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Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 Software Review
by David Rasnake -  10/28/2008

If you spend a fair amount of time taking pictures and you've been thinking about a new image editing software purchase, chances are the latest version of Adobe's Lightroom package – Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 2 – has made it onto your short list. An all-in-one image editor, raw conversion system, and image workflow tool, Lightroom 2 is designed to provide serious photographers, both pros and amateurs, with a one-stop solution for getting files from their cameras to print or the web.

Adobe Lightroom 2

So what is Lightroom, exactly? A Photoshop substitute? Advanced image sorting software? A web development application for creating photo galleries? In short, Lightroom is all of this – and more. For an in-depth look at what all this powerful package does and how it does it, keep reading.


LIGHTROOM OVERVIEW
The basic interface premise of original Lightroom is carried over into version two, with the system still built around five basic "modules" – Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, and Web. The Lightroom arrangement is probably ubiquitous enough at this point that most users are familiar with this basic setup, though if you're still shaky on how the whole modules concept works, our review of the original Lightroom package serves as a nice primer.

Lightroom's basic information layout, which segregates controls by type on different portions of the screen, has remained basically unchanged in the update. In the top right corner, you'll find the Module Picker – the heart of Lightroom's control interface, providing access to the program's five large-level functions.

Adobe Lightroom 2

Left-hand and right-hand panes (Lightroom calls them "panels") supply the basic control information for each module.

Adobe Lightroom 2

In the Library module, for instance, you'll find sort/catalog options for getting your images organized on the left panel, and Quick Develop (more on this feature a little later) controls in the right-side space.

Adobe Lightroom 2

Finally, the Filmstrip area at the bottom of the screen shows you thumbnails of all of the images in a given collection, letting you quickly jump between shots for sorting or editing.

Multiple Display Support
As I'll remark throughout this analysis, much of the interface in Lightroom 2 remains the same as what we're used to from the previous version. In one noteworthy operational change, however, Adobe has provided a solution – ableit not always an elegant one – to the lack of dual monitor support in the first edition of Lightroom. Click the Second Window icon just above the filmstrip at the bottom of the screen and, intuitively, a second moveable pop-up window appears, which can then be dragged over to (and even resized or maximized on) a second monitor's desktop space.

Adobe Lightroom 2

A limited number of options within the window curtail what you can do with this auxiliary space, a fact that some will no doubt dislike. Even with this new function, Lightroom still lacks the display-spanning ease of programs like Photoshop. On the flip side, however, having even a thumbnail file browser or image detail viewer on a second monitor to minimized back-and-forth between panes or modules on a single screen is certainly better than nothing.

Performance Impact and System Requirements
For this test, I looked at both the Macintosh and Windows versions of Lightroom 2, and found both to provide a stable, responsive user experience on an appropriately speced machine. Lightroom's background processes do take an appreciable toll on system resources, and having 2 GB of memory on either platform is almost a necessity for some processing tasks. Drive speed also plays a role in laying down certain edits and handling cataloging tasks smoothly. In short, Lightroom can be demanding, and having a system that well exceeds the minimum specs is the key to having a good experience – as processes like the Localized Adjustments tool can tax even high-end graphics machines.

To that end, the majority of my evaluation was performed using the 64-bit Windows install of Lightroom 2 on a well provisioned Lenovo ThinkPad W700 graphics notebook, and all screen shots used for this review were produced from this setup.

Per Adobe, minimum system requirements are as follows:

Windows

Macintosh


THE LIBRARY MODULE
If you're coming from the original version of Lightroom as I was, the first thing you notice in launching into the Library module – the typical starting place for all work in Lightroom – is that the overwhelming majority of the software's visual structure within the individual modules has been retained.

Adobe Lightroom 2

Indeed, the basic Library screen with its thumbnail catalog display retains the same basic arrangement, as well as the same customizability (panes can be relocated or closed altogether) as its predecessor. The bigger changes afoot in Lightroom 2's Library module have less to do with the surface-level function of the software, and more to do with the tools and processes used on the file handling side.

File Handling
First, a little preface for those unfamiliar with Lightroom: in terms of file handling, catalogs are at the core of Lightroom's organizational structure. Basically, a catalog is a workspace full of associated images. In building catalogs, you're consolidating certain images – potentially all of your images, depending on whether you prefer to work with a single catalog or multiple ones – from your computer into a single workspace where they can be tagged, edited, and prepped for display on the web or printing.

