Speed and image quality core to Lightroom 3 beta

Adobe tries to improve the core abilities of its raw-image editing software. Also new: synchronize your catalog with Flickr and export a video slide show.

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
5 min read
The Lightroom 3 beta will look familiar to current users, but there are changes under the hood. In addition, Lightroom catalogs can be synchronized with Flickr.
The Lightroom 3 beta will look familiar to current users, but there are changes under the hood. In addition, Lightroom catalogs can be synchronized with Flickr. Adobe Systems

With the release of its first beta version of Photoshop Lightroom 3.0 on Wednesday night, Adobe Systems is trying to improve the heart of the photographic editing and cataloging software.

"With Lightroom 3, we're looking at a performance and image quality rearchitecture," said Product Manager Tom Hogarty. Those two goals are in opposition, since better image quality demands more computing horsepower. But Hogarty said the software is more responsive when moving among photos, and images look better with new noise reduction and sharpening abilities.

There are other changes, too, though: a revamped import process for importing photos into the software catalog; built-in connections to upload photos to online services and keep them in sync; a more flexible mechanism for laying out photos to be printed; new abilities for stamping watermarks onto photos; and the ability to export photos and music as a video file.

On the other hand, there's plenty that's missing, such as some kind of video support, face recognition to ease tagging and organization, the ability to merge multiple shots into a high dynamic range (HDR) photo, third-party editing plug-ins, and features to help geotag photos so they record location data. But don't abandon all hope: "We're certainly not feature complete. There are certainly things not in this application that will be in Lightroom 3.0" at its final release sometime in 2010, Hogarty said.

Lightroom is designed for handling "raw" photos from higher-end digital cameras, a process that's computationally intense but that offers higher quality and flexibility than using the JPEG images cameras produce. Adobe's software can handle more than 250 raw formats, most of them proprietary.

The changes illustrate an advantage of raw photos: advances in image processing and computing horsepower means the same original raw image can yield a better final product. Some of those advances can help JPEG images, too, but not to the same degree.

With the release, Adobe continues to try to strike the right balance between releasing incomplete software for early reactions on the one hand, and nearly finished software that gives testers software that's more polished but harder for them to influence on the other. The first beta of Lightroom was very raw, the first beta of Lightroom 2.0 was much more refined, and 3.0 it's in between, Hogarty said. "We're trying to find middle ground with enough time feedback," he said.

This comparison shows the earlier and later noise reduction system that decreases color noise.
This comparison shows the earlier and later noise reduction system that decreases color noise. Adobe Systems

Image quality
One element: new algorithms for processes at the heart of raw processing such as sharpening edges and reducing noise. For sharpening, Hogarty said the new version gives a more natural, less digital appearance for tricky areas such as tangles of branches or hairs.

For noise reduction, Hogarty promised better results suppressing the colored speckles digital cameras can produce when shooting at higher ISO sensitivity settings--without losing details in the image. However, the initial beta comes only with one of two types of noise reduction, dealing with color noise but not luminance noise that shows as different degrees of brightness from one pixel to the next.

Hogarty wasn't afraid of raising expectations, though. "It's removed my need for third-party noise-reduction tools, and we haven't even gotten to luminance yet," he said.

Noise reduction and sharpening are two very basic parts of raw image processing. They take place immediately after the "demosaicing" process that coverts the checkerboard pattern of red, green, and blue pixels captured by a camera into a grid where each pixel has values for all three colors rather than just one.

Because the changes significantly change how a photo appears, the new algorithms won't be applied to older photos unless the software user specifically commands it, Hogarty said. A menu item lets people choose between the earlier and newer processes. "Every new file you bring in will default to the latest processing," he said, but believes people will still update their archives. "It really makes you want to go back and dig into your older files."

At least eventually. The Lightroom 3 beta can't upgrade existing catalogs, and Adobe doesn't guarantee that edits made will be recognized by the final version of the software.

Performance boost
The computational burden that Lightroom imposes is compounded by the fact that the software is designed to handle lots of images. Where conventional Photoshop is geared for handling only a modest number of images at a time, Lightroom is geared for groups of photos organized by photo shoot, subject matter, or other criteria.

Photographers using the software often flip among different photos as they edit and label images, scrolling and sifting as they go. Here, Lightroom 3.0 should be faster, showing images and thumbnails rather than empty bezels that gradually fill in.

However, Adobe isn't focused on Lightroom's "batch" operations that apply to large groups of photos--importing new photos and exporting them when editing is done, for example. Those processes more often run in the background where photographers don't notice a little more or less time taken.

"You can keep working. It might take five minutes, 15 seconds more, or 15 seconds less, but it doesn't matter as much to a photographer as when they're interacting with an application," Hogarty said.

Lightroom takes a very different approach to editing than conventional Photoshop-style applications. Instead of processing a bunch of pixels, often changing them irreversibly, Lightroom starts with the raw image as a base and layers editing operations atop it. Each change is stored as instructions in metadata, and Lightroom must constantly reprocess the image as new changes are made. The approach means that editing images can send a processor into overdrive and restricts somewhat the types of operations that can be performed.

The Lightroom 3 beta's revamped import dialog box.
The Lightroom 3 beta's revamped import dialog box. Adobe Systems

Connecting to the outside world
Another new feature is the ability to synchronize with Flickr and other online services. The beta supports Flickr, though the interface is open and Adobe expects plenty of other services will be supported.

The support is fairly sophisticated, for example letting people tell which images they've changed on their computers since they were originally uploaded to Flickr, then replacing the online version with the updated copy--as long as the user has a Flickr Pro account.

"It's not a one-way street. We need to be able to interact with the cloud and not treat this desktop application as an island," Hogarty said.

The upload process also can perform detailed operations, such as marking any image tagged "family" as suitable only for viewing by family members on Flickr. And Lightroom presets can be set up to automate upload options.

Also on the output front, Lightroom slide shows can be created as a movie encoded with the widely supported H.264 algorithm, Hogarty said. Lightroom can evenly space out the photos to just match the length of a song, too.

And for those who want to export or print collections of photos, Lightroom 3 offers more flexible layout tools that lets photographers arrange images on a page. Lightroom 2 lets people create layouts with multiple sizes of photo--but only with multiple copies of the same photo.

At the front end of Lightroom operations, Adobe overhauled the import process. It's a full-screen process, with choices that had been hidden in drop-down menus now brought to the fore. One specific addition is the addition of the concept of a "shoot," a name that can be used to label the location on a computer drive where the photos are stored.

What hasn't changed is the audience for the software--"the demanding professional, or the equally passionate amateur," Hogarty said. "Lightroom focused on the photographer and the art and craft of photography."

With the Lightroom 3 beta, photographers can lay out different images in different sizes.
With the Lightroom 3 beta, photographers can lay out different images in different sizes. Adobe Systems