Lightroom Public Beta 2, by Adobe
Posted: 22-May-2006

4 out of 5 Mice

Vendor: Adobe Type: COMMERCIAL

Reviewer: Halle Winkler Class: PRODUCTIVITY

Introduction
As digital cameras approach the quality of film without the commensurate cost, both amateur and professional photographers have experienced more freedom to experiment and get more shot coverage, and cataloging all of these photos has emerged as a vital stage of the photographer's creative process. At the same time, serious shooters of every stripe have opted to use the various RAW image formats offered by camera manufacturers, which display the unadulterated output of the camera's digital image sensor, thus allowing a little more post-shot tweaking of exposure, tone, and other image settings.

The drawback of the RAW format is that, much like a physical negative, it requires some special handling in order to remain a useful and unchanged original source over time. The image processing software created to develop RAW formats leaves the RAW files themselves unaltered, and instead saves any edits as a changelist in a second file, so that the image can be reverted or worked with again non-destructively. As an unintended consequence, RAW format photographers have been living with an unenviable housekeeping problem: thousands of photos with names like "P4014428.DNG", plus a sidecar file for each one, and probably at least one developed version of each photo in a non-RAW format all kicking around loose in one of many, many folders.

Further complicating things, the typical RAW workflow for a professional digital photographer until very recently involved the use of as many as four different applications. So it came as a welcome development in October 2005 when Apple launched its professional all-in-one solution, Aperture, and was followed a few months later by Adobe with its Lightroom beta, which is the subject of this review.

Overview
Lightroom is a program for professional or semi-professional photographers which aims to combine the import, selection and rating of very large numbers of photos with the ability to edit, manage, showcase and print them, with storage handled either in a self-contained database maintained by the software or as an indexed collection of files in folders maintained by the user. It supports the non-destructive use of many different Camera RAW formats from the beginning to the end of its workflow, and can also import or export non-RAW formats such as JPEG and TIFF.

Requirements
Adobe Lightroom Beta 2 is a universal binary which requires a G4, G5 or Intel processor, OS X 10.4, 768 MB of memory and a 1024 x 768 resolution screen. The beta release notes and other up-to-date information can (and should) be accessed here:
http://labs.macromedia.com/technologies/lightroom/

Setup
In order to download the Lightroom disk image, you will have to sign up for an account at
Macromedia Labs (now owned by Adobe) and tell Adobe/Macromedia a little about yourself and what you do. Post-download, installation is as simple as dragging the application into your Applications folder. The first time you launch it, Lightroom will present you with a EULA and then show you its "Five Rules", which are some highly-distilled facts (but, ironically, not rules) about Lightroom's UI approach and functionality.

In Use
Lightroom has four "modules" which correspond to the four parts of the photo workflow that Lightroom addresses: Library, Develop, Slideshow, and Print. Due to Adobe's choice of the term "module", I would guess that it may be possible later on for Adobe or a third party to add more stages to this workflow.


Lightroom Modules


The interface is very different from other Adobe applications. Instead of a monitor chock-a-block with palettes that are themselves full of disclosure triangles (those little triangles that you click to make a palette drop down with more options), we have a sleek modal UI which offers a well-organized and moderate set of options related to the selected module.

This simplicity points up a possible philosophical difference between Lightroom and Aperture: when Aperture came out, it was unclear to some onlookers whether it was intended as a competitor to Adobe Photoshop, since it included a few Photoshop-style retouching tools. By contrast, the minimalist UI choices of Lightroom suggest a choice to limit the photo editing tools to "RAW development" -- the task of optimizing your photos as they were shot, while leaving retouching-style edits like pixel cloning as a job for Photoshop. It will be interesting to see if this changes as the software progresses.

The default module on launch, Library, is where photos are rated, tagged, categorized, searched, and browsed.


Adobe Lightroom Library


Simple edits can be applied here through the Quick Develop pane.


Quick Develop Pane


Photos can be reviewed at different sizes and assigned ratings between zero and five stars, tagged with all manner of metadata, notated, compared with each other, organized into different collections, and in general be prepared for filtering by different criteria to make them easy to find later.

The Library module is also where imports are handled. You can import directly from your camera or card reader, or from a folder full of images on your hard drive, and you have the option of assigning a shoot name at the time of import as well as applying a comprehensive list of metadata tags on the fly.


Lightroom Metadata


Lightroom doesn't lock you into any form of proprietary file management -- tell the program to leave the photos in their original locations and it will merely index them for your use, or let it add them to its own internal database if you prefer things a little tidier. This isn't that surprising, since it would be difficult to entice so many users to toss their commercial work into a black box that is also a beta, but I consider having this choice to be a very positive detail, both practically and philosophically, and I hope it remains part of Lightroom's design.


Photo Import


The Develop module is where more in-depth edits are made to individual photos. Loosely ordered by frequency of use and complexity, the list currently includes White Balance and Exposure, Tone Curve, Grayscale Mixer, Split Toning, HSL Color Tuning, Detail, Lens Corrections and Camera Calibration. As of beta 2, the invaluable Crop & Straighten has also been added.


Lightroom Develop Module


Some of these controls require a good understanding of photographic and additive color concepts to be applied to best effect, but since the editing is non-destructive, Lightroom is a safe venue for experimenting and acquiring that understanding.

