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Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 – A Photographer’s Review

Date: August 20, 2010
Author(s): Brett Thomas

To produce top-rate photos, more is needed than just a camera and lens. You need tailored software that’s designed for post-processing raw camera images, and no, not Photoshop. Rather, Photoshop Lightroom, software that gives you utmost control over your photos. We’re taking a look at the recently released version 3.


If you’ve spent much time behind the lens of a digital camera, be it your point & shoot or a full-frame SLR, odds are that you have quite a lot of pictures. If you’re anything like me, where photography steps away from “dude with a camera” and turns into a very expensive and passionate hobby, then you probably have even more pictures. You are then cursed with the task of organizing, labeling, sorting, deciding which ones get edited, printing, emailing or Web-hosting them for family, friends or even potential clients.

This is where I welcome you to the often-neglected level of pro-sumer. The avid hobbyist who knows nearly as much (if not more) than a professional photog, but does it as his passion instead of his living. The issue with being the pro-sumer is that you know enough to want (or even need) the BIG toys, but have the limited budget of a hobby that doesn’t pay for itself. I feel your pain – I’m in the same boat.

The most stark difference between pro-sumer and professional is often seen in workflow. After all, lenses and bodies are the same no matter who buys them. We all use the same tools to get the image into the camera – it’s what happens afterwards that sets each group apart. Professionals either do a few quick edits or even (occasionally) get the luxury of simply handing off the shots to a team that does it all for them.

The ones who do it themselves MUST get their workflows down to a science, because time is money and wasting a lot of it on post-process doesn’t get you anywhere. Pro-sumers, on the other hand, often have a slow, plodding workflow that makes it hard to compare shots or do real edits. Much of the time is spent simply getting the pictures off of the camera and trying to choose keepers from those that should be tossed in the digital trash can.

Much of the software used today that caters to professionals has been distilled down (and made affordable) to the pro-sumer level. For instance, Adobe has released Photoshop Elements (which we’ll look at as a tool for the digital darkroom versus its very expensive big brother) for well under $100 USD. But one area hasn’t really moved – the actual “workflow” bridge that simulates a light table and loupe.

The software in this category can be very expensive, and for most people (even professionals) it drops to one of three choices – Adobe Photoshop Lightroom at a hefty $299.95, Bibble 5 Pro for $199.95, or Apple Aperture at $199.95. If you are a Windows user, your decision just got simpler – Aperture is not available for Windows, and Photoshop Elements is (making much of what makes Bibble so great turn into redundant and clunky).

Adobe recently released its third version of Lightroom, which promised a bunch of tweaks and updates (though few new features) over its very loved predecessor. Today, we’ll look at this – but instead of from a simple feature list, we’re going to look at it from a usability standpoint for those of you who may not familiar with (but really need) a photographic workflow. After all, if you’re going to drop $300, you don’t just want to know what’s new – you want to know what it will do for you.

The RAW Workflow, Explained

For most of you who shoot with a digital SLR, I’m going to start by asking who shoots in RAW format. Go ahead, raise your hands! Ok, those who know why you should shoot RAW, keep them up… the number got a lot smaller, but I’m glad to see we’re training people well.

For the uninitiated, RAW is a straight dump from your camera’s sensor. This is in contrast to a JPEG, where the camera (and its itty-bitty little computer) automatically compresses the image in a very lossy format before ever trying to store it. In fact, you lose at LEAST a third of your color sensitivity right off the bat if you’re not shooting RAW, plus a whole host of white balance and exposure information that you could be tweaking later.

Why should you care? Well, for starters, color fidelity – a camera’s sensor is at the very least 12-bit, vs. a JPEG at 8-bit. Now, I don’t know about you, but I’d rather that my big, intelligent computer that I spent a lot of money on choose how to compress an image instead of my itty-bitty camera. Second, a camera only has limited control over white-balance, whereas a computer can fine-tune every shot individually.

