Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Lightroom 2 released

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 was released today. It's not earth-shattering news for those of us who have been using the public beta since last spring. But the beta had a few bugs and the final release adds some new features that weren't in the beta. And with today's official release, I can finally combine my old Lightroom 1.x photo collection with the photos I have edited in the last four months using Lightroom 2 beta and which I kept on a separate disk.

Many of the things that were already very good in Lightroom 1 have not changed or have not changed much. The user interface has been tweaked, but is basically the same, and that's a good thing, since they got so much right in the first release. I want to mention just a couple large improvements.
Localized editing with the adjustment brush
First, the localized correction or adjustment brush. I've tried to come up with a better word than "brilliant" to describe this innovation, but I can't. If I actually knew anybody personally at Adobe that it would make sense for me to flatter, I might use the phrase "stroke of genius," but I don't, so I'll stick with brilliant. The adjustment brush provides a way to paint a selection to which you can then apply various local adjustments such as exposure, contrast, sharpening, etc. For example, if the subject was lit from the back and the subject's face ended up being a little underexposed, you could set the adjustment brush to increase exposure, say, half a stop, and then paint on the subject's face. The face would lighten up, but the exposure for the rest of the picture would be unchanged.

Now Light Crafts LightZone has had selection region for a long time, and it looks as if Bibble Pro 5, which I hope is released very soon, will have something like selection regions as well. LightZone's regions have the advantage over Lightroom's adjustment brush in one respect. In LightZone, once you select a region, you can apply to that region any and all of LightZone's tools - exposure, black and white adjustment, blur, sharpening, noise reduction, and more. In Lightroom 2, the adjustment brush can apply a very good selection of tools, including sharpening (which wasn't there in the beta), but it can't apply all the tools. But aside from that, I think I like Lightroom's brush better. Using the brush has the feel of actually dodging and burning in the wet darkroom, in other words, it has a hands-on feeling and also seems less mathematical than a bezier-curve region.

But forget feelings. The real advantage of the brush is in the results. By brushing on a selection area, you produce a selection that doesn't end up looking like it was selected. You can control not only the feathering (possible in LightZone) but also the density of the selection, that is, the degree to which an adjustment is applied (not possible in LightZone, at least not obviously). And the brush has an auto-mask setting that detects edges and limits the brush's application. To return to my example of a face, if the background behind the subject's face is distinct from the face, the brush with auto-mask enabled will automatically figure out where the face ends and the background starts and will apply the adjustments only to the face. Defining a precise region in LightZone was often difficult and sometimes impossible. Finally, although I don't think I'll be copying these adjustments much, it's possible if I want to. The bottom line is, with this one major development, Lightroom 2 makes LightZone, for me anyway, unnecessary.
The gradient tool
The new gradient tool is similar to the brush, except that the effects of the various adjustment tools are applied in a gradient rather than in a simple fashion. This is similar to the conventional gradient neutral density filter that you might stick in front of a lens while photographing a landscape, so you can reduce the dynamic range of the entire scene by decreasing the brightness of the sky without decreasing the brightness of the foreground. Now the gradient tool won't fix a photo if you blew out the sky in the first place. But aside from that, the gradient tool is even better than a filter, for a couple of reasons. It can be applied more precisely: you can apply the gradient just to the left side of your photo, without affecting most of the photo at all. And the gradient tool isn't limited to adjusting the exposure or brightness: it can be used to apply the same half dozen or so tools that the adjustment brush applies, including clarity and sharpness and saturation. Once again, brilliant.

Here's a simple photo:

I don't like to "Photoshop" my photos - to process them in a way that really changes what was there in the first place. But I liked the way the light from outside came from the windows at the far right side of the photo (mostly outside the photo), causing the right side of the photo to be bright and the left side to be dark. Here is the same photo, with the effect simply amplified slightly using the gradient tool. (You can click the photo to view it slightly enlarged.)

It's a small difference but I think it makes the photo. Click here to see an example of the effect applied to a slightly more interesting photo.

"Post-crop vignette"
Lightroom 1 had a vignette correction tool. I think it was designed to help fix the problem that occurs with bad lenses where the edges of the photo are (usually) a bit darker than the center of the photo. The vignette tool in Lightroom 2 has become a real editing tool. You can now apply a vignette to a photo to darken (or lighten) the area around the subject. What makes this really nice is that it is applied to the photo in the same way, even if you crop the photo or change the crop. This is an effect I use sparingly but it's nice to use occasionally, especially with portraits.

