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Adobe Photoshop Lightroom - Do We Have a Digital Darkroom Yet?

written by: D. A. Karp•edited by: Rhonda Callow•updated: 10/22/2009
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Is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom the avid photographer's dream come true, or just a another all-in-one program?

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    Introduction

    The digital camera is a revolutionary tool for the photographer for many reasons, not the least of which is the freedom to shoot and shoot and shoot with little regard for film and developing expenses. The consequence, however, is that an avid shutterbug can bring home thousands of photos from a single day of shooting, which raises an interesting dilemma: how do you deal with all those photos?

    There are many photo organizers out there, from Google's free Picasa to Adobe's inexpensive Photoshop Elements. But if you want to do more with your pictures than simply scroll through them and fix the occasional red eye, you need a more powerful "workflow" tool. Sure, you can open each photo in Adobe Photoshop, one by one, to work on them, but that's usually overkill and hardly efficient. Lightroom is a good organizer, but what makes it particularly valuable is the "Develop" mode that provides powerful image adjustment features in an interface that makes it easy to clean up many photos in very little time.
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    Price to Value

    Rating AverageWhat's Hot: 
    If you're a professional photographer, Lightroom's price is easily justified. It's a lot less expensive than Photoshop, and can save you time, not to mention many gigabytes of disk space.


    What's Not: 
    It's quite a bit more expensive than simpler programs like Picasa (free) or Photoshop Elements (under $100). It's also more expensive than DxO Optics Pro ($169 for the Standard edition), which offers superior darkroom features (albeit with a lesser organizer).

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    User Interface

    Rating AverageWhat's Hot: 
    The interface is very pretty and easy to look at for long periods of time. It's easy to collapse panes and panels you're not using to make room for those you are. Lightroom is quick and responsive, more so than other products in this category. And it's mercifully competent at saving your layout from one session to the next.

    The "Develop" mode is what I care most about in Lightroom, and the layout of the controls actually make sense here. The adjustments are on the right, and a handy assortment of customizable presets is on the left, along with a step-by-step history of changes for each photo. You can even take snapshots as you work, allowing you to bookmark your favorite versions, so to speak.


    What's Not: 
    Lightroom can be overwhelming at first. Expect to spend an inordinate amount of time collapsing and expanding panels, scrolling the panes, and trying to figure out the logic of the controls themselves. I wish Adobe would take some queues from Photoshop, which has a cleaner, leaner interface that leaves more screen real estate for your work.

    My biggest gripe: double-clicking a photo in the Library toggles between the display of multiple thumbnails and the single photo. But neither mode ever consumes more than the tiny central viewer pane; I'd so much rather double-click a photo to enlarge it and make it fill the screen. Right now, the only way to do this is to switch to the "Slideshow" mode, which is decidedly inconvenient.

    Also: The controls in the "Develop" mode tend to be inconsistent. For instance, to reduce red chromatic aberration, you move the "Red/Cyan" slider to the left. But to reduce blue chromatic aberration, you move the "Blue/Yellow" slider to the right. This means that adjustments are more of a gamble than they ought to be.

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    Product Features

    Rating AverageWhat's Hot: 
    Lightroom is mercifully light on features. While other products tend to pile the features on, the developers of Lightroom surmised (correctly) that the strength of the program is the ease of which the user can access its tools, not the sheer number of tools it offers.

    You can quickly sort your photos in the Library by choosing from a collection of useful sort options from a list, such as Filename, Capture Time, Aspect Ratio, or Rating. (Too bad the sort list is a jumpy Mac-style picker instead of a Windows-style dropdown or a one-click column header.)

    You can also filter your photo list by keyword or metadata; for instance, in one of the screenshots, I've elected to show only the photos I took with my 10.5mm fisheye lens.

    One nice goodie is that you can manually "reject" photos that are burry, poorly-lit, badly composed, or whatever, and then delete "rejected" photos only after you've taken stock of your entire collection.


    What's Not: 
    As much as I disdain the feature glut most applications exhibit, there are a handful of essential features that Lightroom is simply missing.

    For instance, the metadata browser in the Library does not support GPS data, so you can't filter your photos by geographic location. Even Adobe's own Photoshop Elements can do this (Elements even has a nifty interactive world map you can use to select photos).

    Also, the "Develop" mode has no straightforward lighting or exposure controls like you'll find in a program like DxO Optics Pro. The chromatic aberration controls are weak, and there's no lens correction (also a hallmark of DxO). This area is probably where Lightroom has the most room to grow, and where other programs have an edge.

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    Images

    LibraryDevelop
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    Suggested Features

    I'd like to see support for geocoding (GPS metadata) and more customization of the thumbnail display in the Library. I also find myself spending a lot of time expanding and collapsing panes, and I wish the interface were a little more static (like Photoshop) so the features I use most are more consistently within reach. Finally, I haven't been able to overcome my instinct to double-click a photo to make it fill the screen, and I really wish Adobe would add this ability to both Lightroom and Photoshop Elements. But this product is still fairly new, so I expect Adobe to make a good amount of progress in these areas in the near future.
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    Conclusion

    Every time I use Lightroom, I want it to do more than it does, and do it better. Still, there's little competition for Lightroom right now, so it may be the best choice for most photographers for the time being. DxO Optics Pro (http://www.brighthub.com/software/DxO-Labs/74/DxO-Optics-Pro-Elite-4-2.html) offers better image adjustments (especially lens corrections and lighting) and a slicker interface, but Lightroom is faster and has a better organizer. If you mostly want an organizer, Photoshop Elements offers some nifty organization features that Lightroom doesn't (at a fraction of the price, I might add), but Elements is really just a toy when it comes to image manipulation. Get Lightroom if you have a lot of photos to organize and adjust, but you don't care much about lens correction.
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    Related Products

    DxO Optics Pro, Adobe Photoshop Elements