Adobe Systems plans to release Photoshop Lightroom 3 late Monday, swapping in a new engine and bolting some significant new photography extras onto a user interface that largely remains the same.
Available for Windows and Mac, highlights of the new version include a speedier interface, tethered shooting with the camera directly communicating with the software, better noise reduction to get rid of pesky speckles, some basic video handling, publishing services that can ease uploads to Web sites or iPhone photo synchronization, and new lens correction tools. (You can read our full review on download.com.)
Lightroom competes directly with Apple's Aperture, version 3 of which was released in February with its own set of big changes. Lightroom costs more--$299 to Aperture's $199--though both cost $99 to upgrade.
Such software is geared for photo enthusiasts and professionals, in particular those who prefer the greater flexibility and quality available with higher-end cameras' raw image file formats.
There are snapshooters, and then there are more serious photographers for which Lightroom is designed. "When they start taking the camera out of the bag because they see an image, something compelling they want to capture, it's more photography than just recording family events," said Tom Hogarty, Adobe's senior product manager for Lightroom.
It's a sizable and vocal market, with 600,000 downloads of the two free betas of Lightroom 3 and "close to 2,000" sharing comments about the software on Adobe's forums, Hogarty said.
But even those who enjoy editing photos don't necessarily like the drudgery of some basic chores. Enter automated lens corrections, a feature that also arrived in Photoshop CS5 in April.
With it, clicking a checkbox fixes geometric distortion that causes parallel lines to bow inward or outward, vignetting that darkens the corners of images, and chromatic aberration that gives blue and red color fringes in high-contrast areas.
The fixes are available with a modest number of Nikon, Canon, and Sigma lenses that Adobe has profiled, though anyone can create profiles for other lenses. "We do expect to add additional profiles," Hogarty said, as well as to refine existing profiles, likely including Canon's EF 17-40mm F/4L IS USM, for example.
Automatic lens corrections are a major change for digital photography. With Lightroom 2, photographers could fix chromatic aberration and vignetting--but only manually, and to correct distortion, a trip to Photoshop was required. Using an external editor such as Photoshop undermined one of Lightroom's advantages, nondestructive editing, in which changes to a photo are in effect layered on to an unchanging underlying image. Photoshop's transformation baked the change irreversibly into the photo pixels.
Another reason it's significant: optical corrections performed in software can make it easier and cheaper to build camera lenses, opening the door for a significant transformation of the industry. For instance, the Canon PowerShot S90 high-end compact camera corrects its own distortion. The more automated the corrections are, whether in the camera as a shot is taken or on a computer later, the more camera makers might be inclined to rely on them.
Optical corrections aren't a free lunch, so it's unlikely demanding photographers will lose their appreciation for lenses that perform well without it. Brightening corners to correct vignetting also increases the image noise. Distortion correction transforms the underlying image data and crops out regions originally photographed.
Another reason lens quality still matters: newer SLR cameras now can shoot video, and optical fixes there are a much more complicated matter.
Lens corrections also can be manually applied in Lightroom 3, including another new ability called perspective correction. One example of what it can do is make the vertical lines of a skyscraper vertical even though they converge in the original photo.
For those thinking of getting into this part of the photography software market, the automated lens corrections, distortion fixes, and perspective corrections are all missing in Aperture.
But Aperture 3 tackled significant domains that Lightroom hasn't when it comes to organizing photos. One is face recognition, which can help photographers with the very common task of sorting photos by individual. Another is geotagging, which embeds location data into photo files so they can be viewed on a map or sorted geographically.
The time was not yet ripe for Adobe to add face recognition into Lightroom, Hogarty said. "There's a lot of interest in that area, especially as more consumer-grade applications such as Photoshop Elements have added facial recognition. I think the bar is higher for pro-level applications," where misidentified faces are more of a problem and where integration with a photographer's work flow must be handled more carefully. "It's obviously of interest to photographers and of great utility, we just want to make sure it's going to be a professional-grade solution."
Geotagging is "a heavily requested feature," he added. "Each (Lightroom development) cycle is fraught with difficult tradeoff decisions. Performance and image quality needed to come first in this cycle, especially given that (GPS support) is still not native functionality in cameras at this point in terms of collecting information."
A handful of cameras have GPS receivers built in, but they're unusual. Consequently, geotagging today is often done well after photos are taken by marrying the shots with location data from a track log recorded with a GPS navigation device. Aperture provides a slick, map-based interface for the chore.
Other possible new areas for Lightroom include support for high dynamic range photography, in which multiple shots taken at different exposure levels are combined into a single image that better spans the full range of light and dark tones. Another is panoramic stitching to combine multiple frames into a single larger view. Photoshop offers such abilities, but it's harder when dealing with raw images.
"Nothing is impossible. We don't have HDR controls or pano controls within Lightroom," Hogarty said. "It's on the list of things photographers want to be able to do in Lightroom, so that means it's on our list as well."
Although Aperture lacks panorama and HDR abilities, too, it does go a bit further than Lightroom in another domain, video support. Lightroom 3 and Aperture 3 both added the ability to import videos from memory cards and to let customers add cataloging metadata such as titles or rankings. Aperture, though, can view videos directly in the application, and it can also trim videos to a shorter clip.
Other Lightroom changes
Better performance was a Lightroom 3 priority. Converting raw files into something that can be viewed on a screen--in particular with editing changes and now geometric changes--is computationally taxing. Adobe didn't work on background tasks, such as how fast a group of images are exported as JPEGs, but interactive performance, such as switching from the library mode to the develop mode, is faster.
Adobe also tried to clarify the photo-import process, which given the numerous options for photo selection, file names, editing and metadata presets, and file locations, can be complicated. "It's a completely redesigned import," Hogarty said. "It creates more clarity about where the images are coming from, and where they're going to."
Two new features are particularly suited to professionals.
One is tethering, which lets the software control a camera and import the photos directly as they are taken. Tethered shooting is popular among those who shoot models in a studio, for example, and want to review photos immediately. There are limits--you can't set the camera, only trigger its shutter; only some Canon and Nikon cameras currently are supported; and it doesn't work with video.
Also handy for pros sharing images with clients, Lightroom can export slideshows as a video, including automatically timing the duration of each shot to fit a soundtrack's length.
Useful for everybody is new image quality. Lightroom 3 does a better job than its predecessor at cutting noise and sharpening edges. Many people never venture beyond standard settings, but portrait photographers are enamored of sharp eyelashes, and many people with cameras that shoot at ISO 3,200, 6,400 and now even as high as 102,400 have need of noise reduction.
The noise reduction illustrates another dimension of the growing sophistication of digital photography: a new generation of software does better than the last, and likely another generation to come will do better yet. For this reason, shooting raw images can mean your camera in effect can get better over time.
Broadly, these changes are part of what's called computational photography, in which computing is an ingredient in the processing of images. Different photographers will have different ideas about how much of this is a good thing, but it's clear the trend is really just getting started.