Friday, November 30, 2007

Lightroom and Lightzone

I finally broke down and purchased Light Crafts LightZone photo editor. I've tried several previous demos but didn't buy for various reasons. In the past, I thought it was too expensive and too slow, and I had trouble really "getting" what LightZone is all about. Well, they had a sale this month (November 2007) that brought the price down. And I saw some video clips that demonstrate a couple of the key tools in LightZone and that helped me grasp the program's approach. It's still too slow, but I can live with that in return for its other benefits.

LightZone, oversimplified

What are those benefits? The main one is that LightZone is nothing but a photo editor, and it's a darned good one. As everybody knows, Photoshop is so powerful you can dispense with the camera altogether and just paint fairies and unicorns if you like. It was never intended to be just for editing images, and is still used for logo design and creative art work, as well as photo editing. That's why Adobe created Lightroom, which, unlike Photoshop, is designed specifically and exclusively to meet the needs of photographers. Even so, Adobe Lightroom remains a multi-faceted app that does a bit of everything, including photo editing, creating web sites, print managment. Lightroom's greatest strength is really photo processing and management, that is, with Adobe Lightroom, I can review, evaluate, tag, and process (edit) a lot of photos very efficiently. But Lightroom has its weakesses, especially as an editor, and that's where LightZone comes in. Well, for many users of Adobe Lightroom, that's where Photoshop comes in, but I hate Photoshop.

LightZone, like Photoshop, allows selective editing, meaning that I can select a region of a photo (say, the sky) and change the contrast in that region without affecting other parts of the photo. This is not possible in Lightroom, which has no selection tool.

But LightZone isn't just about selective editing. What has always fascinated me about LightZone is its key tool, something called the zone mapper. This bears a very rough resemblance to the tone curves in Adobe Lightroom. Here is the Lightroom tone curve:

And here is the LightZone zone mapper, for comparison:

I'm not even going to try to compare the two tools in detail. Suffice it to say that the the LightZone zone mapper tools is more flexible both at first glance and upon closer acquaintance. With the zone mapper you control sixteen different levels of luminance in your photo, with the Adobe Lightroom tone curve, you control only four. Now the tone curve in Lightroom, which is pretty similar to the tone curve in Photoshop, is a terrific tool. And you can adjust not only the four parts of the curve (highlights, lights, darks and shadows) but also, to some extent, the definition of these four parts, by moving the dividers. Still, you can target your adjustments more precisely and I think more easily with a single zone mapper tool than you can with the tone curve.

And there's more to it than that. In Adobe Lightroom, you get one tone curve and it affects the entire photo, willy-nilly. In LightZone on the other hand, you can have as many zone mapper tools as you like. And you can target their effects by using regions (masks). I've used the zone mapper, for example, to lighten shadows in subjects' eyes without lightening the rest of their faces, or to increase contrast in the background without affecting the foreground in a photo. The zone mapper stumped me briefly when I first tried LightZone, but if you watch their online tutorial, which takes just a few minutes, you'll grasp the zone mapper's use very quickly, and when you work with it, it is incredibly intuitive. As a user-interface device for editing photos, it's a stroke of genius. If I had to live with only one program, I very well might select Adobe Lightroom, because I need to manage my photos as well as edit them. But for editing, if I could have only one tool, I'd take the LightZone zone mapper.

Eat your cake and have it, too

Fortunately, I don't have to make these drastic choices. I am in fact presently using three programs to manage and post-process my photos: Adobe Lightroom, LightZone, and Google's Picasa. Picasa is used just to handle the JPEGs that I export from Lightroom or LightZone. Most of these get deleted from my hard disk after I upload them to the Web, so Picasas is really more of an uploader for me now than anything else. My main photo management program is Adobe Lightroom. I use it to review, select, and tag my photos, because these are things Lightroom does splendidly. If the photo is well exposed and needs little editing, I can quickly tweak the contrast and sharpen the image a bit in Lightroom. But when the dynamic range of the photo presents problems, and especially when selective editing is called for, I'm switching to LightZone to edit.

