Adobe hopes Lightroom intercepts photo trends

Lightroom 2.0 is better at editing just a portion of an image, and it plays more nicely with Photoshop. More broadly, it's designed for digital-era photography challenges.

With Adobe Systems' release of version 2 of its Photoshop Lightroom on Monday night, the company no doubt hopes customers will be drawn by a number of new features in the software for sorting, cataloging, and editing photos.

But the company believes an external factor will also help the software: the booming sales of high-end SLR cameras. These high-end models are helping usher in many of digital photography's biggest changes, and Adobe is trying to intercept the trend with Lightroom.

From 2007 to 2008, digital SLR shipments increased a dramatic 41 percent to 7.5 million units, according to market researcher IDC. And though plenty of those cameras went to gadget-happy doctors or to snapshooters who won't exploit the cameras' full features, plenty of others went to the photography enthusiasts at whom Lightroom is aimed.

Lightroom 2.0 is geared for editing flexible but complicated 'raw' images taken directly from higher-end cameras' image sensors. (Click image to enlarge.)
Lightroom 2.0 is geared for editing flexible but complicated 'raw' images taken directly from higher-end cameras' image sensors. (Click image to enlarge.) Stephen Shankland/CNET News

"Prices are coming down, so more people with entry-level SLRs are experimenting," said Tom Hogarty, the Adobe senior product manager in charge of Lightroom. "If you pick up the camera for the sake of creating an artistic thing and not just recording a family event, you've really taken the plunge into serious photography. Anyone at that level is an ideal Lightroom customer."

One significant feature common to SLRs is the ability to shoot "raw" photos--the images taken directly from the image sensors without the camera baking in its own assumptions about what's right. Raw images offer more editing flexibility than JPEG, so it's better for aficionados who need to correct underexposure or an orange color casts. But raw images require processing into more standard, universal formats for sharing--thus software such as Lightroom, Apple's Aperture, Phase One's Capture One, and others.

Lightroom 2.0 has a revamped interface and several new features, most notably a much broader ability to edit selected portions of an image. And it's got a surprise that wasn't in the beta version: exposure gradients that can help with the classic photography problem of showing both a dark foreground and a brilliant sunset. (See the full feature list below.)

The new version costs $299 new or $99 as an upgrade.

What is this Lightroom thing anyway?
Lightroom occupies a new niche in Adobe software's history. Its interface, built from scratch, hints at things to come to the broader world of Photoshop and photo editing overall. Unlike Adobe's earlier products, it's designed for the new crop of photos challenges, when people come back from a vacation or a photo shoot with hundreds of images.

Many folks are happy just copying their pictures off their cameras, but for enthusiasts, there are other challenges. Besides editing photos, they must weed out the duds, edit and organize the keepers, label them with where they were taken and who's in them, and print or upload them to photo-sharing sites. With no negatives anymore, they might want to leave the originals digital files intact. And later, they often have to dig them out of the archives.

Adobe has a large, successful franchise with its regular Photoshop software. It now comes in the ordinary CS3 version, a higher-cost CS3 Extended version, a lighter-weight Elements version, and the free online Express version. Lightroom doesn't fit neatly into this lineage, though. It's both more and less than regular Photoshop.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom features a task-oriented interface. Shown here is the 'Library' view for sorting, tagging, and organizing photos.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom features a task-oriented interface. Shown here is the 'Library' view for sorting, tagging, and organizing photos. (Click to enlarge.) Stephen Shankland/CNET News

Less because it's specialized for photos: it can't handle Photoshop tasks such as carefully removing a distracting background, compositing multiple shots together, overlaying text, or applying dramatic special effects.

More because its interface encompasses more tasks: Photoshop CS3 and its ilk let people edit images one at a time, but Lightroom handles the digital photos a batch at a time. Photographers can apply editing changes made to one image to other similar shots, label photos with tags such as shoot locations and copyright notices, print groups of photos or export them for use on the Web.

Some of that extra utility is a natural extension of handling photos. But it's also something of a power grab. Lightroom wants to be the center of your digital photography universe, stepping into roles that the operating system or utilities might offer.

