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15 April 2013

Once in a while you get a chance to shake off the dust and try something completely different. With today's release of Lightroom 5 beta, Adobe is offering photographers just that. It's your chance to try something new if you've never used Lightroom. And even if you have, it's a new Lightroom.

You don't have to be a pro or even someone who knows a lot about photography. You just have to have a lot of digital images and, maybe, even dozens of videos. They could still be on your phone or hard drive or maybe you just uploaded them thinking they'd always be somewhere. Uh, no.

But you don't have to be lost in space to find this a compelling offer either. In a briefing last week, new Lightroom Product Manager Sharad Mangalick showed off how the team has implemented some of the most requested improvements in the beta.

And for fans of Lightroom's long-time product manager, Tom Hogarty, don't worry. As he put it, he's "still around" but handing over stuff like the media briefings to Mangalick, who has been involved with Lightroom at Adobe since August 2011.

In fact, Adobe has employed multiple product managers for a number of important products, including Photoshop where John Nack, Bryan O'Neil Hughes and Zorana Gee have shared the chair. It's a sign, we think, of a company with its eye on the ball rather than its organizational chart.

GETTING IT | Back to Contents

As Mangalick pointed out, it's only been a year since Lightroom 4 was released but the pace of innovation is increasing and the company is very happy to get getting its new technology in your hands.

Lightroom is available to Creative Cloud members but that's a little dicey proposition. This is one application that cries out for a permanent license simply because you are building a proprietary database with the product. And if the day ever comes when you can't launch the product, you can't access your data. That includes any edit you make.

The public beta, therefore, is a standalone time-limited option, not a Creative Cloud update (yet).

And one more thing. As a beta, it won't read and upgrade your existing Lightroom 4 library. Which is probably a good thing. You'll be starting from scratch, importing images and video.

But again, when the public beta expires, so does access to that library. Unless you buy the product (or become a Creative Cloud member), you're work will be inaccessible.

TWO KEYS | Back to Contents

Lightroom has always focused on two key benefits, whether you just like taking photos or do it for a living. The focus of those benefits are on image quality and workflow.

For pros image quality is paramount, Mangalick observed. But pros are also busy and an efficient workflow makes the world of difference.

But even amateurs are busy, he added. And they don't look on their photography as a hobby so much as a passion.

Image quality has always derived from the Photoshop imaging engine, including Adobe Camera Raw. That means Lightroom is among the earliest software applications to support new cameras.

The Lightroom module model of the Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print and Web modules nicely steps through import, selection, automatic enhancement, refinement and various but comprehensive output options for a very efficient workflow.

FIVE | Back to Contents

In this release, Adobe has enhanced Lightroom's image quality benefit with three new features:

  • Advanced Healing Brush: Adjust the brush size and twirl it along a path to eliminate anything in its path. It takes local corrections a bit further than Lightroom has gone in the past.
  • Radial Gradient Tool: Create multiple off-center vignette effects (or invert the selection for more options). Vignetting gets a turbo boost.
  • Upright Tool: Analyzes your image to automatically straighten it (even without a detectable horizon) and remove perspective distortion.

And enhancing the workflow are:

  • Smart Previews: Untether Lightroom from your archive of full resolutions images stored on that external drive (which you backup, of course). With Smart Previews, you take a set of thumbnails with you that are big enough to guide edits that are reflected on the full-size images when they come back online.
  • Upright Tool: Well, besides being a neat party trick, it's also a big workflow enhancement.
  • Fifty More Features Plus: Like improved photo book capabilities (custom layouts for one) and video slide shows with sophisticated audio control.

So what are these extra features? Here's a partial list.

Managing improvements:

  • PNG file support
  • True full Screen Mode
  • Configurable grid overlays
  • Windows HiDPI
  • Additional criteria for filters and smart collection
  • Lock zoom position preference settings
  • Keyboard shortcut to trigger tethered capture
  • Direction field in the Exif metadata panel.
  • Persistent place in Collections
  • "Set as Target Collection" checkbox in Create Collection dialogue
  • Drag photo directly to a Saved Location in the Map Module
  • Drag Saved Location to a photo in the Map Module
  • Integrity verification of DNG Files

Editing improvements:

  • LAB color readout
  • Keyboard shortcut to toggle between clone and heal modes
  • Duplicate local adjustments
  • Duplicate linear gradients
  • Aspect slider added to Manual Lens Corrections
  • Persistent clipping indicators between Lightroom sessions
  • Crop overlay aspect ratios

Sharing improvements:

  • Visual indicator of Favorite book pages
  • Improved visualization of select book elements
  • Transparent buttons for improved Text creation in Books
  • More page text metadata options

Update: Worth nothing is the long-awaited support for the PNG file format as well as LAB color readouts. Lightroom 5 is sneaking beyond the camera-generated file format.

Also fun are the new crop features, nicely detailed at Holy Crop.


But along with this new power comes higher system requirements. Lightroom 1.0 ran on more modest systems than its competitors but recent releases have really been for more sophisticated systems.

