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Product Review: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2
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Product Review: Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2

Is it good enough to replace full Photoshop?


Find out what all the fuss is about.

There has been a great deal of interest in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, which has just (August 2008) been upgraded to Version 2. Even though Photoshop appears in the name, it is a separate program from Adobe Photoshop CS3 although the two are tightly integrated. For some users it might replace Photoshop and for others it could be a supplement. I recently got hold of Lightroom 2 and put it through its paces. Here's what I found.

Lightroom is in the same class as Apple Aperture, but while Aperture runs only on Macs, Lightroom runs on both Mac and PC platforms. Both versions are on the same installation disk and if you have both PC and Mac computers you can install it on both. Catalog data written to one platform can be imported into the other, so a notebook computer running one platform can be used to catalog images as cards are downloaded in the field and back home the data can be imported to a desktop running the other platform.

Photoshop or Lightroom?

While Photoshop has many tools for graphic art and web design, Lightroom is targeted specifically at the needs of photographers, both in workflow and image adjustments. It is particularly suitable for photojournalists and photographers who do stock, commercial work, sports, weddings and events, for whom a fast and efficient workflow for hundreds of images from a single shoot is critical. Lightroom handles downloading, previewing, rating, organizing, keywording and RAW conversion. Then it handles slideshow presentation to a client, uploading to a web site for client review and printing.

Photographers who do extensive artistic adjustments on images will still want to work in Photoshop after organizing and making initial adjustments in Lightroom, to use such things as filters, layer compositing and masking. Those who work up only a few images from a shoot and do a lot of artistic manipulation may not find a compelling need for Lightroom.

I always thought I was in that category and had not previously used Lightroom beyond checking out the trial version when it came out in 2007. But the recent buzz got me interested and I decided to check it out again. The bottom line: I like what I found and it now has a place in my "dimroom" somewhat like a second enlarger. (I always wanted two enlargers anyway...) It won't replace Photoshop for me, but it will be a powerful front end, strongly supplementing Bridge (with much more functionality) and giving me the choice of doing RAW conversions in either Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw.

Integration with Photoshop is excellent. After doing work in Photoshop I can be seamlessly returned to Lightroom where my changed images will be updated.

The powerful workflow management of Lightroom begins with downloading images, which are imported into the catalog. These can be brought in from your image storage drives or disks as well as from a card. You can also group chosen images across folders into collections.

Image Database

I have to admit I have been remiss about image organization. I have a bank of large hard drives (with backups) where files are organized in a subject-related folder structure. But it can be a chore to locate a specific image. Did I file it under the location or by subject? So many images could be filed under several categories, but doing so would waste disk space and if I modified one copy the others would not be synchronized. Or was an image relegated to CD or DVD rather than being worthy of room on the hard drives? There are asset management programs devoted to cataloging images, but I never quite got around to using them.

Lightroom comes to my rescue. It is a powerful database that works with your existing folder structure and storage system. After images in a folder are catalogued, even those currently "offline" (on DVD, for example) can be located and identified by a thumbnail in the library and their secret location revealed to you. And of course Lightroom can chug through my hard drives and DVDs and let me catalog all my old files and add them to its library. In addition to RAW it handles .dng, .psd, .tif and .jpg files. In contrast, Bridge is a browser, not a database. Even with its keywording, sorting and search functions, it is not in the same class as Lightroom.

The Library only contains thumbnails; the original files are not disturbed. And changes you make to files outside Lightroom, such as moving or renaming, can be synchronized into Lightroom. For me, this database capability alone would justify having Lightroom alongside Photoshop, but there is much more to it.

Modular Workflow

If you have been using Lightroom you will find many features have been added with Version 2. It has a better user interface and improvements in all the modules. The Lightroom interface is divided into modules for different stages of the workflow. These are accessed by clicking on their names in the upper right of the screen. Managing files is done in the Library module where you can download, import, add metadata by batch or individually, sort, order, keyword, and probably make coffee if you have a USB coffee pot.

The various modules have many choices of how images are displayed, including a filmstrip, a grid (similar to a light table), a full-screen view and a very fast full screen 100 percent view. You can compare multiple images two at a time to choose the best of a series and you can sort by camera data or by information you have added such as ratings and keywords.

RAW conversion is done in the Develop module. Version 2 uses essentially the same conversion engine as Photoshop CS3, which is an awesome step up from earlier versions. It looks very familiar and is completely intuitive to a CS3 Camera RAW user. If you are still using Photoshop CS2 or earlier and haven't planned to upgrade, Lightroom may be your killer app. Here is the Develop module with a crop (non-destructive, of course) in place.

