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Adobe Lightroom 3 Beta

A First-Look

October 22, 2009

A beta release of Adobe Lightroom 3 is now available as a free download to anyone on both Macintosh and Windows platforms. Visit http://labs.adobe.com/downloads to learn more and download the beta. Feedback can be submitted on the Lightroom forums: http://forums.adobe.com/community/lightroom.

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The Public Beta Gambit

Adobe's release of Lightroom 3 as a public beta is not the first time that the company has used this technique, nor is it likely to be the last. It has turned out to be a very canny marketing strategy as well as a means of getting wide-ranging user input into a new product's features and robustness.

The concept is simple. For a period of some months prior to releasing new software, give it away. LR3 Beta is a completely free download and is fully functional. One doesn't need to own Lightroom 2 to be able to use it. But, when LR3 ships, likely some time in the first half of 2010, the LR3 Beta will cease to function unless you purchase a copy, or an upgrade fbased on a previous version that you already own.

Adobe's reasoning is that they can afford to have hundreds of thousands, if not millions of photographers use the program for free for a period of months, because if they have done their job properly the vast majority will either upgrade from their previous version of Lightroom, or will make a fresh purchase. The reason being, of course, that LR3 Beta will cease to function on a certain date. Want to keep using it? Guess yur gunna buy it?

But this is more than a good marketing strategy. While Adobe has a solid contingent of Alpha and Beta testers for its products, with increasingly large and complex programs operating on multiple platforms and operating systems, there's no substitute for having a very large number of users beating on the program for months and reporting problems. Also, in the case of the LR3 Beta at least, Adobe has allowed enough time for user feedback on features as well, so that if they hear enough people request a feature, or comment on how an existing one is implemented, they may have time to consider fixing it, or adding it, before the final release has to be locked up.

Before you become too cynical about this approach, consider that it's a no-lose proposition for the user. If you decide that you don't like LR3 and don't want to spring for the commercial version you can always simply save out the processing that you've done to your files as DNGs or as XMP sidecar files, and then load them into whatever other program you prefer. You're not committed in any way, other than by Adobe's hope that you'll get hooked.

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Backward Compatibility

LR3 Beta can not load your previous Lightroom libraries. It can also not save out your new libraries in a form readable by LR2. Adobe cautions that you should work with LR3 Beta using copies of your files, not originals. I think that this is an overabundance of caution, likely suggested by their legal department. Lightroom never touches your raw files. The program only reads the files, never writes to them, and anything that it does with them is then either saved out to an XML sidecar file, or as a DNG copy, or saved in a Lightroom catalog file – never to the raw file itself.

Since I am part of the Adobe Alpha testing program I work with versions of the program that are much less stable than the LR3 public beta. But, the only way I can really get the measure of a program is to use it in my real-world work. I therefore set the program to automatically save out any changes to an XMP sidecar file – Lightroom / Preferences / Go To Catalog Settings / Metadata / Automatically Write Changes Into XMP. This slows things down a bit, since every time you make any adjustment it has to be written to a file, but in the event of a crash no work is lost. An alternative is to only write the XMPs from time to time, which is done by selecting the file or files that you'd like to save data for (CMND-A) and then press CMND-S. This just takes a few seconds, even when you've worked on a large number of files in one session. A third alternative is to write out the files that you wish as DNGs. This makes a whole new copy of the raw, and includes any edits that you've made, but of course means using up a lot more disk space if you're dealing with a large number of files.

The only downside of the XMP approach is that when you copy your raws to another location you need to be sure that you copy or move the entire directory that they're in because the XMP files are sitting next to them with the same name as the original.

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So – What's New?

LR3 Beta has some cosmetic changes, some new features and functions, and possibly most importantly, a completely revamped processing engine. Let's talk about this latter aspect first.

Few photographers who have used it would argue that Lightroom has a very straightforward and almost intuitive user interface. It doesn't take much use to "get it", and once one does it is relatively easy to become proficient and productive. File handling and organization, metadata handling, Slide Shows and Printing, are all nicely featured icing on the Develop module cake, which itself provides a very powerful set of tools for image processing.

