4 channels – RGB, Red, Green and Blue. In this article, you’ll see how to adjust each of the Red, Green and Blue channels independently to recreate a similar look to the VSCO HB1 Filter.

using reference view in lightroom
Active Image – Post Basic Adjustments to Exposure, Clarity and Saturation

The popular VSCO HB1 filter has a noticeable style and tone. When applied to the Reference Image, it has:

  • slightly ‘crushed’ the shadows and created a strong cool blue undertone;
  • increased the brightness of the mid-tones;
  • created a subtle warm undertone in the highlights; and
  • given the overall contrast a boost – but not overly so.

To recreate this look you can use the Red, Green and Blue channels of the Tone Curve.

Starting off with the Blue Channel to recreate the cool blue undertone and crushed shadows, apply several control points to your curve to form an ‘S’ shape. This ‘S’ shape will help to boost contrast and inject more blue tones into the image.

using reference view in lightroom

Here you can see the control points increasing the amount of blue in the shadows, midtones and highlights.

Right now, the overall image is far too blue. To correct this, you can create a similar curve in both the Red and Green Channels. Be careful not to ‘over-correct’ the colour in a way that removes the blue undertone. A good way to achieve this is to create a slightly less exaggerated ‘S’ curve in your Red and Green channels.

using reference view in lightroom

using reference view in lightroom

Step 4: Targeted HSL Adjustments

With the adjustments to the Tone Curve in place, your Active Image should now start to resemble your Reference Image. In some cases, you may find that you need to adjust the specific Hue, Saturation or Luminance of one or more colours.

using reference view in lightroom
Post Tone Curve Adjustments

Right now, the skin tones in the VSCO HB1 Reference Image are slightly more golden and the Blues are less saturated. To adjust the Active Images colours to align with the VSCO HB1 filter, you can use the HSL panel.

Having the reference image side by side with your active image makes this next step very easy. Simply work your way through the Hue, Saturation and Luminosity sliders, and adjust them to match those of your Reference Image as closely as you can. With your Reference Image directly next to your Active Image you get instant feedback as to what sliders you need to adjust.

using reference view in lightroom
Pushed the skin tone hues towards Orange/Yellow


using reference view in lightroom
Increased the Saturation of the skin tones and desaturated the blues to match the VSCO HB1 filter.


using reference view in lightroom
Lightened the Blues and slightly darkened the skin tones to achieve a golden look.

To make this step even easier, you can use the Targeted Adjustment Tool (TAT). Simply select the Hue, Saturation or Luminance TAT, click and drag (up or down) on an area of your Active Image to adjust the corresponding colors. Keep an eye on your Reference Image to ensure you match the colours as closely as you can.

using reference view in lightroom

using reference view in lightroom
Here you can see the skin tones and blue undertones of our Active Image are almost identical to the Reference Image after using the HSL Panel.

Step 5: Split Tone

The VSCO HB1 filter applies a subtle warm highlights/cool shadows colour grade to images.

using reference view in lightroom

An easy way for you to achieve this popular colour combination in Lightroom is to use the split toning panel. Simply click on the highlights colour picker to select a warm colour tone for your highlights and adjust the saturation accordingly.

using reference view in lightroom

Repeat this process for the shadows, picking a cooler colour to balance out the highlights.

using reference view in lightroom

Step 6: Detail

To finish, it is always a good idea to zoom in to 100% on your reference Image to take note of any sharpening, noise or grain characteristics that the filter may have applied. If you look closely, you can see the VSCO HB1 filter has applied a strong global sharpening effect to the image. To recreate this effect, you can simply use the Detail panel to increase the sharpening of your Active Image to match.

using reference view in lightroom

using reference view in lightroom
Final Comparison of Reference Image vs Active Image




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Step 7: Save New Preset

When you are happy with your active image, it’s a good idea to create a Preset of your work. This way, you can apply this same look or style to multiple images.

To create a new Preset, use the keyboard shortcut Ctrl + Alt + N (PC) or Command + Option + N (Mac) to bring up the new Preset options window. Here you can select all of the settings you want to include in your Preset.

using reference view in lightroom

Click ‘Create’ to save the Preset. It will now be available in your Preset folders to use again.

using reference view in lightroom

Batch Processed with the recreated VSCO HB1 Preset


So, there you have it. The Reference View in Lightroom is a fantastic addition to incorporate into your editing workflow. If you would love to know how to recreate a particular style in your photos, I encourage you to use a Reference Image to guide you whilst editing. It’s a great way to get instant feedback on your adjustments. This way, you can learn what you need to edit to achieve a particular look.

