Dec 14, 2008

RAW workflow: Lightroom 2

Most RAW workflow apps were developed by smaller companies focused on the needs of photographers. When Adobe came out with Lightroom 1.0 early in 2007, ir validated the market, confirming that Photoshop alone didn't meet the needs of professional or advanced amateur photographers. I had toyed with the Lightroom 1 beta release. It was slow and didn't much impetus to switch over. However, through various releases, bugs were fixed and performance improved. At $299, Lightroom 2 is priced less the Capture One 4 PRO, but still double the price of Capture One 4 or Bibble Pro.

Lightroom operates in one of 5 modes, Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, Web. This structure forces you into a certain workflow. First, in the Library mode, you "import" your images, after which you can quickly browse and make your edit. Lightroom offers a number of tools to aid in organizing photos, including the ability to add tags to images and search with them, as well as "smart collections" that can update themselves. I was able to easily create a smart collection of all photos within a date range that were rated 3 and above. After I finished rating my photos, this folder automatically contained all the files that fit the rule. I don't have a habit of tagging images, so I haven't done this.

After you have your edit, you can move on to the Develop mode, where all the postprocessing tools are provided. In addition to having all the basic tools that I'm familiar with in C1, there's a number of new tools, all potentially useful for creative manipulation, but which also give you power to violate your sense of "journalistic integrity". Advanced colour controls let you tweak particular colours, for example you can make your oranges redder without affecting your blues or greens. Split toning allows you to modify the colours of your bright and dark areas separately. There are tools to fix chromatic aberration and vignetting flaws in your lenses (available in C1 PRO), although some people (like wedding photographers) may choose to use this to add some vignetting for that vintage effect.

The most standout features though, are the tools that allow you to manipulate a small area of your image, something that Photoshop does effortlessly, but are unavailable in C1. Use the clone/healing tool to get rid of a spot of dust here or a pimple there (available in Bibble). Or do some dodging/burning by changing the brightness, contrast, saturation or sharpness of one little area of your image (unavailable in Bibble). These aren't as full-featured as they are in Photoshop, but having them built in means there's much less reason that you would actually need to start up Photoshop at all.

One other thing I like about Lightroom is the availability of Presets. You can save a certain set of settings and name them, say "Super Contrasty" or "Way Oversaturated" or "Fake Lomo", which will then appear in an organized list on the left. You can then select them to apply to your image. In C1 and Bibble you can mimic the functionality with some clunky methods, either by saving presets to file and reloading them (takes a lot more moouse clicks), or having "template" images with your presets applied, and copy from them later. However, the real magic they can't emulate; when you mouse over the names of the presets in the list, the effect is shown practically immediately on a preview image. You don't even need to you click, just move your mouse up and down and decide extremely quickly what preset you want. Potentially huge time saver.

My biggest gripe with the Develop mode is that you can only manipulate one image at a time. For example, you can't select a bunch of images and apply a Preset to all of them. Now, it's possible to do this in the Library mode, so all is not lost. It is annoying however, to have to switch between modes to do this, and it was not at all intuitive.

When I'm done processing my images, I select the ones I want to convert to JPEG, and use the File\Export option to convert to JPEG. It's pretty convenient, especially since you can create Presets on where and how you'd like your files exported. There's also plugins available that can do stuff like automatically upload your photos to flickr or smugmug with the tags you added while editing in the Library mode. There's also three modes, Slideshow, Print, and Web for creating ways of presenting your images. Right now, I'm done when I export to JPEG, so I haven't used any of these modes.

Overall Lightroom 2 was the favourite of the apps I tried. The features are great, it's quick and responsive, the layout is easy to use and is mostly intuitive. The only drawback really is the price, but if you can get a student discount or a similar deal, it's a good way to go. As a last random thought, one way to increase your productivity in any of these workflow apps is to learn to use hotkeys instead of clicking through menus and options with your mouse. Common hotkeys get picked up fairly quickly with use, once you know what they are, but there's probably enough in any of these apps that you won't memorize them all immediately. One thing about Lightroom is that there's only one must-remember hotkey, Ctrl-/, which will bring up a well-organized list of the hotkeys available in the current mode. It's just one more example how the UI design of this app is so well polished.

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