Adobe's Lightroom 2 beta broadens editing horizons

New version of Adobe software, going into public beta testing Wednesday, significantly expands editing possibilities--and brings it closer to regular Photoshop.

Update 6:40 AM PDT: I added some links to Adobe information and further detailed some new features.

The most interesting new capability in the Lightroom 2 beta is localized corrections. This image from an Adobe demonstration shows the control for a brush that can adjust saturation, brightness, exposure, and clarity of the area of the photo you 'paint.' Adobe Systems

When Adobe Systems launched Photoshop Lightroom, it presented users with an all-or-nothing photo editing philosophy. But with version 2, which goes into public beta testing Wednesday, the company is changing course.

Lightroom 2 offers local editing abilities that permit photographers to edit just a patch of an image--whitening a person's teeth, deepening the blue of a sky, illuminating a child in a tree's shadow. Changes are "painted" on with a variably sized circular brush.

Local editing doesn't open the door to the super-detailed pixel-level tweaking of regular Photoshop, but it's a major step in that direction. It's also a timely answer to version 2.1 of Apple's Aperture, released last week with a plug-in architecture permitting local editing such as dodging and burning to brighten or darken parts of an image.

Regular Photoshop certainly won't be consigned to oblivion. Even within the relatively limited task of editing photos, Photoshop offers a wealth of tools, plug-ins, and options that are beyond Lightroom's scope. But local editing could help free Lightroom fans from the awkward round trips taking photos to Photoshop and back.

The new feature doesn't depart from Lightroom's nondestructive editing approach: the changes are recorded as metadata that leaves the underlying digital file unaltered. Reconciling local editing with nondestructive editing was one reason the feature has taken so long to appear, Adobe has said.

Lightroom is designed chiefly to handle "raw" photo formats that come unprocessed from camera image sensors. Raw images offer more flexibility and quality, but they're proprietary and often tricky to handle, and raw images generally must be converted to more universal formats such as TIFF or JPEG for further handling.

Further details from Adobe are available from Photoshop product manager John Nack, Lightroom product manager Tom Hogarty, and the Lightroom 2 beta release notes (in PDF form). The software itself can be downloaded from Adobe Labs.

Other features
Local editing is among several new features and some tweaks to the Lightroom interface. Among the other changes:

• Smart Collections, which enables the software to automatically group photos based on various attributes such as a particular keyword. I like this: I get sick of adding new photos to various ever-expanding thematic collections.

• A built-in panel for better searching with multiple parameters such as time, keywords, camera lens, and photo location. Specific search interfaces can be saved.

• The ability to apply sharpening during the export process, which is useful especially given that sharpening an image often depends on where it's going to be used (printed images generally require more than those published online, for example), so sharpening settings might not be something you want saved along with the master file.

• The ability to export a selection of images directly to Photoshop CS3's tools for merging multiple photos into a single high dynamic range or panoramic image. The composite image arrives handily in Lightroom's catalog.

• Dual-monitor support, which Aperture already has. You can open up a second window that can be devoted to various tasks such as showing close-ups as you move the mouse pointer over various thumbnails in the main catalog.

• A 64-bit version that lets the software take advantage of more than 4GB of memory on Mac OS X 10.5 and Windows Vista.

•  The ability to edit photos 30,000 pixels on edge instead of just 10,000--very handy when dealing with panoramas.

• A "print package" feature for printing custom layouts with the same photo in multiple sizes.

• The ability to add the corner-darkening vignetting effect to cropped images, not just to the full-sized uncropped version.

What's missing? Doubtless there will be developments with the plug-in architecture and accompanying software development kit (SDK) that could let others write plug-ins. Photoshop has a rich selection of plug-ins, but it's tougher with Lightroom in part because of the nondestructive editing aspects.

Adobe said a "primary focus" for Lightroom is an SDK for "workflow"--translate that to tasks for import, export, perhaps file management, but not editing. However, Apple figured a way to produce a plug-in architecture that includes editing abilities, so I wouldn't rule it out as impossible. Notable Apple partners include companies such as Nik Software's Viveza technology for adjusting colors and PictureCode's Noise Ninja for noise reduction, both available as plug-ins for Photoshop.

Local editing details
Adobe's tool lets you "paint" the edits onto a section, with feathered edges to soften transitions and an auto-masking option to limit changes just to a particular color range.

Each change can be selected later and modified. I'm not clear yet on the extent to which painting over the same patch multiple times intensifies the effect, but I'm guessing you'd have to fire up a new brush and make another pass.

Lots of people crabbed about the lack of local editing--I've publicly pined for a local tool to simulate split neutral-density filters, a promised feature. But it might actually be a good thing that local editing is only arriving in version 2. That's because photographers got to try out a new set of Lightroom 1 tools that often could accomplish the same goals with a whole-image editing approach.

For example, I find that brightening dark tones with Lightroom's fill tool often yields an image that looks more natural than what results from spot-editing approaches such as dodging and burning. And I like the "targeted adjustment tool" that lets me click on a particular color range to change saturation or luminance. The change is across the whole photo, but often that's just fine.

Whole-image editing problems crop up, though. Say you want to give a shot that uber-vivid blue sky and green grass that you see in the surreal world of prescription-drug ads--but not throw the colors of other blue and green out of whack. For this kind of thing, local adjustments are just the ticket.

In fairness, Lightroom did have some local-edit abilities, such as one tool to touch up dust specs or skin blemishes and another for fixing flash-induced red eye. I like the first, but find the red-eye tool finicky and often ineffectual. (Update 10:20 a.m. PT April 8: I removed a reference to Aperture that incorrectly described its touch-up abilities.)

Free beta, with a catch
With the beta, Adobe is continuing what it began with 1.0, a much more open development process than the company has used historically. Not only is the approach in vogue, it helps diminish Apple's competitive threat, recruit new users, and shape software that's in flux.

I'm sure Adobe hopes the beta process will help eliminate the fiasco of its most recent Lightroom update, too. The company released the Lightroom 1.4 update in March only to pull it when discovering serious bugs. The company told users to reinstall the older version; it still plans to release a 1.4.1 update after further testing, a release that's separate from the 2.0 beta.

Adobe wouldn't say when the final version of Lightroom 2 will be available, though this particular beta version will expire August 31. If the 1.0 beta series is anything to go by, a second beta will be available by then.

The beta is free to anyone, but perversely it expires after 30 days for those who aren't Lightroom 1 users or who haven't been invited by a version 1 customer. Maybe Adobe is trying to generate some viral-marketing buzz that invitation programs sometimes help new Web sites benefit from, but I'm not sure how much cachet an invite will have with the free 30-day version.

CNET senior editor Lori Grunin contributed to this report.