Is it right for you? I can’t say, because every photographer will respond to the program’s features differently. But I can help by giving you an overview of how the program works and offer a few thoughts on how it might help the nature photographer.
Lightroom is immediately impressive because of its interface. This is a program definitely designed for photographers, with its distinctive black and dark gray background that sets off the photos. Controls are split up into easily identified groups.
First, there are the five modules: Library, Develop, Print, Slideshow and web. You enter each by clicking on the words (there are also keyboard commands to move you through much of Lightroom, but that’s beyond the scope of this column). These modules define the way you interact with images in a way that most photographers immediately understand without going to the Help menu.
Second, each module has a left and a right panel that hold specific categories of controls labeled by clickable ID bars. The left panel typically includes a preview pane along with templates or presets that automate how you work with images. The right panel is where you usually find specific adjustments and settings.
Besides the panels, the overall interface includes a central work area and a filmstrip at the bottom. There’s a set of traditional menus at the top, but you’ll find that you rarely use them.
The Library module is where you can organize and catalog your photos. This is the place to edit your images, rename them and group them so that you can easily find images to work on. Lightroom isn’t a browser like Adobe Bridge. It’s faster and far more versatile than Bridge.
You must tell Lightroom to import images into Library; you can’t scroll through the folders on your hard drive and have it recognize photos. You need to point the program at your folders and tell it how to bring them into the program.
I use the Folders and Collections sections of Lightroom extensively. When I import images into Lightroom, I leave the images in their original folders and tell Lightroom to recognize those folders, using those names in the Folders category. Then I create specific groupings for my photos in the Collections area, such as Flowers—East, Flowers—West, Landscapes—SW, Landscapes—Midwest, Birds—East and so forth.
Images are dragged from the central work area to a collection area to create the connection. The actual file isn’t moved; a reference to that file is created. This way, you can have many collections, each with "virtual" copies of the images, so that you can find a certain type of image quickly, but you don’t have to duplicate photos on your hard drives. (I hope, by the way, you use multiple hard drives to back up and protect your photos.)
Lightroom also has strong keywording capabilities, though not all photographers will use them. I admit to not being very good at keywording; I get bored too easily. On the other hand, photographers who put in the effort to keyword will be able to find specific images faster than I can.
If you used to work with a light table for editing slides, you’ll love Library. You can hide the left, right and filmstrip panels. Then, when set to the Grid mode, the whole screen looks like a light table. You can rank photos by clicking special icons on the "mounts" so you can have your selects and rejects, plus you can instantly compare two photos for things like sharpness or select a small group to compare for an animal’s posture and gesture.
Library’s right panel has a Quick Develop section that I’m not crazy about. The Develop module is so strong that this seems like a useless appendage. However, the right panel includes extensive keywording and metadata functions that can help you label your images with important information in the file itself (such as captions, locations, copyright and so on).
The Develop module is one of the best RAW processing converters around. Lightroom processes JPEG, TIFF and RAW files all nondestructively, meaning it allows infinite adjustments with no quality degradation because the adjustments are only applied to images when they’re exported from the program.
Why do I say Develop is so effective for dealing with RAW? Two reasons: the processing engine does a great job with colors and tonalities, and there are some unique, very photographic controls that make the job much more intuitive and powerful than you’ll find anywhere else.
I can only offer some highlights of Develop’s right-panel adjustments because it has more power than I have space for! First, there’s a terrific white-balance eyedropper in the Basic group that you can’t miss because it’s so large for the interface. You click on it to select it, then move it onto the photo. It gives you a grid of pixels to help you find tones that should be neutral, then you click on them to make them neutral.
Recovery and Fill Light are absolutely wonderful for dealing with highlights and shadows, respectively. Set your whites with Exposure and blacks with Blacks (thank you, Adobe, for finally labeling this properly) and then refine the highlight and shadow detail with the Recovery and Fill Light sliders.
Vibrance is a new saturation adjustment that comes from Pixmantec’s RawShooter (purchased by Adobe) and is a far better overall saturation adjustment than Saturation.
The Tone Curve looks complicated, but in fact, it’s set up to make it easier for photographers to use. As soon as you move your mouse over the sliders underneath, the appropriate part of the curve becomes highlighted. Frankly, that’s not the real magic here.
There’s a little bull’s-eye circle at the upper left of this control. When you click on it, the cursor becomes "curve-activated"—when you move the cursor onto the photo and click a tone for change, the curve gains a highlight where the adjustment will occur, but that’s not the magic either. The magic comes when you click and drag on the photo to change the curve. Find the spot that needs the change, then click and drag up or down, right there on the photo, until the change occurs!
This is also used in the HSL/Color/Grayscale section. Click the button to activate the cursor for hue, then click on the problem color in the photo, such as an off-color flower. Now drag up and down to change the hue of that color—Lightroom finds and tweaks the exact colors needed to do that.
The same thing happens when the cursor is activated for saturation. Now you click and drag a specific color to increase or decrease its saturation. If you’ve followed this column in the past, you know that I’m not a big fan of changing overall saturation too much. This clicking and dragging to affect individual colors is so accessible and so right for dealing with saturation.
Finally, if you like black-and-white, this is the place to make the change. In the Grayscale section, the photo changes to black-and-white, but now you can click and drag on a specific tone in the photo. Lightroom will lock onto the specific color underneath, and your movement of the cursor will lighten or darken that tone based on the color. This must be seen to be believed—it works so well and is so intuitive.
For Library and Develop alone, I think Lightroom is worth the price of $249 (the price has varied based on early special deals, but this should be the price for the future). The other three modules are less useful, but welcome bonuses. Print and Web are the best of the group. Print puts all of the important print controls into one place, the right panel, and offers unique printing capabilities with something called an Identity Plate.
Web offers two types of easy-to-set-up web galleries: a simple HTML grid of images that opens to a single larger image and a flash gallery that allows a slideshow of images. The templates on the left give great starting points for gallery design, while the right side offers specific controls for image number, size, background color and so forth.
The Slideshow module gives a simple PDF slideshow. It’s serviceable, but you can attach music to it only if played through Lightroom (and music use is very limited). That makes the stand-alone slideshow not all that useful because it can’t have any audio.
Lightroom is tightly integrated with Photoshop, too. Lightroom has no cloning tools, no adjustment layers or layer masks, so it’s really for overall controls. Photoshop allows for specific, localized adjustment of a photo that Lightroom can’t do. I like going back and forth between the programs for images that need extra control.
But alone, Lightroom is ideal for editing, organizing and processing RAW files. For many photographers, that may be all they need, and it’s in a package designed to work faster and easier than Photoshop. In addition, Lightroom is highly adapted for adjusting multiple images in
Is it for you? Maybe. It’s certainly worth a look from outdoor photographers who want a better, more photographic tool that allows them to concentrate more on photography than technology.