(I applied it a bit heavy-handedly to that photo to make the point.) Note that you can apply a negative (well, it's actually a positive number on the slider) vignette, that is, you can just as easily lighten the outside corners. Nice if you want to give a baby a halo.
I have mentioned three of the most significant improvements in Lightroom 2's Develop module. I want to add that there is much, much more. Sharpening is better and noise reduction seems better, too. I'm especially pleased with the new output sharpening that will apply sharpening differently if the image is being exported for viewing on screen or for printing. My feeling is that colors are better rendered and that auto-white balance works better than it used to. The "auto" exposure correction button in Lightroom 2 has been improved and now seems to produce results that may actually be useful. In Lightroom 1 "auto" almost never produced results that I liked. This was one reason that I liked Bibble 4.10. Bibble's Perfectly Clear feature does a terrific job of fixing the adjustment automatically. I don't think Lightroom is really the right tool for people who don't want to work on their images, but I'm glad to know that the auto tool is there if I'm ever in a super hurry. And there are improvements in the other modules, as well - Library, Slideshow and Printing. I never use Lightroom's slideshow or printing functions, but improvements in keywording and finding images in Lightroom 2 are going to save me time in every session.

The bottom line is that this is a very solid upgrade. I turned to Light Crafts LightZone and more recently to Bibble Labs' Bibble Pro because, as much as I liked Lightroom 1's user interface, it's develop module just wasn't as strong as LightZone (especially when it comes to localized or selective edits) or Bibble Pro. With Noise Ninja built in, Bibble Pro still seems superior when it comes to noise reduction. And I will admit that I'm still really looking forward to the release of Bibble Pro 5, which will have a completely redesigned user interface and selective edits (including, I think, layers!). But for the moment, Lightroom 2 makes it possible for me to stop thinking about LightZone at all. And while I never really missed Photoshop, well, I don't miss it now even more. Even Photoshop gurus like Scott Kelby acknowledge that, with the release of Lightroom 2, they will need to switch to Photoshop even less often than before. Lightroom 2 is that good.

Wednesday, July 09, 2008

Photoshop vs Lightroom

The question of Photoshop vs the alternatives seems to come up in online forums more often these days, especially as the alternatives to Photoshop get more and more sophisticated. The question is often directed specifically at the difference between Photoshop and the program that Adobe very confusingly calls "Photoshop Lightroom". So I've gathered my thoughts on the matter here.

Use Photoshop to make something new

Photoshop is a very old program whose fundamental feature set hasn't changed much in years. It's still basically a pixel editor, except that it has a whole slew of complicated and powerful tricks for messing about with those pixels. You can edit a photo in Photoshop, but that's hardly all that it's good for and if the photographers of the world abandoned Photoshop tomorrow morning, Adobe will still have a market for the program. Photoshop, name notwithstanding, isn't just about photos and has never been. It is widely used for creating business logos, computer program icons and buttons, not to mention free form digital art. I'm not sure how to quantify this but I'd guess half of the features in Photoshop don't have anything to do with photography.

There is probably nothing that can be done with a digital image that can't be done somehow in Photoshop. But that is kind of like saying that there is no phone call that can't be made on a $500 Blackberry or an iPhone. It's true, but beside the point, since the point is not, what can the tool do? but rather, what do you need the tool for? For most photographers, and I dare say even for most pros, Photoshop's feature set is overkill. For processing photos normally, using Photoshop is like using a 747 jet to commute to work.

It makes sense to use Photoshop when the basic data in the photograph is wrong, or to put it a bit less negatively, when you want to make a new digital creation that does not reflect the external reality you capture with your camera. For example, if you want to move the bride's nose around on her face, or fix the groom's bad navy-blue tux so it looks black, or delete a trash can from a photo, or paste open eyes into a group photo in which somebody's eyes were closed - then Photoshop's the tool of choice. If you want to convert photos into photo-based "art," making a photo look like an impressionistic painting, say, or turning the clouds in the sky blue, or giving pigs wings, once again, Photoshop is your tool. But most photographers don't need to do things like that every day, and for that reason, most photographers - including most photographers who are actually making money with their cameras - don't really need Photoshop often or at all.

