Raw power on display in Lightroom 3

Critical enhancements in areas like noise reduction, video handling, and watermarking make Lightroom 3 a recommended upgrade for current users.

The bottom line: Critical enhancements in areas like noise reduction, video handling, and printing make Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 a recommended upgrade for most current users.

For the uninitiated, Lightroom is Photoshop's specialized sibling; where Photoshop is an imaging Swiss Army Knife, Lightroom is a steak knife for photographers. Like its most well-known competitor, Apple Aperture, you use it to organize, process, nondestructively retouch, and output volumes of raw files. Now with version 3, Adobe enhances the product in some critical ways that make it a significant upgrade over version 2.x. There's pretty much something for everyone here, including improved performance, killer noise reduction, potentially powerful export tools, and extremely flexible printing options.

Installation and interface
Lightroom is a much faster, lighter installation than Photoshop. You can choose to purchase a license key immediately, which you will receive by e-mail, or try out the program for 30 days. When you receive your key, you can copy and paste the entire string directly from your e-mail into the first dialog box, and the other boxes will automatically populate. There's a 164MB download for Windows or 77MB on a Mac. Like most of the applications coming out of Adobe these days, it uses the Adobe AIR installer.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3

Unlike the rest of Adobe's imaging applications, which do a terrible job of helping you migrate to a new version, you can actually upgrade Lightroom. The installation won't overwrite the older application, but it provides an automated way to upgrade your catalog, including catalogs created in Photoshop Elements. LR3 doesn't have the face-recognition capabilities in Elements, but it will import all the tags that already exist for recognized faces. Still missing, however, is the ability to import a copy of the old catalog and continue from there. Processed images in your catalog that use algorithms from previous versions--most notably the old noise-reduction--will retain those processing parameters unless you force an upgrade to the newer ones.

In general, the program's interface hasn't changed much. It's still broken into five modules--Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, Web--with panels that fly in on demand from the sides of the screen. I'm not sure everyone will start with it, but on at least one install I got a relatively blank screen with instructions to click on a button that wasn't visible. LR3 adds a compact, ostensibly less-distracting import view, which uses your previous settings. I'm not sure it's really necessary to have multiple import interfaces, but some people might like it. Adobe has tweaked the main import interface to provide greater clarity as to source, options, and target settings. The application visually separates removable devices from nonremovable ones, which is a nice feature.

Lightroom can now catalog some video formats shot with cameras, and you can manage the files within the application and pass them through on export. It may not be much of an issue for some people, but I continue to be frustrated by Lightroom's handling of unknown file types (because I use so many new, as-yet-unsupported cameras). At the time of this writing, that included Sony's first NEX models and the AVCHD MTS files created by Sony and Panasonic cameras. If the program can't import the file into the catalog, it doesn't even give you an option to just copy it to the hard disk. It simply pops up a dialog with a list of the files, which you can save.

Shooting directly to your computer can be quite useful, and LR3 makes a start with its tethered-shooting implementation. It's extremely basic and unidirectional--you can see but not change the camera's settings and there's no real-time preview--but for some people it's still sufficient and better than shelling out for extra-cost applications.

Adobe's been touting its overhauled noise-reduction engine, and with good reason: it's much improved, and I think one of the best engines now available. Plus, compared with much of the software out there, it's easier to understand and tweak the settings. I do think Adobe is a little conservative with its default, however, which only performs color NR and no luminance NR. Since luminance NR controls sharpness, I can understand why it's harder to pick a good default value--everyone has differing opinions on the appropriate sharpness/noise trade-off--but just a bit of luminance NR really did make an improvement without sacrificing much visible sharpness in most of the photos I worked with. Shadow areas especially benefit from the improved algorithms, displaying far less clipping, and it does a much better job in out-of-focus areas than its predecessor. On my wish list: intelligent NR that analyzes the image and automatically applies different amounts/types of noise reduction depending upon sharpness and tonal values.

