Oct 29
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Lightroom is a revelation! Perhaps best described as Photoshop for photographers, it takes the functionality of Adobe Camera RAW to the nth, in a quick to learn and simple to use application, that will have photographers achieving almost everything they can with Photoshop (and in some respects, much more), in a fraction of the time!

‘So what is Lightroom and does it spell the end for Photoshop?’ I hear you cry. The answer? Well the clue is in the title… ‘Lightroom’ is a digital darkroom, but not in the sense of pixel pushing programs such as Photoshop, which alter your original image destructively, every time you do a save. Oh no, Lightroom is a whole new paradigm in image processing, because whenever you tweak, edit or adjust an image, although you see those changes instantly, you are not actually altering the image itself. Instead you are merely recording a note of that change, as metadata, in a central database, or as Adobe call it, a ‘catalog’.

For this reason, you are creating a permanent history that you can go back to in the future (sounds like an idea for a film), without having to save multiple edits. Furthermore, you can create as many differently processed ‘virtual copies’ of an image as you want, without paying the price in hard disk space. Obviously, the more images you have in your catalog and the more changes you make to them , the larger your catalog becomes, but to put this in perspective, mine contains almost 18,000 yet only occupies half a meg of hard disc space!

It also means that once you’re happy with the edit you’ve created for one image, you can ‘synchronise’ (apply the same metadata) to the rest of your shoot, at the push of a button and we’re not just talking colour correction or curves, but crops, retouches and everything else, which could save days and the kicker is that because every change is written to disk as you make it, if your computer crashes, when you reboot, you will be able to pick up exactly where you left off (something to which I can personally attest).

Lightroom consists of five ‘modules’, ‘Library’, ‘Develop’, ‘Slideshow’, ‘Print’ and ‘Web’. Each shares a common default interface of three columns, beneath which is a ‘browser’ window that runs across the entire screen.

Library

Library, somewhat unsurprisingly, is your photo library. Here you import and browse your pics and tag them with metadata such as copyright info and keywords. Although you can add, edit and even synchronise metadata at any time, if you do so upon import it will be automatically applied to every pic as it imports, which is a huge timesaver. But the best bit is that these keywords are searchable and filterable. If you only have a handful of pics, this may not seem like a big deal, but when you have 18,000 spread across different folders and you need to find a picture of a transvestite in a tutu hanging upside down from the ceiling whilst breathing fire through his nose, it’s a lifesaver.

The Library module is also used to export your final edits as JPEGs, TIFFs, PSDs or DNGs, organise your catalog(s) and move them between machines, though bizarrely it does not offer a way to change the default location of a catalog, once it has been created.

Exporting, like many of Lightroom’s features, is a mini revelation. You simply select the pictures you want, press the export button, whereupon the export window pops up. Enter your choice of export location, naming convention, file format, image size and sharpening settings, hit export and your entire batch of photos are resized, sharpened and exported in one fell swoop swoop.

As good as this is, it does have its downsides. Export speed is excruciatingly s–l—o—-w. This is partly because Lightroom has been designed to run on dual core processors and so lets you carry on editing whilst exporting. The workaround is to export your pics as two or three batches simultaneously, as doing so can speeds things up by that factor. However, workarounds are, by definition, less than optimal.

Unlike some raw processors, there is no option to simultaneously export your pics in more than one format, so if you want JPEGS and TIFFS, you’ll have to go through this procedure twice, which is a minor timewaster. Image resizing can be a little hit and miss, particularly if you’re used to resizing in Photoshop, as Lightroom ‘thinks different’. The same is true of output sharpening, which provides a rather basic choice of sharpening for either screen, matte paper or glossy paper at ‘low’, ‘standard’ or ‘high’. There’s no preview, and so no way (other than experience) to know what these mean. Even if there were, not all screens, or all papers are created equal and the final destination of the file you are outputting to may be neither. So while I applaud Adobe for simplifying something that, in the past, has been unnecessarily complex, perhaps they have simplified things a little too far…

Develop

The develop module is where you ‘develop’ your RAW ‘negative’. Its bottom window displays thumbnails of the contents of the folder that you select in the library module. Clicking on a thumbnail displays it full size in the centre column.

Both modules enable you to rate your images from 1-5 stars and with one of seven different colours, using either the mouse or the numbers on your keyboard and you can setup Lightroom to automatically move to each successive picture as you do so. You can also filter by these and other attributes, enabling you to display just the keepers, without necessarily needing to delete anything. You can even compare two images or two sets of images side by side as you figure out which is the money shot.