I'm happy to report that LightZone works well with Lightroom. It is possible to identify LightZone as the external editor for Lightroom. Adobe of course expects Photoshop to play this role, but you can specify any program you like. THat allows you to right-click a photo in Lightroom and select the "Edit in Whatever..." command. Unfortunately, there's a huge downside to working this way. When I issue this command in Adobe Lightroom, Lightroom does not simply open the raw image file (in my case, a DNG file) in LightZone, which is what I wish it did. Rather, LightRoom makes a copy of the raw file as a TIFF and hands the TIFF to LightZone. What's wrong with this? Well, these TIFFs are huge -- as much as ten times the size of the raw originals, which were themselves already rather large. So I'm using a different approach. I simply ask Lightroom to show me the file in Explorer (I'm working on a PC laptop), then I right-click that file and select Open in LightZone. This allows LightZone to work from the raw file directly and non-destructively. I don't get to use both Lightroom and LightZone to edit the file this way, but that's not a big drawback; there's nothing much that Lightroom can do that LightZone can't do as well or better.

Well, that's mostly true, but there is one exception. I've gotten rather fond of creating grayscale images in Lightroom not by clicking its Grayscale button but instead by desaturating all the colors. This gets rid of the colors without eliminating the color channels, in other words, Lightroom still knows that my daughter's jeans are blue -- even though they don't appear blue in the photo any more. This in turn makes it possible for me to lighten the blues and darken the yellows, iin other words, it gives me more control over a black and white conversion. I hesitate to say flat-out that LightZone cannot do something similar. It has a lot of options that I do not yet understand. But at the moment, I'm doing my grayscale conversions in Lightroom, and editing color photos in LightZone.

Tentative conclusions

What's the bottom line? Well, I haven't reached the bottom line, as I am hardly a Lightroom master, and as for LightZone, I'm still a novice. So I'm a good ways from making up my mind for good. But with that caveat, I'd say there are actually two bottom lines to consider.

The first question is, does one program produce better images than the others? The answer to this question is mostly no, but sometimes yes.

Mostly no, because for a typical well-exposed raw original that doesn't need a ton of post-processing -- in other words, the kinds of photos I always strive to take -- LightZone and Lightroom are both perfectly capable of getting the job done.

But sometimes yes, because LightZone can do lots of things that Lightroom simply can't. That's an objective fact. Now, whether you need those things is a question you have to answer for yourself. For the better part of a year, I was persuaded that I could get by with Adobe Lightroom alone. I think now that I was wrong, but I wasn't crazy wrong. Lightroom really can do most of the stuff most photographers want to do most of the time. But LightZone isn't really competing with Lightroom at all as a general purpose photo management and all-purpose processing app. LightZone instead competes with Photoshop, as a more powerful tool for editing individual images.

Here's a photo I edited in LightZone:

It's nothing special, but that's why I picked it. I also edited it in Adobe Lightroom. You can compare the results here.

The second bottom-line question is, which program do I personally find easier to use, or more efficient, or more fun? This is subjective, but not entirely subjective. Management tasks are Lightroom's forte and LightZone's browser isn't in Lightroom's league if you need to tear through 800 image files, rate them, and modify metadata. Conversely, if you want to make some quick, precise changes to the dynamic range and contrast of a file, LightZone's zone mapper is a better tool than anything available in Adobe Lightroom. I am pretty sure these two claims can be demonstrated to the satisfaction of most users.

But there are a lot of other factors that affect how an individual user feels about a program. It is my understanding that LightZone is written in Java. This accounts for some of the program's sluggishness. (Helps to give it plenty of ram.) It also accounts for some of the idiosyncratic look of the program's dialogs and certain other UI widgets. I think Lightroom is beautiful, LightZone, not so much. But I try not to make a fetish of prettiness. It might be fair to say that I like Adobe Lightroom's user interface better, but I prefer LightZone's tools. In addition to the crazy cool zone mapper, I like the way I can pile LightZone's other tools on top of one another. There's a lot of control there.

And what about Photoshop? As I said, I have decided I was wrong to think I could get by with Adobe Lightroom only. But is LightZone really a satisfactory surrogate for Photoshop? I dare say most Photoshop users (most of whom know nothing about LightZone) will say no, absolutely not. And it's true that Photoshop does many things that LightZone does not do. If I want to paste a pair of open eyes from one photo into a generally better photo in which so-and-so's eyes happen to be closed, well, that's not what LightZone does. LightZone is not going to be used by the front-page artists for National Enquirer, who routinely need to put chimpanzee heads on the torsos of infants. In this respect, LightZone is closer to Adobe Lightroom than to Photoshop, because LightZone, while more powerful than Lightroom, is still designed exclusively to process and adjust existing photos, not to create entirely new images. I can live with that limitation very happily.

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.