As with the Adobe Camera Raw plug-in for Photoshop, LR3 adds manual and automatic profile-based lens corrections to address distortion, chromatic aberration, and vignetting. At least in the final release I tested, it had a pretty meager selection of predefined lenses, and was missing some important ones, like the Nikon 18-55mm kit lens. And in many cases, I was able to get much better results (for chromatic aberration, at least) with manual tweaking. It's also a bit annoying that the profiles don't tell you what settings they're automatically applying. Adobe is still tweaking its profiles, and we do expect some slipstream upgrades subsequent to launch. Still, I was pleasantly surprised to see one of the automatic fixes remove vignetting caused by incomplete flash coverage, in addition to the lens fix. (I didn't have a chance to work with the custom lens calibrations; read Stephen Shankland's comments on them as well as his take on the software.)

On the effects and retouching front, there are also several changes. For grain freaks, you can now easily make the images shot with your very expensive equipment look like they were shot on a plastic camera with high-speed film. I think the grain controls are pretty nice, but some people might want finer control over the shape of the grain, rather than a generic "roughness" factor. LR3 has also added a couple more vignetting blend modes to its single Paint overlay option that was available in LR2.

One hole in Lightroom's feature set has been the ability to edit tone curve points the way you can in Photoshop. Not anymore. And it may seem trivial, but you can now hide the "pins" the application drops on the image when performing localized retouching operations or apply a graduated filter.

LR3 includes a fairly complete watermark editor, which works in conjunction with the various types of exports to batch watermark images. It's certainly better and more useful than previously, though there are a few tweaks that would improve it for batch output. For instance, I'd like to see the ability to invert a graphic watermark (from black to white and vice versa) on demand; rule-based blend modes so that dark watermarks show up on light areas or vice versa; and the ability to save two watermark placements in a given preset, one for landscape and one for portrait orientations. And it doesn't support native Photoshop or Illustrator files for graphics.

Another big addition to LR3 is a new export interface, the Publishing Manager. Essentially, it allows for more export automation, using monitored folders. With a third-party plug-in it will allow you to automatically synchronize exported photos and take advantage of site-specific features, such as downloading comments from Flickr. Without a real plug-in, it's just a bit more powerful than the existing export tools, because it tracks which photos have been uploaded already.

However, the whole thing feels slightly undercooked. That's partly because there are only two Publish options, for Flickr and Facebook (the latter added in version 3.2). But it's also frustratingly disconnected from Export. Even though most of the settings are the same, you can't import or link to existing Export settings when creating a new service, and if you decide you'd rather use Export--or need just a slight variation of an existing service for ad hoc export--you have to recreate it from scratch. It's also not integrated well enough with the Smart Collections; you should be able to designate collections to monitor within the service, for rule-based automatic publishing.

Though the Print, Web, and Slideshow modules have a lot more templates, the Print module has the most improvements. It's much easier to create custom layouts, and is now capable of non-grid-based designs. You can also drag and drop images into the layouts. But you still have relatively little control over fonts in these three modules. At least, as far as I could tell, because in the drive to leave more of the help content online, Adobe's help systems in general have become pretty useless (although props to the company for using a Creative Commons license on its help content).

Because Adobe changes the weighting of background versus foreground operations, it's hard to make real direct speed comparisons from version to version. I used Lightroom on four different systems: a 32-bit cement block of a corporate system with 3GB RAM running Windows XP, a multiprocessor Xeon 64-bit Windows Vista workstation with an Nvidia Quadro FX1800 and 8GB RAM, a 4GB dual-core MacBook Pro running OS X 10.5.8, and a dual-core Asus notebook running Windows 7 with 4GB RAM. The slowest system clocked about 4.6 photos per second on in-place import, whereas the Vista system clocked about 13 photos per second, for what that's worth. In general, running in 64-bit seems much faster and smoother than in 32-bit. In general, it does seems faster than LR2, and more memory definitely helps.

Lightroom still lacks some of the frills, like face recognition and decent geotagging support, and some of the new capabilities, like Publishing Manager, won't be truly useful until the developers start delivering their plug-ins. But overall it's a great workhorse tool for processing and organizing photographs.

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