At the top of the left column is a Photoshopesque navigator window that lets you, surprise surprise, navigate around the image you have selected in the centre column and to change its magnification (by ratio, as opposed to percentage, which some would find it useful to have as an option).

Parallel to this, at the top of the right window, is a histogram unlike any you ever seen.

At either end of this histogram is a little triangle. Mousing over or clicking these triangle overlays a visual representation of under and over exposure onto the main image, which you can then adjust by dragging within zones of the histogram to change ‘Black’ (clipping), ‘Fill Light’, ‘Exposure’ and ‘Recovery’.

Below this is the tool bar offering a set of tool which kick off with the crop and straighten tool, which lets you crop freely or to a fixed ratio (such as 5:4, 6:9, etc) and to straighten your picture using just mouse movements, in a manner so intuitive that it will have Photoshop users drooling.

Then comes the spot removal tool, which acts like the cloning or healing (depending upon which mode you pick) tool in Photoshop. Although it is very effective at retouching small areas (which, to be fair, is what it was designed for), it is rubbish at doing large ones. Many people, including myself, would like to see something akin to Photoshop’s clone stamp tool added, to enable large areas to be retouched quickly, without the need to export images to Photoshop for this purpose.

Next up is the red eye tool, which comes into its own when correcting pictures of stoned people.

Then come the two killer tools…

The graduated filter tool allows you to drag one or more graduated filters onto your image, positioned horizontally, vertically, diagonally or at any angle in between. Once in place, you can alter the exposure, brightness, contrast, saturation clarity, sharpness and colour of your grad, in real-time, with sliders. Want a .9 ND grad on your sky? Set the colour to neutral grey and pull down the exposure by three stops. Want a blue grad instead? Change the colour to blue. You get the idea.

When working with RAW files, the amount of detail that can be recovered this way is pretty remarkable, in some cases being almost as much as if you had used the real thing. Positioning grads can be a little confusing at times, as can colour selection, which is done using a colour picker. In an ideal world, there would be soft, hard and non grad filters, that were easier to position and which had preset wratten numbers, filter factors and other such designations as options.

Saving the best for last, the adjustment brush is dodging and burning on steroids…and crack…and then some. It lets you ‘paint in’ all of the aforementioned parameters with a mouse or graphics tablet (with controls for brush size, flow, feathering and density of your choosing). If you tick the ‘auto mask’ box, Lightroom automagically creates a mask as you do so. This works incredibly well, enabling you to retouch quickly and with relative impunity. If there is an area that requires fine detail, you can switch auto masking on and off as needed and if you make a mistake, you can use the erase brush to erase the offending part of your mask. If you hover your mouse over the area you are masking, your mask is temporarily overlaid (in pink by default), though, irritatingly, there is no way to toggle visibility on and off whilst you are creating it.

But it doesn’t end there. Masks are ‘live’ meaning you can alter both your mask and any of the parameters affecting it, at any time. What’s more, you can create multiple masks on the same pic…bye bye layers! The implications are massive…what used to take hours can now be done in minutes…but shhh…don’t tell your clients…especially if you are a beauty retoucher, because now all you need to do is select the adjustment brush, switch auto mask on, paint across the model’s skin and then move the clarity slider to a negative value. It really is that quick and easy! And if you want to change the colour of a models eyes, or lips, just paint in a new one.

The only thing the adjustment brush lacks is the ability to paint in black or white, which together with the lack of a clone tool, can be a significant limitation. To take one, not uncommon, scenario, imagine you’ve shot a model against a backdrop that needs to be process white, but when you open your files, you find out the lighting was off, or the colourama was dirty. Suddenly the tables turn and what can be done in Photoshop in moments, takes forever in Lightroom. Hopefully this is something that will be addressed in future releases.

Beneath the tool bar live a raft of adjustment panels. The Basic panel offers the same set of adjustments as Photoshop’s Adobe Camera Raw.

Unlike the ‘Quick Develop’ panel, in the library module, which lets you make stepped adjustments in whole or part stops, the basic panel uses continuous sliders. It’s a shame it doesn’t offer both, as there are many occasions on which I want to just tweak exposure by 2/3 or ½ EV and 2 button presses is easier than messing around with a slider.

Beneath the Basic panel is the Tone Curve panel, which offers Photoshop style curve adjustments.

Then comes the HSL/Color/Grayscale panel, which offers multiple modes. Clicking HSL or ‘Color’ offers alternative ways to adjust Hue, Saturation & Luminance.

