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Review: Lightroom 4 Beta Offers Subtle, but Worthwhile Improvements

Lightroom 4 beta

Adobe has released the first public beta of what will become Photoshop Lightroom 4, a subtle but important upgrade for Adobe’s Camera Raw image editor. This release sees Adobe primarily focused on improving the Lightroom interface, particularly the core Develop Module which offers a revamped, more intuitive set of image controls.

Lightroom 4 beta is a free download available from the Adobe Labs website, but do keep in mind that this is beta software intended for testing. Be sure to use duplicates of images that have been backed up elsewhere when testing Lightroom 4.

While many of Lightroom 4′s upgrades are subtle tweaks there are some bigger changes as well, including two new modules — a new Map Module for adding and storing geodata and a Book Module for designing and printing books.

The new Map Module requires an internet connection and uses Google Maps to show satellite, hybrid and other Google Maps views. You can drag and drop images from the film strip onto the map and Lightroom will add the geodata to the image. Naturally, while that works it’s rather tedious for large imports. Those with thousands of images to add will be happy to know that Lightroom supports so-called track logs. For example, if you use a mobile app to log your image locations, Lightroom can read the data (provided the app can export it) and then attach it to your images. If your camera records geodata directly, Lightroom will use that info. Once you have the geodata added you can search images by location or browse through them using the map.

LR4 Map Module

Along with the geodata comes some new privacy settings for your images, including an option to ignore any geographic data Lightroom might find.

The other entirely new menu item in Lightroom 4 is the Book Module which does exactly what you think it does — helps you layout and typeset a book for printing. The Book Module works much like what you’d find in other software and online services: Select your images, choose from a number of templates and then start customizing. The difference with Lightroom is the level of customization possible, which includes everything from layouts to fonts to even the leading and kerning applied to fonts. Actual book printing is handled through Blurb.com (or you can export a PDF to print on your own).

Creating books in Lightroom 4

Another notable new feature worth mentioning before we dive into the revamped Develop Module is that Lightroom 4 includes much improved support for HD videos. While Lightroom 3 can import and store videos, it can’t edit or even play them back. Lightroom 4 steps up the video support. Playback is handled by some components borrowed from Adobe Premiere and Lightroom itself treats the movies as just another image. That means you can adjust levels and make basic tweaks to your video directly in Lightroom 4 using most of the tools in the Quick Develop panel (except for Crop, Highlights, Shadows and Clarity, which are disabled for video). The editing tools are obviously nowhere near as powerful as what you’ll find in dedicated video editors, but it will work for serious photographers who occasionally dabble in video.

The Develop Module

The Develop Module is the heart of Lightroom and it’s where most of the refinements in Lightroom 4 have happened. At first glance the Develop Module looks about the same, but the basic development tools have been considerably reworked. Instead of the somewhat obscure tone sliders like Recovery, Fill Light and Brightness, Lightroom 4 has been reorganized to Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks. Each slider controls exactly what its name suggests.

Adobe has also changed the sliders so that all of the tone adjustments default to the middle. Drag the slider left and whichever effect you’re using gets darker; drag it to the right and it gets lighter. It’s a small change, but it makes adjusting images more intuitive and also makes it easier to get back to where you started.

The basic panel in the Develop Module. The old, LR3 is on the left, the new LR4 beta on the right

Of course while the new controls may be more intuitive and somewhat easier to use that’s really only an improvement if they’re capable of producing the same or better results. After testing them on a variety of images over the course of a few days it’s clear that the new tools are an improvement, though there’s definitely a learning curve to perfecting them. (Hint: apply your adjusts in order, from top to bottom.) And sometimes the loss of the Brightness slider is annoying. Despite Adobe’s assurances that Exposure covers the same ground as Brightness used to, sometimes it doesn’t look that way.

The new Highlights and Shadows sliders essentially do the work of the old Recovery and Fill Light sliders, respectively. In most situations the Highlights and Shadows sliders work much better than their predecessors. Highlights in particular is more useful than Recovery and actually lightens or darkens all of an image’s highlights, rather than washing out the middle highlights in kind of neutral gray color the way Recovery often did. (This is particularly noticeable in images with snow, clouds, concrete or any other situation with a wide but subtle range of highlight tones.)

