When Adobe announced Lightroom in January 2006, the move was perceived by many as a “me too” response to Apple’s Aperture, which at the time seemed The Next Big Thing. We all know how Aperture couldn’t live up to the hype, which prompted everyone to look with hope for Lightroom instead. Adobe Lightroom has its own tortured history and I’ve found “Shadowland/Lightroom Development Story” a fascinating read.
As a part-time photographer, I’m constantly trying to bring out the best of my abilities and equipment (a dSLR with 3 zooms and a prime lens – I won’t give the brand to avoid any possible flames from fans) and shooting RAW gives me the freedom to explore different styles and looks.
I’ve been looking for a good RAW converter for a long time. I’ve tried them all, starting with Breeze Browser, ACR, Capture One, Bibble Pro, DxO, Silky Pix, Raw Shooter, even ACD See and Picasa. I found missing things in each one. I couldn’t stand Bibble’s interface and the quirks in Silky Pix. I found Capture One too limiting and DxO too slow. I ended up using RSP for most of my photos despite its rather lackluster color calibration, just because of its excellent interface and speed; I’ve been also using ACR for some pictures where quality was much more important than speed.
Lightroom is described by Adobe as a photo management tool, however I strongly believe that its main strength lies in the RAW processing capabilities rather than in the management area. I’ve been watching Lightroom development closely and I’m using it on an (almost) daily basis. What follows is not a comprehensive review nor is it a rant – it’s a list of my own impressions, the moments of joys and the cries of frustration.
The things I love:
Horrible lighting conditions almost ruined this photo
1. Color rendition
Without a doubt, this is where Adobe’s experience in the field shines. I absolutely love the colors; compared to RSP, it’s night and day. It can be a real pain to get natural and pleasing-looking skin colors in a mixed-light environment. I suspect that the color rendition engine was lifted from ACR and improved upon, as I got much better results in Lightroom than in ACR.
The picture to the left was made in horrible light conditions: a combination of tungsten light coming from all directions, daylight (it was raining heavily) and flash with a home-made diffuser. I wish I could just say no to such conditions, but I had no choice. In the end, I think it turned out pretty well (a little too flat but given the situation I couldn’t hope for more).
Few developers working on RAW converters understand the needs of the photographer. Screen estate is vital; as you open a picture 100%, you want to see as much as possible of it; the interface shouldn’t draw attention to it and should be done using only shades of gray to avoid affecting our perception of the colors present in the photo. RSP succeeded with a very simple and clean interface and Lightroom goes further with a fully-dockable interface that is so elegant I wish Adobe would use it other programs too (not exactly the same interface, but something like the dockers in Corel Draw and Visual Studio). Usually in Develop module I hide everything except the right toolbar. I am a little disappointed though by the lack of dual-screen support – I’d love to be able to have the picture on one screen and the filmstrip and the settings on the other.
This photo of a street musician was converted to grayscale using a custom response curve but I can always go back to the color version.
The History palette was a stroke of genius. Not only you can go back to see previous settings like a multi-level Undo, but you can “bookmark” the current settings applied for a picture. This way you can keep multiple styles for the same file. After all, this is the very purpose of RAW editing: to enable you to explore. Well done.
4. HSL & Grayscale
Now that was a pleasant surprise! The ability to alter the hue, saturation and lightness independently for different colors in the spectrum is a nice addition to LR. It can be an easy way to fake a polarizing effect on the blue sky, to carefully correct some color casts or to create a large variety of special effects. It’s not as complete as the HSL adjustment in Photoshop, but it’s certainly good enough for most purposes. My only gripe is that it takes too much space. Maybe the Lightroom team could redesign this area to look more like a series of vertical slides organized like three equalizers (H, S and L channels) and each equalizer would run through the color spectrum.
The Grayscale conversion is very nice too with the way it allows for emulating different film looks.
Having a Print module built in the RAW converter definitely makes sense for a complete workflow. I don’t think I’ll ever use the feature as I find it much easier and more cost-effective to convert the files to TIFF, burn them and bring the CD to a specialized lab. Still, I’m sure some photographers will use this all the time and it’s one of those things designed to make one’s life easier.
The Slideshow is a value-added feature; not a killer feature, but something you can impress an audience with.
Next, I’ll talk about the not-so-bright areas of Lightroom.