General system requirements are:

  • 2-GB of RAM (4-GB recommended)
  • 2-GB of available hard-disk space
  • 1024x768 display
  • DVD-ROM drive (yep, that one's a mystery)
  • Internet connection required for Internet-based services

Mac-specific system requirements add:

  • Multicore Intel processor with 64-bit support
  • Mac OS X v10.7 (Lion) or v10.8 (Mountain Lion)

While Windows system requirements add:

  • Intel Pentium or AMD Athlon with 64-bit support
  • Microsoft Windows 7 with Service Pack 1 or Windows 8

There are two sides to that. On the one hand, it's a bit disappointing in the same way expensive opera tickets or stadium seats are. They exclude new fans. On the other, you're assured more than ever before than advances in hardware capability will be promptly tapped into. We haven't spent years and years talking about GPU processing. It's been a fact of life for a while now.

So bad news for students. Good news for pros.

TEST DRIVE | Back to Contents

We took Lightroom 5 Beta for a test drive this weekend to preview the main features for you. You know, while you're downloading the beta.

We ran it on a MacBook Pro running OS X 10.7.5 with a 2.66 GHz Intel Core i7 tapping into its Nvidia GeForce GT 330M with 512-MB RAM and 8-GB system memory. So not the latest OS or hardware but a pretty common recent configuration.

Generally, we found performance wasn't tuned in the beta. Processes like editing a path drawn with the Advanced Healing Brush were still sluggish. But that's what betas are all about.


To test the Advanced Healing Brush in the Develop module, we opened a macro shot that had a disturbing reflection in the background. This would be easy to fix using Photoshop's Healing Brush, particularly since it isn't part of the image that calls attention to itself, so it wouldn't be scrutinized.

But Photoshop is a bit-map editor and Lightroom is non-destructive, recording descriptions of changes in its database. What's very refined in Photoshop tends to be a little crude in Lightroom.

Before & After. Not much feathering.

That issue was reflected in our use of the Advanced Healing Brush. The tool does not offer a feathering option but the blending of the edit into the background was a little too abrupt. As our screen shot shows, you can see what the brush changed. It isn't as seamless as it would be in Photoshop.

Advanced Healing Brush. Just two sliders.

Still, this is a big improvement over Lightroom 4. In that version, you can only spot your images, using a circle of varying size to identify the problem and moving a target area around to fix it.

With the Advanced Healing Brush, you can draw a path. You can still change the target area (which is what we did to get the best match).

Note that the tool is still called Spot Removal but there is a Clone and Heal mode in the right corner. You can set the size and opacity of the brush. Healing adapts the edited area to the texture, lighting and shading of the surrounding area.

The Opacity slider fades the effect, which can be very helpful in retouching things like wrinkles where you don't want to completely remove the object but do want to subdue it.

Once you've made a brush edit, you can edit it by clicking on the reference point. The reference point becomes visible as soon as you activate the Spot Removal tool itself.

Performance is sluggish in the beta but it's a welcome enhancement to this otherwise rudimentary tool. We often took a trip to Photoshop to remove some telephone line or other. Now we can stay put.

THE UPRIGHT TOOL | Back to Contents

We've never shot a straight horizon even by accident. And should we ever, we'd still suspect it was crooked. Our fixes have evolved from Photoshop's ruler tool and the Arbitrary Rotation option various Straighten buttons. But they all lacked another feature whose fix was so complex it often defeated us.

That would be perspective control.

Upright. Leveling, Perspective, Aspect Ratio all in one button.

Our photo of A Woman's Eye Gallery on Portola is a good example. Just straightening the horizon (if you could find it) wouldn't do the job. We're also looking up at the building, so the bottom of the building is wider than the top. We need straightening plus perspective control.

Lightroom 5 Beta handles this with its one-click Upright tool built into the Lens Corrections panel of the Develop module.

Upright Auto. Four buttons.

Upright Manual. Eight Sliders.

The Upright tool presents four buttons: Auto, Level, Vertical and Full. You can also turn it off and ask it to reanalyze the image. Which about covers it. Auto tries to find a balance between the leveling, aspect ratio and perspective changes the analysis suggests. Level applies only the straightening correction, Vertical both straightening and vertical perspective corrections while Full applies leveling, vertical and horizontal perspective corrections.

Full distorted our image but Auto did a very nice job. Lightroom recommends enabling profile corrections for a better analysis but in this case, it didn't make any noticeable difference.

You can also use the tool in Manual mode, where a set sliders lets you tweak the corrections.

Not only do we find this an invaluable tool (reminded us of the ease with which DxO ViewPoint does this with specific lens data analysis) but we thought it was particularly well implemented.


While pointing out the popularity of vignetting (darkening the corners of your image to spotlight the subject), Mangalick suggested the technique could be extended to remove distractions using the improved Radial Gradient tool in the Develop module.

Vignetting With a View. We wanted to emphasize the orange spread.

We're not fans of vignetting to begin with. And if an image is too busy, we tend to regret the composition. But we played along with our image of restaurant table bread and spread. In this case, we felt the pepper spread was the interesting thing about the shot. It's not butter, it's not oil, it's weird.

