A Creep Not a Leap

Adam Woolfitt puts the beta 5 version of Lightroom through its paces, comparing it to its predecessor and trying out the latest tools for enhancing your images

Aconfirmed fan of Adobe’s Lightroom digital asset management software, I adopted it some time ago as the basic tool in my workflow.

All my incoming camera files are down¬loaded and converted to the .DNG format direct from the cards, and linked to a basic set of metadata that identifies me as the copyright holder.

The only exceptions are raw files shot for reviews, where the camera manufacturer has decided to reinvent the wheel and pro¬gram its own conversion software at huge expense in tears and treasure.

A lot of them, like Canon, Nikon, Phase One, Leaf, Fujifilm and Sigma, to name the most obvious, still choose to do this. I use the manufacturers’ own software when testing cameras to give the various systems the benefit of the doubt.

Long and heated discussions ensue about how many angels can be seen to be standing on the point of a pin if you process the raw files from your camera’s proprietary software.

And indeed, there are very slight differences to be observed between processing softwares. But, as both Camera Raw and Lightroom get better and better, there are fewer and fewer proprietary camera file formats that cannot be bettered by using Adobe’s software so that, in real life, results from Lightroom will prove equally good and a great deal quicker to achieve.

I like and use the many features in Lightroom 4 every day. Its processing engine seems to be excellent. The ability to tune highlights and shadows, as well as to add graduated filters to modify colour temperature, density, contrast, and saturation, is just amazing.

The Blurb module, enabling you to produce personal photobooks, emails, and web pages, is an added boon. I also find the print module fantastic, offering control of margins, spacing and placement, which is far superior to any print driver produced by a printer manufacturer.

So, any enhancement or upgrade is bound to interest me. The beta 5 version of Light¬room requires Mac OS 10.8.4, so I down¬loaded it as soon as I could arrange to up¬grade my OS, and installed both OS 10.8.4 and Lightroom beta 5 on a separate drive.

With the advent last time around of the aforementioned Blurb plugin, and the addition of a Google Maps feature that could plot embedded GPS data from suitably equipped cameras, I had high hopes for the latest upgrade.

But this time round, Adobe has a problem on its hands. It is clearly trying very hard to avoid making Light- room so clever that Photoshop becomes redundant. The new tools and facilities introduced in Lightroom beta 5 tiptoe around this elephant in the room, and don’t offer any startling enhancements — more like a creep than a leap forward.

Perspective correction

The most notable new feature is the Perspective Correction and Levelling tool. This combines all the perspective controls to be found in Photoshop into one powerful single control panel. But used with maximum settings in the wrong way, results can be bizarre and startling. It is quite easy to overdo things, and in the process of correcting images, it reveals just how carelessly horizons and verticals have been treated when shooting.

I have spent a lot of time and money using tilt and shift lenses that allow me to get horizontals level and verticals upright, but judging by some of the photography to be seen in print and on the web these days, such geometric courtesies don’t seem to concern the new wave of snappers.

However, used with caution in the ‘auto’ mode, the new levelling tool In LtRm beta 5 works extremely well, squaring things up for a thoroughly professional result.

Clone and spot healing

The next feature to note is the expansion of the Clone and Spot Healing tool, which can now do a lot more than just deal with circular dust spots and sensor blemishes.

It can now be dragged out, to elongate the shape; and the area to clone from can be selected by dragging the tool around to find a good match.

This takes place in real time, so that the selection can be viewed ‘live’, and fiddled in to place for an optimum fit.

“The killer addition to Lightroom beta 5 is the ability to generate ‘smart’ image previews, allowing you to work on an image in Lightroom even when the full resolution file is offline”

At this early stage in the life of the beta, it has no provision to soften the edge of the selection, something I hope will appear in the final version.

While this new tool combines the best features of the Spot Healing brush avail¬able in Photoshop, it also offers the great advantage that, if a fault is fixed on a .DNG file at the Lightroom stage, all future prints or copies of the file will be output with that blemish permanently removed.

Vignette tool

An oval or circular Vignette tool has also made its appearance. The use of a careful shaded vignette can subtly enhance the attention given by a viewer to the centre of an image, for example in a portrait, or even a landscape.

This tool can be drawn out across the image, resized, reshaped, and rotated, to fit any area where you want to preserve density. A slider then darkens the area beyond the selection, and you can of course, also apply any of the other tonal controls, such as density, colour temperature, contrast, and saturation.

Alternatively, the vignette can be re¬versed, so that any changes made apply outside the selected shape.

While this tool will find definite use in some studios and areas of work, it is of quite limited application in general practice.

Image previews

For me, the killer addition to Lightroom beta 5 is the ability to generate ‘smart’ image previews, either at the time of import, or later if the need arises.

“The area to clone from can be selected by dragging the tool around to find a good match. This takes place in real time, so that the selection can be viewed ‘live’”

A smart preview allows you to work on an image in Lightroom even when the full resolution file is offline. All changes made to a smart Lightroom preview will be writ¬ten back to the full resolution file when that file is next online.

Thus, serious editing work can be undertaken even when remote from the hard drives containing the original .DNG files. This is a great facility, and means you could be editing and adjusting images from a shoot with just a laptop on the plane back from location. This kind of facility makes the software truly useful to a professional.

Blemish and dirt sensor

And finally, there is a facility for identifying blemishes or dirt on the sensor. While this is almost as elusive as the dirt spots themselves, once you have found it, it’s pretty useful.

“No one outside Adobe knows what else will appear in the full release version of Lightroom 5 but, on present showing, these tools are useful without being must-have additions”

Open an image In the Develop module, and select the Spot tool. In the toolbar beneath the image, you will see a checkbox called Visualize Spots, and a slider. Click on the slider and adjust it until the spots show up as blobs.

The image is now rendered in b/w, with what looks very like Photoshop’s old Find Edges tool applied, enabling you to identify dust spots, and either work directly (with the Clone tool) on the b/w reference image, or revert to the original image and use the information to locate the dust spots. Beware lest you remove details that are not in fact dust spots! Once you get the hang of it, it’s very powerful.

Conclusion

No one outside Adobe knows what else will appear in the full release version of Lightroom 5 but, on present showing, these tools are useful without being complete ‘must have’ additions. Until we know the full contents and the price of the upgrade it is hard to make that judgment.

It is worth noting meanwhile that Ado¬be is intent on switching its huge data¬base of software customers to a subscription only model. From Adobe’s point of view, there are sound arguments in favour of this trading practice because of the ex¬tensive software theft it experiences.

But as a single user who has only ever paid the full (and substantial) price for my Adobe products, the downside — having my principal working software dependent on a server farm in some remote corner of the globe — is extremely alarming.

Suppose Adobe revokes my licence one day because of a clerical error? Suppose my internet goes down when I need to re¬validate my licence or get some ‘support’?

Early adopters already report multiple faults with the online download system, and the greater the number using it, no doubt the more problematic it will become. There is also the real risk, in fact a near certainty, that when Apples OS next changes, only Adobe versions sourced from the ‘cloud’ will work. All such scenarios are entirely possible. Better buy your copies of Photo¬shop 4 and LightRoom 4 on disc now, just for security.

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