Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Intro to Lightroom 3

If you don't know about Lightroom or you're thinking about it, this post is for you.

A few months ago I didn't know what Lightroom was for.  There was Photoshop and its baby brother Photoshop Elements.  Then there was Lightroom - what was its role in the postprocessing world?  I thought it was mostly a photo management program for professionals (or obsessive-compulsive amateurs) who had to deal with thousands of images, and had watered-down editing capabilities.  I didn't think it was something I needed (or wanted, given the $299 list price).  Then one day our local photo club discussed Lightroom 3, which I found intriguing enough to download the trial version.  I then made up my mind to get it.

The easiest way for me to understand Lightroom was to temporarily forget everything I knew about post-processing programs like Photoshop and just think of myself as a photographer.  Here are some of the things I wanted in a post-processing program:

- Organize my photos.  A way to organize my photos, rank them, compare them etc. so I can easily find them.

- Edit the photos.  I want to work with the raw files to get the best image quality, but when I edit them, I don't want to change the original.  Also, I want to be able to easily apply changes on one photo to other similar photos.

- After editing the photos, I want to be able to present selected ones - either by putting them online, creating a slideshow, or printing them.

The things I want above are pretty much what Lightroom does.  It has several "modules" that are organized around the typical photography workflow: the Library (for organizing and simple edits), Develop (for editing), and Print, Web and Slideshow (for presenting the photos).

Sure, Photoshop and its competitors can be used to do similar things as Lightroom but they're different in that Photoshop et al are, at their core, programs for creating and editing graphics.  Lightroom is specifically designed from the ground up for photographers.

The distinction between LR and Photoshop-type graphics editors is not merely academic.  Take editing for example.  When I edit a photo in Photoshop, I'm actually changing the pixels.  That approach is fine for graphics -- if I drew something, I can probably draw it again.  But when I'm dealing with a photo I took before dawn after driving 5 hours, I don't want to lose any part of the photo I made.  Indeed, Lightroom doesn't change the raw file from my camera.  Instead, it stores my edits as metadata in a separate file to be applied to the raw file.  Yes you can create layers in Photoshop and thereby preserve the original image, but each of those layers takes up memory.

That brings me to another point -- LR applies edits to photos while they are in their native 16-bit raw format, preserving the best image quality during the edit process.  Photoshop Elements and Corel PSP X3 force me to convert 16-bit raw files to 8-bit jpeg for all but the most basic edits. 
The distinctions go on and on in how these two different types of programs behave.  Another example is with organizing photos.  Usually, I take several similar photos of a subject, and later choose the one or two I wish to show.  I do this by looking at the similar photos one by one.  When I see the one I like, I keep that in mind then compare the next photo against it, until I see a better one, and so on until I end up with the photo I like best out of the bunch.  This is the way a lot of photogs sort through their photos and Lightroom specifically has a function (Compare) to let you do exactly that.
While Lightroom covers most of the normal workflow, it is not a do-it-all app.  There are certain arguably basic post-processing functions that it can't do because it can't edit pixels as such.  The ones that stick out to me are:
- Removing objects.  For removing objects, a pixel editor such as PSE or PSP is the best way to go.  Lightroom does have a type of cloning tool but it's very cumbersome to use.  It functions like the retouch tool of Picasa (the free post-processing app from Google) and targets one spot at a time (i.e. you can't "paint").  If you resort to using LR's spot removal tool for all but the simplest retouches, the time you save from other efficiencies might very well be wasted with the LR's spot removal tool.
- Layers.  LR has no layer function.  It does have an adjustment brush that allows selective edits (similar to the smart brush of Photoshop Elements 7 and above, and the brush-type editing of several Picnik tools).  However, it can't do layers as such.
- Composites.  Because LR can't do layers, you can't do composite photos, like this one: http://lh4.ggpht.com/_njEpHb-ltxI/TODzt5QYtqI/AAAAAAAARBc/IQcGZPtMqiQ/s640/None.jpg  For a composite like that, a Photoshop-type program is necessary for now.

If a Photoshop-type program is needed anyway, then why would I still get Lightroom 3, which is not cheap ($299)?  In a word, efficiency.  LR processes raw files with higher quality and far greater speed than any app I'm aware of.  For occasional significant edits, I can export the edited photo for further editing into a Photoshop-type pixel editor.  I have Corel Paintshop Photo Pro X3 and Photoshop Elements 9 for that.  If you have Photoshop or PSE, LR conveniently allows "roundtrip" editing (exporting to PS or PSE then reimporting into LR).  I will be experimenting with roundtrip editing after I master LR3's basic editing functions.


Capture NX2 and its companion View NX2 are more direct competitors of Lightroom than are Photoshop.  Capture NX2 and View NX2 also allow non-destructive editing of raw files.  For Nikon users, View NX2 and Capture NX2 arguably provide the best image quality for raw conversion.  At the very least, the jpegs from conversion by View NX2 and Capture NX2 most closely match the jpegs from Nikon's cameras (if you shoot jpeg or raw+jpeg).  On the other hand, it appears LR3 has just about caught up with NX2 in terms of image quality of raw conversions: http://ishootshows.com/2010/01/22/lightroom-3-vs-nikon-capture-nx-2
Capture NX2 also has "U Point" adjustments, which easily allows adjustments to particular areas of the photo without the need for extractions (i.e. carefully isolating objects from the background).  Some people prefer U Point to LR3's adjustment brush.

The problem with View NX2 and Capture NX2 is that they are extremely slow.  On my laptop, View NX2 usually takes 30 seconds or more to apply the first change to any raw file.  Subsequent changes each take 10 seconds or more to apply.  Another disadvantage of View NX2 and Capture NX2 is that any adjustments show up only after the load time.  With LR3, adjustments show up in real time (even with my fairly slow laptop).

Some have said that Capture NX2 is superior for editing individual pictures (due to its U Point adjustments) while LR3 is superior for batch editing.  See: http://www.bustedshutter.com/?p=251  I don't have an opinion on Capture NX2 (not having spent much time on it).  I do know that LR3 is far more powerful and immeasurably faster than View NX2, taking less time to edit several photos than editing a single photo in ViewNX2.

Picasa is extremely user-friendly, is reasonably fast, and is free.  It has decent photo organization functions, easy-to-use editing, and has some level of integration with Picnik (another easy app with some pretty good editing capabilities).  It even has raw converters for various raw files.

What I don't like about Picasa is that the converted raw files don't look very good to me -- colors tend to look washed out.  I've tried to edit the images to match the ones from View NX but I had a hard time getting the same 'look'.

You can download a fully functional 30-day trial version of Lightroom 3.  Meanwhile, the best deals I've found (for now) on LR3 are posted here:

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