Clicking greyscale does an instant greyscale conversion and presents you with a familiar set of ‘colour’ sliders, with which to adjust your greyscale mix.

The headline feature of these latter two panels is ‘targeted adjustments’, a feature that is easily missed due to the tiny, unlabelled buttons that switch it on. When you do so, clicking and dragging in an area of your photo, dynamically adjusts the tone curve, hue, saturation, luminance or greyscale mix of all tones similar to the one you are dragging. This really is an absolute killer feature that lets you dramatically or subtly alter the look and feel of an image in an instant and Adobe should be shouting about it from the rooftops. They should also, perhaps, add an optional slider that lets you determine the range of similar tones that are adjusted.

Next up, or indeed down, as the case is, comes the split toning panel, which makes it child’s play to tone or split tone a greyscale image.

Then it’s the turn of the Detail panel, which contains controls for sharpening, noise reduction and chromatic aberration.

Sharpening in Lightroom is something of a dichotomy. On the one hand, the four sharpening controls in this panel are more advanced than Photoshop’s and give you lots of control over global input sharpening. On the other hand, although local post-capture sharpening can be achieved with the adjustment brush, it has just one single control (labelled ‘sharpening’) and as a result, is a bit of a blunt tool. As I’ve already discussed, output sharpening also has some limitations and it is not always clear how these three stages of sharpening work in relation to each other. If a similar level of control was available for the adjustment brush or, if sharpening was simplified and integrated, it would make for a much happier experience. That said, there’s still more local sharpening than there is local noise reduction…and the global noise reduction in this panel doesn’t seem to do much.

Finally the vignette panel does what it says on the tin. Normally if you create a vignette, then decide to crop your photo, you inevitably crop into your vignette too. However, this panel solves the problem by including a post-crop vignette tool that works beautifully.

All of these panels can be expanded, collapsed and turned off completely. They cannot, however, be reordered to suit your workflow. Having all of these controls on screen simultaneously, without the need for menus is great, but unfortunately they take up so much vertical space, that constant scrolling and clicking is inevitable. I can think of ways that Adobe could optimise the interface to remove this unnecessary mouse action and I hope they can too.

Thankfully this is less of an issue in the left column, where there are just four panels, ‘Navigator’, ‘Presets’, Snapshots’ and ‘History’. The ‘presets’ panel, which lives below the Navigator, contains 18 presets including ‘Aged Photo’, ‘Cyanotype’, ‘Direct Positive’’, ‘Selenium Tone’ and ‘Sepia’. Click one and it is immediately applied to your selected image(s). Although you can refine the results, they are extremely convincing as is, so it’s a bit of a shame there aren’t a few more of them, such as cross process, infra red, etc.

Of course, you can create your own. Whenever you hit upon a look you like, you simply save it as a preset, whereupon it is added to this panel and you can then share/sell it…which explains why the net is awash with them. I must have downloaded several hundred…most of which are utter rubbish and a handful of which I can’t live without. I’ve even created some of my own, which are, of course, world class. But it’s worth bearing in mind that once you’ve applied a preset to a photo, you need to ensure it permanently remains in your presets folder…which is not automatically backed up when you backup your catalog. Hopefully Adobe will, in the future, provide more comprehensive backup options.

Although much can be achieved with presets, they do have their limitations. Currently there are numerous third party ones around that claim to recreate classic film stocks and looks, most of which are uniformly poor and certainly no match for high end Photoshop plug-ins such as Nik’s ‘Silver Effects Pro’, which sample grain to mimic classic film stocks.

Though Nik and others do offer plug-ins for Lightroom, they do not function in the classic sense of a plug-in because, at this time, Adobe’s SDK (Software Development Kit) won’t allow developers the access they need to Lightroom’s core code. As a result, these Lightroom plug-ins generally export your images as TIFFs to either standalone software or a plug-in that opens within Photoshop, thus defeating the benefits of keeping your files RAW. Adobe need to correct this by either offering equivalent functionality to these plug-ins or by opening up their SDK, if not to everyone, then at least to a select bunch.

Beneath the Presets panel is the ‘Snapshots’ panel. Clicking the ‘+’ button in it, creates a snapshot of your current edit, that you can name and return to at any point. You can use this to create different versions of the same picture, using different presets, crops and edits, then compare them, as you decide which works best.

Below this is the History window, which keeps a permanent history of every single change you make.

