Digging LightRoom 3

My Christmas present to myself was Adobe’s LightRoom 3. I had been using PhotoShop, Capture NX and ViewNX 2 to manage my digital photographs, but LightRoom 3 presented a single package that provides all of the functionality of these other programs and then some (except maybe PhotoShop for manipulation) in a single unified package, and it can handle the RAW files of my new Nikon D7000. Just before Christmas, it went on sale on Amazon for half off and I couldn’t resist.

What is LightRoom?
LightRoom is a complete management solution for digital photography. It has three major areas of functionality: correction and adjustment, database and filing, and output to print and the web.

In this article, I’m going to focus on the adjustment and correction. I may do the database and output in subsequent articles.

LightRoom 3 provides non-destructive image editing and color correction for digital images. The images don’t even need to be RAW files for LightRoom to perform its non-destructive magic. By “non-destructive” we mean that modifications to the original image are saved in a separate instruction file, and the original image, be it digital camera capture or scan, remains unaltered. Modifications in LightRoom are only saved into the image when you “export” it to a TIF, JPG, or other derivative format.

LightRoom is very smart about cameras, RAW formats and lenses. It has profiles for nearly everything I use in the digital world. It reads all the EXIF data from my RAW files, and it has lens profiles for most of the lenses I use. So, it does a superb job of interpreting the information the camera captures. It has handy presets for embedding copyright and other file information into the image files. It also has a handy “preset” system which allows you to quickly apply a set of adjustments to a given image. There are a bunch of default presets; you can create your own, or you can download a gillion of them free on the web. There is also a cottage industry of plug-ins created for LightRoom, much like PhotoShop plug-ins, which perform more complex operations using the adjustment capabilities inherent in LightRoom.

What LightRoom Isn’t
It isn’t Photoshop. It isn’t Illustrator. If you do a lot of serious retouch and photo manipulation, you still need PhotoShop. LightRoom does not do layers, layer masks, vector imports, outlines, typeset, feathers, drop shadows, EPS files, vector art, spot color duotones… and on and on. If you are a publishing professional, you still must have PhotoShop. A photographer could easily get by on LightRoom alone unless one does extensive retouch on complexions and backgrounds.

Color Correction in LightRoom
The following image was done a while back with a Nikon D70s shooting RAW on site in the dead of summer with hot sunlight beaming down overhead (click on the image for a larger view):

LightRoom3 Demo

What you see here is a portion of the LightRoom “Develop” screen showing the “before” and “after” of the image. A white tea rose in direct sunlight is a problem. The highlights clip and much of the texture of the petals is lost. Using LightRoom, I was able to “recover” a great deal of the texture in the petals. This is where I find LightRoom to be superior to PhotoShop in some ways because LightRoom is natively dedicated to digital photography, and its adjustments are designed to make optimum use of the image information in the RAW file. In PhotoShop, RAW manipulation is an afterthought. You have to download a separate “Camera RAW Plug-in” for PhotoShop to read and correct RAW files, and it isn’t as good in my opinion, but Photoshop is navigating a different universe of imaging.

LightRoom3 Adjustment Panel The image to the right is the LightRoom control panel showing the adjustments I made on the rose (you can click on the image for a larger view). Mostly, I pulled the highlights and light colors back while adding vibrancy and saturation to the mid-tones. I added a bit of “Recovery,” brightness and contrast and left the shadows and dark tones mostly unchanged. This gave me much greater detail and texture in the flower petals and made the clipping all but go away. These are subtle things, and an untrained eye might miss them, but they can make the difference between a really excellent photo and a near miss.

LightRoom 3 is giving me superb color correction, great library organization, and a host of new output options. I’m enjoying the hell out of it.

LightRoom 3 is not a program which is mastered in an afternoon. There is still much I have to learn about it. It would take a book to cover all of its features in detail. It is a full-featured management interface for digital photography that will correct, organize, output and create web galleries for your digital photographs. It quickly became the core interface for my digital imaging, and I recommend it without qualification.

Unfortunately, the half price deal is over, but you can still get the program on Amazon for a fairly decent price. And, of course, if you use the link below, I’ll get a little piece of the action which will help to keep me going and taking chances on software so you don’t have to:

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