Finally, that compression from 12-bit to 8-bit really stings your ability to fix or tweak exposure settings later – by blending seemingly similar shadows in the JPEG algorithm, you create blocks and blobs of color that can’t be lightened well later if your shot came out too dark – and whites are worse by an order of magnitude (JPEG is notoriously poor at handling white vs. near-white). This means that when you blow out your highlights, you can’t recover them… at all.

The problem with RAW is that you actually need a professional program to work with the files – like Lightroom. One of LR3’s biggest improvements was that it ships with Adobe Camera Raw 6 (the same as in Photoshop CS5), which hosts a substantial amount of benefits over its predecessor. Now, I hate to link another website in our own review, but if you want the skinny on just what kind of difference this makes, you should check out Ars Technica’s great “features” review of the update.

For the most part, what you can expect is some fantastic noise reduction on your higher ISO images, as well as a lot brighter colors. Much like Dave at Ars, I was always finding myself bumping up the saturation on images processed through ACR5, so that change is a nice touch. The excellent noise reduction is another great boon, as I’m not a very big fan of third-party fixes like Noise Ninja.

Lightroom 3 imports RAW files just like any other image, which makes getting all of the benefits of RAW completely transparent to the end user, with no extra steps required. The import window itself had a bit of a re-skinning with LR3, as well – it used to be just a cobbled-together window based on the OS, which looked somewhat out of place against the polished, dark look of LR2.

The new importer seems to “fit” better thematically, and actually runs a bit more quickly. To get to it, simply plug in your camera with Lightroom open – it will do the rest for you, including making automatic (and non-destructive) adjustments to your pictures based on your lens and camera combination. The biggest of these is the newly updated automatic lens distortion removal, which pulls from a database (or you can create your own profile) of lens/camera combinations and automatically fixes barrel and pincushion distortion.

Organizing Your Shoot

The beauty of a well-made piece of workflow software is that it is designed to be your main “hub.” It should know where to go and how to handle all of the basic tasks of producing a final product, starting with importing from camera and going all the way to Web pages, slideshows or printing.

In between these two tasks exist the two reasons we need this software to begin with – we need to sort through what we took, and then whether for artistic purpose or just to fix a booboo, we need to edit. LR3 breaks these processes into chunks with a beautiful tab interface – the Library, for sorting and choosing; the Develop area, for adjustments; and then the export tabs – Print, Slideshow and Web.

Organization in particular is truly where Lightroom shines over all other products in the field, especially over its rival Aperture. The Library has copious amounts of ways to sort your images – whether you just want to look at the newest imports, search by keywords, equipment, color tags, rating or simply date/time. The search bar is integrated into the top of the window (though it can be minimized), and is intuitive to use.

To the left side of the library is an improved “Collections” area, where you can create groups of images for later retrieval, and even have them update themselves based on criteria you set so that new additions are always where they should be. This takes a ton of work out of the manual process of adding images to more than one collection.

On the right is a panel showing information about the selected image, including all of its metadata. Images here can be grouped, flagged, and quickly viewed at four zooms ranging from thumbnail to 1:1 pixel ratio. They can then be compared (any number, side by side) to determine the best shot of a series, and removing the unwanted ones is as simple as hitting the letter X (to flag as rejected).

This interface hasn’t changed much since Lightroom’s first release, but it has received a multitude of tweaks – and LR3 is no different. The search bar is now more intuitive for helping quickly sort a shoot between picks, rejects and “hmmm… keep but don’t worry about.”

Different people familiar with the old interface may like or dislike these tweaks, but to me they make a lot of sense. Much of the time that I need to worry about really organizing is wasted on determining which out of a series of shots is the keeper, and anything that gets me to working with my top shots faster is a good thing.

Developing Your Masterpiece

Picture editing is something that everyone needs from time to time, and some of us simply live for. To be perfectly honest, this is the hardest part of the review to write for me, as most of my pictures are taken with the intent of going through such a degree of editing that I rarely use Lightroom’s features for long.

