Monday, September 16, 2013

Hallelujah! Come to the Lightroom!

Photoshop Lightroom Review

I'm here on a Saturday afternoon seeing how many unfinished drafts I can polish off and schedule for the coming weeks. Here goes this one, which I've been wanting to post for some months. Yes, this one is a big block of text. But if you take pictures of miniatures, or anything really, I hope reading will be worth it to you.

If you've touched a digital photo recently and you haven't seen or used Photoshop Lightroom before, you should immediately go download a trial copy. Just be prepared to shell out $110 bucks because you aren't going to want to let it go at trial end. I've been using Photoshop for many years and have some solid expertise, and have the latest CS suite with Bridge. They are brilliant full stop. That said, trying to use Photoshop and Bridge to do the sorts of tasks I do for my pictures of miniatures is a bit like using a lawnmower to trim my hedges. Lifting the lawnmower up to cut vertically all these years has worn me to the bone, and I have an awful lot of hedges in my garden.

In fact it's an apples to oranges kind of comparison really. Whatever you do, don't think of Lightroom as some sort of Photoshop "Lite." It's not that. Not only does it share no code at all, it's not even coded in the same language. Whereas Photoshop is an amazing tool to take a photo and turn it into a work of art, or to begin making graphics and art from scratch, think about the core mission of Photoshop that's implied by the name "Photoshop." If you're running a shop it's all about repeatable processes, keeping track of things, maintaining a pipeline, organization. In Photoshop you have powerful macros and Bridge adds powerful organization, but neither of these tools accomplishes the mission with any kind of efficiency. And I'm really understating the problem by saying that. I think Adobe realized they weren't really succeeding at the original mission, that Photoshop had instead morphed into the perfect tool for another application, and built Lightroom to address the gap.

So let me say that for 100%, yes, 100% of tasks I used to use Photoshop for Lightroom does better by orders of magnitude impossible for me to exaggerate. All hyperbole aside it may be the most perfect application I've ever used. It does organization and collection management, metadata, retouching, calibration, processing, cropping and publishing and it does it in way that I have to call revolutionary. In a few months of owning it I've found religion and I honestly will never look at a digital image the same way again. It's not even a stretch to say that in giving me a more intuitive feel over the science of color and light, which I already understood fairly well from my classical art education, Lightroom has literally caused me to see the world in a new way from this point forward.

Now before I get all wound up about this thing and start raving, don't take my word for it and whatever happens go download a free trial of it and watch the really great introductory tutorials they have. There's just too much to say about all the different features and aspects and Julieanne Kost explains them a lot better and more concisely than I can. Incidentally what a dream job to have, demonstrating Adobe products!

What might be of some value to add to that, though, is my own case story. Let me contrast my life before and after and try to impart how much good this thing has done for me. In the Photoshop (or Gimp) way you start either in Bridge or in your folders or in Picasa or iPhoto and you copy your digital negatives from your camera. You might start grouping them into a collection. Then you open them in Photoshop or Gimp and wind up making a psd copy/Gimp equivalent with your adjustments, crops, etc. Then you save a web copy to your computer, usually another directory. You have two or three directories of stuff for the one set of pictures at this point. If you're smart, you macro all of the above adjustments and web copy and run through the whole collection. Otherwise you are really in for a sad time and you have my special sympathy. Next if you're smart you'll go and tag your pictures in Bridge and do the titles, etc. But the shit part is you don't want to just tag the web copies. Do you spend the time to tag the digital negatives as well? Then you go back to Bridge or Picasa, or the (shoddy) Updatr flickr app and upload to your picture hosting service of your choice. If your hosting service is flickr and you didn't tag your pictures, you then have to go micromanage things on the flickr end. The whole process takes hours. If anything goes wrong, you have to redo many of the steps. Each step is dependent on the next. This describes my digital pictures nightmare before Lightroom.

