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Lightroom 3 – A Review

After two public beta versions and months of waiting Lightroom 3 was officially released today.

This release of Lightroom is somewhat unusual because the public beta version is pretty much the final product apart from one feature, which has already made an appearance in Photoshop CS5 (more of that later). Before Lightroom 2 was released there was also a public beta testing but this was only open to owners of Lightroom 1 and people they invited. The open beta test for Lightroom 3 has led to over 600,000 downloads and nearly 2,000 people actively participating in the online forums (the beta version will expire on 30 June). According to Adobe the most important feedback from the forums were import experience, video support and noise reduction, although these may not match your priorities for the new release, I know a few of mine are not on the list.

There may be another reason for the long gestation period of Lightroom 3, apart from the necessary information gathering. Lightroom 3’s release follows quickly on the back of CS5. There may have been a realisation within Adobe that they would have to drum up a lot of anticipation for the new product to get us reaching for our wallets again. They need not have feared as Lightroom 3 is a stunning advance from its previous incarnation.

What is Lightroom?

This is something I’ve struggled to answer for a while and this is why: Adobe positions Lightroom as a little brother of Photoshop and a bigger brother of Photoshop Elements and suggests it could operate as a standalone product between the two; however, Lightroom needs Photoshop to work best, Photoshop does not need Lightroom. This probably makes little sense ,so I will go back a few steps and say what Lightroom does do.

At a very basic, and reductive, level Lightroom imports images to your hard drive and provides you with tools to organise, edit, process and output these images to various media. Nothing here you can’t do with Photoshop, Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) and Bridge.

So why use Lightroom at all? My main line of work is wedding photography and at a wedding we will shoot several hundred images that need sorting, editing and processing. When I first “went digital” I used Photoshop 7 and there was no such thing as Bridge. So to sort our photographs we had to open each one, decide whether to keep or reject it, then process in ACR etc. To output the images to print or web we would have to take the images back into Photoshop and make all the changes there. With the release of Bridge things improved considerably: we could sort and edit in one place and through Photoshop Actions we could bulk process images too, but it was still a time consuming process. Then along came Lightroom 2 and it cut my post-production time in half! My workflow now involves taking my images into Lightroom, processing them there and then going to Photoshop for the final tweaks. In short, it has revolutionised my working life.

If you don’t shoot lots of images regularly but want the abilities of Photoshop you won’t need Lightroom. Photoshop, ACR and Bridge will be more than adequate for most people. If you do, Photoshop and Bridge aren’t enough on their own and neither is Lightroom, but together they are more than the sum of their parts. Lightroom is, essentially, incomplete without Photoshop and this is why I have found it difficult to say what it is. Whatever it is, or isn’t, I wouldn’t be without it and with the release of Lightroom 3 it has got even better.

Performance

The biggest issue with Lightroom 2 was that as image libraries grew the performance of the application became sluggish and clunky. There was a work-around for this – creating smaller libraries – but this seems contrary to what Lightroom was supposed to do i.e. that it acted as an image library where you could sort images by metadata, camera type, lens type, ISO etc. and to create collections based on different criteria, if you have smaller libraries you can’t do this and creating slideshows and web galleries would involve importing from many libraries into another. Since the 3 beta release I have used it almost exclusively as the increase in performance was a great leap forward, not perfect but if I had to go back to Lightroom 2 it was an experience that would reduce me to screaming at the computer and banging my head on the desk in frustration.

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Adobe have recognised the problem of speed and have rebuilt the engines powering Lightroom from the ground up which, according to Adobe, “keeps pace with the growing size of photograph libraries, as well as the growing resolution of digital cameras”. In the rebuilding of Lightroom they have made it a 64 bit application (it can run in 32 bit machines too). And it is better (the full release seems to be quicker than the beta), to a point. I use an older iMac and the 64 bit application is snappier but it is not completely lag free (this is with a library with over 23,000 images that would have caused Lightroom 2 to have a fainting fit). I occasionally have to wait for some images to load when viewing them in the loupe mode and swapping modules can be slow but this is a minor complaint. Newer more powerful computers may not have any issues at all.

Image Processing

As well as the rebuild of the behind the scenes engines the image processing and demosaicing algorithms have been completely overhauled too. They have been redeveloped to such an extent that they could make existing images look different. To stop your images suddenly changing Adobe have introduced the concept of process versions. Images processed in previous versions of Lightroom will be said to have a 2003 process version which can be updated to the current process version, 2010. Images processed in the Lightroom 3 will automatically be process version 2010, however if you wish to change them to version 2003 this can be done in the Camera Calibration panel of the Develop module. While on this point it is worth mentioning that all previous Lightroom libraries are compatible with Lightroom 3 as are any libraries created in the beta testing version.