That being the case, I had to force myself to do a shoot that I could stay inside of LR3 entirely for, in order to give it a fair shake. As such, please pardon me if I miss something here – I’m a Photoshop person and one of the greatest things that LR ever gave me is the ability to just hit a hotkey to send a nice, 16bit TIFF copy of my image (including all LR adjustments) into Photoshop, while grouping it with my original in the Library and copying all metadata.

What I have always used LR’s Develop window for is the exposure controls – they are top-notch. Touching up exposure, white balance, recovering highlights and tweaking white/black values on each image are all as simple as moving a slider a little to the left or right. Hue, saturation and luminosity can be controlled not only per color, but also by tweaking many facets of each color.

Lightroom 3 brings one more very large, very wonderful boon to photographers – a more complete “Curves” interface. If you’re not familiar with curves in image editing, it is a very complex but VERY useful technique to control contrasts. Unfortunately, unlike Photoshop, curves and the complex H/S/L controls cannot be applied only on specific trouble spots of the image. Further, the curve window cannot be zoomed in and does not allow for individual channels. But hey, it’s not Photoshop, so I can’t really fault this much.

The other major adjustments (exposure and basic H/S) can be controlled either across the whole image, or by using a brush (the shape cannot be edited, but size and softness can) or gradient. Neither tool is particularly robust but both work well if you lack other imaging software or want the beauty of Lightroom’s non-destructive editing.

Gradients also work very well for applying color washes or filter effects to images, including a much finer ND Grad than you could ever have on your camera. Along with these tools are two more – a red-eye removal tool (this actually amazes me, in an application clearly aiming for higher-end photographers who should be able to avoid this), and blemish/spot removal.

Many people will probably wish to use the blemish removal, and I attempted in this most recent shoot. Though I will not be trading in my Photoshop tools for it anytime soon, it does work quite well and is a nice addition. Tools like this really do help to make quick fixes and keep you out of other applications, but it’s always worth remembering that you need only hit a keystroke to go to a more powerful application while preserving your original image. In that respect, I consider it a feature and not a weakness – LR3 doesn’t waste time trying to be Photoshop, it tries to be Lightroom.

One more thing on this non-destructive method – you never ruin your original shot, and you can always go back and try it again. Or, you may find that you want to try something completely different, whether it’s next week or next year. Some of my best shots are ones that I started doing one way, then came back to months later with fresh eyes and reprocessed from the ground up. This is part of what makes a tool like Lightroom such an important part of a photographer’s workflow.

Getting it Out There; Performance Notes

Once your work has been organized and edited, it’s time to get it live. Maybe you want to just do a quick slideshow for your family, or maybe you want to send it to Fickr or Facebook. You might even be creative and want to send it to your own webpage. All of these ideas are easy in LR3.

This area is one that I will not go into a lot of detail on – there are simply too many options, so I recommend that you download the demo and have a play for yourself. On top of all of the basic options are a multitude of plugins that will make your life or that specific look easier to achieve. I personally have made extensive use of the web gallery tool, as well as printing directly from Lightroom (which is really quite good, even by professional print standards), and even just the basic “export” from the file menu in Library mode.

The social media updating to Flickr and Facebook are both new to LR3, at least as “baked in” features. They are a handy feature and work as advertised, but are hardly anything much to write home about. For most of us prosumers, it’s a great feature to have and can be a great way to get the word out to friends and family when a new shoot is done. However, it’s worth noting that other sites are still available via free third-party plugins – so if you don’t see your site of choice listed, it should hardly be a dealbreaker.

At this time, I do want to take a couple seconds to give a nod to a couple great third-party plugins. For basic exporting, I highly recommend the donation-ware LR/Mogrify 2. It uses the ImageMagick set of programs to do everything from custom watermarking (if you don’t just want text, which LR3 handles automatically) to specialized crop/resize to adding very nice borders. It’s well worth a look, especially if borders on your final images are desired.

