Adobe's Lightroom is the tool of choice of pro and prosumer digital photographers who need a streamlined way to import, organize, and tweak, and output large numbers of high-resolution photo files. The app's newest version, Lightroom 4, adds several compelling new features—a built-in map locating where photos were shot, video tools, improved adjustments, integrated book creation, simple photo emailing, and soft proofing. These, along with a significant price cut from $299 to $149 make Lightroom a must-have app for anyone serious about digital photography. Let's take the new Lightroom out for a spin.
Lightroom 4 is available for Mac OS X (10.6.8 or 10.7 Lion), Windows 7 or Vista, both 32-bit and 64-bit editions. (XP users: The world is moving away from you! Get with the times!) Upgrading from previous versions costs $79. It's a 400MB download, and you also have the option to download a full-featured 30 day trial.
Not a whole lot has changed with the interface design in Lightroom 4. Unlike Apple Aperture ($79, 4 stars), Lightroom uses separate "modes" for organizing (Library), adjusting (Develop), and other program functions. But you'll probably be happy to hear that now you can turn on and off the mode entries at top left; by default these now include Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, and Print. This is useful, if, for example, you never use the Slideshow or Web modes. Another interface detail is that the first time you visit a view in the app, you'll see a help box giving you a tip about using it. You can turn these off, but they're a nice new touch. We'll see more interface changes in the Photo Adjustment section below.
Lightroom has a big, ever-present Import button and media auto-detect that launches the non-destructive importer. This lets you see thumbnails and full size images on memory cards even before importing. Lightroom 3.5's import is much faster than Aperture's, and both now let you start work on any photo in the set before all the import processing is done. ACDSee let me start processing while an import was still in progress, too, but it couldn't automatically apply adjustments aside from rotation on import, and it was much slower than Lightroom.
Like Aperture, Lightroom imports pictures into its own database, aka "catalog," where other programs and the files system can't access to them (unless you change that option or export the pictures later). The database approach makes sense for photographers with huge collections of large images. Usually, you'll want to import photos as camera raw files, which offer more control over the final images. Lightroom supports raw conversion for every major DSLR and high-end digital camera.
Another way to get photos onto your computer is to tether. Mostly of use to pro photographers, tethering lets you connect your camera with a USB or FireWire cable and actually control the shutter release from the computer. Lightroom let me shoot from my laptop with a more elegant UI than Aperture's bare-bones tethering box—one area where Adobe beats Apple on interface. ACDSee and CyberLink PhotoDirector, by comparison, offer no tethering capability.
In Library mode, double-clicking takes you between thumbnail and screen fit view, and another click zooms in to 100 percent; but Aperture's browser, viewer, and filmstrip buttons at top are clearer. Zooming, unfortunately is limited to Fit, Fill, and ratios like 1:3, and 1:2, and it doesn't make good use of the mouse wheel, as many other photo editors do. But Lightroom not only gives you thumbnail and full views of your images and the ability to star rate, pick, or color-code images, but it also lets you group pictures into Quick Collections of thumbnails you select and Smart Collections of photos that meet rating or other criteria.
Star rating, flagging, and rotating can also be done from within the thumbnails. And, from Library Mode, you can use Quick Develop, which may be all you need if your pictures just need a lighting fix or to apply a preset effect (B&W, Cross Process, and the usual Instagram-like suspects). One basic fix you can't do unless you move to Develop, however, is cropping.
Another neat tool in Library mode is the spray-paint-can button, which lets you click on thumbnails to apply either metadata or adjustment presets. The program also does a good job of making it easy to compare images side by side. Finally, a Survey mode lets you select several images for larger comparison views.
A built-in map for geo-tagged photos has been available in Apple's competing Aperture ($79.99, 4.5 stars) and even iPhoto apps for more than a year. Of course, my iPhone records location data with the image file for photos snapped with the phone, and photos imported from it appeared automatically on the Lightroom map. I should note that imported videos weren't fair game for mapping.
