Lightroom 6: First Impressions

Swirling mist from Tunnel View, Yosemite NP, CA, USA
Swirling mist from Tunnel View, Yosemite. The new HDR Merge in Lightroom 6/CC did a great job with this high-contrast scene, producing a natural-looking result, and doing it with a completely non-destructive workflow.

After months of rumors, last week Adobe finally released Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC. When I saw the list of new features, I have to say I was a bit disappointed. I was hoping for improvements to Lightroom’s retouching tools, and to the Adjustment Brush. It would be nice to add a curve to only part of an image, for example, and the Auto Mask function of the Adjustment Brush has long needed improvement.

Changes to the Develop Module

Alas, Lightroom 6/CC offers only small improvements to the Develop Module, like the ability to move and copy Adjustment Brush pins, and to modify Graduated Filter and Radial Filter selections with a brush. Nice, but hardly earth-shattering.

There is, however, a new, unadvertised feature of the Spot Removal Tool that I stumbled upon, and find rather useful: you can now place new cloning or healing spots over old ones by hiding the tool’s circles. Press the H key to hide or reveal the circles (the Tool Overlay). Though this seems like a small thing, the ability to add cloning or healing in layers, one step on top of another, is vital for any serious retouching job, and a significant improvement to Lightroom’s retouching capabilities. (There was a workaround in previous versions of Lightroom, though rather an awkward one: you could place a new spot outside any existing ones, then drag it over an existing spot. The new implementation is much better.)

With the circles (Too Overlay) visible, the cursor turns into a hand when it's over an existing circle, so you can move the spot, but you can't paint over it.
With the circles (Tool Overlay) visible, the cursor turns into a hand when it's over an existing circle, so you can move the spot, but you can't paint over it.

Now in Lightroom 6/CC, if you press the H key to hide the Tool Overlay, and place your mouse over an existing circle, the brush appears...
Now in Lightroom 6/CC, if you press the H key to hide the Tool Overlay, and place your mouse over an existing circle, the brush appears...
... and you can click or drag to paint over an existing spot.
... and you can click or drag to paint over the previous spot.

HDR Merge

But the biggest additions to Lightroom 6/CC are the ability to create HDR images and panoramas directly from Lightroom, without using Photoshop or another application. I don’t create many panoramas, nor do I use HDR very often because Lightroom is so good at handling high-contrast scenes with just one image. But of course I had to try these new HDR and panorama features to see how they worked. And I have to say that they’re well done. Adobe has managed to add improved performance, functionality, and flexibility, yet keep the workflow simple.

The new HDR Merge looks like a significant improvement over previous methods of creating HDR images, but to explain why we need a little background. First, HDR is a two-step process. You start by creating the 32-bit HDR image, which contains the full dynamic range of all the merged files. But that full dynamic range can’t be viewed on a monitor, so you have to do a second step, called tone mapping, to compress the tones into a usable range.

It’s that tone-mapping part that often leads to surreal and garish HDR effects. But since version 4.1, Lightroom has had the ability to work with 32-bit TIFF files. This allowed (and still allows) you to create the 32-bit HDR image with another program, like Photoshop or Nik HDR Efex, but do the tone-mapping in Lightroom, with its fabulous Highlights and Shadows tools. This has been, by far, my favorite HDR method – on those rare occasions when I use HDR – because it usually yields excellent, natural-looking results.

The problem with this workflow is that it’s convoluted. You have to do things a certain way to get that 32-bit HDR TIFF from Photoshop into Lightroom. It’s even more complicated to create a 32-bit TIFF in HDR Efex and get an editable version into Lightroom to tone-map it.