The next two plugins both belong to the Web gallery items, and though neither is free they are both worth their costs. First, I’d give a hearty recommendation to SlideShowPro, which makes beautiful Flash galleries. Second, it’s worth taking a look at everything offered by The Turning Gate, which has created quite a few webpage formats and portfolio designs as well as some fun gallery display methods like the postcard site. A couple of these are included (in limited form) for free with LR3, but the full versions allow some great additional features.

Performance Notes

For those who have worked with Lightroom in its younger states, I will say that performance has substantially improved in LR3. I wish that I had taken metrics of the old performance, but to be honest I didn’t think that it would make much of a difference when I updated. Things do tend to be much snappier in the newest version, particularly in larger galleries.

The greatest performance bump though by far was importing – LR2 was quite a bit slower pulling over and cataloging large batches of files (100+ RAWs). Whether this inefficiency was due to an earlier version of Adobe Camera Raw or LR itself is unknown, but the speed-up is certainly a nice bonus.

Initial startup is slightly longer in LR3 than LR2, and catalog backup time is about the same. Your mileage may depend on the size of your initial catalog as to whether you’ll even notice a delay, as my default catalog has over 1000 images, not including duplicate TIFFs from my Photoshop exports (which are plentiful). However, most processes (switching between Library and Develop modes, slideshow exports, etc) tend to run a bit faster and more smoothly in the new version.

Final Thoughts

I understand that this review is a bit atypical, as it’s really a first explanation of a third-generation product. So, I’ll offer two conclusions – one on the upgrade itself, and then one on Lightroom as a concept in a prosumer workflow.

As to the update, LR3 has a very interesting lack of anything visible to justify its $99 upgrade cost – particularly when I follow it with the fact that I’d heartily recommend it to LR2 users. Adobe Camera Raw 6 is a great step forward that will give your pictures a very nice punch – even old ones, which can be reprocessed with the new ACR via a menu item.

The automatic lense correction to remove distortion, chromatic aberrations and other issues is wonderful and I can only see it going great places. The speed bumps even out due to the longer initial loading time, but it’s nice that once you’re in the software that everything feels quite snappy and responsive. If you do much exposure tweaking inside LR (particularly on slower hardware), this is a huge time saver and frustration reliever. Overall, though, it’s important to approach it from the reality that it is the exact same thing, only better – if you keep that in mind, you’ll not be disappointed.

For a software package as a whole, I have to continue to whole-heartedly recommend that anyone serious about photography consider a solution like it, if not LR3 specifically. If you’re on Mac, you have more of a choice in the matter, at least – Aperture 3 is a good deal cheaper than LR3 and is more robust for the run-and-gun family photographer. I personally find it very frustrating for someone who does real shoots and needs better workflow control instead of a swiss-army knife.

It seems that Apple has morphed Aperture to land in between iPhoto and Lightroom – better “quick fixes,” better social networking, face recognition and more abilities to fix an overall crappy shot. However, anyone trying to be more creative could quickly find it clunky and a bit high on gimmicks, leaving the wish that he or she had just ponied up the extra $100 for Lightroom’s more professionally-aimed product.

Bibble 5 Pro (also $200), which is available on all OSes, takes the “imitation is the sincerest form of flattery” approach and tries hard to be Lightroom and PS Elements combined – but it just doesn’t come off with the same polish as either one in my limited test. One shouldn’t be too hard on it, as that’s over $150 less than those two products, but the point is to make your life easier, not just save a buck. I’ll be curious to see if we can review it separately, though, as it happens to be the only good option available to Linux users.

However you slice it, Lightroom 3 is a good touch up to what is already the top of the prosumer scale, and is a well designed for professional workflow. Whether it can be worth the extra $100 over competing products really depends on both your OS and your aim. If you’re serious about photography, though, it’s money more well-spent than that lens you’re lusting after right now.

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