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.

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