Many casual Lightroom users may prefer to combine all of the images on a particular machine – or on a single hard drive, at least – into a global catalog, using Lightroom's system of "collections" (smaller groups of images that can be automatically or user sorted in a variety of ways) to divide up their images. For working photographers or designers, though, the ability to provide hard divisions between different types of images – work and personal, or shots for different jobs or clients – with multiple catalogs is one of Lightroom's more useful features. If you're new to Lightroom, you'll notice here that the software doesn't mandate a single method of organizing your images or require a single workflow, and this flexibility in adapting to a wide range of user needs and skill levels is one of the system's greatest strengths, in my opinion.

Catalogs are populated with images through a process known as importing, and sending Lightroom out to get your files is as easy as going to the file menu, pulling up the import options dialog, and telling the program where to look for files. What many will find even more convenient, though, is Lightroom's ability to go out and get new images automatically via its Auto Import function.

Adobe Lightroom 2

If you have an automated system for pulling images from your camera/memory onto your computer or storage system, or a basic folder (like Windows's "My Pictures" folder) where all of your shots end up, it's a simple affair to specify that file storage location to Lightroom. Every time new images are added to that location, the files will be added to Lightroom as well based on your file handling preferences. If you take a lot of shots, having Lightroom perform this import step for you automatically can be a big timesaver.

While we're on the subject of file handling, newbies and technophobes (or, perhaps, just the organizationally challenged) will like the fact that, as before, Lightroom even handles the heavy lifting of moving images from their source folders into its own file structure if you want it to.

Adobe Lightroom 2

Of course, if you have your own file organization system, you can just as easily tell Lightroom to leave the individual files where they are. The system is even savvy enough that it will keep records of and thumbnails for images on an external drive even if the drive is removed.

The bulk of the Library modules import operations have gone unchanged, but Adobe did make a few key upgrades on the way to version two. Most notably, there's now an on-screen file browser under the left-hand Library panel, making it easier to find original files if you manage your own file structure. In an effort to make Lightroom play better with outside image editing and workflow/organization tools, Lightroom 2 also includes a Synchronize Folder function, which does exactly what you'd expect it to do: heads out to the original folder to look for changes to existing images in the catalog as well as additions or deletions.

Adobe Lightroom 2

This sort of automated functionality is a boon for those of us who prefer to sort and manage our own files, especially, and I found the widget to be both quick and reliable on the speedy local drives of the Lenovo design machine I used for the bulk of this evaluation. Detecting changes to network-stored files, however, is another story, with the tool taking what felt like an enternity to run through large catalogs on my less-than-swift network attached storage device – even though other Lightroom functions don't tend to drag on noticeably across the network.

The Quick Develop Panel
In addition to its duties as file handler, Lightroom's Library module continues to be the place where light image editing happens. For advanced work on images, there's the Develop module to consider, but if you're just needing to make a few quick adjustments to raw, JPEG, or TIFF files, the aptly named Quick Develop function often does the trick. If most of your image editing happens at the level of very light contrast, color, and white balance adjustments, the Quick Develop pane likely provides just about everything you'll ever need right in the software's sort system.

Adobe Lightroom 2

A list of image developing presets also comes pre-loaded with several consumer-friendly options for quick, fun adjustments (for more serious or routine work, you can also create your own presets within the Develop module).

Adobe Lightroom 2

Keywording and Image Organization
While most of Lightroom's keywording tools – which provide a straightforward system for appending information to images and sorting them by subject, location taken, and the like – remain unchanged, a few crucial updates have made this tool, found in the lower portion of the right-hand pane, more appealing and powerful than ever. As always, adding keywords to a selected image is as simple as typing them into the box in the keywording pane and clicking "Add Keyword."

Adobe Lightroom 2

What makes Lightroom 2 unique is its use of a smarter system for suggesting keywords based on what you've already entered. Under the old system, Lightroom populated the Suggested Keywords box with the terms you've used the most often; in version two, the program uses search-engine style technology to correlate terms that are commonly added together. So if you have a group of images that are all tagged as "aardvark," but also as "zoo," if you type in "zoo" to the tagging field, Lightroom would automatically shift "aardvark" to the top of the suggestions list as well – even if it's not a particularly popular keyword in the entirety of your catalog. This makes quickly tagging using the click-to-add system from the Suggested Keywords box much faster and more intuitive than before.

Adobe Lightroom 2

Of course, Lightroom provides the same excellent sort/find capabilities within the keyword system as well. with multi-level keyword filtering making it easy to get at the specific group of images you're seeking, even within a collection of thousands of shots.


THE DEVELOP MODULE
In addition to its tools for cataloging images, a big part of what Lightroom does is provide a tool for converting raw images that has much of the power of Adobe's legendary Camera Raw Photoshop console, but without Camera Raw's highly sophisticated but sometimes confusing interface. Unless you use the aforementioned Quick Develop options in the Library module, raw conversion work in Lightroom is handled in the program's Develop module.