But I was intrigued with Lightroom 4's ability to sync photos imported from a camera without built-in GPS to a location file imported from an iPhone app. This way, shots from my Canon T1i could be placed on Ligthroom's map automatically. The process wasn't as straightforward as it might have been the first time around, but once I got it down, it made sense.
I used a 99-cent app called GPS Tracks (there are plenty other similar ones), which allowed me to export a tracking file in GPX format, the format Lightroom accepts. None of Lightroom's menus offered an Import GPX file choice, nor did right-clicking folders or selected photos in the Library. When I first switched to Map view in Lightroom, the map showed none of my images, but a key indicated what photos and photo group icons should look like.
The trick is to select some images in Library mode, then switch to Map mode, and click on the path icon at the bottom. This offered a Load Tracklog option, which accepted the GPX file. But the photo tags still didn't show up on the map. The final step was to choose Auto-Tag photos, and, kaboom, my map was loaded with geo-tags. Clicking on them creates thumbnails of the relevant images, and double-clicking a thumbnail opens the full sized image in Library view.
One point to keep in mind when using the map-syncing feature is your camera needs to be exactly set to the same time as your phone. Unless I'd stopped in one place for a while, my photos were a few yards off. You can change the photo metadata time entry in Lightroom, even change a whole set's timestamps, but getting the time right in the first place is simpler.
To display imported videos in Lightroom, I still needed to download and install Apple QuickTime. But with Lightroom 4 I could play video right inside the app, rather than launching an external video player, as was necessary in previous versions. The video thumbnails even preview the video motion when you sweep the cursor over them. But playback of HD video shot with an iPhone 4S was quite stop-and-go, even on a 3.16GHz dual core with 4GB RAM and an Nvidia GT 240 graphics card. This may have had something to do with my running 64-bit Windows 7 and 64-bit Lightroom, while QuickTime is 32-bit. A nice touch in playback was that I could advance or go back one frame at a time.
More exciting are Lightroom's new editing skills. Using a scrubber along the bottom of the window, I could trim off the beginning and ending of the clip (no splitting, yet). This is helpful for those of us who fumble with the camcorder at first and then leave it running longer than the scene stays interesting. From this control, I could also snap a still image from the video (though it wasn't completely clear where the new image went—to a stack with the video) and choose the "poster frame"—the image on the clip's thumbnail.
Perhaps the coolest thing about video in the new Lightroom is that you can actually apply some of the program's image adjustments to moving images. You can't do this in Develop mode, however, where you get a message saying "Video is not supported in Develop." In Library mode, the Auto Tone button worked wonders on my clips, and was applied to all frames. I could also adjust white balance, exposure, contrast, and "vibrance," which adds zest to dull colors.
Finally, new for video in Lightroom is the ability to publish clips to Facebook and Flickr. A new choice is to export to Adobe's recently rechristened Revel service (formerly Carousel).
With Lightroom 4's new 2012 image process come some new defaults and capabilities. In the Develop mode's right sidebar, sliders for adjustments like Brightness, Contrast, and Blacks in the Develop mode now all sit right in the middle of their tracks at zero, letting you slide them up and down. In the past, a photo's brightness slider would indicate +50, Contrast +25, and Blacks +5 right after import. This showed you what Lightroom was doing with raw data at import, but the new setup, with everything set to a 0 baseline and slider motion up to 100 and down to -100 makes sense. I did notice that maximizing a slider didn't pump up, for example, fill light/shadows as much as in the old system, but by tweaking the exposure, I could get equally good results.
Maybe even more welcome will be the finessed shadow and highlight recovery that the new image processing makes possible. I was really impressed with how I could bring out a dark face without blowing out the bright sky in an image. Of course, you could do this with an adjustment brush, but the effect is more natural when applied with Lightroom's Highlights and Shadows sliders. Some digital darkroom mavens may miss the Recovery and Fill Light controls, though, which Highlights and Shadows replace.
