Adobe's Lightroom 4 catches up to video revolution

Want a sepia-tone video? The "Sprockets" beta can do it. Also in LR4 are editing refinements and support for geotagging, book printing, and soft proofing.

Stephen Shankland Former Principal Writer
Stephen Shankland worked at CNET from 1998 to 2024 and wrote about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
7 min read
Lightroom 4, now in beta testing, lets people edit video with presets--even an old-style sepia tone look if they want.
Lightroom 4, now in beta testing, lets people edit video with presets--even an old-style sepia tone look if they want. (Click to enlarge.) Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

No longer is video such a second-class citizen with Adobe Systems' release of the first beta version of Photoshop Lightroom 4.

Today's Lightroom 3 understands videos in the same way a typical baseball fan understands cricket: poorly. Lightroom 4 advances several steps with video, but stops well short of taking over as a full-fledged video editor.

The new beta, downloadable from Adobe Labs, also has a host of other features, according to Tom Hogarty, principal program manager for the software:

• New editing controls to better balance changes to highlights and shadows.
• The ability to geotag photos by using a Google Maps interface or by procesing GPS track logs.
• The ability to design and print photo books through a partnership with Blurb.

Expect Lightroom 4 to be out sometime in the spring. Its code name follows the "S" theme of its predecessors, "Shadowland," "Silvertone," "Strangelove," and now "Sprockets."

Better video support
Lightroom, like Apple's competing Aperture, began its life as a tool for editing and archiving photos--particularly those stored in the more complex but higher-quality raw image formats that high-end cameras offer. It grew up as digital SLR sales surged and enthusiasts and pros discovered the potential of digital photography.

The Lightroom 1.0 emerged six years ago to the day, but three years ago, something else arrived: video SLRs. Point-and-shoots had been able to shoot video for years already, but beginning with Nikon's D90 and Canon's 5D Mark II, photographers could try their hand at more cinema-style videography, with interchangeable lenses, good low-light performance, and shallow depth of field to blur out distracting backgrounds.

It's not everybody's cup of tea, to be sure, but it is important to many. Lightroom 3 added the ability to import videos alongside still photos, but Adobe goes farther in Lightroom 4.

Lightroom doesn't rival what people can do with full-fledged nonlinear editing tools such as Adobe's Premiere Pro. Just as people can't use Lightroom to composite multiple photos and add text the way they can in Photoshop, people can't stitch together different video clips, adding titles and transitions as they go.

But it still should be useful. You can trim your video and export it to sites such as Flickr or Facebook. You can geotag your videos. And perhaps most important, you can apply some editing settings such as tone curves and color corrections.

Lightroom has a built-in engine--purloined from Premiere Pro--to decode and process the video, and no transcoding is required, Hogarty said. "We looked around Adobe for best-in-class video editing and processing solution," he said. That engine means broad support for a variety of cameras and video formats. "We'll have the bulk of the market covered," Hogarty said.

Lightroom 4 doesn't handle raw video the way it handles raw photos. Consequently, only a subset of editing controls can be applied--white balance, tone, exposure, white and black settings, and split toning, for example. Some feature such as lens corrections would be too taxing for processors to handle with acceptable performance, he said

People using the software can extract a still frame, edit it to get a desired look, then apply those editing settings to the video.

It would be nice to get even a basic fade-to-black option for the beginning and end of a clip, but what's available should prove useful at least as a first step before handing off to other software.

Editing improvements
Video is still probably a peripheral feature for many photographers, but Adobe also changed probably the most core part of the software, the editing controls. The new approach is simplified, Hogarty said.

Lightroom 3 dramatically changed how photographers could shoot because of better noise-reduction technology, Hogarty said, and Lightroom 4 will similarly change shooting habits through better controls of highlights and shadows.

"It is able to extract every possible detail out of the sensor," he said.

He even predicted it will do away with a lot of need for HDR--the high-dynamic range approach to photography that combines multiple photos at different exposure levels into a single photo. He might be right--but I'd expect HDR to thrive as long as people go for the more ethereal, gritty, and otherwise otherworldly effects the approach enables. It seems Lightroom is just designed to do a better job making a single photo look more like what the human eye thought it saw.