Sliders. Our settings for the image above.

So to highlight it (as if orange wasn't sufficient), we drew an oval around it with the Radial Filter (as the beta refers to it) tool. A slew of sliders popped up.

But among the most important settings is the little checkbox at the bottom: Invert Mask. If you want the sliders to refer to what's inside the selection, invert. Otherwise the default affects what's outside the selection.

Here, we cut the Exposure back, dampened the Clarity and really cut the Saturation of the background to emphasize the orange spread.

Notice there's also a Feather option.

And the vignette is editable, of course. The small button in the middle of the selection can be selected when you enable the tool.

It's not a tool we would employ very often, but it's nicely done and we're happy to have it.

SMART PREVIEWS | Back to Contents

Storing your Lightroom catalog on your computer's hard drive (no matter how big or fast it is), really limits its usefulness. George Jardine's tutorials on managing the Lightroom Library detail a much more enlightened approach.

But what happens when you hit the road and can't take it with you. Jardine has a free video describing how to manage that, too, but Lightroom 5 provides a slick trick to bring your whole library along with you.

Smart Option. Smart Preview let's you generate a subset of image previews.

Essentially it simply builds thumbnails with enough detail to edit the image. Mangalick said they were about four to five percent of the original size or 1.2-MB.

The edits, stored to the catalog, are applied to the full resolution image data when it's available. So you can work on your collection when it isn't available.

Progress Bar. It takes a while.

Update: So we thought we'd do a little timing test, importing 49,650 images on an external drive into a new catalog (since you can't convert a Lightroom 4 catalog with the beta) and then having it make Smart Previews.

We imported our 181-GB of images at a varying rate (which makes sense, considering how image size and video has changed over the years), enabling reverse geocoding (you're prompted for that option). It took about two hours. We performed it on our traveling box, which uses a 2.3 GHz Intel Core i5 processor and has 4-GB RAM. During the process, we still had about 1-MB free RAM.

We were a little surprised that the Import process didn't ask us about Smart Previews. What better time, particularly when you are just updating the catalog, not building it from scratch. But if they were built, we should be able to tell.

Seems like they weren't. It may be just too much extra processing (at least in the beta), but it seems like it would be a good idea to have an option to enable creation on import. Or, you know, you might get out of sync and have rebuild everything to get back in sync.

The menu item being enabled, we started the process for all of our images. And sat back for another long process. It took significantly longer than the import process. By hours. And hours. And hours.

Like the normal Lightroom Previews data file, Lightroom creates a Smart Previews data file. We started with 181-GB of images, for which Lightroom 4 built a 6-GB Preview file and Lightroom 5 a 1.0-GB Preview file. But Smart Previews takes a significantly more amount of disk space, reserving about 23-GB for our 49,650 images. So taking it with you might not be as practical as it sounds.

On the other hand, that 23-GB is larger than the four to five percent Mangalick mentioned, which would be about 10-GB and somewhat more reasonable.

But having spent the day (starting at 1:48 p.m. and it's 9:45 now and we're still not done) waiting for the 'Smart' Previews to be generated on our collection, we wonder if it's at all worth it. At most, you might want to edit a recent shoot. Not something you did in 1999. Something you were working on, that is, not something you noticed that you'd like to fix.

The ordinary previews are sufficient for on-the-road reference to your collection, it would seem. And the larger Smart Previews necessary only for shoots you might still be working on.

Maybe we'll feel differently about this when we can actually use them. But at the moment, "ridiculous" previews is the only description that comes to mind.

THERE'S MORE | Back to Contents

There's more to Lightroom 5 than these highlights but the beta has been released almost nine hours early, so you can try it yourself. See our news story for the details (and links to Julieanne Kost's video demos).


I'd like to rebut your statement that the Lightroom Catalog is proprietary. The exact organization may be, as well as the commands to process a file for export, but you can pretty easily access all of the data. The .lrcat file is really just an SQLite database file and is easily accessible via several F/OSS tools. I've included a few links below with various information on the SQLite tables:

-- Aaron

Good point, Aaron. I probably should have called it pseudo-proprietary.

The database file itself is, as you point out, accessible by other means than Lightroom. The catalog is an SQLite file and there's nothing proprietary about SQLite.

So if you merely want to know a few things about your collection as a whole, you can run reports on the data with an SQLite front end. Although I think it would be a lot more convenient to simply import your collection into some other cataloging application.

But the Lightroom catalog is more than a collection of image properties. It contains all the edits for every image you've worked on in Lightroom. And those recipes are not very easy to apply to the original image outside Lightroom, even if you can list them with a database manager.

That's what makes it pseudo-proprietary. Without Lightroom the significant data isn't going to make much sense. -- Mike

Completely agree about the chain of edits. Might be an interesting although time-consuming) task to compare list of edits and the XMP files that are produced to reverse-engineer the edits.

-- Aaron

Well, those should mirror each other but XMP is optional, so no guarantees. Kind of interesting that nobody (say, Aperture) seems interested in providing a LR catalog import as an inducement to switch. -- Mike

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