It may also throw some users that the Blacks control now darkens the image when reducing the slider to the left rather than when increasing it to the right, though the new method has its logic. This illustrates a new behavior of all these sliders: moving them to the left always darkens the image, while right brightens. Another thing I noticed was that pushing a slider all the way to the end didn't produce as drastic an effect as in Lightroom 3, but in the end, I could still usually get a better result with the new process.
More area-specific adjustments are now possible with Lightroom's Adjustment Brush tool. Now you can apply white balance, noise reduction, moiré removal to specific areas of an image. This goes even beyond what you can do with Apple Aperture's excellent adjustment brushes.
Lightroom offers profile-based lens correction for geometry, vignetting, and chromatic aberration. The last is a checkbox, replacing Lightroom 3's sliders, and I still consider DxO Optics Pro[[link]] a better choice for CA removal. Lightroom 4 did, however, do an excellent job at removing image noise. And if you really want to supercharge your editing, Lightroom's plugin capability means you can add powerful tools like Nik Color Efex Pro or PictureCode's Noise Ninja.
Content Aware Auto Correct
When Adobe polled users about whether they use the Auto option to correct their photos, the response was overwhelmingly that they never used it, but according to Adobe's automated feedback, about a third of all users take advantage of auto correct. For Lightroom 4, Adobe has supercharged the feature. Instead of a purely algorithmic correction, the new Auto draw on experience with thousands of different kinds of actual photos and corrects yours based on its similar characteristics. It's still not perfect: I found that Auto still often would lighten a picture I wanted to darken, but in many cases it did a beautiful job.
Adobe has teamed up with self-publishing service Blurb to bring you powerful yet easy book design and printing. A new module choice in Lightroom is simply called Book. You can tinker as much as you want with the page layouts, or completely automate the process with the Auto Layout option. The price for your book is clearly displayed (they start at $12.50), so you know what you're getting into from the start. I quickly produced a beautiful book in the app in under an hour, but you could spend a lot more time to perfect the layout. You can choose from several preset layouts for any page.
Not only does Lightroom 4 continue to support any output options for which numerous plugins are available, built-in support for Flickr and Facebook has made uploading to those popular sources even easier. You can also now upload video directly to these services. You can now even see comments, Likes, and Favorites within Lightroom. Very cool.
Sometimes, however, when you get a picture just the way you want, you want to be able share it immediately via email. In the past Lightroom made this a several-steps process, requiring you to export the image, then open up your mail application or site, attach the photo file, and send. Now, once you tell Lightroom your preferred mail app or service (it works with popular webmail services), sending photos by email is one right-click away. And Lightroom offers attractive font choices for your text message.
New Pro Features
A couple of the new features in Lightroom 4 will appeal mostly to professionals, or at least to photogs who like to print their images and those who have a bazillion photos to store. New for Lightroom 4 is a Soft Proofing option in Develop mode's bottom toolbar. It's a simple check box that changes the image background to paper white and only shows colors the output device can handle. It also changes the top-right control box to soft-proofing mode showing a different histogram and a button to create a proof copy. This feature is also highly useful for Web publishers, who can check if their image colors will display correctly online.
For those who store a multitude of images, Adobe has added capabilities to its DNG image format. Converting you raw camera files to DNG lets you preview far more quickly (up to eight times faster) in Develop mode. Also new is the ability to use lossy compression for low priority photos. This could save a lot of disk space for photogs with thousands of large image files. For further reduction, you can now also reduce images' pixel size on exporting to DNG.
Lightroom in a New Light
All my big issues with the beta of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 have been rectified in this release. A couple of my quibbles remain: I still wish I could zoom to any percent, rather than being restricted to ratios like 1:3, 1:2, and 1:1. And the program still lacks face recognition, which can be a boon to organizing large image collections and is available in Apple Aperture and Photoshop Elements. Version 4 is not a drastic reboot, nor should it be, as Lightroom is a well-loved program that's long been the choice of pro and prosumer photographers. For anyone who's serious about digital photography, Adobe Photoshop Lighroom 4, our Editors' Choice for photo workflow software, is now a more essential tool than ever.