But, if there's been one (actually more than one) criticism of Lightroom (and similarly Camera Raw) it is that the raw processing engine has not been as competitive as it should or could have been against some others on the market. This has meant that many particular users found themselves doing the actual raw conversion in programs like Capture One, DxO Optics Pro, Aperture, or others, before moving the files into Lightroom for further work.

Adobe has listened to the complaints and suggestions, and LR3 Beta is their attempt to address this issue. During the past year Adobe has been making numerous behind the scenes changes to their technologies, including adding profiles and profile editing capabilities to their engines, and also updating the DNG format so as to be able to handle future changes (the future is now).

There are so many variables to consider, including camera brands and models, ISO, and others, that I can't (yet) provide you with an analysis of how good a job Adobe has done in improving their raw conversion engine. But, if you're one of the people that felt that Lightroom wasn't doing as good a job in demosaicing, colour rendering, and delinearizing your raw files as some other program, now is the time to start doing comparisons again. Adobe appears to be confident that they are now as good as if not better than anything else on the market, and it's up to us, as part of the beta program, to let them know whether or nor this is really the case.

Bew aware that the move to a completely new image processing engine means a potentially fundamental change to the underlying "look" of already processed images. So if you bring a file into LR3 Beta it will likely look different (and hopefully better) than it did when processed in LR2. But, what if you like the way that LR2 processed the file, or you don't want to have to re-edit it because of the changes that the new processing engine produces to your previous interpretation?

The answer lies in the menu selection Develop / Settings / Process Version. Here, you can select Version 1 (Lightroom 2) or Version 2 – Latest (Lightroom 3). The word latest is there to remind you that this is a beta, and that during the beta period Adobe reserves the right to change how the engine does its job, and updated beta releases in the months ahead may well change, therefore also changing the look of your images (though likely only subtly).

You can change back and forth between Process Version 1 and 2 at any time. This is of course the case because Lightroom is displaying the file on-screen on-the-fly as you work, never touching the underlying raw file, and only "baking" the interpretation into the image when you print or export.

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Speed

Adobe says that in addition to a totally revamped image processing engine under the hood they are also focusing on speed improvements with LR3. This may well be the case, but I think it's too early for us to judge yet how successful they have been or will be with this. The reason is that the code is still very much a work in progress, and as a consequence it will likely not be until LR3 finally ships that we'll be able to make that judgment. What we do know is that LR3 Beta is a 64 bit application and runs in this mode under Mac OSX 10.5 and 10.6, and Windows 64 bit systems, including Windows 7. Mac users should note that LR3 will not run on previous Mac platforms such as the Power-PC processor. You have to have an Intel machine and OS 10.5 or better. On either the Mac or Windows Adobe is suggested that you have at least 2GB of RAM , which you should have in any event since RAM is now so inexpensive.

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Importing

One feature that you'll notice right away is the improved Import dialog. It now occupies the entire screen and provides a clear view of where files are coming from on the left, where they're going to on the right, and what you want done with them in the top center. You can now even save presets for your usual file import configurations, which can greatly speed up this task.

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Printing

The printing and layout capabilities of Lightroom have always impressed, but with LR Beta they now are approaching the capabilities of a fully mature RIP. Adobe has added a custom "package" layout screen that allows you to create any combination of image sizes and aspect ratios on a page that you like, and then save them as a named package style for future use. The interface is graphical and interactive, and this will greatly appeal to wedding and event photographers.

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Watermarking

With LR Beta we now have the ability to watermark our images that are printed, exported to a photo sharing site or web page. The interface is straightforward and allows for text as well as images to be used as a watermark.

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Collections

Though a seemingly minor addition, Collections are now found in Develop along the other modules.

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HD Video Slide Shows

The ability to export your slide shows to various video file formats, including 1080P HD video, is now found in the Slide Show module. Another new feature is that the slide show or video can automatically time itself to the length of the music track that you select.

