Friday, February 09, 2007

David and Goliath: Lightzone vs Lightroom

Two things happen in ten days and the combination of the two is making me very nervous. First, Adobe Lightroom version 1 will finally be released. Second, my 30-day trial version of Lightcrafts' Lightzone will expire. I should perhaps add that only a week after that, the beta of Lightroom that I've been using for a couple of months also expires. So I can make it to the end of the month. But by then, I have to make a decision. Commit to Lightroom, or commit to Lightzone?

The safe choice is unquestionably Adobe Lightroom - or to call it by its official name, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom. Lightroom does almost everything and does almost everything pretty well. Adobe's developers have thought about what photographers need from the moment they click the shutter to the moment their images appear in print or on the Web and Lightroom provides photographers with a tool for every task. Lightroom's Library module is ideal for organizing, tagging, reviewing, and selecting hundreds of images at a time. In Lightroom's Develop module, you can edit your images using a rich set of features similar to Photoshops in many respects, but focused exclusively on the task of processing photos. Keyboard shortcuts abound. It's possible to make the user interface practically disappear so you can really focus on your photograph. It doesn't seem to require a huge amount of memory. It's nice to look at. And it's fast. I might add that there's a lot of buzz about Lightroom. The day it appears it will become the de facto standard for all professional photographers who are not already irretrievably committed to something else like Apple Aperture, Phase One's Capture One, or Adobe's own Photoshop-centric Creative Suite. There are more than half a dozen books waiting to be released on Lightroom this minute. A magazine. Multiple online training sites - even a Lightroom News site.

The thing that's making the choice of Lightroom difficult for me personally is a program called Lightzone, from a small Silicon Valley company named Lightcrafts. Lightzone looks like it has many fewer features than Lightroom and I guess, if you just counted total "features," it does. Lightzone lacks Adobe Lightroom's printing and web-gallery modes, for starters; but I don't care about those modes - I do my print and web work in Picasa - so it's not a problem for me that Lightzone lacks them. A bigger problem for me is that Lightzone's file browser is no match for Adobe Lightroom's Library module. But the big problem with Lightzone is performance. It's a memory hog. On the Lightzone forums, someone recommended giving Lightzone about two thirds of the memory you've got on your computer. I have a core duo Dell laptop (Latitude D820) with 2 GB of RAM. I have assigned Lightzone well over 1 GB of memory in its app preferences dialog. And I try to exit out of as many other programs as I can before using Lightzone. I generally do not open really large files - just Pentax Raw (PEF) files that are about 10 MB in size to start with. In spite of these steps, Lightzone is still a bit slow - certainly slower than either Adobe Lightroom or Picasa (the other program that I use for browsing and organing my post-conversion JPEG files). Every time I double-click a thumbnail to open it for editing, I have to wait five or six seconds.

Given those technical issues, why bother talking about Lightzone? Because the one thing that it does well, it does breathtakingly well, and because that one thing happens to be the most important thing of all: editing a photo. In this department, working on a single image, Lightzone can do everything that Adobe Lightroom can do and more. Unlike Adobe Lightroom, Lightzone has area selection tools; so you can select, say, just a person's face and boost the exposure there without affecting the rest of the image. And Lightzone's edits are applied in a fashion that amounts to layers. They're not Photoshop layers, to be sure, but they have a similar effect.

But neither selection tools nor layers would cause me to look more than twice at Lightzone were it not for Lightzone's most original feature, it's stroke of genius and reason for being: a feature called the zone mapper. The zone mapper is superficially so simple and at the same time so profoundly effective that it's rather difficult to describe. Lightzone divides your image's tones into sixteen grayscale levels, with white at one end (well, at the top) and black at the other, and fourteen shades of gray in between. These levels are tied to "zones" in your photo, and as you mouse over a zone, you can see areas of the image light up in a grayscale copy of your image called the zone finder. By moving the lines that separate the zones in the zone mapper, you can change the exposure and the contrast of the photo all at once. It's equally important to understand that you don't have to fiddle with all sixteen zones - not at all. In most photos, I can quickly figure out which zones correspond to the areas of a photo that I want to adjust, and I can make effective corrections very quickly. Here is a photo that I edited first in Adobe Lightroom. Note that the bird's head is still a bit dark. Now here is the same photo, edited in Lightzone. (The two photos are right next to one another in the gallery, so you can use the left and right arrows to jump from one to another if you like.) When I edited the photo in Lightzone, I was able to find the precise zone that affected the right side of the bird's head and boost the exposure slightly just there. Note also that in the Lightzone version, the cedar waxwing's characteristic yellow is a little clearer. Now let me very quickly concede that I am not an expert or even an intermediate level user of Adobe Lightroom and I do not mean to suggest that this photo could not have been corrected by a Lightroom expert just as well as I corrected it in Lightzone. I'm not knocking Lightroom! The point is that I am not an expert in Lightzone, either. In fact, I spent three or four times longer tweaking this image in Adobe Lightroom than I did in Lightzone. If you like playing with luminance, saturation, contrast, curves, vibrance, fill light, highlights, hues, exposure, tones, tints, temps, degrees, percentages, angles, hemoglobin counts and amortized rates of return, well, Lightzone appears to have just about as many of those dials and sliders as Adobe Lightroom does. But in Lightzone, they're a bit hidden away, and you might find that you very seldom need them.

I will warn you that, if you're used to Photoshop's tools or tools like them, you may be baffled by the zone mapper at first. That's your fault, not the zone mapper's. It took me about two weeks to "get it." Now I can't get it out of my head.

The advantages of Adobe's product are compelling and the disadvantages of Lightzone are undeniable. When I'm working in Lightzone, especially in the browser, I miss a number of Lightroom's nifty touches. But when I'm trying to edit a photo in Adobe Lightroom, I find myself not just missing but yearning for Lightzone's zone mapper and somewhat less often wishing that I could select an area and adjust the exposure there and there only.

So what am I going to do at the end of February? I don't know. Two weeks ago, I would have said without hesitation that I was buying Adobe Lightroom. But Lightzone has been growing on me. I'm afraid that the price of the products doesn't make my decision any easier. Adobe Lightroom and Lightcrafts' Lightzone cost about the same. Lightroom's official MSRP is going to be $300, but between the end of February 2007 and sometime in April, you'll be able to buy it for an introductory price of $200. The full version of Lightzone, on the other hand, costs $250 right now on Lightcrafts' web site. There's a "basic" version of Lightzone that has all the editing tools but no browser that costs $100 less than the full version (i.e. $150 rather than $250). Perhaps I'll go with that. Lightzone may be overpriced, in some absolute sense. It's clearly not as polished a product as Adobe Lightroom. Bibble Pro is another alternative to Lightroom that's very powerful, well respected, and widely used. Its full version retails for a fraction of the cost of Lightzone. My wild guess is that Lightcrafts might do better if they lowered their price a bit - say, to $150 for the full version of Lightzone. I'd be really grateful if they'd do it before the end of February.

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.