Photography and Art

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom - First Impressions

I was a very happy customer of Pixmantec Pro, a raw conversion program that was elegantly simple, very speedy and produced excellent images. Like many other raw conversion programs, it handled a great number of raw formats, produced TIFF and JPEG output images and did basic pixel manipulation. The program cropped, did curves adjustments and enable the user to choose white balance. There were several things that I really liked about Pixmantec Pro:

  • there was absolutely nothing extraneous about it - the software did one task (raw conversion) and excelled at it. It didn't attempt to replace photoshop or any other part of my workflow.
  • I could easily rank, sort and filter images. This allowed me to quickly move through my images and dispense with the obvious non-starters and focus on the better shots.
  • The controls for basic image processing (e.g. curves, cropping) were very legible and easy to manipulate.
  • In addition to being able to adjust saturation, Pixmantec Pro invented a new function, called "vibrance" that adjusted saturation while leaving flesh tones alone.
  • The software worked on the underlying file system, but kept a history of all its work in a side file. The raw image was never changed. Pixmantec Pro also had a snapshot capability that allowed you to capture a version of the image at every step of the process, so you could always go back to a certain point if you screwed up and, most importantly, you could compare each stage of the process to make sure that you were actually improving the image, not making it worse. Several times, I was surprised to find that my final image was actually worse than an intermediate version.
Imagine my discontent when the news of Adobe's acquisition of the Pixmentec development team was announced. This was somewhat ameliorated when told that Pixmantec customers would get a free download of Adobe Lightroom version 1.0, but when I started to download and use the Lightroom beta products, I was very downhearted. The Lightroom betas were worrisome for a number of reasons: they were more complex than Pixmantec Pro, the user interface was cluttered and ugly, the use of a database instead of the Windows file system to store images was a really bad idea, trapping you in one product and leaving you vulnerable to database integrity issues and, finally, the intent of providing one piece of software for the whole workflow seemed flawed because key editing functions (e.g. healing brush) were missing in action.

I converted my workflow to Bridge and Photoshop and was generally pleased with the results, especially with the improvements in Bridge CS3.

On the 19th, while skiing in Quebec, I got an e-mail on my RIM announcing that I was eligible to download release 1.0 of Lightroom. Last night, I got back from my vacation and sat down to download the Lightroom software and give it another go.

The results were much better than the beta versions. So far I've installed the software, imported a bunch of photos from my Quebec vacation, ranked, sorted and filtered the photos, developed a few of the better ones and printed them out to a variety of papers. The only major issue that I've encountered is a bug with the file navigation control when trying to add a folder. I'm running Windows Vista, so this may be a Vista-related bug. I've logged it with Adobe, so I'll let you know how it turns out. The work-around was to use the import command - the file navigation control works fine in this scenario.

Here are some of the things I like about release 1.0:
  • the concept of "shoots" which was a metaphor that I just didn't connect with has been replaced by the concept of "folders" where you can map to the underlying file structure. The Lightroom database will import metadata for photos in a file system and will mirror that file system. But, the original images will be stored in the file system and accessible to other applications.
  • the user interface has been cleaned up and is now fairly elegant. I particularly like the ability to hide and un-hide the various components of the screen so that the image being edited can be expanded to nearly the whole monitor.
  • The Pixmantec Pro concept of snapshots has been added. Hallelujah!
  • There are enough functions to avoid going to Photoshop for many photographs. For example, you can now heal dust spots and the like by using the healing brush. You can also crop and straighten as well as doing all the adjustments to contrast and colour.
  • The vibrance function has been re-created. Hurray!
  • The printing dialog is very good. It gives the user lots of control and also makes it easy to get something out of the printer quickly. Far better than Photoshop.
  • The integration with Photoshop is pretty good. With a right click, I can open an image in PS, edit it and have it show up in the Lightroom library as a different version of the file that I'm developing.
The bottom line is that the images that I've been able to produce from Lightroom are very comparable to the ones I was able to produce using Bridge and Photoshop. The only time that I was forced to go into PS was when wanting to do some local contrast adjustment and, as described above, the transition was pretty seemless.