I know a number of excellent photographers who used to use Photoshop because it was all there was, and who know do all or most of their post-processing in Aperture or Lightroom. I also know photographers who have bumper stickers on their VW micro-buses declaring that you'll have to pry Photoshop from their cold, dead hands. Okay, I exaggerate, but you get the point. Photoshop simply is not indispensable or necessary for normal, even normal advanced post-processing, but many who stick with Photoshop for normal processing think that it is. These folks remind me a bit of the folks who think that you're not a real photographer if you don't use Nikon or Canon equipment. Perhaps if I were doing fashion photography, I'd use Photoshop; I suspect I would. But most of the wedding/event photographers I know do NOT use Photoshop often or at all. It's too expensive, too complicated, too slow, and in many other ways, simply the wrong tool for their (our) needs.

Use Lightroom to process a basically well-taken photo

If the basic raw data in the photograph is correct, in other words, if you actually took the photograph you wanted to take and you simply want now to process it for presentation as well as you can, then you will be better served by another tool. These tools are generally called raw workflow programs, although the genre is now getting kind of confused. The options include:

1. Lightroom (Adobe)
2. Aperture (Apple)
3. Bibble Pro (from Austin-based Bibble Labs)
4. Silkypix Developer Studio (ISL, a Japanese company)
5. LightZone (Light Crafts)

and many others. These programs have their pros and cons and they differ from one another in various ways, but I'm now interested in how they all differ from Photoshop.

First, unlike Photoshop, the five programs above were all designed from the ground up for processing digital photos (raw files) and that's really all they're designed to do. You don't use Lightroom to create a company logo, design buttons for a computer program's user interface, or design a magazine cover.

Second, none of these programs allows you to edit (copy, paste, erase) individual pixels. Note that these programs can all do some things that involve selective editing. All of them (I think) can fix red-eye and can clone/heal a blemish on a photo (for example, bride has a pimple on her cheek). Some of these programs can do much more than that. LightZone has for a long time had a very powerful vector-based tool time that lets you select a region and then apply to that region any of LightZone's tools, without affecting the rest of the image. With LightZone's regions, you can for example give most of the photo a black and white treatment but leave the bride's bouquet in color. In version 2 (due out later in 2008), Adobe Lightroom will have a very different tool (a brush, rather than a vector tool) that nonetheless provides selective editing, and I think Bibble Pro 5 (also due later this year) will have selective editing as well. Note that, while in Photoshop, you work with and change actual pixels, in Lightroom, LightZone, and the other newer raw workflow programs, even selective edits are saved as instructions and do not actually alter pixels in your original file.

Which brings me to the issue of non-destructive editing. Lightroom and the other programs are designed mainly for processing raw files. The raw files themselves are not editable. (They could be, I suppose, but as a practical matter, they aren't.) Adobe likes to use the metaphor of the raw file as a digital negative, which is kind of misleading if you have ever worked in a darkroom, and not very helpful if you have never done anything but digital photography, but is otherwise satisfactory. If the raw file is the negative, then what you use Lightroom (or LightZone or whatever) for is processing the photo for output - like creating a print, although often the output is just a jpeg that you're going to mail to your mother. Anyway, with non-destructive editing, your changes don't effect the original raw file at all. You load a picture, crop it, adjust the white balance, set the black point and perhaps goose the contrast a bit, adjust the exposure a tad to recover highlights, move a color channel's saturation slider a tad to the left to mute the color a bit, apply some noise reduction if necessary and probably a bit of sharpening - yet NONE of these changes are actually made to the original raw file. The edits do (usually) affect the way the photo looks on screen, and the edits are saved in your output, when you export the raw image file as a jpeg, or when you print it.

Lightroom is not "less creative"

I hear it said occasionally that Photoshop is for creative work, with the implication that Lightroom is not. Nonsense.

If photography itself can be creative - I certainly think that it can, even if it's not creative in the same way as music or sculpture - then a great photo that's processed in Lightroom remains a great photo, with all of its creativity intact. I would add that the tools I work with give the editor at the computer the power to push the images a bit further than the camera got them. Lightroom provides tools for wonderful black and white conversions. LightZone has a gaussian blur tool (like the one in Photoshop). Bibble Pro supports plug-ins that can do all kinds of amazing things. So you can certainly complete the creative process in Lightroom or LightZone or Bibble Pro. It's just that your creativity has to be based always on the photograph that was taken. I like to think of Lightroom (or LightZone, or Bibble Pro) as helping the photo achieve its perfection, its end.