Camera Calibration

One thing that has not been changed is the location of Camera Profiles setting. This is still in the Camera Calibration panel, the last one in the Develop module. It surely makes sense to have a setting, which can have such a profound effect on your image, in the Basic panel. Come on Adobe, please sort this out in the next version!

Backup

One unheralded, and unmentioned in Adobe’s release literature, is the change to the library backup. With Lightroom 2 the backup of the library was an option when you opened the application and could be rather annoying if you wanted to get into the application quickly, you could obviously cancel the backup but it was a bit of a pain. Adobe have now shifted the backup to when you close the application, a move that will be cheered by many users.

Noise Reduction & Sharpening

Two of the star improvements are with noise reduction and sharpening. Noise reduction was previously best done in Photoshop using an additional plug-in. Lightroom now allows you to reduce noise in your RAW image and the results are superb. You can now reduce both colour and luminance noise and you have control over how much detail is affected and with luminance reduction there is control over contrast too. These controls were available in the beta and they are great, the only people who won’t like them are the manufacturers of Dfine and Noise Ninja as Lightroom 3 will make these add-ons pretty much redundant.

Sharpening has had an overhaul also, to the extent that images may not need sharpening in Photoshop. When applying sharpening use of the option key (Mac) alt key (PC) allows you to see what you are doing to the image as the sliders are moved.

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Post Crop Vignette & Add Grain

Other image processing improvements are to be found in the Post-Crop Vignette settings. There is now the option of two ways of applying the effect, Colour Priority and highlight Priority and this is supposed to produce a more photorealistic effect. I don’t tend to add vignettes in Lightroom so can’t really comment if this is an improvement but from what I’ve heard from other users it is definitely better that Lightroom 2.

One addition to the Develop module is also found in the Effects panel, along with the Post-Crop Vignette settings, and this is Add Grain. These settings can create natural grain effects and produce images that look like they have been taken on “traditional” photographic film. Now, I may be being churlish, but I didn’t notice a clamour among users of Lightroom for this feature. I may well be wrong, but it does seem odd that Adobe have gone to the effort of adding this feature, unless its always “been there” and they never bothered to “engage” it before, when it was not on to the top of most people’s must-have lists.

Watermarking

Next up on the list of improvements is watermarking. This area has had a total revamp and offers you as many options as you could wish for. Both type and graphical watermarks are supported. Type watermarks can be personalised via font choice, colour, opacity, alignment and drop shadow. Graphical watermarks can have their opacity adjusted too. All watermarks can now be anchored to a set point on an image and can be set to proportionally fill the image so the watermark looks uniform across a set of photographs regardless of aspect ratio.

Tethered Shooting

Tethered shooting was available in Lightroom before but it was via a 3rd party plug-in and was ok but needed a few workarounds to get it to work well. Adobe have now introduced their own tethered shooting option. Lightroom will automatically import images to your library where you can set it to apply exposure corrections etc. on the fly as the images come in. You can even fire the shutter from the application. To use this feature you will need a suitable USB cable and one of the 26 Nikon or Canon “tested and approved” cameras (the list of these cameras will be kept here Go.adobe.com/kb/ts_cpsid_84221_en-us ). More models and other manufacturers are supposed to be added at later dates, however, we were told at the press briefing that, in the case of other manufacturers, this would not be in the foreseeable future.

Import

Another area ripe for change was the Import panel. Where once it was minimalistic it has now been expanded and features have been added. Keywords can still be added as can develop presets at import and the location of the imported files is more apparent. The best addition to this area is that once you have a set of import criteria you like they can be saved as a preset. The Import panel can also be used in a minimised view. With the redesign of the application mechanics import speeds are supposed to have been increased too. There is some noticeable improvement, however Lightroom still lags behind Photo Mechanic in terms of import speed.

Drag & Drop Publishing

With the increasing importance of social media we now have drag and drop publishing services. These allow the user to drag images to a folder that will then publish them to a social media site. Lightroom comes loaded with plugins to publish to Twitter and Facebook and Adobe have released an SDK for 3rd party developers to create plugins for other sites (there are several of these already available at http://www.adobe.com/cfusion/exchange/index.cfm?event=productHome&exc=25&loc=en_us ). Along with the social media sites you can publish to specific folders on your computer or to external devices such as an iPod.

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Slideshows

Not content with the improvements and additions to the Library and Develop modules, Adobe have also turned their attention to the output sections. First up for discussion, and arguably the most noteworthy, are the changes to the Slideshow module. You can now add music to your slideshows and the slideshow will start and stop with the music so there is no need to faff around working out timings yourself. You can also output your slideshows to a series of preset sizes, from small mobile devices up to full 1080 HD. There is also the option to include opening and closing graphics.

