Adobe revivifies proxy editing with Photoshop Lightroom 5 beta (hands-on)

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/ Updated: April 16, 2013 12:34 PM PDT

Long overdue, Lightroom 5 adds an automatic-distortion and perspective correction tool. Lori Grunin/CNET

The latest iteration of Adobe's raw-editing and management software, Adobe Lightroom 5, enters a public beta today with a modest set of enhancements that will make some photographers very happy but will probably make a large number of others shrug and choose to skip it. The biggest news: support for proxy editing of disconnected images, a feature dubbed Smart Preview. Other highlights include an overdue distortion and perspective correction tool, Upright; reusable custom page layouts and page-numbering tweaks in the Book module; a radial filter; the expansion of the spot healing/clone tool into a full-blown healing brush; and the option to insert playable videos into slideshows. Plus, there are the usual myriad small updates.

What's not here: still no face recognition or tagging, HDR editing, panorama stitching, or expansion of the video capabilities. And as far as I can tell, performance hasn't improved; in fact, it seems a little slower on my system, though that may be beta overhead that will be tuned out before it becomes final. It took about 4.5 minutes to import in place 11,850 files (on a 2.2GHz Core i7 system with 8GB RAM equipped with a 2GB Nvidia Quadro 2000M and running 64-bit Windows 7).

While dropping support for Windows Vista will likely pass without a whimper, abandoning support for OS X 10.6.x may prevent some folks from jumping to Lightroom 5 -- the last estimates I found indicate that about 30 percent of OS X users have resisted the call of the wilder, sticking with Snow Leopard rather than moving to newer, sleeker cats. I'm still waiting to hear from Adobe about what this means for camera codec updates for people who decide to stick with Lightroom 4.4 once LR5 formally ships.

If you're contemplating installing the beta, keep in mind that if you're a current LR user you'll end up with a schism in your work flow. As with previous Lightroom beta programs, LR5 beta can't import LR4 catalogs, so you'll either have to start fresh with a new catalog and hope that when LR5 ships you'll really want to buy it, or end up duplicating your work in both versions to keep your LR4 catalog current. You can keep side-by-side installations of the two versions, though I've found LR 4.4 occasionally becomes unstable and crashes when I'm jumping back and forth. The beta will expire on June 30, but it's free to all, and you can provide your feedback here.

So, on to the new features. Anybody out there remember proxy editing? Back when systems couldn't handle large image files without grinding to a halt, software would sample images down to smaller, lower-resolution versions that you'd work on, then it would apply the transformations and adjustments in the background. Well, Adobe has taken that idea and applied it to working with images stored on disconnected drives. Called Smart Previews, LR5 can selectively or automatically generate roughly 2,560x1,596-pixel (size depends on original aspect ratio), 1.5MB (or smaller) versions of images that it stores in its lossy DNG format. You generate them via a globally applied check box on import, select to generate them individually on already-imported files, or set a global preference for it. They can also be selectively discarded. It took about 45 minutes to generate the SPs for a little more than 6,000 images.

When a drive is disconnected, you can work on these proxies; when you reconnect the drive, the application automatically syncs the changes. You can also export from the Smart Preview. The Smart Preview files reside in a separate catalog that lives in the same folder as the main LR catalogs. Since they're regular DNG files, you can even open them in Photoshop, which is nice, though the folder structure is annoyingly discrete, creating a separate folder for each file. SPs for 5,615 files took 5.7GB of disk space (in contrast, the LR5 catalog of 9,652 files with minimal previews took only about 4.5GB).

Smart Preview worked seamlessly for me. If you have images scattered across multiple storage devices that you have to retrieve periodically, this may come in quite handy. But if you have a smallish solid-state drive (SSD) the catalog bloat may require you to use another storage device for your Lightroom catalogs. You can filter by Smart Preview for quick purges; other new filter criteria include file size, bit depth, number of color channels, color profile, and PNG file type (you can now import PNG files).

This version expands the spot healing tool into a brush for noncircular fixes and gains an opacity slider for fine-tuning. Lori Grunin/CNET

Another universally welcome new capability is the expansion of the spot healing/clone tool into a brush for working on irregularly shaped areas. It's not without its glitches, perhaps because it's unused to finding matches for larger areas -- while trying to fix a large under-eye area it drew from the lips, which is not a good look -- but it's certainly a useful feature extension. Also, Shift+Q will toggle you between clone and heal.

There's also a new option for healing, Visualize Spots, which I found rather hit-and-miss. It renders a black-and-white edge detection view with a sensitivity slider so that you can presumably see errata better. I wish it were smarter and knew how to filter out elements that obviously aren't spots, or at least gave you a way to scribble over areas to ignore like in the Touch apps.

Visualize Spots provides an edge detection view. Lori Grunin/CNET

The new Radial Filter operates exactly like the Graduated Filter to apply circular masked adjustments, and I think it will prove to be a quick replacement for some retouching I've been handling with local adjustment brush operations. It also provides a workaround for applying vignette effects off center or in multiple locations, which you can't do with post-crop vignetting. Adobe has tweaked the Graduated Filter and Adjustment brush by adding the option to duplicate the mask (Alt+Ctrl+drag or Option+Cmd+drag on the mask) -- that's really nice for applying adjustments both inside and outside the mask.

Another feature I think will please lots of folks is Radial Filter, which is essentially a circular version of the Graduated filter. Lori Grunin/CNET

While you could always correct lens distortion with the lens tools and straighten manually via Crop and Straighten, Lightroom has long needed a more automated but lens-independent way of handling distortion and perspective correction. It now offers Upright, which can automatically level an image, as well as adjust vertical perspective correction, with or without cropping to the resulting image area.

It works pretty well, and you can use the automatic adjustments as a jumping-off point to fine-tune with the manual controls. It would be nice if the automated results iterated back into the manual settings sliders, though.

Upright works well most of the time... Lori Grunin/CNET

...but gets confused on occasion. Oops. Lori Grunin/CNET

If you want to insert videos in your slideshows -- not just grabbing the first frame, as in LR4, but videos that play upon loading -- now you can. And if, like me, you want to strip the audio track out, the new option to balance the audio between an attached music file or audio track is a welcome if kludgy solution.

Finally, on the major-update front, you can now create custom page layouts, save them, and apply them in subsequent projects. There are also new controls over page numbering.

More feature tweaks include (in no particular order) grid overlays in loupe view; the ability to geotag photos by dragging a saved location to photos or drag photos to a saved location in My Locations, plus the addition of a direction field in the EXIF metadata; support for Windows HiDPI; aspect ratio control in manual lens corrections; and some more. One I like is an aspect ratio overlay that you can enable in crop mode.

While there aren't any glamorous new features in this version, Smart Preview and the Graduated Filter are meat-and-potatoes features for some photographers. And trying the beta is a free way to figure out if Lightroom is a better choice than what you're using now.

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