Adobe Lightroom 3 Review
by Jerry Jackson -  6/25/2010

No sooner did Adobe release the latest generation of its popular Creative Suite, including Photoshop CS5, than the company unveiled Lightroom 3. For those readers who aren't familiar with it, Lightroom is an advanced workflow management program for digital photographers.

In short, Lightroom allows you to view, organize, edit, and print a large number of digital photos in a short amount of time. While Lightroom 2 offered many advantages over the first iteration of Lightroom, Adobe's Lightroom 3 provides a whole new array of tools to speed up your workflow and improve the quality of your images.

Step One: Importing Images
One of the biggest problems that professional and amateur photographers face in the digital age is finding a way to manage an almost limitless number of photos. Gone are the days of film where every click of the shutter was a precious (and costly) frame of film. Nowadays you might shoot 40 images of the same thing and look at them later to decide which photo you like best. This is where Lightroom 3 really shines.

Lightroom 3 Import

Lightroom 3, like its predecessors, starts out as a digital asset manager - you "import" your images into the Lightroom database either by copying them from your camera's memory card or adding them from a location on your computer's hard drive - and then you get a "lightbox" view of your photos so you can start working. Lightroom 2 made importing a little difficult because the program was slow when importing dozens of high-resolution images, and if you had multiple folders of images on a card you had to perform multiple imports before you could start working on the photos.

Version 3 of Lightroom gives importing a much needed face-lift along with some additional improvements. The default startup screen is the Import screen where images are automatically added to your image library when you insert a memory card or connect a digital camera. You can also manually select the file location on your hard drive. Thumbnails of images are easy to preview in the center of the screen or you can view them in a larger preview area on the left side of the screen that is adjustable so you can make the preview even larger. Lightroom 3 now displays all of the subfolders that will be created along with the number of images in each folder.

Lightroom 3 Library

Once images are inside the library you can give them a star rating from zero to five to help you organize your images and determine which ones you don't want to waste time editing. You can also add "keyword tags" to your images and perform basic image editing using the "quick develop" tools. One particularly useful feature is the Presets option which allows you to save the current quick develop settings and apply them to multiple images.

Step Two: Image Processing Made Easier
Lightroom is one of those programs that confuses a lot of people because it is capable of performing the same tasks that several other applications might do in your digital darkroom. Once you get beyond basic image importing, management, and the "quick develop" tools, Lightroom 3 offers an extremely robust "Develop" module that uses the same processing engine as Adobe Camera Raw in Photoshop CS5. In fact, you could argue that Lightroom 3 makes editing RAW image files easier than Photoshop.

Lightroom 3 Develop

The new processing engine behind the Develop module produces sharper images with lower noise and better color fidelity - depending on how you use it - compared to Lightroom 2. I went back through some of my old images and found a number of RAW files that looked noticeably better after developing them a second time in Lightroom 3.

The new Noise Reduction tools provide greater control over luminance, edge detail and color noise. The luminance noise reduction control in Lightroom 2 caused a visible loss in sharpness while Lightroom 3 maintains much of the essential detail while blending away noise in your high ISO images.

The improved Sharpening sliders also help you give images that extra "pop" without creating the halo effect common to other sharpening tools that distort edges in your photos. The side-by-side "Before and After" view makes it much easier to refine your choices regardless of how drastic or subtle changes might be.

On the other hand, if you're a fan of the grainy look you used to get from film then you'll be happy to hear about the new Film Grain feature. While most digital photographers want the butter-smooth look of noise-free images, there are plenty of people who want to add more grain to these modern photos. You can now vary the size, shape, and amount of film grain in your images and even add a dark or light vignette to your photo to simulate old lenses that lost light toward the edges of the frame. While you can do this with color images, I have to admit that the effect really looks cool with black and white photos.

Lightroom 3 Film Grain

One of the most anticipated new features in Lightroom 3 (as well as Photoshop CS5) is the Lens Correction tools. The Lens Correction sliders allow you to correct barrel or pincushion distortion in your images, eliminate chromatic aberration or color fringing, and remove (or create) vignetting.

Lightroom 3 Lens Correction

By default, lens corrections are turned off even if you have one of the various lenses that Lightroom3 can automatically identify (based on image EXIF data) and correct based on lens profiles built into the software. Adobe is also working on a "Lens Profile Creator" that will allow photographers to create their own lens profiles for automatic adjustments even if Adobe doesn't automatically include lens profiles for the lenses you own.