Print

The print module has been the best place to print images from for a while, its interface, options and results outstrip that of Photoshop. We now have multi image layout templates, some are included with the application and you can create your own and save them for re-use.

And Finally…

The only additions to what we have seen in the beta testing version are Lens Correction and Perspective Correction. These features have already received an airing in the version of Adobe Camera Raw that was released with Photoshop CS5.

Lens Correction will correct image distortion, chromatic aberrations and vignetting that can be found in some lenses. The corrections can be found automatically via the preloaded lens profiles. There are some profiles available for Nikon, Canon, Tamron lenses and Adobe has been working closely with Sigma to produce profiles for the whole of their range of lenses. Oddly, there is a profile for Apple iPhones! As well as these automatic profile adjustments there are full manual controls if you would like to do the adjustments yourself. I’ve found these controls to work quite well but they are not a panacea, you can seriously “soften” an image if you push the adjustments too far.

The lens profiles that come pre-loaded are not exhaustive, with the exception of Sigma, and users can create their own profiles by downloading the necessary software and instructions can be found here: http://labs.adobe.com/downloads/lensprofile_creator.html . People have already been creating profiles for lenses not featured in ACR and they can be uploaded via a plugin in Photoshop, I am assuming that there will be a similar ability to upload these profiles to Lightroom, I have yet to find the necessary information and at the time of writing this review there was no information available on the Adobe website.

Perspective Correction helps rid your images of converging verticals and the controls are in the manual section of the Lens Correction panel. There are adjustments for vertical, horizontal and rotation and you can also Constrain Crop to automatically crop away warped border areas. As with Lens corrections you have to be careful not to take this adjustment too far and damage your image quality.

Verdict

f you have a previous version of Lightroom this is a no-brainer and nit-picking aside, Lightroom 3 is lightyears ahead of its forebears and an absolute must. If you are a new user, and use a Mac, you have a choice between Lightroom and Apple’s Aperture. Having used both programs I would have to come down on the side of Lightroom; Aperture has some features that are quite compelling but, overall, Lightroom shades it in file management, organisation and processing quality. If you are a new user and have a PC it is a must have.

Finally we get to the nitty gritty of cost. Adobe have only just released CS5 so our pursestrings have been stretched already and, possibly, with this in mind the cost of upgrading is less than the upgrade from Lightroom 1 to 2 at £68 ex VAT and the cost of the full version remains the same as Lightroom 2 at £198 ex VAT.

 

 

About Richard Hales (35 Articles)
Richard’s first foray into was photography was as an apprentice photographer for Oxford University over 20 years ago. From there Richard went on to study photography at University somehow gaining a BA & MA, he still is rather confused how he managed to do this. After University and an unfinished (and un-started) PhD Richard “retired” from photography for a few years to pursue a career in wine and, oddly, scrap metal before returning to photography and setting up a wedding and portrait photography business in Worcestershire. As well as running his photography business Richard is currently working on a bread & jam making book. He is the average height for a Nut.

11 Comments on Lightroom 3 – A Review

  1. Great review Richard; very thorough indeed. My that must have been hard to keep under wraps…lol

    Cheers,
    Glyn

  2. Thanks Glyn. I’ve had to stop myself spilling the beans on a few occasions, never been very good at keeping a secret

  3. Geoff // 26/07/2010 at 2:59 pm //

    Hi Richard,

    Loved the review. I have a question, though. I don’t have Photoshop, nor do I foresee me spending the $700 to get it. You mentioned Lightroom 3 was incomplete without Photoshop. As a Nikon and PC user, I mainly want noise reduction and workflow capabilities. Would I still be happy with this product without PS?

  4. Hi Geoff
    If you have never had Photoshop then you will not know what the difference is. The comment in the original review should have been more qualified, explaining that my background is Photoshop and having got used to it and having set up numerous actions I have a style that is achieved in Photoshop. Lightroom is an exceptional product and is probably worth the investment even if you don’t have PS.

  5. Loved the review. I have a question, though. I don’t have Photoshop, nor do I foresee me spending the $700 to get it. You mentioned Lightroom 3 was incomplete without Photoshop. thanks

  6. The comment in the original review should have been more qualified, explaining that my background is Photoshop and having got used to it and having set up numerous actions I have a style that is achieved in Photoshop

  7. You mentioned Lightroom 3 was incomplete without Photoshop. As a Nikon and PC user, I mainly want noise reduction and workflow capabilities.

  8. What is the cost of lightroom 3???

  9. All the latest information, including the price, can be found on the Adobe website;

    http://adobe.ly/pPc8tp

  10. The full version is in good price it worth more!

  11. I would like to thank you for the efforts you have made in writing this post. I am hoping the same best work from you in the future as well. In fact your creative writing abilities has inspired me to start my own blog now.

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