But the new HDR Merge in Lightroom bypasses all the confusion. You just select the images you want to merge in Lightroom and choose Photo > Photo Merge > HDR. In the ensuing dialog you have a few simple choices. (I’d suggest unchecking Auto Align unless you were hand-holding the camera. If something moved between frames, like clouds, you might choose a Low, Medium, or High Deghost Amount. I also prefer to leave Auto Tone unchecked, though these settings can be changed later if you do check it). Then after you click Merge, a 32-bit DNG file will appear in Lightroom, which you can tone-map in the Develop Module. If you left Auto Tone unchecked, start by dragging Highlights to the left, and Shadows to the right, then tweaking Exposure, Contrast, and possibly Whites and Blacks.

Notice that the merged HDR file is a DNG, not a TIFF. This is a significant advantage, allowing you to keep a completely non-destructive workflow with HDR images – something previously unheard of. With this DNG file you can still adjust all the underlying settings of the Raw files, including the camera profile, sharpening, noise reduction, white balance – everything. It’s like having a Raw file with a huge dynamic range, and being able to adjust that file with all the power and non-destructive flexibility of Lightroom’s Develop Module. With any previous HDR method, adjustments made to the Raw files before creating the HDR file were baked in, and the only way to change them was to go back to the original Raw files, make the changes, and start over.

So, as I said, all this is well thought out and implemented. I was concerned, however, about Lightroom’s ability to generate a good 32-bit HDR file to begin with – one without artifacts. I’d sometimes found problems with Photoshop’s HDR function in the past. With one of my photographs, for example, a section of sky had a strange, hard-to-fix greenish patch. But when I tried merging this same bracketed sequence with Lightroom’s new HDR Merge, there was no greenish patch, nor could I find any other strange artifacts. In fact it worked beautifully – it's the image at the top of this post. I've included the three original Raw files below, so you can see what went into the final image. I’ve tried the Lightroom 6/CC HDR Merge on a few more images now, and have not seen any objectionable artifacts (though that is, of course, a small sample size).

The first exposure of three used to create the final image at the top of this post
The first exposure of three used to create the final, merged HDR image at the top of this post
The second exposure merged to create the image at the top of this post, two stops lighter than the first
The second exposure merged to create the image at the top of this post (it's two stops lighter than the first)
The third exposure merged into the final image at the top of this post, two stops lighter than the second
The third exposure merged into the final image at the top of this post (two stops lighter than the second)

Because of the ease and flexibility of the new Lightroom HDR Merge, I foresee this quickly becoming my preferred method for creating HDR images. If you want surreal, over-the-top HDR effects, this isn’t the tool for you. But if you want natural-looking results, and the scene’s contrast is too great to handle with one exposure, Lightroom’s new HDR Merge is definitely worth a try.

Panorama Merge

The new Panorama Merge in Lightroom 6/CC works in a similar way. Select the images you want to use for the panorama in Lightroom, then choose Photo > Photo Merge > Panorama. In the ensuing dialog, I’d suggest that you uncheck “Auto Select Projection,” then try both the Spherical and Cylindrical projection methods, and choose the one you like best. For this nighttime panorama from the Trona Pinnacles, I stitched eight images (all in vertical orientation with a 24mm lens) using the Spherical projection method:

Trona Pinnacles and the Milky Way, Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark, CA, USA
Trona Pinnacles and the Milky Way, Trona Pinnacles National Natural Landmark, California – a panorama stitched together with Lightroom 6/CC's new Panorama Merge

Again, the resulting merged file is a DNG, and retains all the editing flexibility that you’d expect from the Raw file, including the ability to adjust the camera profile, sharpening, noise reduction, white balance, etc. Very nice.

Performance

Adobe also says that performance has been improved in Lightroom 6/CC, which is always welcome. I haven’t noticed a huge difference on my older Mac laptop, but some things are a bit quicker.

Other Changes

Many of the new features in Lightroom 6/CC are focused outside the Develop Module. These include facial recognition, video slide shows, new web galleries, and improvements to Lightroom Mobile. You can see all the new features listed here. (I might actually like using Lightroom Mobile, but I just don't have enough room on my phone for those DNG files! Surely I'm not the only one with this dilemma... )

Conclusions

Lightroom 6/CC probably won’t revolutionize your workflow, but you may discover new features that are helpful, like modifying the masks in the Graduated and Radial filters with a brush, and painting over existing circles with the Spot Removal Tool. And the new HDR and Panorama merge functions are well done, providing flexible, easy-to-use options for processing high-contrast scenes and stitching panoramas.

Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC are essentially the same, but Lightroom 6 is a standalone application and can be purchased with a perpetual license, while Lightroom CC is a monthly rental, available to Creative Cloud subscribers, including subscribers to Adobe’s $9.99-per-month Creative Cloud Photography Program (which includes Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC). (One important difference is that Lightroom Mobile is only available in the CC version.)

If you’re a Creative Cloud subscriber, there’s no reason not to upgrade – it won’t cost you any more. If you own a standalone license to Lightroom 5, it’s a tougher call. If you like creating panoramas or use HDR frequently, I’d say go for it. If not, well, there might not be a compelling reason to upgrade, but then again the upgrade is only $79. If you own an earlier version of Lightroom, like Lightroom 3 or 4, then this is a no-brainer: upgrade now! The change from Lightroom 3 to 4 was huge, and the improvements to the Spot Removal Tool alone in Lightroom 5 and 6 are worth upgrading from Lightroom 4.

Will I Be Updating My Landscapes in Lightroom 5 ebook?

Yes, absolutely. First, let me say that Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide is all about the Develop Module, and little has changed there in Lightroom 6/CC. So everything in the ebook and its accompanying videos is still relevant and up to date (with a few minor exceptions).

But I will be making additions, corrections, and updates where necessary – both to the text and videos. I’ll also be adding two more examples, one where I take you step-by-step through processing an image using the new HDR Merge, and another where I do the same with a panorama.

People who have already bought the ebook will get the updated, expanded version free. But when the new version comes out, the price will go up. So in the meantime you can still get Landscapes in Lightroom 5 for just $14.95, and then get the updated version for free when it’s available. But if you wait until the new version comes out, the price will go up to $27.

Just to sweeten the deal a bit, you can get 20% off the retail price of Landscapes in Lightroom 5 now by subscribing to my blog. After you subscribe you'll get a code for the discount. You can find out more about the ebook, and it’s accompanying videos and Raw files, here.

In the meantime, I recommend Piet Van den Eynde’s ebook Lightroom 6 Up to Speed from Craft & Vision. Piet does a great job of explaining all the new features in Lightroom 6/CC, including all that stuff outside the Develop Module like Facial Recognition, web galleries, and so on.

So have you tried Lightroom 6/CC? Let me know what you think about it in the comments, and feel free to ask me questions about the new version.

— Michael Frye

Related Posts: Outdoor Photographer Excerpts My Landscapes in Lightroom 5 eBook; Lightroom 5 Beta

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Michael Frye is a professional photographer specializing in landscapes and nature. He is the author or principal photographer of The Photographer’s Guide to YosemiteYosemite Meditations, Yosemite Meditations for Women, Yosemite Meditations for Adventurers, and Digital Landscape Photography: In the Footsteps of Ansel Adams and the Great Masters. He has also written three eBooks: Light & Land: Landscapes in the Digital Darkroom, Exposure for Outdoor Photography, and Landscapes in Lightroom 5: The Essential Step-by-Step Guide. Michael has written numerous magazine articles on the art and technique of photography, and his images have been published in over thirty countries around the world. Michael has lived either in or near Yosemite National Park since 1983, currently residing just outside the park in Mariposa, California.

By Michael Frye

3 Comments

    Thanks Michael. You sold me.I’m purchasing a new Mac this week and will load it with the stand alone. The pano and HDR ability really make the difference. Noise question: I have been processing my images through LR 5 then compress to Jpeg for OP, facebook, etc… and the noise comes back. Do you think I should have other software for noise?

    Thanks, Paul

    I am now not positive the place you’re getting your

    info, but good topic. I needs to spend some time studying more

    or working out more. Thanks for magnificent information I was

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