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Review: Adobe Lightroom Beta for Windows, Need More Power!

LightroomI was excited by the announcement that the Adobe Lightroom Beta had been released for Windows. I had been jealous of the Mac platform, which saw the arrival of both Aperture and Adobe Lightroom in fairly quick succession, whereas the Windows platform strangely had no product really targeted at the SLR-amateur-to-pro category. I was also excited because I am currently sitting under a mountain of photos -- 2000+ to be exact -- as I've been one of the 'official' photographers for two weddings this month, and I also have two cycling races and my photos from my Japan trip (in May!) to process.

Aperture and Lightroom are both photo workflow apps and, as far as I know, they are the first of their kind. After watching the positive results of anthropological studies of workflow at PARC, I have been really excited to try out these apps that claim to be the result of workflow studies on digital photographers. Granted, they targetted pros, but I hoped to reap the benefit, and perhaps even learn a thing or two about my process.

There is quite a lot to optimize in a digital photography workflow: if I only spent 1 second processing each of the 730 photos I took at the wedding last weekend, it would still take me over 10 minutes to go through them all. More realistically, it takes 1-5 seconds to decide whether or not to process a photo -- even longer if you have to decide which shot is the best out of several takes -- and another three minutes (my average) to process the selected photos. Anything software can do to either be faster, batch process, or get out of the way can provide huge time savings, which can either be used to enjoy life, or process even more photos.

What follows is a review, but with the caveat that as this really is a beta product, so perhaps a better call this 'feedback'.

My current workflow

I process all of my photos using Photoshop Elements 4.0 and Photoshop 7.0. For photos that only need minor touchup, I'll often use Elements' builtin editor, but for any serious editing (e.g. wedding photos) I do my editing in Photoshop. My main use of Elements 4.0 is to organize my photos, which consists of various combinations of collections and tagging so that I can prioritize and keep track of the photos I am processing.

For the purposes of this review, I'm comparing everything to my current workflow, because in order for me to switch, Lightroom + Photoshop would have to beat this setup. I include Photoshop in the Lightroom workflow, because Lightroom's editing features are more geared towards exposure and color adjustment for a set of photos; you still need Photoshop for touchups.

The Lightroom workflow

The Lightroom is a photo workflow application, so the workflow is the most important aspect to evaluate. Lightroom is divided into four modes: Library, Develop, Slideshow, and Print. These modes control what the overall layout of the photos is and what controls are available to use. In the Library mode, you have a set of Quick Controls geared towards the most basic adjustments; in the Develop mode there are many sliders for fine-tuning exposure and color; in the Slideshow mode you can create an on-screen presentation of your photos, and in the Print mode you can select many different layouts for printing. Note: for this review, I only used the Library and Develop modes, as I'm not particularly interested in the latter two.

While Lightroom doesn't force you through a particular workflow, I imagine it to be as follows: 1. Import the photos into Lightroom. You can group them into 'shoots' either by the folder the image is in or by the date the photo was taken. The Library mode will allow you to quickly access these shoots and also has quick access to your most recent import. 2. Scan through the photos in the Library and assign them ratings. Ratings are useful because the Library mode has a slider that lets you filter the photos you are view by rating. When I process photos, I first like to group the photos into two or three categories: definitely process, possibly process (optional), and don't process. You can achieve the same sort of categorization by rating the photos on their 5-star scale. You can also use keywords, though they are very buggy in my version of Lightroom: I think you are supposed to drag and drop them onto images, but it doesn't work if I drag them onto photos in the filmstrip or in the Loupe -- it only works if I switch to a tiled thumbnail view. 3. Use the ratings slider and/or keywords to select the photos you wish to process and use the 'B' key to add them to a Quick Collection. The Quick Collection is an easily accessible, temporary collection of photos. 4. Once you have the selection of the photos you wish to process, you can either use the Quick Develop controls in the Library mode or you can switch to the Develop mode to start processing. In the Develop mode, you have the option of viewing before and after side-by-side for comparison as you edit. In either mode, you can easily copy the processing settings you have used on one photo and apply it to others, making for easy batch processing. 5. Once you are done processing a photo, you can remove it from the Quick Collection by pressing 'B'. Once all photos are removed from the Quick Collection, you're done with your developing. 6. If you are uploading to Flickr, you can select your photos and use the Export command. Conveniently enough, the Export command lets you choose the color space (e.g. sRGB, Adobe RGB) you are exporting to, which you need if you are uploading to the Web.

System Requirements

One of their video tutorials claimed that it should be zippy, even on a laptop. Perhaps the Mac beta version is very, very, different, but I don't think your common laptop is going to be able to run this program very fast.