Photoshop makes no one a better photographer, but it can make photographs, if not better, than into something rather different from what they were going to be without Photoshop. In Photoshop, you can do any damn thing you want. Occasionally it produces something brilliant, but a lot of what comes from the would-be Photoshop geniuses is self-indulgent garbage.

Lightroom is NOT "less advanced"

And finally, it is a mistake to think that these raw-workflow programs are somehow less advanced than Photoshop. A piano is not less advanced than an organ just because it seems less complex. The five programs I justs mentioned are all very powerful and all involve a steep learning curve. I own and use Lightroom, Bibble Pro and LightZone on a regular basis and there's very little I can't get done with my photos in one of these or the other. I'm looking forward to the release later this year of both Lightroom 2 and Bibble Pro 5. They're both going to be terrific programs. (I'm already using the public beta of Lightroom 2 for most of my work.)

Indeed, I think these programs are in a way more advanced than Photoshop because they have all been built from the get-go with the problem of processing digital captures in mind, and their feature sets and user interfaces address problems that didn't exist when Photoshop was first created. They are all designed for photographers who take a lot of photos, so they all have batch processing features; and most of them also have some terrific digital-asset management capabilities built in. Lightzone is hopeless as a digital asset manager. Bibble Pro has great batch processing tools but isn't so great as an asset management tool - doesn't have the keywording, flagging, etc. features that Lightroom and Aperture have. This may change with Bibble Pro 5, indeed, I hope that it does.

Right tool for the right job

I have nothing against Photoshop. I don't use it, but I have nothing against it. I do occasionally find myself firing up The Gimp, which does much of what Photoshop does as a pixel editor and which costs a lot less (The Gimp is free). And I keep my license for Photoshop Elements current, just in case I feel an irresistible urge to much about with a photo in some what that I can't do with my preferred applications. But I have not yielded to that urge in quite a while.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Nikon's coming D700 and full-frame frenzy

Over at pentaxforums.com, there's been a lot of chatter about when Pentax is going to release a full-frame body to compete with Nikon and Canon. With Nikon set to release its second full-frame camera very soon (the D700) and at a price (around $3000) that sounds more like a new computer than a new car, this chatter is likely to increase. To some posters, a Pentax full-frame camera seems necessary, as in, "without it, Pentax will die." To others, it seems inevitable, as in, "Pentax will do it just because everybody else is doing it." To a third group, well, the future is harder to read, in part because the advantages of a full-frame sensor are less obvious, especially in the long-run. I'm in this third group.

Which brings me to an excellent article entitled "Is full frame the coming thing?," by Mike Johnston of the Online Photographer, one of my favorite photographic blogs. I recommend the article. It's not often that you get this much honesty and intelligence on the same web page, and for free.

I have only one comment to add. It seems to me that the main advantage of full-frame sensors is that they produce photos that have less digital noise, especially at higher ISOs. Shallower depth of field isn't an advantage, as far as I can tell, since with an APS-C sensor like the ones in my Pentax DSLRS, I can already get paper-thin depth of field if I want, simply by opening up to f/2.8 or something like that. Back when I was still using a Canon PowerShot S3 IS, I did find it difficult to achieve selective focus. But with my Pentax DSLRs, the problem is seldom too much depth of field: it's too much noise.

Now, what if there's more than one way to reduce noise? There does in fact appear to be more than one way. The Pentax K20D is far less noisy then its predecessor, the K10D. Given identical shooting conditions, the K20D at ISO 1600 produces a photo that's about as noisy as a photo taken at ISO 800 on the K10D. How was this achieved? Well, the sensor in the K20D is a CMOS sensor, and apparently Samsung (the maker of the sensor) managed to design it so that it's simply less noisy. Different and better type of sensor, but same size.

It's pretty clear to me that there are some physical constraints here. Mike Johnston asks, if full frame is better, then why not something even larger? The answer of course is both financial and, sooner or later, physical. Perhaps we'd be taking better photos if we all carried huge large-format boxes around, but obviously, it's awkward to use that sort of camera - one that requires a tripod - for much besides landscapes and formal portraits. A camera has to be small enough to be portable, and large enough to support the necessary controls.

Personally I hope full-frame is a fad. I don't know what my own future will bring, but for every daydream I have about getting a Nikon D3 (or D700), I have an offsetting daydream about getting an Olympus DSLR with its smaller 4/3 sensor and its 2x crop factor.

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.