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
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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 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.
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):
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.
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
- Non-destructive and
complete RAW workflow
- Very good image quality
- Clear and well-conceived
- Compatible with a
large array of RAW filetypes
- No proprietary database
- User feedback is
solicited and is used to refine the product
- Free of cost for
- 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.
4 out of 5 Mice