Ontario Journalist, Writer, Photography & Filmmaker

Lightroom 4 Overview

As many know by now, Adobe has released the first public beta version of Lightroom 4.  For those not familiar, Lightroom is Adobe’s terrific Digital Asset Management/Image Editing application.  Each version has been stronger than the previous and LR4 is no different.  I’m going to cover a couple of the major changes in this article but won’t go into all of the new features.

The first thing to not is that there’s been a new Process Version added.  Process Version 2012 is very different from the 2010 Process Version.  So different that you’re probably not going to want to change many of your old images that you’re already happy with to the new Process Version.  When the upgrade to the 2010 Process Version was made it upgraded the way Lightroom and ACR dealt with noise and sharpening.  It didn’t impact image rendering (colour, contrast, etc).  This new PV makes significant changes to the rendering of images.  I have to admit that it threw me for a bit of a loop at first when I tried converting some of my old images.  But after a discussion on the Adobe forums, it became clear that a wholus bolus change to the new PV wasn’t the right approach.  Basically, the way to work with the new PV is to work with it for all new images and try it with older images that may have been problematic in the past to see if the new rendering tools can improve those problematic images.

The first thing you’ll notice when you open a RAW image in the Develop module is that all of the sliders are set to zero and the Tone Curve is set to Linear.  This is something a lot of people wanted – and often had set up an import preset to create – and Adobe listened.

Lightroom 4 Overview, RF-Photography
Lightroom 4 Develop Defaults (click for larger version)

The next thing you’ll notice is that the names of the sliders in the Basic Panel have changed.  So has what those sliders do.  Adobe has broken up the histogram into 5 sections.  Mitdones, Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks.  What’s that?  You don’t see a Midtones slider?  It’s the Exposure slider.  Yep, that’s right.  The Exposure slider is, essentially a Midtones adjustment.

The new Exposure slider still affects the entire image but seemingly not in the linear way the old Exposure slider did.  If you adjust the new slider to a negative value, the right side of the histogram will move to the left but not much.  Where most of the action happens is in the midtones and the histogram gets more spread out in this area.  The two images below compare the same exposure adjustment in LR4 to LR3.  Note that in the LR3 image, I set all the other values to zero and the Tone Curve to Linear.

Lightroom 4 Overview, RF-Photography
LR4 Exposure Adjustment (click for larger version)
Lightroom 4 Overview, RF-Photography
LR3 Exposure Adjustment (click for larger version)

It’s a pretty dramatic difference.  You’ll note that the darker areas haven’t been affected as much with the LR4 adjustment either.  If you move the slider to a positive value, you can move highlight/lighter areas into an overexposed position but, again, not in the same linear way as in LR3.  It seems that what Adobe is trying to do is mimic the more gentle rolloff in the highlights and shadow areas of film.  That is, trying to replicate the shoulder and toe of the response curve of film.  It’s a good change.

As mentioned, the histogram is split up into 5 sections.  Highlights and Shadows affect the areas immediately to the right and left respectively of the midtones.  Whites and Blacks affect the brightest and darkest areas at the ends of the histogram.  These sections are effectively intersecting so that you maintain a gentle transition in tones across the image.  If you’ve done any work creating intersecting luminance masks in Photoshop, the new LR implementation is akin to that.  The screen captures below show the area of the histogram affected by each adjustment.

Lightroom 4 Overview, RF-Photography
LR4 Highlights (click for larger version)
Lightroom 4 Overview, RF-Photography
LR4 Shadows (click for larger version)
Lightroom 4 Overview, RF-Photography
LR4 Whites (click for larger version)
Lightroom 4 Overview, RF-Photography
LR4 Blacks (click for larger version)

The other BIG change is the introduction of Softproofing.  This is something users have wanted to complement the terrific printing capabilities and simple printing workflow of Lightroom.  It was a PITA to have to export an image to Photoshop for proofing then come back to LR to print.  It made for a wonky workflow and clogged up the hard drive with extra, large image files.  Not so any longer.

Softproofing is invoked in the Develop module by checking the box at the bottom of the main panel.

Lightroom 4 Overview, RF-Photography
LR4 Softproofing (click for larger version)

On the right side, under the histogram is where you set your proofing parameters.  You can choose the profile, rendering intent and whether to simulate paper.  By default, Black Point Compensation is turned on in LR for proofing and printing.  The one thing I’m not sure of is whether the paper simulation also includes Black Point Compensation.  If I manage to find the answer, I’ll come back and update the article.

When you check Simulate Paper & Ink, the area around the image changes.  It changes to simulate the colour of the paper you’re printing on.  This is useful for proofing so that you can get a good sense of the colours and contrast of the image on the paper.  A pure white or grey background can throw off the perception of colours or contrast.  You can also hide the various panels around the screen to get both a larger image on screen and have less visual distraction.

You’ll also see an icon in the softproofing panel for Create Proof Copy.  You want to do this.  Clicking this will make a virtual copy of your image and any proofing edits you make will be made on that virtual copy rather than on your original.  What about side by side comparisons you ask?  Simple, check the Before/After option at the bottom of the screen to the left of the SoftProofing checkbox.  You’ll then have a side by side comparison to work from when making your proofing adjustments.  When you’re done and ready to print, it’s this Virtual Copy that you’ll print from.  You’ll note in the name of the copy it shows the paper that’s been used to create the proof.  It doesn’t; however, show the Rendering Intent in the copy name.  If you try to make changes to your original image while proofing (i.e., didn’t click the create copy button), a warning box will come up asking if you want to make a copy.  Click yes.

Lightroom 4 Overview, RF-Photography
Proof Copy Warning (click for larger version)
Lightroom 4 Overview, RF-Photography
LR4 Softproof Comparison (click for larger version)

What else is new in LR4?  There have been some changes to make it easier to create books for publishing through services like Blurb.  The Map module can be used to geotag images or search for similarly geotagged images in your Library.  To geotag an image, you drag it from the filmstrip onto the map and the long/lat coordinates are written into the metadata.  Personally, I think there are far better ways to geotag images and wouldn’t use this method if I were looking for any reasonable measure of accuracy.  It’s also time consuming to have to zoom into the map to try to find the right location.  Doing it manually, after the fact could mean not getting locations accurate.  I wrote an article a while back on geotagging images that I think is a much better method.  While the article was written for the Blackberry, there are applications for Apple and Android devices that will do the same thing as well as software to match them up after.  Video support has also been enhanced in LR4.  Down at the bottom of the Print Module, you’ll also see two new sliders called Brightness and Contrast.  The intended purpose is to help compensate for printers that systematically print light or dark.  Thing is, it’s likely not the printer but the screen calibration.  The idea with these new sliders is that you adjust them once and don’t have to touch them again.  This is supposed to address the ‘Why are my prints always too dark?’ type of questions.  While I understand what Adobe is trying to do, I think it’s a weak substitute for good colour management.  I know not everyone wants to dig into the minutiae of colour management but screen calibration isn’t that deep and I’d also question how many of those users are using Lightroom.  Overall, I think Lightroom users are a pretty savvy bunch.  😉

What’s missing?  The biggest thing is still a lack of support for 32 bit images.  Even if 32 bit images can’t be edited, the inability to at least include them in the catalogue is odd, particularly given the number of people who are using HDR in their photography.  Adobe really needs to rectify this shortcoming.

So that’s a quick overview of some of the new functions and features in Lightroom 4.  What do you think of the upgrades?  If you’ve not used Lightroom up to now, will this version convince you to buy it?  Let me know your thoughts.