A welcome tool in Lightroom 4 for those who've used Aperture is better local controls that now can handle highlight and shadow recovery. No longer will photographers have to make do with fiddling with coarser brightness or exposure adjustments.

Other changes came to the clarity tool for adding the punchy contrast that can bring out textures and make clouds look more glamorous. The new tool isn't so prone to creating awkward halos on sharp-contrast boundaries.

Another editing change deals with awkward situations with different types of light--incandescent lights in one part of a room and sunlight in another, for example, or a combination of sunlight and shade. Lightroom 4 lets people selectively change the white balance in only part of an image.

These changes require a significant reworking of how Lightroom understands photos, though. Moving photos to the new 2012 process will be required. That's not such a big deal for new photos, but photographers who apply the new process to their old photos will see them change noticeably.

You can't import your Lightroom 3.x catalogs into Lightroom 4 until Adobe ships the final version. But to make sure you don't mess up your archive, Hogarty says you shouldn't let Lightroom write its metadata changes (the data that keeps track of Lightroom's editing changes) into the photo files themselves.

Adobe backed off one editing change introduced in Lightroom 3 that fixes lens defects. It has used careful lens profiling measurements that can mathematically back out of problems such as vignetting, distortion, and chromatic aberration. But the latter problem, often seen as color fringes especially toward the corners of a frame, is very finicky depending on settings of aperture, zoom, and focus point. So Adobe moved to an algorithm that attempts to just calculate the best settings on its own to remove the aberration on the fly.

Geotaggging a gogo and more
Another big change coming with Lightroom 4 is the ability to geotag photos--in other words to give them latitude and longitude location data. That's been a thorny challenge for years, though again Aperture started leading the way out of the wilderness with simpler graphical tools.

Geotagging lets people look up photos by location and, in reverse, lets people better find out what the subject of a particular photo is by seeing where it is on a map. It's getting less esoteric with the arrival of mobile phones whose GPS abilities make record location, and a handful of cameras can add location data, too.

Now Lightroom gets its own map interface, also courtesy of Google Maps. It will show where particular photos were taken and lets people assign locations, too. Photos shown in the filmstrip across the bottom of Lightroom's interface can be dropped onto the map. The software can also understand a GPX track log and match photos with their locations based on the time they were taken. Slated to arrive before the final version is reverse geocoding, in which lat-long coordinates are conferted to real-world names for easier searching and comprehension by humans.

Another Aperture catch-up feature is the ability to print photo books. Here, Adobe raided the closet of the InDesign team for layout technology.

"The book module represents 80 to 90 percent of what you want out of InDesign while distilling the complexity," Hogarty said. "Our goal was to make it really easy to get a book started," with a variety of adjustable layouts rather than InDesign's completely open-ended approach. Lightroom will show the estimated cost to buy the book using Blurb's service.

Rounding out the feature list is soft proofing, the ability to load a printer profile and see what'll go wrong since monitors can typically display richer colors than printers. It's long been a requested Lightroom feature, Hogarty said.

And finally, the software comes with a new version of Digital Negative format, Adobe's attempt to bring some order to the chaos of proprietary raw files. Lightroom can convert raw files to DNG, a format that offers some archival advantages and that is better able to accomodate metadata such as geotags and editing settings.

The new DNG option--not the default choice--offers lossy compression that dramatically reduces file size while preserving raw flexibility for things like white balance, Hogarty said. It uses a conversion of the underlying image to JPEG, picking an optimized 8 bits of color per pixel out of the 12, 14, or 16 that the original raw file records, but it throws away data very carefully so differences are hard to see, Hogarty said.

His colleague Eric Chan puts it this way for those who want a technical description:

We handle this when building a lossy compressed DNG by applying an image-specific mapping of the scene-referred image data, prior to the 8-bit quantization and JPEG compression step. Since the bit depth quantization is performed in a perceptual space (instead of a linear space) and uses dither, it is often very difficult to see any loss of image quality.

I don't expect most people will go for it, but Hogarty believes some will.

"I know that a number of photographers shooting time lapses in a raw format or looking to archive outtakes in a more compact format will appreciate the flexibility," Hogarty said.