Now the Lightroom way. I stick in my flash card and Lightroom opens and starts an import. The digital negatives are automatically numbered and stored in a convenient system (which I can configure to my heart's content if I really want to but works perfectly out-of-the-box). That is there is there's a database on the backend. Then I select the thumbnails I want to group and hit ctrl-N to group them into a collection (which offers hierarchy, unlike Picasa). I weed out the ones I don't want using one of several great tools specifically for this purpose. Then I take one photo and slide some sliders to fix the white balance, contrast, etc. I crop the photo, retouch with a spot tool or adjustment brush etc if needed (hardly ever in my case but just letting you know it's there). Then I hit ctl-altl-c ctl-alt-v to copy and paste all the adjustments(no more macros!!! Seriously, let that sink in) to all of the photos. If any crops resulted in a figure being a little off-center, I can browse to the image and move the figure in the frame with the hand tool. I then highlight the collection and enter the metadata using stored metadata tags packages. Once tagged and titled I drag the collection to my flickr publishing service and hit publish. The pictures arrive tagged and titled in flickr with the one click. The whole process above from start to finish takes about five minutes. Yes, five minutes compared to literally an hour or more previously. And if anything goes wrong, it takes about thirty seconds to redo any and everything. No step is dependent on anything. The lack of dependency from one step to another is another thing where it's hard to convey here how much time and headache this saves.

But the real miracles start here. The whole process creates zero (0) extra pictures files on your drive to keep track of. There is no psd file, no jpg file. There is no web copy on my hard drive—it exists only on flickr. There is just the digital negative, with an auto-created-and-managed piggy-back file to keep track of the on-the-fly adjustments I've made (all of which can be rolled back, altered again, etc). Also, say I'm on flickr the next day and decide the pictures are too dark. Or I forgot some tags. Back in Lightroom I fix one image and paste to the whole collection. Fine. And lo, at that point Lightroom pulls all the images from the published list of pictures and let's me know I might want to republish them as they've been updated. When I click publish, it updates the pictures on Flickr without a hassle and just the one click. I can also delete pictures from flickr from within Lightroom without touching flickr (anything to stay out of that time-suck web-app!).*

At the end of the day all my pictures are organized in collections (once), tagged and described, published.

The above is just a really basic scenario, too, and haven't started talking about how amazing and intuitive all the tools at your disposal are within the app and how not only does it cut the time down by a factor of twenty (!) or more it also produces results I could never do. I could never fix my camera's failings with regard to purple (comes out a dull blue-grey) or my struggles clearing up a white background without resorting to the time-consuming selection tool.

And I actually have a lot of fun doing it, where Photoshop was drudgery plain and simple. Again, that's easy to gloss over when you're reading this, but turning drudgery into fun is in itself a revolution. I don't want to sell Photoshop (or Bridge, or Picasa for that matter) short, though, as they are all amazing tools that can do really great things. When you're creating in Photoshop (as opposed to macro-ing white balance settings) Photoshop is equally fun. But if your work starts and ends with a photograph (as opposed to constructing a image more or less from scratch that happens to incorporate photographic elements) there is no question what the right tool is. Back to that question of the lawnmower, etc.

All this said, there is one downside to my Lightroom experience, though I can't fault Lightroom. That is, I use a nine-year-old, 4MP Canon G3 camera, which was considered "prosumer" at the time but obviously technology has gone forward since then. I think it gives me really good pictures, but even before Lightroom I was aware of some of it's shortcomings with regard to capturing color and light. Lightroom, while it gives the user many tools to overcome these shortcomings (for instance the problem with purple I mentioned), at the same time it brings one directly in contact with them. The flaws are right in my face and inescapable. It's especially true after I switched from JPEG to RAW format. Maybe more on this later, but essentially I find myself hitting my head on the ceiling in terms of the quality of pictures I want to get, and it may be time for a new camera.

And I mentioned it costs, what, a fifth the price of Photoshop, right? If you take more than a handful of pictures a month, you need this thing. Hell, if you take just a handful of pictures a year you still need this thing. But if you made it this far you deserve a break. I feel a bit like Sifl and Olley plugging something for Precious Roy so I'm going to stop. I'm not kidding about the Lightroom though. You own it to yourself.

* I do need to point out that since the recent Flickr overhaul this ability to update pictures in Flickr from within external applications is only available to those pro members, and pro accounts are no longer being sold, that is you have to have been grandfathered in to have one.