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On Adobe's Lightroom radar: panoramas, HDR

Adobe says high dynamic range photography and panorama creation are in Lightroom's purview. Also: why the software development kit isn't as easy as you might think.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is used to edit and catalog photos, chiefly the raw images that come from higher-end digital cameras. Adobe Systems

Good news for photo enthusiasts who wish they could they could use Photoshop Lightroom for high dynamic range photography and panorama stitching: support is on Adobe Systems' radar screen, if not necessarily its roadmap.

That's the word from Kevin Connor, Adobe's senior director of professional digital imaging product management and the executive who oversees Lightroom, Photoshop, and the Digital Negative (DNG) format. I spoke with him Wednesday during the Macworld trade show here in San Francisco.

Connor is intimately familiar with these two fast-changing domains in digital photography. High dynamic range (HDR) photography combines multiple exposures of a single subject into a single image that better spans the full range of dark and light tones; a good example is a photo of a cathedral interior that shows both the bright stained-glass windows and the dim stone arches. And the ultrawide views known as panoramas have been around for decades, but the ability to stitch digital photos together--for example with Photoshop's new Photomerge feature--has injected new energy into the area.

It's fair to be optimistic about HDR and panorama support in Lightroom, but don't hold your breath. Both are within the scope of Lightroom, Connor said, but he was careful not to promise whether or when that support might actually arrive.

Of HDR, he said, "It's definitely a natural thing to do. I don't know when. At some point, cameras will be capturing HDR. At some point, Lightroom will have support for that."

And of panorama stitching, Connor said, "An argument can be made for it. It's more about recreating a scene than about creating something that isn't there in the first place."

The Lightroom vision
Those endorsements, however qualified, illustrate Adobe's philosophy with Lightroom. Unlike with traditional Photoshop, Adobe envisions Lightroom as a tool to get the most out of what the camera recorded when a photo was taken.

Certainly Lightroom can alter a photo with some special effects, but, Connor said, "We want to stay true to optimizing what you saw when you shot it."

For that reason, Lightroom is chiefly designed to work with the raw images--the files taken directly from a camera's image sensor without in-camera processing into the more limited but convenient JPEG format. Lightroom's core operation is "developing" many raw images into finished products, but the software also can be used for cataloging and describing photos and for printing them and sharing them as galleries on the Web.

Photoshop, in contrast, permits not just photo editing but all kinds of original creation, from compositing multiple images to digital painting and sketching to elaborate visual effects on text. Also different: Photoshop presents myriad editing options at any moment, but Lightroom's interface is designed to march along with a photographer's import, edit, and export "workflow."

One of the key features in Lightroom--and another major difference from Photoshop--is nondestructive editing. Not only is every adjustment in Lightroom reversible, but the software keeps track of those changes and stores them as metadata associated with the file. That means an underlying raw image is preserved but can be accompanied by instructions such as how to crop it, adjust its tones, and sharpen its edges.

The SDK challenge
That nondestructive philosophy poses a big challenge for Adobe: how to design a software development kit for Lightroom. SDKs can let others extend a product with new features, and indeed Photoshop's rich array of third-party plug-ins illustrates the value of the approach.

Adobe has released a beta SDK with a very limited scope, but Adobe plans to expand it, Connor said. One tough balancing act the company faces now is deciding how much developer attention to focus on building the SDK and how much on building new features in Lightroom.

A Lightroom SDK is thornier than one for Photoshop because the latter can accept a filter that permanently changes an image, Connor said. Image-processing plug-ins are "trickier in Lightroom because it's nondestructive," and filters must be applied and reapplied in real time as new adjustments are made.

In addition, because adjustments are stored as metadata, there's a risk that an image edited with a plug-in on one machine will look different on another machine lacking that plug-in, if it can be opened at all, Connor said.

Adobe began developing Lightroom, code-named Shadowland, between the release of Photoshop 7 in 2002 and Photoshop CS in 2003, Connor said. But the company that brought the first such product to market was actually Apple, with its Aperture software.

Aperture fueled Adobe's competitive flames for Lightroom, Connor said. "It did raise the urgency. We didn't want people to think we were ignoring (that market) or that Lightroom was just a response," he said.

But Aperture also did Adobe a favor. Adobe's biggest hurdle with Lightroom was defining what the product was for, and Apple actually ended up doing a lot of that work, Connor said.

Adobe took a very work-in-progress approach to Lightroom, releasing multiple open beta versions, then 1.0, then 1.1, then 1.2, and most recently, 1.3. Significant new features were added with each update, leading me to suggest that version 1.3 might be best thought of as the real 1.0.

Indeed, things look a bit more settled now, and Connor suggested Adobe's attention is now turned toward a more substantial update. (He wouldn't even commit to a version 2.0, much less say when one might arrive, but you can bet it's in the works.)

"I can't rule out" a version 1.5 update," Connor said, "but I think we've done the bulk of what we wanted with the updates."