Adobe Lightroom 2

Lightroom's basic tools for handling image edits – whether raw, JPEG, or TIFF – haven't really changed much. As we noted in reviewing the original Lightroom package:

"The basic controls let you adjust white balance by selecting a neutral area of the image or with sliders for temperature and tint. In this same control, there are sliders to adjust exposure and the various tones in the image (recovery, fill light, and blacks), a slider to adjust brightness, slider to adjust contrast, and sliders to adjust the vibrancy and saturation of colors. [...] The other controls on the page handle more color adjustments (using Hue, Saturation, Luminance), including adding color tones to grayscale images. You can sharpen images and reduce noise using Luminance and Color sliders. A Lens Correction panel lets you combat chromatic aberration or vignetting that can occur (or you can add your own)."

In short, it's a slightly truncated and more easy-to-use version of the control console that you get in Adobe Camera Raw.

An improved Camera Calibration console provides the same basic functions as before, but (as of the release of the Lightroom 2.1 update last week) users can now download raw processing profiles from Adobe Labs that emulate the default processing looks provided by several popular DSLR models. For raw file processing, these profiles give you an excellent baseline from which to begin – one that's often much closer to the "look" that you perceive from your camera than Adobe's very neutral default raw processing – in developing your raw files. In a side-by-side comparison between two shots from my Pentax K10D – one developed in-camera with default settings, the other processed to JPEG using the Adobe Labs profile – I was surprised at just how close the look was.

Overall, the raw image processing system that Lightroom provides will be familiar to users of other Adobe raw converters, targeting the same minimal sharpness/low saturation look produced by previous products from the developer. With improved lens correction and vignetting control functions, as well as the camera profiles option, though, Lightroom's system provides as much flexibility in producing final-version files as most of us will ever need.

Regardless of whether you're working with JPEGs or raw images, Lightroom is, like most professional image workflow tools, a non-destructive editor: the adjustments you make in Lightroom are stored separately from the image files themselves.

Adobe Lightroom 2

Hence, an image's modification history is saved across sessions – no matter how involved your editing gets, or how many times you close and reopen Lightroom, you can revert any of the changes you've made in the Develop module (including returning to the unedited original file as imported) at any point.

"Masking for the Masses"
When Adobe first demoed the new version of Lightroom for us, much was made of the Develop module's new Localized Adjustments tool. At its most basic, the tool (accessed by clicking on the brush icon at the top of the Develop module's right-hand pane) allows you to brush any of the system's several adjustment types (including exposure, saturation, and sharpness) into specific areas of an image, providing everything from non-destructive dodging and burning to area-specific saturation adjustments and exposure control effects.

Adobe Lightroom 2

It's not like anything Lightroom 2 promised on this front was something that couldn't already be handled in an advanced image editor like Photoshop, but as usual, Lightroom's Localized Adjustments tool touted simplicity above all else – breaking down a lot of the mystique often associated with edits that require masking certain portions of the image.

Adobe Lightroom 2
Original

Adobe Lightroom 2
After Localized Adjustment (saturation, manual mask)

The example above, created in just a few minutes with the saturation filter by painting out the area around the flower with three progressively smaller brushes, shows off the Localized Adjustments tool's power for performing the kind of spot color work that wedding and portrait photographers often use. With several feathered brushes to choose from in the tool, and a range of adjustments from mild to wild on the filter side, it's relatively easy to "paint in" effects cleanly and naturally by working systematically and varying density and flow in your brush work.

Although it takes a stout graphics system to run it cleanly, Lightroom 2 also features an Auto Mask function. Check the appropriate box in the Localized Adjustments console and Lightroom will automatically help in identifying boundary areas. For instance, say I wanted to mask in the sky of the following photo to adjust the exposure, without changing the exposure on the church steeple or other surroundings.

Adobe Lightroom 2
Original

Using the Auto Mask function, instead of having to carefully paint along the edges of boundary areas, I can run my brush along the boundary between steeple and sky without worrying too much about intrusion: Lightroom automatically detects contrast boundaries and, as a rule, does a good job of keeping the mask in like-colored areas. After a little work and some exposure pull, the final result looks like this:

Adobe Lightroom 2
After Localized Adjustment (exposure, auto mask)

Total work time? About eight minutes to create the initial mask, do some selective erasing to clean up what little bit of overrun there was with Auto Mask enabled, and come back in with a detail brush for fine work. For general users not familiar with Photoshop's masking tools or even more advanced dedicated masking software, Lightroom's Localized Adjustments implementation is a winner insofar as the process is easy to understand (and avoids, at the surface level at least, a lot of the technicalities associated with mask-based adjustments – presenting the process with a simple "paint in the effect" approach in which the system provides more or less automatic assistance depending on whether or not you use the Auto Mask function).