Where Highlights is more powerful than Recovery was, Shadows seems more restrained than Fill Light. Indeed in some images I tested it was hard to tell any effect at all with the Shadows adjustment until it was paired with the Blacks slider. However, the subtleness of Shadows makes it perfect for adjusting shadows in darker images where more subtly is called for. If you’re just looking to create greater contrast look to the Blacks or Contrast adjustments.

In the end Highlights and Shadows are not intended to be one-to-one replacements for Recovery and Fill Light; they’re similar, but different enough that it takes some practice to get comfortable with them. However, after practicing for a few days I found that I was able to produce better results than I had on the same images using Lightroom 3.

[Note that should you export some images from Lightroom 3 to test in Lightroom 4, you may not see the new sliders in the Develop Module. Instead you'll see a small exclamation point icon at the bottom right corner of the image window. Click that icon and Lightroom will offer to upgrade your images to the "current process." Once you've converted the images the new adjustment tools will appear.]

RGB Channel adjustments

Lightroom 4′s Develop Module also offers better local adjustment tools, making it easier to apply adjustments to only select parts of images. For example, graduated filters can now apply effects like noise reduction and moire. Both of those new filters are also available via the brush tool so you can brush noise reduction into, say, only the shadow areas of your image. Similar local adjustments can be made using the new Highlights and Shadows as well as the Blacks and Whites.

There are a number of other changes in the development panel — for example, the algorithms behind the Clarity slider have been updated to reduce halos — but perhaps the most interesting small change is the ability to make Point Curve edits to individual RGB channels. Previously this sort of fine-grained tweaking necessitated a trip to Photoshop (or similar), but now you can tweak your RGB channels right in Lightroom.

Other Improvements

There are a number of small but welcome changes in Lightroom 4 that solve some “paper cut” problems in previous releases. For example Lightroom 4 now has an option to e-mail a photo. Strange that it took four revisions to get something so simple in, but it’s there now. Another nice new change is the ability to hide the main menu items you don’t need. Outside of verifying that it works for review purposes I’ve never used Lightroom’s Web Module, so now I can stop it from taking up screen real estate — handy considering that with the Book and Map menu items the menu is occupying more space than ever.

Under the hood Adobe has made some changes to the DNG format which will affect anyone who is converting Camera RAW images to DNG format. The most significant change for Lightroom is something Adobe calls fast load data. Fast load data lets Adobe apps display images faster using just the core data, without waiting for the entire set of image data to load. Adobe claims that images using fast load load up to eight times faster. If you’re worried about backward- or cross-compatibility with other apps Adobe assures me that apps that don’t understand fast load will still be able to process those images. The new fast load feature is enabled by default.

The second change to the DNG format is the addition of a lossy compression option. Given that part of the appeal of DNG (and more generally, Camera Raw) format is that it preserves all your data it’s hard to see why anyone would want lossy compression in DNG, but it’s there if you do. (The new lossy compression option is, thankfully, disabled by default.)

Conclusion

The Lightroom 4 beta sees Adobe playing a bit of catch-up — tools like the Map and Book modules have been available in competitor Aperture for some time — but also focusing on improving the core of Lightroom, the Develop Module. It might take a day or two to wrap your head around the changes in the revamped tone adjustment tools, but once you do you won’t want to go back. Indeed that’s the biggest problem with this beta release — it’s a beta and, much as you might like to, I wouldn’t suggest using it with your actual images yet. However, Adobe tells Wired.com that the Lightroom 4 beta period will likely be somewhat shorter than the rather long Lightroom 3 beta test.

Of course, given that, at least on the surface, Lightroom 4 looks like less of an upgrade than the move from Lightroom 2 to 3, it’s worth asking whether or not Lightroom 4 will be worth the price. The answer will depend on your image workflow and whether the new adjustment tools help you develop better images. For that reason I would suggest trying the beta now and spending some time with it before the final (paid) release rolls around later this year. Keep in mind though that this is an early beta and, if past beta release are any indication, Adobe may well add some more features before Lightroom 4 is finalized.

File Under: Multimedia, Software

Lightroom Tutorial Lesson 2

Welcome to Lesson 2 of our Lightroom walk-through. Now that you have a general idea of how the interface works, it’s time to get down and dirty with the individual modules.

We’re going to start with Library module. As we learned in Lesson 1, each specific task in Lightroom is performed within its own dedicated “module,” and the modules are laid out in a linear fashion to match the typical photographer’s workflow.

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