Slideshow

The third module, ‘Slideshow’, does exactly what it says on the tin, making it simple to put together slideshows. As a means of presenting or viewing your work it is extremely useful, however it does have some significant limitations. Firstly, in order to play an audio track whilst watching your slideshow, you need to jump through hoops. Secondly, there is no way to export a slideshow (except as a series of JPEGs or as a PDF). Adobe’s first priority for this module should be to enable slideshows to be exported and burnt as Flash movies. Its second should be to enable audio files playback and embedability. Over and above this, either the ability to record accompanying voiceovers and to do basic audio edits, or to export slideshows to Flash, After Effects, Premiere and other relevant software, for further editing, would be ideal.

Print

The Print Module makes laying out and printing single or multiple photos a breeze. It includes a variety of templates for everything from contact sheets to triptychs and you can create and save your own in a few clicks. However, if you want to tweak things beyond a point or include more than basic text, you’re out of luck, as there’s no direct export or ‘round trip’ to In Design or Illustrator, just a single option to export your completed layout as a JPEG.

Hit print and Lightroom will output to your chosen printer…which is fine if the printer that you want to print to is connected to your computer, but what if you want to print to a lightjet or a large format printer? Chances are you’ll be taking or sending a file somewhere…for which you’ll want a 16 bit TIFF, not a JPEG! Since Lightroom supports full colour management and can output TIFFs and PSDs from other modules, it shouldn’t be rocket science to offer TIFF, PSD, Ai & InDD output from this one.

Web

Finally, the web module lets you generate web sites at the click of a button by simply selecting a flash or HTML template, the pics you want to populate it and filling in a few optional text fields such as ‘Site Title’. It even has basic FTP built in, enabling you to upload your site to a server in one click. This is seriously impressive stuff, especially if you routinely need to put up galleries for client approval. However, like the slideshow and print modules, there are limitations. Because the templates for this module are constructed in a somewhat obscure programming language, there’s no simple way to build your own, or even to tweak the existing ones. Nor is there any straightforward way to export your sites to Dreamweaver, Flash or anything else, for further tweaking and although you can FTP your galleries to sub folders on your server, there is no way to manage these and to create links between them. So good as this module is for basic tasks, I would suggest that it is the part of Lightroom that most seriously needs a rethink by Adobe.

Manual

There isn’t a proper one…paper or electronic and the content in the help menu is virtually non existent. Although Lightroom is fairly intuitive, there is, nevertheless, lots of hidden functionality that isn’t immediately obvious, the targeted adjustments being a good example of this. Fortunately there is a large community of Lightroom users on the web, some of whom offer excellent free tutorials, as do Adobe themselves, via Adobe TV, so why they don’t, at the very least, include an online help system with links to their own tutorials and other such resources, is a bit of a mystery. Frankly they are doing themselves and their users a huge disservice by not paying sufficient attention to this area.

Conclusions

I am in love with Lightroom. As far as I am concerned, it is the best and most useable piece of software that Adobe have ever produced. Is it perfect? No, nothing ever is, but for a V2.0 release it is incredibly mature, though with 20 years of Photoshop development behind it, perhaps this is not surprising. Since installing it, I have become completely reliant on it for almost everything photography related and as a result, now hardly touch Photoshop.

As for the question asked at the beginning of this review, ‘…does this spell the end for Photoshop?’ Absolutely not! What it spells is the redefinition of Photoshop as a tool for visual artists, that will co-exist with Lightroom as a tool for photographers.

Currently there are lots of things Photoshop does, that Lightroom does not. In the future, hopefully some of these, such as panoramic stitching and HDR (which currently can be done as a seamless Photoshop ‘round trip’ from Lightroom) will find their way into Lightroom, while others, such as photomontaging are probably best left as the preserve of Photoshop…and of visual artists…

The bottom line is that if you are a photographer, I can’t recommend Lightroom highly enough, in fact, I have become something of an unofficial evangelist for it…though I really must stop extolling its virtues to random people in the street.

Epilogue

As I was putting the finishing touches to this review, Adobe announced the downloadable public beta of Lightroom 3.0. Not only does it appear to address some of the areas for improvement mentioned above (noise reduction, grain simulation, portable slideshows with audio), but goes much further than I would have expected with a core re-write and an overhauled RAW processing engine, that presumably will address some of the performance issues that I and others have experienced with Lightroom 2.0. My tongue is hanging out with anticipation and will be for the next six months ‘till its official release. If version 3.0 is as big a leap from version 2.0 as version 2.0 was from version 1.0 (and the signs say it will be) Lightroom WILL take over the world!

More info: www.adobe.com

© 2009 – 2010, The Technofile. All rights reserved. Moral Rights Asserted.

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