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Lightroom remakes photo editing for the better

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is terrific, if imperfect--good enough that I've started advising ordinary photographers to shoot "raw" images.

I didn't fully appreciate how much Adobe Photoshop Lightroom changed how I deal with digital photos until I tried the latest version of the regular Photoshop software, CS3.

I shoot raw images almost all the time, and I wanted to try out the new features of Adobe Camera Raw 4.1 that's available only to Photoshop CS3 users. I like its new "clarity" adjustment, and appreciate more control over sharpening, but trying those tools out felt like a trip back to the stone age.

Adobe Lightroom
Adobe Lightroom Adobe

Lightroom isn't perfect, and it doesn't replace regular Photoshop. But it shows the future of photo editing, and in my case, Lightroom unexpectedly swooped in to take over almost all of my photo-related tasks.

Why shoot raw?
Here's a little background on raw images for those of you who aren't converts yet. They're taken directly from higher-end camera image sensors with no in-camera processing. That lets the photographer use all the bit depth of the original data for finer tonal gradations; better correct exposure problems; sidestep sometimes overaggressive or misguided noise reduction; and adjust white balance for incandescent light, shade or bright sunlight.

So raw images are great, right? Overall, yes, in my opinion, but there are serious drawbacks. The biggest is that you have to hand-adjust each raw image to make them into JPEGs to send to your pals, and that takes a lot of time. And I already spend too much of my day staring at a screen.

This is where Lightroom steps in. Its "develop" module has relatively quick and convenient tools for fast conversion of your raw images. It's based on the same engine used in Photoshop's Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) converter, so many of the controls are familiar, but Lightroom presents them much more ably in a single strip to the right of the photo you're editing. Infrequently used options can be collapsed to stay out of the way.

In my case, probably the single biggest improvement over ACR is that a single click on the image will zoom it to 100 percent, and another click will zoom it back. When editing photos, I do this a lot. The second biggest improvement is the keyboard shortcuts that rapidly move me through Lightroom's options.

Much more than an editor
I wanted Lightroom for converting my raw images, but I ended up using it for much more. I import my photos into Lightroom's library, compare similar shots and delete the duds, tag the rest with appropriate metadata, then label the ones I want to export for my JPEG archive.

I sift through my collections using metadata--not just my own tags, but also EXIF data such as the lens I used. When I upload images to Web sites such as Flickr, the captions and tags and titles I added in Lightroom show up automatically. I give impromptu slideshows to friends and family. On the infrequent occasions when I'm printing rather than e-mailing photos, I use Lightroom. The main feature I don't touch is Lightroom's ability to create HTML or Flash photo galleries that can be uploaded to a Web site.

Lightroom has made raw image editing simple and fast enough that I can envision a future in which it will become much more mainstream. Likely that will be because software will be able to automatically convert raw images better than cameras can. Based on that forecast, I've begun recommending to friends that they shoot raw as well as JPEG for photos they care about. Even if all they use today are the JPEGs, the higher-quality raw images will likely will be nearly as convenient to handle in the future.

OK, enough with the warm and fuzzies. Having used Lightroom for a few months now, my expectations have been reset. Here's my gripe list:

Gripe list
• It's somewhat slow. I don't have the latest computer, and processing raw files is a complicated chore, so I'm willing to cut Adobe some slack, but I find myself waiting a lot. The worst is waiting for the 100 percent zoom view images to load.

• A workaround for the 100 percent view problem is to have Lightroom build 1:1 previews in advance. That takes awhile, so I usually start it, go away, then come back later. It would be nice if Lightroom had an option to create the 1:1 previews upon import. And even when 1:1 previews have been generated, it still often takes a long time to display them--15 seconds for me when I timed it a few days ago. Perhaps this is a memory-caching issue. Perhaps I need a PC with dual quad-core processors and 8GB of memory. Perhaps I need a big pay raise.

• The noise-reduction and sharpening tools are feeble compared with my preferred tools, Photoshop's smart sharpen and reduce noise filters. In fact, those two filters are the main reason I still use Photoshop. Adobe is goosing at least the sharpening options with Lightroom 1.1, but I doubt either tool will match Photoshop, perhaps because of the difficulties of nondestructive editing.

• I'd like keyboard shortcuts to move to different development sliders, such as exposure, vibrance and sharpening.

• Clicking the "auto" button to have Lightroom make its best guess about correct exposure and tonality often produces a glaringly overexposed skin tones. This seems to be the case mostly with pictures I've taken indoors; auto tone works pretty well for outdoor shots.

• Why is it when I hit tab to move from one noise-reduction field to the next, Lightroom moves me to the exposure adjustment field?

• If I've labeled an image with a color, then change it back to neutral, it improperly appears at the top of the heap when I filter by color.

• It chokes with too many images. When I load up a few hundred shots from a weekend trip, I often get out of memory errors, even with a system with 3GB of RAM. These are usually fixed by quitting and restarting, but it's still a drag, and I imagine they'd be even more annoying for a pro who's shooting thousands of frames. I also fear my library of images is too big. But if I split it up, say, into increments of three months, then the nifty ability to filter by metadata is impaired.

• Lightroom leaves original images intact, which is good, storing modifications in a separate database. But Photoshop's ACR can't read that database. An alternative is to store the edits in extra XMP sidecar files that reside in the same folder as the original, but I worry about problems keeping the sidecars and the originals cheek by jowl. Perhaps I should move my files to DNG (Adobe's Digital Negative) format, which records modifications in the file itself. Happily, Lightroom can convert your raw files into DNG upon import.

• I'm on the fence about hierarchical metadata. At first blush, having subtags for "pelicans" and "warblers" as children of the "birds" tag makes sense; filtering on "birds" will catch all of them, but filtering on "warblers" will be more precise. But it's a slippery slope once you're forced to grapple with a hierarchy of mutually exclusive tags. I don't take a lot of lizard or snake pictures, but should I make them subtags of the "reptile" tag? But then should "reptiles" be subordinate to "animals"? I'm leaning against the hierarchy; the bird example above can be avoided by tagging an image with both "birds" and "warblers."

• Some of the metadata interface is ugly. After I create a new subtag that's a child of a top-level tag, the interface pops back up to the top of the metadata list. But if I just created it, it's logical to assume that the next thing I'll want to do is apply it. Instead, I have to scroll back through the list to find it again. Also annoying: if I want to drag a tag to make it a subtag, but the new parent doesn't appear on the list, the display doesn't autoscroll, so I have to drop the tag, scroll a page, pick it up, and repeat. With hundreds of tags, this is highly tedious.

• It's not unreasonable that version 1.0 can't handle multiple monitors or lacks a mechanism to plug in third-party tools, but I sure hope version 2.0 will.

Version 1.1 should be here any week now. I expect it'll fix some of the minor issues, and I hope it will improve performance. In any event, though, I'm already sold.