There is a nice improvement to the Vignette feature in Lightroom 2. Vignette (which is accessed in the panel on the right side of the Develop screen, by sliding the scroll bar further down than shown in the figure above) is designed to remove corner darkening, but it often used to increase darkening. But if corners are darkened and then the image is cropped non-symmetrically, the vignetting effect will not be even. Now there is an additional post-crop vignette slider whose effect will be symmetrical within the crop frame, and will change if the crop is changed.

The Develop module goes well beyond CS3 with the capability to do non-destructive adjustments painted onto to local areas (new in Lightroom 2). This can be done with a gradient tool (simulating a graduated neutral density filter) or a brush. The brush can have an auto feature turned on (similar to the very intelligent Quick Selection tool in Photoshop CS3) which lets you brush over a delineated object to select it with amazing accuracy. And of course the brushed areas can be modified at any time, as can the adjustments made to them.

The local adjustments include exposure, brightness, contrast, saturation, clarity, sharpness and painting on a color tint. For many users this feature would allow Lightroom to replace Photoshop. These are handled the same way as other RAW conversion parameters, as non-destructive settings saved with the RAW file that may be edited or deleted later, the same way conversion settings are handled in Adobe Camera Raw. Here I have increased saturation in an area on the left of the image and painted a red tint in an area on the right.

Here is a closer look at the local adjustments, which are in a panel just below the histogram. From the left they are Crop/Straighten, Clone/Heal, Red Eye Correction, Gradient Mask and Brush Mask.

In Lightroom you can save multiple versions of settings for an image. Of course, the ability to save conversion settings has been a great convenience for a long while in both Lightroom and Photoshop. You can adjust images but don't have to convert them to .psd, .tif or .jpg until you need to output them for printing or to post on the web or e-mail. The slideshows created in Lightroom can display RAW files (edited or not) so there is no need to convert most images prior to a client's initially viewing them.

The Develop module is tightly integrated with Photoshop. After adjusting the RAW parameters of a file you can right-click or choose from items in the Photo menu to go directly to Photoshop for further work utilizing filters, adjustment layers and masking, you can open an image as a Smart Object in Photoshop, or you can select a set of files and go directly to choices for Photomerge, Merge to HDR, or to import several images as layers in one image. And the finished image can then be added back to the Lightroom Library.

The Slideshow module is designed to allow easy-to-create but very professional and sophisticated presentations to clients or friends. Lightroom now supports dual monitors, which (among other things) enables a slideshow to be presented to a client on one monitor while you control it and sort or edit images from another. Options have been added to custom design introduction and ending screens.

Here is a closer look at the Slideshow controls:

The Print module now has a picture package feature that will do automatic paper-efficient layouts of multiple sizes of an image, as well as single prints. Sophisticated output sharpening is now available, based on the PhotoKit sharpener from PixelGenius, that takes into account image size and paper choice.

Here is a closer look at the Print controls:

And the Web module lets you create a gallery to upload to an existing site, with more advanced features than those in Photoshop. It also gives you output sharpening control.

Here is the Web control panel:

Under the hood, Lightroom has improved memory handling for large images and has improved search functionality. It is the first Adobe application to take advantage of 64 bit operating systems such as Mac OS X.5 and Microsoft Windows XP 64 and Vista 64. Among other things, that means it can utilize huge amounts of RAM. It also takes better advantage of multiple processors or multiple cores.

The Lightroom team has, from the beginning, enlisted photographers in the design process and really listened to them. And Lightroom is also very friendly to third-party plug-ins for uploading to web sites or commercial printers.

Setting Up

Installation on my Mac Pro was fast and easy. All I had to do was open the CD and double-click the install icon. But I recommend that you look at the Read Me PDF first. If I hadn't done this I wouldn't have known that on the Mac, Lightroom 2 defaults to 32 bit operation. If you have OS X.5 (Leopard), which is 64 bit, you need to uncheck the default preference. Go to the Applications folder, highlight the Lightroom application, hit Cmd-I and uncheck the item shown below. On the PC, Lightroom 2 will detect if you have a 64 bit OS and you don't have to do anything.

I gained an overview of how the program works from a quick look at a few free web tutorials. The Help menu includes a link to the Adobe Lightroom website which has good information. I recommend downloading the PDF, "Adopting a Photoshop Lightroom Workflow" from that site. There are many online tutorials, and books and workshops on Lightroom are easy to find. But be aware, many books and tutorials are older ones that cover Version 1. There is a series of short video tutorials about Lightroom 2 on the National Association of Photoshop Professionals website, available to non-members through September.

When I started Lightroom I entered my serial number and completed a short registration form and the interface opened with a mini-tutorial that showed me an overview of the workspace and gave a few hints on working with the program. This can be viewed again by going to Help > The Five Rules.