The first setup I ran this on was my home desktop, which I use to process all of my photos. It is a AMD Sempron 2800+ with 1GB of RAM. As it turns out, this is probably not enough to use Adobe Lightroom and Photoshop. Elements 4.0 and Photoshop run well enough on my desktop, but I can't say the same if I swap Lightroom in for Elements. The biggest problem seems to be the 1GB of memory. If I just open Lightroom, I could flip through my photos, but once I started sending photos to Photoshop for editing, Lightroom's performance tanked: even browsing photos became a serious with a nearly ever-present "working" message overlaying my photos, and any attempts to use the developing sliders to adjust photos was futile because it took too long to get visual feedback on the adjustment. Side note: the 'working' message is a bit hard to notice, so there were times I thought I had a blurry photo, when in fact it was just taking Lightroom a really long time to render.

So, in short, Lightroom didn't make the cut for my home desktop, though I am planning on bumping up my puny RAM and may give it another shot.

A performance review wasn't what I wanted, though, I really wanted to see if the photo workflow app (Aperture and Lightroom) could really make my life better. I found a more powerful computer -- Dual 3.2Ghz Xeon, 3GB of RAM -- and transferred over some of the wedding photos that I was working on.

I could quickly see why my home desktop was having trouble. On the beefy dual Xeon, Lightroom was regularly taking up 70-100% of both CPUs while I was browsing as well as 700-900MB of memory -- it was only using 500MB on my home computer doing the same task, so I think it clearly wanted more. The good news is that if you have multiple processors, Lightroom will take advantage of them.

System Requirements 2: The screen

I didn't mention in the previous section that my home desktop only has a 15" monitor. Like 1GB of RAM, a 15" monitor is probably too small. While you can browse and and use the Quick Develop tools fairly easily, Lightroom really is a big screen application. It uses very big text to label its tools and there are panels on all four sides of the screen. You can minimize these panels with a single keystroke, but when you try to use them, you'll be wishing for a larger screen. I don't fault Adobe for the large screen requirement: this is pro software, and pros don't use 15" monitors (I am not a pro).

When I switched to the dual Xeon, I also got to use its 20" monitor. This made a big difference, even if I felt that it, too, was too small. The main problems were the right-hand widgets in the Develop mode, and, to some extent, the right-hand widgets in the Library mode. The widgets have very large titlebars, use large fonts, and have lots of open space. The titlebar for each widget has a button that lets you expand the widget so that you can use it, or collapse it down so that just the titlebar shows. There's obviously a tradeoff between how easily a widget can be used and maximizing the number of tools you can put in front of your face. I felt that they skewed a little bit towards making the widgets too large and that they could keep the controls just as usable but compact the layout and shrink down the space dedicated to text labels -- or they could make the pane a touch wider and go two column.

Adobe Lightroom Library Screenshot

The screenshot above is from the Library mode on a 15" monitor. The Library mode only only has three control widgets (Quick Develop, Info, and Metadata) on the right-hand side compared to the nine for the Develop mode (Basic, Tone Curve, Crop & Straighten, Grayscale Mixer, Split Toning, HSL Color Tuning, Detail, Lens Corrections, Camera Calibration). From the screenshot you can see that even one widget in the Library mode fills up the available space -- you can't even see the other two widgets.

On a 20" monitor, I found that I could keep two, possible three, of these widgets open, so your choice either becomes to find the three widgets that fully meet your needs, or spend some of your time expanding, collapsing, or scrolling to the panel that you need.

Scrolling brings me to one of my gripes about the current Lightroom UI: despite the big fonts they chose to use for the UI, they made the scrollbar for the widgets very thin and put it right next to the button that deactivates the right-hand pane. So not only is it hard to click on, often you accidentally collapse the entire pane.

Processing

Lightroom features both a quick-n-dirty Quick Develop mode as well as a much, much more advanced Develop mode for processing a photo. Develop is an accurate term for this, as it is not geared towards the type of retouching that you might do with Photoshop. Instead, you can adjust the exposure, color balance, sharpness, etc... as well as convert to grayscale. One aspect of this that really shines is that the develop controls are geared towards batch processing. You can adjust one photo from a series just how you like it and then easily apply those settings to other photos. You can click on some before and after controls so you can view the original photo as you are editing it. The controls letyou choose left/right or top/bottom comparisons of the edits that you are making, but I wonder why it doesn't just automatically choose the layout that maximizes the amount of photo shown.