Step Three: Tethered Capture
This feature won't be of interest to many amateur shutterbugs, but professional photographers everywhere can rejoice over the new Tethered Capture option that lets you shoot your camera and directly import images into Lightroom for review and editing. The Tethered Capture features in Lightroom 3 only work with Canon and Nikon cameras at the time of this writing, but there's no reason to believe that Adobe won't support other camera via future updates.

Lightroom 3 Tethered Capture

As someone who used a number of tethered shooting options over the years for portrait and commercial clients, I can tell you that Lightroom 3 is the easiest tethered shooting solution I have ever used. Period. To shoot tethered, all you have to do is plug a USB cable into your camera and your laptop, open Lightroom 3, then select File, Tethered Capture, and Start Tethered Capture. It really couldn't be simpler. A settings dialog box will pop up where you can give the shooting session a name (like Johnson Graduation Photos), choose what type of metadata is written with the images (such as your copyright information), you can then choose custom file names and choose the hard drive or folder where the files will be saved.

From there, Lightroom 3 will identify the model of camera connected, provide you with the shooting information (aperture, shutter speed, ISO, etc.) for each image captured, and you can either trip the shutter by pressing the shutter button on the camera or you can use the "Capture" button on the computer screen to take photos.

Step Four: What Do You Want To Do Now?
Between image importing, robust image editing controls, and the ability to easily shoot tethered, it might seem like Lightroom 3 has a lot to offer. But it doesn't end there. The newest version of Lightroom also provides the three output options found in the previous versions of Lightroom: Slideshow, Web, and Print. This time, however, your controls over output are better than ever.

Lightroom 3 Slideshow

The Slideshow module not only provides the same easy-to-use controls for crafting slideshows of still photos with stylish transitions that can be exported as PDFs, but now you can export video slideshows. Lightroom 3 gives you the option to format your video slideshow for display on HDTVs with 1080p resolution or for uploading to YouTube. You can add opening and closing title screens, music and even watermark your images. It's awe inspiring just how easy it is to make a quality slideshow with this software.

The controls for printing are likewise improved over previous versions of Lightroom. Sure, you can still make contact sheets, but now you can quickly adjust any image for printing at any size. If you run a studio and print multiple sizes of photos on a single sheet of photo paper, then Lightroom 3 makes it easy to create custom templates so you can get prints to your clients faster than ever before. Most importantly, Adobe radically improved (and simplified) the tools for watermarking images. Adding a watermark to your proofs is easier than anyone expects and you can save your watermark for use on any image.

Lightroom 3 Web

Lastly, the Web module in Lightroom 3 allows you to publish your photos straight to the internet. You can select a template, enter your website information, select the text you want to accompany your photos, and add a copyright watermark. More importantly, you can specify the output settings to limit the quality of the enlarged view or tell the web gallery whether to apply additional sharpening to your images. Lightroom 3 lets you preview your web gallery in your web browser before you upload the images. After you're satisfied with how the gallery looks, you can export the files to your computer or upload the gallery to an FTP server so your family, friends, or clients can start looking at your photos.

Adobe kept the world waiting for what seemed like an eternity after the Lightroom 3 beta first appeared online in 2009. The final release includes new features and useful little extras that we didn't get to see in the public beta releases, and Lightroom 3 provides a significant performance boost over anything we've seen before.

Adobe seems to have hit the ball clear out of the park by providing us with a photo management application that is easy enough for soccer moms to understand yet robust enough for working photographers to use every day. Importing images is easier and faster than Lightroom 2, and experienced photographers won't have to jump back and forth between Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5 thanks to the new capabilities of the Develop module.

I'm honestly at a loss for words to describe how impressed I am with Lightroom 3. I've been a dedicated Photoshop user for years and I never liked using the previous versions of Lightroom because they weren't convenient enough and just added an extra set of steps to my existing workflow. Lightroom 3 allows me to quickly process dozens of images and finally provides the editing tools I need so that I don't have to always open images in Photoshop. Granted, Photoshop CS5 is a far more capable image editing application than Lightroom 3, but Lightroom 3 can do "most" of what I do in Photoshop while simultaneously speeding up my workflow.

I wouldn't hesitate to recommend Lightroom 3 to every PC user who shoots a lot of digital photos. Mac users "might" be happier with Apple's Aperture, but for the price of $299 ($99 to upgrade from Lightroom 1 or 2) it's hard to resist using a photo management application this good.