If you are reading this thinking “Seriously? You didn’t know about this? I’ve been using it since 2015” then my message to you is this: why didn’t you tell me sooner!?

It’s important to keep an open mind and be receptive to learning new things from others. I certainly don’t claim to be a ‘know it all’. I welcome any and all hints, tips and tricks that may make life and specifically photography that little bit easier. So, I ask you to share your insights, and this article.  Perhaps you have a quick tip or a useful keyboard shortcut you always use. Share one tip in the comments below.

Will Palfrey

William Palfrey is a designer and photographer living in Perth, Australia. He teaches beginner and aspiring photographers how to craft beautiful images and develop a unique style using Lightroom and Photoshop. Follow his photography insights over at or enroll in his new Lightroom and Photoshop courses for free. Ps. It’s Fun!

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  • I am very new to photography and have been looking at other people’s photos. I always wondered how they came to that kinda result. This certainly does lay out a way in which one can recreate an effect, but it would still take some ‘breaking down’ on how exactly that effect was created in first place. I think an amateur like me would have a hard time doing that.

    What else would you say one should consider looking at when making the notes (that you’ve taken in Notepad, for this example)? And more importantly, how do we know which sliders to move to get that effect? or does that come with practice?

    • Hi Dirk,

      What an awesome comment. I think you just expressed the exact thoughts that almost every amateur shares when starting out with photography and retouching.

      A technique I used to use to help ‘break down’ an effect (in fact, I still use this today) is to bookmark images that I like and simply write down a really basic comment about a particular aspect of the image that I like. The comment could be as simple as:

      “I like the colour of the trees”,
      “I like the warm feel of this photo”
      “This feels gritty”

      You could then load an image into Lightroom and focus on recreating that one particular note/tone/style in one of your own images. It’s important here to let go of the idea of creating ‘a perfect final masterpiece’ to hang in a gallery for all to admire.

      Instead, just focus on having some fun trying to recreate that one particular note/look/style.

      Now, I know that doesn’t answer your question on ‘which sliders to adjust to get that effect’..

      But by making simple notes you’ll find that you have already started to eliminate the sliders that you won’t need to adjust… it’s a bit like the process of elimination.

      For example, if you liked the warm colour of a particular image and you wanted to try and recreate a similar tone.. It’s unlikely that adjusting the exposure, contrast, white/black point, sharpness, highlights or shadow sliders would help you to achieve the warm tone.

      Instead, you’d probably play around with sliders that effect colour, such as the white balance slider, maybe the HSL sliders or perhaps even the split toning tab to bring up the warmth.

      So while there’s often no precise structure to [adjust this specific slider] to achieve [desired effect]… making very basic notes will help to push you in the right direction.

      Having said all that, It’s most definitely a case of practice. What’s key here is to keep it fun. Accept the fact that you won’t be able to recreate the look straight away. In fact, you probably won’t be able to do it on your second or third attempt (what this article doesn’t show is the previous couple of hours I spent experimenting and having some fun with the sliders).

      Creating a style in Lightroom is a bit like a giant jigsaw puzzle.. you try a few combinations to see what comes together and rejoice when it does. And when it doesn’t, you simply try something else while enjoying a nice beverage in the process 🙂

      I hope this helps to clarify some of the haziness for you Dirk, If it hasn’t let me know and I’ll do all I can to help you out.

      Thanks again for taking the time out and sharing your thoughts.


  • I’ve always struggled with how you can recreate different editing styles in Lightroom. This is definitely going to help! Thanks!

    • Hi Marcus

      Thanks for stopping by and taking the time out to share your feedback. Great to hear that this will help you to recreate different styles, feel free to shoot me any questions along the way.


  • I have lightroom but have only used it for creating panoramas, after reading this I will try it out and hopefully will be able to make better use of lightroom, thank you for the inspiration

    • Hi Jim,

      You are most welcome! Thanks for popping in. Lightroom is a great bit software, please let me know if you have any questions along the way.


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