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.

About Me

I am an event photographer living in Dallas, Texas.