Adobe releases Lightroom 2.7--but what's next?

Lightroom now officially supports Canon's new, high-profile SLR. What bigger changes could come with the photo software's next version?

Adobe Systems released Lightroom 2.7 on Tuesday night for Windows and Mac, adding support for raw images from an expected range of newer cameras: Canon's Rebel T2i, Sony's Alpha A450, Panasonic's Lumix DMC-G2 and G10, Olympus' E-PL1, and some medium-format models from Leaf and Mamiya.

The company's standard procedure has been to issue minor updates to let the photo-editing and cataloging software handle the proprietary raw image formats from higher-end cameras. Lightroom 2.7 and the corresponding version 5.7 plug-in for Photoshop CS4 users are available at Adobe's download site, and the DNG Converter 5.7 now is on Adobe's Digital Negative site. (Note: see the two updates below for another change to the new software.)

Lightroom 3 is under development with more dramatic changes, though.

The first Lightroom 3 beta focused on better image quality through improvements to noise reduction and sharpening. The second Lightroom 3 beta brought support for video import, tethered shooting with the camera cabled to a computer, faster performance, better vignetting controls, the ability to add simulated film grain, and various other changes.

But what's next for Lightroom 3? There are some broad possibilities, with some more likely than others.

First off, and very significantly, I think it's likely Lightroom 3 will get at least some of the automatic lens correction feature that's just arriving in Photoshop CS5.

With Lightroom 2, you can manually correct chromatic aberration (typically red and cyan fringes in high-contrast edges) and vignetting (darker corners of a photo). And in some cases, such as shots from Canon's S90 and Panasonic's Micro Four Thirds compact cameras, it can automatically correct geometric distortion that causes parallel lines to bow out (barrel distortion) or pinch in (pincushion distortion).

Such corrections are tedious manual labor, though, even when automated with presets you can create and apply to groups of photos. Raw-image editing software from DxO Labs and Phase One show it can be automated, and Adobe Photoshop CS5 is a good indicator it will be.

One caveat: geometric distortion imposes a big computational burden because it's a transformation that necessarily pushes a lot of pixels. That makes it a harder match with Lightroom's nondestructive editing philosophy that records changes as instructions stored in metadata. In contrast, Photoshop's corrections permanently shift the image's underlying pixels, a one-time chore that isn't a factor in future changes such as editing.

Another big possibility raised by Photoshop CS5 is support for high dynamic range (HDR) photography, in which multiple images spanning a range of bright and dark exposure settings are merged into a single shot. It's in vogue in digital photo circles. This, too, is complicated by Lightroom's approach, though: combining multiple photos isn't something easily recorded as a metadata change to one.

Two other features that figure prominently in Apple's new Aperture 3 also deserve a spot in Lightroom: geotagging support and face recognition.

Geotagging lets you assign geographic coordinates to photos, letting you browse them by map or find out later where you took a shot. That's really useful for professionals managing their collections or amateurs trying to remember just where they took a particular photo somewhere during that two-week trip to Tuscany.

Photoshop Elements has some basic support, letting you drag an image onto a map to assign coordinates, but what Lightroom needs is something like Aperture's slick interface for handling a group of photos and a GPS track log that records where you've been over a period of time. Until the day arrives that cameras can record this automatically--only a handful do today--the easiest way to obtain location data is through track records collected with mobile phones or dedicated GPS devices.

Face recognition is also a useful tool in software for organizing, searching, and managing catalogs of photos. Again, there's support in Photoshop Elements, so Adobe has at least a starting point. To handle the situation best, though, Lightroom could tackle some thorny cataloging issues: How do you reconcile names stored in the face recognition system with names in keyword metadata? How do you handle a photo of a person whose face isn't visible but who should be discoverable by name? What if you organize face recognition system with full names but want to export photos with only first names showing as tags on Flickr?

Speaking of Flickr, I'd like to see better two-way integration with Web catalogs, so that changes made in one place--titles, captions, and tags, for example--are reflected elsewhere. That's complicated with editing changes, especially with the arrival of online photo editing tools, but metadata synchronization at least would be helpful.

It's not clear how far exactly Adobe will go with Lightroom 3, but Aperture is exerting competitive pressure, so Adobe can't afford to rest on its laurels.

Update 5:30 a.m. PDT: There's more to this update than I saw at first. According to Lightroom product manager Tom Hogarty, Lightroom 2.7 and version 5.7 of the Photoshop plug-in adds Lightroom 3 beta 2's new "demosaicing" technology for processing raw images.

Specifically, Hogarty said:

• Camera Raw 5.7 includes an updated demosaic algorithm designed to provide compatibility with settings applied in Lightroom 3 beta 2.

• Lightroom 2.7 also includes the same updated demosaic algorithm. The updated demosaic algorithm will appear as a subtle shift in noise characteristics at default values.

• By default, Camera Raw will display the image adjustments exactly as performed in the Lightroom 3 beta 2 develop module. However, at this time Camera Raw 5.7 is unable to support further adjustments to the following settings or tools: Highlight Priority and Color Priority post-crop vignette; Enhanced Luminance and Color Noise Reduction; Grain effects; [and] Process Version.

I'm still looking into the details of what this means, but this comparison of the same image, shot at ISO 12,800 for an extra-noisy illustration, shows differences. Lightroom 2.7 appears to handle hot pixels (aberrant bright spots) better and opts to preserve more detail. The differences are pretty subtle but can be seen with a close look:

At left, a 100 percent crop of a high-noise ISO 12,800 image with Lightroom 2.6's default settings. At right, the same view with Lightroom 2.7.
At left, a 100 percent crop of a high-noise ISO 12,800 image with Lightroom 2.6's default settings. At right, the same view with Lightroom 2.7. Stephen Shankland/CNET

Update 9:35 a.m. PDT: Here's the official word from Hogarty about the new image processing: the Camera Raw 5.7 plug-in for Photoshop had to be able to read Lightroom 3 beta 2 files, and to do that, needed some of its new image processing technology. Then, for Lightroom 2.7 to remain compatible with Camera Raw 5.7, it needed the new process too.

For background, the first stage in handling raw images is called demosaicing. Each pixel in a raw image records either red, green, or blue data, but demosaicing fleshes the data out so each pixel has values for all three colors. That lets an image be displayed on a screen, converted into a JPEG, printed, and otherwise handled.

"The foundation for the Lightroom 3 and Camera Raw 6 improvements in sharpening and noise reduction is based on a change in the way we demosaic raw data," Hogarty said. "Lightroom 2.7 and Photoshop CS4 do not receive the new noise reduction and sharpening algorithms but do move the underlying technology forward in anticipation of those new features."

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