Getting along with Photoshop CS3
So is any of the power grab aimed at regular Photoshop?

Not really, though Lightroom 2's ability to edit selected areas of photos does reduce reliance on Photoshop.

"There are some things in Lightroom 2 that delve into what Photoshop has been used for in the past, such as dodging, burning, and gradients," Hogarty said. Photoshop's approach dates from the film days when photographers would process only the best couple images from a photo shoot, and that approach is still important today, Hogarty said: "Photoshop excels at doing the detail work for high-value images."

Adobe is taking a page from the Lightroom specialization playbook for Photoshop by trying to make it more customizable to specific users and tasks. But in contrast with Lightroom, company is trying to do so without sacrificing the software's general-purpose nature, said John Nack, senior product manager for Photoshop.

"We want to make it possible to be everything you want and nothing you don't," Nack said. "One of the tough things has been dealing with the enormous breadth of Photoshop. We end up presenting same interface to architects as a Web designers as radiologists as prepress folks."

To achieve that goal, Photoshop's interface will become more open-ended and even programmable, he said.

"You'll see some of the things we've learned about Lightroom--making things browsable and less modal--come into Photoshop," Nack said. In other words, it'll be easier to shift Photoshop from one task to another.

Lightroom 2's single biggest change is the ability to selectively edit portions of photos, such as this shadowy area that's been lightened. (Click to enlarge.)
Lightroom 2's single biggest change is the ability to selectively edit portions of photos, such as this shadowy area that's been lightened. (Click to enlarge.) Stephen Shankland/CNET News

With a "Configurator" application that should be released by Adobe Labs within a month or two of release the next version of Photoshop, Adobe will let users create and share their own Photoshop control panels written in Adobe's Flash programming language, Nack added. "Our goal is to make it possible for expert users to reconfigure the environment on a task-by-task basis and share those workspaces with other people. You don't have to write code. You can knock together an interface and make it sharable."

Lightroom 2.0 features
More graceful handoffs between Photoshop and Lightroom arrive with the new Lightroom. It can use Photoshop CS3's panorama tool to stitch multiple shots together into a single image and its high-dynamic range tool to merge photos taken at a variety of exposures into a single image. And Photoshop can import raw files from Lightroom as a more flexible "smart object" whose properties can be edited with the raw-image dialog box.

Another significant change is better external relations. A new metadata API (application programming interface) will let other software interact with the data Lightroom attaches to files, which means for example that a Flickr uploading application could tag images in Lightroom's database with a custom field indicating the file has been stored at the photo-sharing site.

For now, though, that extra metadata is stored only in Lightroom's catalogs, not in the XMP files that accompany raw images for purposes of storing metadata or in Adobe Systems' Digital Negative (DNG) format intended to standardize raw formats, Hogarty said.

"The next step is to write to XMP," Hogarty said. "I think that's an absolute requirement."

Among other new features:

• Raw photos, though more flexible, often are tamer than the high-contrast, rich-color JPEGs mainstream digital camera users are used to seeing on the computer or camera LCD. So Adobe added profiles that can apply various styles.

"It's for every single person who picks up a digital SLR, takes the leap into raw space, and questions the default interpretation from various raw converters because it doesn't match what was on the back of the camera--less saturated, more neutral, or with less contrast," Hogarty said.

• People with dual monitors now can use both, with the second monitor speeding file navigation, image comparison, and some other tasks.

• It's got a new interface designed to make it easier to sift through files on the basis of metadata such as the camera or lens used to take the picture, keywords, and dates.

• Image-sharpening technology licensed from PhotoKit automatically applies appropriate sharpening settings during printing according to the photo's size, the printer's resolution, and other factors.

• Smart Collections automatically assemble groups of photos, such as those rated with five stars and labeled with the tag "bicycle."

• Lightroom 2.0 supports 64-bit Windows Vista and Mac OS X, letting people employ more than 4GB of memory for the application. That's useful for handling large images such as panoramas, for moving back and forth among many images, and for handling large image catalogs, Hogarty said.

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