Of course, this straightforward simplicity is also the tool's downfall for more serious users. What I did in some under ten minutes in Lightroom could have been accomplished at the same level of precision in two minutes or less in Photoshop with the assistance of some more precise boundary establishment tools. Never mind that on an image like this one, a dedicated automatic masking filter could get me to the same results without any manual brushing at all. For less savvy users, though, creating a mask in Photoshop and knowing what to do with it are two different things, and if the last few sentences went over your head, you're exactly the kind of user that Adobe is hoping to entice with the Localized Adjustments tool.

In some ways, it seems that Localized Adjustments as implemented in Lightroom 2 is more of a "proof of concept" feature than anything else, proving that Abode was capable of developing a selective edits system with enough functionality (if only just) to have benefit for advanced users while appealing to those less digitally savvy shooters who look to Lightroom primarily for its cataloging functions. With a more detailed Auto Mask controller and some additional functions, it's possible that Lightroom 3 could actually succeed in simultaneously making this function even more appealing to both of these disparate user groups.


THE SLIDESHOW, PRINT, AND WEB MODULES
In addition to its two image editing and workflow modules, Lightroom 2 reprises the original program's three output-focused modules: Slideshow, Print, and Web.

Adobe Lightroom 2

From all appearances, the Slideshow functions see few (if any) substantive updates compared to the first version of Lightroom. As before, Slideshow can be used to develop highly customizable playback loops of any set of images you choose, which can then be exported as PDFs – greatly enhancing their portability and compatibility.

Likewise, Lightroom's highly functional Web module has received minimal updates.

Adobe Lightroom 2

Even without a whole lot of new tech to show off, the Lightroom Web module wowed us the first time around, and it doesn't fail to impress this time, either. As before, the flexibility in creating template-based or fully customizable image galleries that Lightroom 2 provides makes this tool ideal for photographers who manage their own sites: with the ability to create advanced Flash galleries, especially, those who publish to the web should have all the tools they need to create posting code for commercial or portfolio image uses. And real-time gallery function previews within the module itself means less time spent jumping into a web browser to demo changes as you go.

Lightroom 2's biggest news on the output side comes in the Print module.

Adobe Lightroom 2

Although the basic controls for setting up print output are the same here as well, Adobe has recognized the important role that Lightroom plays in the wedding/portraiture world by creating an advanced Picture Package layout engine that allows quick and easy creation of package sheets.

Adobe Lightroom 2

In addition to printing directly from Lightroom, package output can also be "printed" to a new JPEG file – perfect for working photographers who send client orders to an out-of-house lab for printing.


CONCLUSIONS
One question we field a lot around here – and I'm sure Adobe's heard more than their share of this one too – is, "Will Lightroom replace Photoshop for what I do?" Entangled in this question is the issue that's always been part of my typical response: "It depends on what you need to do with your images." Lightroom 2, with its more involved Develop module, makes it clear that Adobe is moving toward a single-source solution for raw conversion, process/sort, routine editing tasks, and output control. And improvements in the second iteration clearly address the original Lightroom's weakest area from this list: routine editing. Although it's still no Photoshop (nor is it meant to be), Lightroom's Localized Adjustments tool, improved lens correction and vignetting console, and ever-growing palette of processing controls make version two a substantial step forward for covering the basic functions that both amateur photographers and full-time pros seek in an image editor.

Not surprisingly, the package's workflow tools – especially its keywording functions and new Smart Collections auto sort features – are also appreciably improved. And with more transparent file handling and a synchronization function for checking for changes, serious shooters are less likely to get bent out of shape over how Lightroom incorporates their files.

Although Lightroom 2 is arguably the most consumer-friendly of Adobe's image editing options (with its limited range of controls and many presets, even more so than Photoshop Elements, I'd argue), there's no doubt that at its core, this is not a pure image editor but rather a workflow solution designed for folks who need to manage a lot of images. For advanced work involving masking, gradients, cloning/healing, or raw conversion, hard-core image processors will still fall back on Photoshop and Camera Raw. But Lightroom 2's better integration with Adobe's other imaging products should help it continue to jockey for position at the front of the pack among image workflow tools, and more advanced editing options might just make the latest version of Lightroom the all-in-one organization and editing system some serious amateurs have been waiting for.

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