Adobe Systems released Lightroom 4.1 last night, supporting new cameras and lenses, squashing some bugs, adding a couple of notable features -- and in at least one high-profile case, contributing to the angst of a customer of Apple's rival Aperture software.
Aperture beat Lightroom to market and leapfrogged it with lower pricing in this category for higher-end photo editing and cataloging software. But this market is Adobe's bread and butter, and the company is working hard to turn the crank for improvements as fast as it can. More on that competition and customer angst later, but first, here's what's up with the new features in Adobe's $149 program.
New HDR image support
For Lightroom 4.1, the first new feature is the ability to import HDR (high dynamic range) files, typically made by combining multiple photos that span a broad range of exposures. Photoshop can produce these files, though HDRsoft's Photomatix got the jump on the market. Regardless of how you obtain your HDR file, though, Lightroom now can edit it, which is nice for people who prefer its editing controls for tone and color.
Adobe, naturally, recommends using Photoshop; whatever tool you use, the company recommends importing a "flat" HDR image in TIFF form, then using Lightroom for the tone-mapping process used to decide which parts of the image should be dark and which bright.
In my tests with the Lightroom 4.1 beta, I have found the HDR feature useful in the classic problem of showing both bright stained-glass windows and dark cathedral interiors. But then I prefer the understated use of HDR to address exposure range problems, not the over-the-top style some use to make gritty, grungy, surreal, and often eye-catching images, so I'm not sure if this tool is for the HDR enthusiast crowd. Plus, the new highlight and shadow controls that debuted with Lightroom 4, coupled with judicious use of the clarity slider, often get me the image I want without any HDR hassle in the first place.
Chromatic aberration and defringing fixes
Second, the software now can now correct a second type of chromatic aberration. Chromatic aberrations in general show as a fringe of colors plaguing high-contrast areas, and they stem from the fact that different colors of light take different paths through a lens. Previously Lightroom could handle only a more common type called lateral chromatic aberration, but now
Lateral chromatic aberration can be minimized in high-end lenses by using special lens element materials and employing other advanced designs. But axial chromatic aberration can actually be a worse a problem in higher-end lenses that offer a wide aperture for high shutter speeds and a shallow depth of field. The problem often crops up when shooting with wide apertures, with objects in front of the focal plane being fringed in purple and objects behind fringed in green.
Lightroom 4.1 has tools to get rid of this axial chromatic aberration using the new "color" section of the lens corrections panel. I used it mostly successfully to rid a test photo of purple and green fringes in a shot taken with my Canon 50mm lens, which is prone to axial chromatic aberration when shooting wide open at f1.4, but I had to crank the sliders to a pretty broad spectrum of colors to do so.
Fixing real-world shots can be more complicated since you won't want to lose the color in the the real green and purple areas, and manual work can be required. "It's up to the photographer to use those tools to distinguish between the fringe color and regular image color," Tom Hogarty, senior product manager for Lightroom, told me.
Fortunately, Adobe provides local adjustment tools that let you walk back or eliminate the defringing in areas of the photo you need to protect. It's a bit complicated, but it definitely retrieve some shots. Indeed, I now regret deleting some photos that I'd written off as unsalvageable because of axial chromatic fringing.
Despite the manual labor, Adobe is still happy with the new feature and with another defringing feature that can fix some lens-flare issues. "Prior to these updates, several types of color fringing have been extremely difficult to correct."
Photographers should check the Lightroom defringing workflow advice from Lightroom programmer Eric Chan.
Time to dump Aperture?
There are some alternatives on the market such as Corel's AfterShot Pro, but Lightroom's biggest rival certainly is Apple Aperture.
That software has kept its customers (and the price cut from the debut of $500 to $200, then to $80 on the Mac App Store, probably helped attract some iPhoto upgrades). But yesterday, a longtime fan announced the likelihood that he would become a high-profile defector. Scott Bourne, who's written and contributed to many Aperture tutorials and books and who said he's taught thousands of people how to use Aperture, threatened to move to Lightroom in a blog post yesterday. That's despite having 480,000 photos in his Aperture catalog.
"I've used Aperture for more than five years for the simple reason that I thought it was the better product. As of the Lightroom 4.0 release, I no longer believe that's accurate," Bourne said. Specifically, he believes Lightroom does a better job processing raw images while preserving colors and cutting noise. And, he adds,
But [with] other improvements in the highlight and shadow recovery, extended video support, the amazing (and I do mean AMAZING) clarity slider, improved develop module, and much faster, speedier processing, Lightroom 4 has left Aperture 3 in the dust.
My history with Aperture is as almost as deep as you can get... If Apple can't hang on to someone like me, what does that say about their prospects for hanging on to the rest of the market?
A big part of the issue for Bourne seems to be that Apple won't reassure him that improvements are in the pipeline. "They won't communicate with their users and there's no loyalty there. It takes loyalty to get loyalty so unless something happens in the next few days to change my mind, you can expect to hear me talking about a permanent change to Adobe Lightroom 4," he said.
CNET contacted Apple for comment and will update if they do.
That communication matter could be a problem for Apple.
Years ago, the types of creative professionals who bought software like Lightroom and Photoshop were a core part of Apple's business. Apple's Final Cut Pro rewrote the rules of video editing, and high-end Mac Pros were the machines for the work.
Nowadays, the smashing success of iPhones and iPads means Apple is a consumer company up to its eyebrows. New products arrive from on high, created in secrecy under the ethos that Apple is building the future that customers don't even know they want yet. CEO Tim Cook has pledged more secrecy in the future, too.
But professionals like stability and predictability, and that means they want to know what's planned even if Apple doesn't naturally feel like letting the cat out of the bag before it's ready.
Apple can share sometimes: The radical changes that arrived in Final Cut Pro X last year alienated a lot of video editors, but now Apple has more than once telegraphed future features coming to the product. Apparently there are limits, though, because a Mac Pro petition on Facebook seeking to figure out if the high-end machine has a future, and Apple hasn't uttered a peep about it despite the current model being nearly two years old.
So far, 13,828 people have "liked" the petition. And now there's a We Want Aperture 4 petition, too.
So perhaps Apple could choose to play by different rules with its higher-end products. Certainly some pros would appreciate it. As Final Cut Pro trainer Larry Jordan expressed his situation, "Professionals are not consumers -- we are running companies, meeting payroll, and creating products using Apple tools."