There are some questions still to be answered. For example:
  • Should I use database specific functions like collections to organize my photos or continue to use file folders? On one hand, the Lightroom database features are very efficient because they don't create multiple copies of files and all the file versions are easy to decipher. On the other hand, using Lightroom to organize my files is a big decision - a slippery slope where I'd be increasingly dependent on one software application and unable to convert over to a better system if it emerges.
  • Should I export TIFF or JPEG copies of developed files? Again, the efficiency of having every editing operation as metadata in a database is very easy on disk space versus the alternative of having multiple copies hanging about. In addition, having a complete edit history attached to every image version is handy if new sizes and/or crop dimensions of an image are needed. This isn't as fundamental a decision as the first point above because one can always export TIFF and JPEG versions when needed. As a corollary, it was always a comfort to be able to have developed image versions on one disk drive and raw images on another. Losing a disk drive between back-ups would not be as big an issue if at least one version of every image was intact.
  • Should I use the Lightroom sharpening and noise reduction functions or use my Photoshop plug-ins (e.g. Noise Ninja). Having to pop out of Lightroom into Photoshop for specialized functions seems like a bit of a pain, but I would miss the precision of these outboard tools. Will there be a plug-in API for Lightroom?
I guess I'm hooked for now. Lightroom is almost as elegant as Pixmantec Pro and has more features. In my first act of commitment, I paid $15 to Michael Reichman to download the first three chapters of his Lightroom tutorial (with Jeff Schewe as collaborator). The production quality of the first video is non-professional and Reichman and Schewe spend too much time bantering about the size of their hard drives (terabytes as a substitute for inches?), but for $15 you get a good basic grounding once you get by the silly geek stuff.

Windows Vista Update

A couple of posts ago, I talked about my experiences installing Windows Vista on my home computer. Here are a couple of updates:

  • Epson still hasn't released the Vista drivers for the R1800 or R800, but I discovered that the XP drivers still work. I installed them and all is fine - the paper profiles were copied over during the Vista installation, so only the driver has to be re-installed. Much to my wife's chagrin, the printer is alive, burning through ink and paper once again.
  • The latest update to Vista seems to have issues with my hardware. Prior to the update, I could put my computer into a sleeping state or hibernate it. Now, the computer re-boots when I try to put it to sleep and it also seems to sporadically re-boot itself when left alone for any period of time. I suspect that this has something to do with Vista interacting with my hardware and trying to save energy.
On the good news front, the system works pretty well and performance on my 2.8GZ, 1 GB machine is quite satisfactory.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

A Love Affair with Lakers

It is Valentine's Day and love is in the air. My wife and I have had a lovely day and a nice dinner, but it is time to confess my other current love affair. I've been photographing the big lake ships frozen in the ice in Toronto harbour.

If you recall my artist's statement from a couple of posts ago, I'm fascinated with life as wave form. In other words, I like to photograph the beauty in the constant ebb and flow of life. The big lakers are part of life's rhythm. In the summer, they run various cargoes through the great lake system. In the winter, they rest in harbours dotted about the great lakes, sometimes encased in a shroud of ice, getting their rust removed and fresh layers of paint applied.

There is a sense of great peace surrounding these behemoths of the lakes as they sit in the frozen landscape waiting for spring thaw, engines silent, wind howling through their superstructures. Their metal skins are scarred by close encounters with docks, tugs and locks. Layers of paint, sometimes in gaudy yellows and reds, add touches of colour to monotone hulls and the constant white of the ice and snow.

Here are some of the photos from my encounters with the hibernating beasts of the lakes. I hope you enjoy them:

Monday, February 12, 2007

Windows Vista

My wife was out with the office gang on Friday night, so foolishly I decided to spend the evening installing MS Vista on my home machine. That's right, the one I use for all my photo editing and printing. As always, I pressed ahead without checking to see if all my drivers were supported, trusting to blind faith that the god of computers would look after me. As usual, the god of computers deserted me in my hour of need.

The installation actually started off quite well after I'd figured out how to open the fancy plastic box that contains a CD and a crappy little manual. Dear Bill, scrap the environmentally unfriendly plastic case and just let me download the software from the 'net.

The whole initial installation process took about four hours on my 2.8 Ghz home computer (with hyperthreaded processor) which wasn't so bad. The OS booted properly and nearly all my applications ran fine.