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Photo Sharing

New to LR beta is the ability to automate the sharing of files with a variety of online photo sites. The programs comes with a template for Flickr, but other templates are available from the Adobe Labs web site. Just select you files, select your files, and click Upload.

I haven't spent much time with this feature yet, but it has the ability for live two-way communication between the photo sharing site and Lightroom, so that even view comments made on Flickr appear in Lightroom, if you wish. Many people are going to find this a very cool and useful new tool for sharing their work with other, both professionally and personally. Templates for additional photo sharing sites beside Flickr will be found on the Adobe Labs web site.

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Noise Reduction / Sharpening / Vignetting / Grain

Adobe has added a Noise Reduction capability to LR3 Beta. It is found under the Detail tab in Develop along with Sharpening. At this time only the Color Noise Reduction slider is working. This is the most sophisticated and complex part of the new noise reduction algorithms used, and Adobe is looking for user feedback so as to get it just right. The Luminance Noise Reduction is disabled at the moment and may not be added until the final commercial release.

Is LR3 Beta's noise reduction up to the competition from stand-alone products and plug-ins? Until the Luminance code is operational it's impossible to say, but so far it's looking to have very strong capabilities, and may well suffice for many users.

Sharpening is on this same tab, and Adobe is claiming that the Sharpening algorithms have also been improved in LR3 Beta.

Grain is another addition to the new Effects tab. It's ironic that along with the new noise reduction capability in LR3 Beta Adobe has included the ability to add grain (noise) to an image. Give it a try. Suddenly you're shooting Tri-X in Rodinal all over again.

Try and keep the 100% magnified view from the Detail tab available on-screen while you're working in Grain because you really want to be able to see it both at full-screen size and at 100%. In fact I'd suggest that Adobe add a 100% magnified view to this tab as well.

Post Crop Vignetting is now also found on the new Effects tab. You'll notice that it has the ability to select either Highlight Priority or Color Priority, and it'll be worth your time exploring this option if you like this type of effect.

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Profiles and Camera Support

Lightroom now supports more than 250 different raw file formats (and growing). Maybe one day the ISO will adopt DNG as a standard (or something else – I don't really care), and manufacturers will all embrace a common raw file standard. Then again, maybe one day pigs may fly.

LR3 Beta supports a number of new cameras, with not only raw support but profiles. This includes the recent Canon G11, Panasonic GF1 and Leica M9. M9 owners will be pleased to note that there is now an M9 profile, which does a very nice job with the new camera.

Also of interest to M9 owners is that Adobe has added the EXIF information on the lens being used (by full name) and also the aperture used, which were previously hidden. (Thanks, Eric).

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More Features?

Be aware that LR3 Beta isn't the final product. There are quite a few features which are deliberately not included in this beta that will be included in the final version when it becomes available. This is the case for several reasons, among them that there are features which are still in development and not yet ready for testing, or which Adobe doesn't want competitors to be aware of until final release.

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You can learn more about the new features in Lightroom 3 Beta
at Ian Lyons' Digital Darkroom.

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Blatant Plug

Michael & Jeff LR2

We will be producing a Lightroom 3 video tutorial once the program ships in 2010.
Until then you may wish to learn the Lightroom interface with
our in-depth 7.5 hour video tutorial.

With the exception of a few new features, 90% of the Lightroom interface remains the same
between Lightroom 2.5 and the Lightroom 3 Beta.

Anyone who purchases our Lightroom 2 / 2.5 tutorial will receive a discount
on the purchase of our Lightroom 3 tutorial when it becomes available.

What Are You Waiting For? Now's the Time To Learn LightRoom.

October, 2009

 

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Concepts: Raw image format, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, Adobe Photoshop, Mac OS X, Adobe Systems, Bibble, Software release life cycle, Extensible Metadata Platform

Entities: Adobe, Flickr, Intel, Mac, Leica, Panasonic, image processing, Windows, Windows 7, OSX, Michael Reichmann, Lightroom, Ian Lyons, Grain, Eric, M9, Mac, Power-PC processor, RAM

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