I had one major peeve with the photo developing in Lightroom -- it was hard to tell which photos I had processed and which photos I had not. A snarky answer might be, "the photos that are processed are the ones that look right," but in reality, when you're selecting and processing 900 photos, you need to be able to quickly tell how far along you are in the process. Photoshop Elements has a little icon in the upper right corner of a thumbnail that indicates that an image has been processed and it makes it easy to save multiple versions of a photo. I've also adopted a process with Elements where I move photos between an 'Event X unprocessed' and an 'Event X processed' collection to keep track of what's left to do. I can do something similar with ratings, quick collections, and keywords in Lightroom, but I was hoping that they had come up with a better way of tracking processing progress -- I want a single keystroke in which I can mark a photo 'done', and I also want a visual indicator for images that have been altered from the original. Ratings, quick collections, and keywords are close, but different enough to matter to me.

One pane that is very cool to use in the Develop mode is the History pane, which lets you see every single modification you have made to an image. If you hover over a particular step, a thumbnail above shows you what the image looked like after that modification, so with a wave of the mouse you can watch a history of your photo's modifications.

Photoshop Integration, Photo Versioning

I used both Photoshop 7 and CS2 with Lightroom. Lightroom didn't even detect that I had Photoshop 7 installed, so it's difficult to call it integrated, though in practice you use CS7 and PS7 the same way with Lightroom. I'm not a huge fan of how they've chosen to integrate external photo editors. When you select a photo to edit in Photoshop, Lightroom gives you the optional of editing the original, editing a copy, or editing a copy with Lightroom adjustments -- only the latter option applies the modifications you've made to the image. If you select either of the "edit a copy" options, Lightroom actually duplicates the image in your Library browser. I didn't like this very much, as it seems to go against the grain of how everything else in Lightroom works. Developing an image in Lightroom doesn't lead to duplicate images in your LIbrary browser and I can't seem to figure out how to even manually duplicate an image in my Library browser to try different developing settings -- the best hack I can come up with is to send the photo to Photoshop.

Both Elements and Aperture are more advanced with this part of the workflow. Elements has both version sets and stacks: version sets track the external edit history of an image so that you can go back to a previous edit or try a different approach; stacks are a way of grouping multiple images under one thumbnail, which is useful if there are multiple takes of one shot and you want to only select the best one. Aperture also has its own take on stacks and will even create stacks automatically for you based on the time interval between images. Version sets and stacks both improve your workflow by killing two birds with one stone: letting you easily select the 'best' image and condensing the number of photos you have to look at.

What I didn't test

I didn't really test the Slideshow and Print modes, which look slick, as they are not necessary to my workflow. I also didn't test the RAW conversion, as I don't shoot in RAW (it takes me long enough as it is to get through my photos without one extra step).

Conclusion

Lightroom didn't fully wow me, but it's promising. As more photographers get their hands on the beta, I think they will make some tweaks here and there, and that will hopefully address some of my concerns. Adobe has tried to make a UI that is very clean so as to not distract from the photos you are looking at, but if I'm processing a bunch of photos, I need a bit of icon crud to help me keep track, and I think that's what's lacking most for me from this beta. I want to easily figure out which photos in my library I've altered; I want to be able to place a satisfying 'done' flag on a photo so I don't have to look at it anymore. Photo processing applications are visual todo lists, but Lightroom is so grey and black that I just can't keep track. In fact, it's even hard to tell what Lightroom is doing sometimes, because the little status messages are very unobtrusive as well. Many are gray with white text overlays at the bottom of the photo that you can barely see. It's okay to use a bit of color to tell me that an image is still being processed. I like the fact that it's easy to get the UI out of the way, but you still need to be able to figure out what you and the application are doing. Perhaps it's just more sophisticated than I am.

The most important question to ask in conclusion is, "did it save you any time?" Right now my answer is a tentative, "it could." The batch processing of copying settings from one photo to another would easily save me a minute or two a photo if a lot of photos have the same exposure settings. It would be interesting if Lightroom could add a feature that would make it easy to find photos from the same set with similar exposure settings so you could form easy batch processing groups for even more time savings. I would also like it if Lightroom copied over stacks and version sets from Elements, as I find both of those to be effective ways of managing the workflow and preventing accidental duplicate work.

My desktop clearly didn't have the specs for this type of software, though, so this isn't the full review I hoped for. That will have to wait for either a faster version of Lightroom or a major upgrade to my desktop. The latter seems more likely, so it might be awhile, but by then Lightroom may have become a killer app.

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This page contains a single entry from kwc blog posted on August 16, 2006 9:45 PM.

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