The first minor gotcha happened when I tried to adjust the speed of my mouse. It seems that Vista had loaded a generic mouse driver and I had to re-install the mouse driver using Windows Update. This was a little strange given that my mouse is a Microsoft mouse. Dear Bill, get your guys to talk to one another.

Then my wife sat down to play the new Vista version of Spider Solitaire. She wasn't able to drag and drop cards on top of each other. Of course, she immediately mocked me for installing Vista and taking a major step backwards. There was a clue. An error message told me that hardware acceleration wasn't enabled on my graphics card. After further investigation, it turns out that I was running a generic VGA driver instead of the proper driver for my ATI graphics card. Again, I had to update the driver (this time from the driver properties page) and the right driver was loaded. As soon as I'd done that, the Solitaire game started to work with all the flashy graphics and the ability to drag and drop.

Dear Bill, I'm not a typical user. Most people don't know how to troubleshoot a bad driver. Can't you make an operating system smart enough to figure out what's running on my machine and load the right drivers? Give Steve a call, he'll help you out.

Of course, that was not the end of the story. I loaded my favourite software, including Adobe Photoshop CS3. All worked really well. The new UI is nice (but my graphics card is too cheesey to support Aero). I edited some recent photos and went to print. No printer driver. I then had a look around at my other devices and found no scanner driver either.

Off to the Epson web site to look for new drivers. Good news on the scanner front - the drivers all seem to be present and accounted for. But, the printer drivers are not all there. It seems like they started at two ends (the pro end and the consumer end) and worked towards the middle. The prosumer printers (R800, R1800 and R2400) are missing in action. The last update to the Epson release notes is Feb 8th and there is no schedule for the release of the missing drivers.

Now, that's a gotcha. My good wife is full of joy. I won't be running down our chequing account with ink and paper purchases for a while. She's probably on the phone telling Epson support to take their time - no rush.

I'm off to Quebec for a ski holiday next week, so I can wait a little while, but it would sure be nice if the drivers were ready by the time I got back. Dear Mr. Seiko, did you hear me?

What else have I noticed about Vista? The performance is OK - no different than XP. 1 GB if memory seems to be enough. On the good news front, the hibernation capability works much better than XP. I had an issue where I couldn't use XP hibernation because of a hard disk that would shut off and not come back on. This seems to be cured by Vista and I can hibernate and power back up in seconds.

On the downside, the security is sometimes a pain in the butt. I spent some time tidying up my start menu folders and every time I tried to move a folder or a shortcut, I'd get an annoying security warning and would have to click not just one, but two buttons to approve the action.

The moral of the story? Check to make sure all the drivers are available for your peripherals before you install Vista. And, make sure you check all your drivers once you have the OS installed in case it has installed generic ones instead of the proper ones for your hardware.

Monday, February 5, 2007

The Grand Duke

I had a lot of fun on Friday night. Not only did I get to see a great amateur production of Gilbert and Sullivan's The Grand Duke, but I also got to photograph the performance from a good vantage point.

The Grand Duke is the last G & S operetta written and is not considered their greatest work. In fact, as far as I know, there really aren't any Grand Duke tunes that have managed to make it into the "greatest hits of G&S" category. I knew all this before going to the performance and my expectations were fairly low.

I'm happy to report that the operetta exceeded my expectations in every way. There is a great deal of humour in the play and there are some pretty memorable numbers as well. Maybe it isn't at the same high standard as Mikado, Pirates of Penzance or Gondoliers, but it isn't too far off.

This production was put on by the St. Anne's Music and Drama Society, an enthusiastic group of actors and singers in Toronto. As amateur productions go, this was pretty much as good as it gets. There was a sizable orchestra in the pit, the leads were talented and the chorus was well-rehearsed. The costumes and sets were also pretty good considering that we weren't looking at professional theatre.

Most notable among the players were Ron Orenstein as the actor who becomes the Grand Duke for a day, Corinne Lynch who plays an actress who aspires to be the Grand Duchess and the venerable Roy Schatz who has been playing G & S forever. It was a joy to see these actors ply their craft.

Here are some of the photos from the event.