Then I went to the Preferences, located in the Edit menu on the PC and in the Lightroom menu on the Mac. I followed the advice found in the Lightroom Workflow document cited two paragraphs above. One caution: the default Lightroom color space is ProPhoto RGB and unless you understand the pitfalls of working in it, it can cause serious problems. For more information do an internet search on "ProPhoto color space." An excellent article for quick reference is ProPhoto or ConPhoto.

If you plan to use Photoshop as a supplementary editor to Lightroom, the two working color spaces should be the same. In Photoshop you set the color space in Edit > Color Settings. Since a RAW file does not have a color space as such, in Adobe Camera RAW CS3 you set the space in which to output a RAW file by clicking on the settings in blue at the bottom of the screen. And of course you should always have Photoshop's Edit > Color Settings set to warn you of profile mismatches, whether you are using Lightroom or not.

After preferences I went to Catalog Settings in the same menu and looked at all the choices. An important one for me was not checked by default: under the Metadata tab there is a checkbox for "Automatically write changes into .xmp." If this is not checked a warning shows that "Changes made in Lightroom will not automatically be visible in other applications." Since I want to use Lightroom with Bridge and Photoshop I needed to be sure this was checked.

Working in Lightroom

As I worked with Lightroom for the first time I found some stumbling blocks, but they were not hard to figure out. I imported a folder from an image-containing hard drive with the menu item File > Import Photos from Disk. Then I played with all the icons on the screen in the Library module, and then played with keywording, which I found very easy to use. It was all nicely intuitive and I didn't break anything stumbling around.

After I told the program to import the folder, cataloguing the images (writing thumbnails) took a few minutes during which performance was somewhat halting, but the process was automatic, with no input needed. Then I imported a second folder of very old files and found some had not been saved with Maximize Compatibility, and Lightroom could not read them. There was apparently a period when I had it turned off, although I normally have it selected. I'll have to go back to that folder and re-save those images.

The Develop module is very much like Adobe Camera RAW in CS3 so it was easy to figure out although there are additional tools, located under the histogram. After developing I wanted to go to Photoshop for more work on a few images. All I had to do was go to the Photo menu and click Edit In and choose CS3 (or any other editor specified in the setup).

The folders I had imported already had RAW settings for many of the images, done in Adobe Camera Raw, and keywords done in Bridge, which Lightroom recognized. I wanted to learn about synchronizing changes made in Bridge and Adobe Camera RAW so I went back to Bridge and Adobe Camera RAW and did tweaks for a few images in one of the imported folders, deleted a few images, and added some keywords.

In order to get these changes back into Lightroom all I had to do was go to the Library module, make sure that folder was highlighted, and click the menu item Library > Synchronize Folder, and make sure Scan for Metadata updates was checked. This took care of any files I had added or deleted in Bridge, and the files whose RAW settings I had changed in Bridge now had an exclamation point in the top right corner.

To "batch" the process of updating the metadata I simply selected all the images in the folder (changed or not) and clicked on the exclamation point in any one image. I got the message "The metadata for one or more of these photos has been changed by another application. How should Lightroom synchronize this data?" The default choice is Overwrite Settings, but be careful here. That means to throw away the changes made outside Lightroom. To import my changes I had to choose Import Settings from Disk. If there are a lot of changed files this will take a few minutes, as Lightroom will rewrite the previews.

You will need to plan adequate disk space for the Lightroom previews in its library. I imported several more folders containing a mix of RAW and Photoshop files of moderate to large sizes, totaling 40G and the Lightroom library folder grew to 1G, with medium previews. Your mileage would vary according to the preview size you choose in the preferences and the sizes of the original images; I assume a small JPEG and a large film scan would generate the same preview size.

The Bottom Line

I like what I have seen in Lightroom 2. It is well thought out and well designed. I will use it as a front end to Photoshop, where it will give me a powerful image database and in many cases it will replace Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw. In some cases I will use the print module to supplement printing from Photoshop and will undoubtedly find uses for the slideshow and web capabilities now that I have them.

You can download a 30-day trial version of Lightroom 2. You can then upgrade it to the full version by buying the license online. You will receive a serial number which you enter into the program and it is yours. The upgrade from Version 1 is $99 and the full price of Version 2 is $299.

Diane Miller is a widely exhibited freelance photographer who lives north of San Francisco, in the Wine Country, and specializes in fine-art nature photography. Her work, which can be found on her web site,, has been published and exhibited throughout the Pacific Northwest. Many of her images are represented for stock by Monsoon Images and Photolibrary.

© 2008 Adorama


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