One quirk of Lightroom's development process that it took me some time to track down is that the program automatically applies a tone preset to all of your photos called "Lightroom Defaults". It is a medium-contrast preset with increased brightness, which really tends to punch up your shots nicely. I find this a little odd, since it feels like listening to a pair of studio monitors with the bass turned up because it sounds better -- flat can be boring, but it is an honest baseline to apply changes to. I haven't discovered a way to permanently turn off this behavior in the current beta. If you are like me and wish to turn the glamour down a notch before thinking about how to edit your shots, just select all of your photos when you import them and apply the "Flat" preset to them at the outset.

Image quality is going to be the make-or-break issue for any software entering this market -- people who work with photos all day are picky and they can see the difference. There was a disappointed reaction in some circles to the RAW development quality in the first version of Aperture, although by all accounts this has been greatly improved in Aperture 1.1. Lightroom's image processing code is the same codebase as the Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) plugin for Photoshop, which is in the top echelon of RAW development software. Another benefit of using the ACR codebase is that Lightroom is compatible out of the gate with a very large range of proprietary RAW formats used by different camera manufacturers.

For most users, development speed comes second to image quality, but it is a close second. Lightroom's performance is mixed at the moment; some things (import from disk, zooming, cropping) are zippy and others (import from camera, sharpening, some color processes, occasionally the UI itself) lag. Adobe acknowledges this directly in their version notes and on the Lightroom website and states that it is a beta issue. On my Powerbook G4 1.5GHz with 2GB of RAM it can bog down a little when I'm dealing with hundreds of photos at a time, but it's rare that the speed is an overt frustration. Nonetheless, I would like to able to change sharpness as smoothly as I can change contrast and hope that the final product is faster.

Something useful which hasn't yet been added to Lightroom's Develop module is a way to examine multiple iterations of the same image side by side, much like Aperture's "Versions and Masters" or Photoshop's Variations window. This feature would make the most of the promise of non-destructive editing and it is probably going to be a necessary addition sooner or later to any product in the same market space as Aperture.

The third module is the Slideshow module, which lets you craft on-screen presentations of your shots with titling, identity plates and iTunes musical soundtracks. The module can also be used to export HTML, PDF or Flash slideshows and can theoretically FTP them as well, but some of these features are still pretty bare-bones at the moment.


Lightroom Slideshow Module


This is especially true of the HTML gallery output, which is so spare as to be more or less a placeholder for a feature to be fully implemented later. Flash is often an attractive option for online commercial photo galleries since it offers a modicum of protection (or at least obstruction) against image misuse, but Lightroom's Flash gallery implementation -- although attractive -- is a hampered by the fact that it can't constrain the maximum image size offered and there is no built-in support for watermarking, which makes it effectively less protective than an HTML gallery with small images. If you can make an image with transparency in another graphics program, you can import it for use as a watermark in Lightroom, and you can similarly work around the image size question by exporting your collection with a constrained size and then reimporting it for output as a Flash gallery, but this is a clumsy workaround and will hopefully not be necessary in the final version.

After creating a Flash gallery from one of my Lightroom collections, I was hoping to export the gallery and FTP it to my site in a single click, but I just couldn't get Lightroom's FTP to work after several attempts.


Exporting via FTP


It is entirely possible that this had something to do with my site or FTP settings, but since the FTP function doesn't report errors verbosely, I had no clues about where to begin troubleshooting the problem. I uploaded my Lightroom Flash gallery with a third-party FTP tool, and an example of Lightroom's nice-looking Flash gallery can seen here (along with my hit-or-miss attempt to use the watermarking workaround):

http://www.politepix.com/photographs/flash/collection01_gal.html

Lastly, there is the Print module. This module puts your print jobs front-and-center, allowing you to attach persistent print settings to individual photos, as well set up templates for your commonly-used print settings which can then be applied to groups of photos at once with the same convenience you'd experience applying a tone preset.

Summary
When Aperture launched last autumn, there were grumblings that its feature set and image quality weren't quite refined enough to justify its price. Lightroom, which had already been long in development under its code name "Shadowland", wasn't ready to go head-to-head with Aperture as a commercial product yet, but by releasing Lightroom as a beta and inviting the photographic community to take an active role in its development, Adobe has nonetheless managed to get Lightroom into direct competition with Aperture in this emerging market.

However it works out, Mac-using photographers can't help but win as a result of this healthy competition, in which two quality developers are giving attention to questions of usability which have been ossified in mature software products for some time now.

I have been using the Lightroom beta almost every day since January, and I must say that firing it up and checking out my new shots is something I look forward to a great deal. In my opinion, Lightroom is a pleasure to use and outputs good pictures, and would be a useful addition to the application folder of anyone who works with large amounts of photos, RAW or otherwise. My only big concern about it is that upon release it might be priced too high for serious hobbyists like me to continue enjoying it.

Pros

  • Non-destructive and complete RAW workflow
  • Very good image quality
  • Clear and well-conceived interface
  • Compatible with a large array of RAW filetypes
  • No proprietary database lock-in required
  • User feedback is solicited and is used to refine the product
  • Free of cost for now

Cons

  • Some features are slow or partially implemented as yet
  • Beta will definitely expire, and the eventual price of the product is unknown. Beta users without the budget for another premium-priced software product who put Lightroom into their daily production grind should have an exit strategy.


Overall Rating

4 out of 5 Mice