I remember when I first tried to process RAW files back in 2002. I had been shooting JPEG up to that point and heard about RAW files, so I thought I’d give it a try. I used the only RAW conversion program available to me at the time – Camera RAW in Photoshop 7.1. It didn’t go well. I couldn’t figure it out, so I continued to shoot in JPEG.
Then I heard about a product called RawShooter from a Danish company – Pixmantec. It had just become available and it was free. With nothing to lose I downloaded it and checked it out. It was fantastic. It was so easy to use. When the company offered the paid version, RawShooter Premium, I was all in.
Then, on June 26, 2006, Adobe announced they had purchased the ‘technology assets’ of Pixmantec for incorporation into Lightroom which was in the third round of beta testing at the time. Version 1 was shipped in February of 2007 and us Pixmantec customers were grandfathered in. With RawShooter Premium no longer available and a free version of Lightroom 1, I switched to it and was pleased to see some of the functionality in RawShooter Premium that I especially liked appear in Lightroom 1 that hadn’t been in any of the beta versions.
Michael Reichman of Luminous Landscape and Jeff Shewe in the Photoshop Hall of Fame put together a video training course which I grabbed up right away. And my experience with Lightroom was off to an excellent start.
A Brief History
Lightroom was designed from the start for digital photographers. The core functionality was to be RAW image conversion. But digital photographers need a lot more than just that. They needed to be able to organize their image files, edit them, categorize them, tag them, export them, print them and more. In short, professional digital photographers needed to be able to run all aspects of the creative side of their businesses using Lightroom. It’s tempting to think of Lightroom as a tool to adjust and enhance our images but as you can see, it’s so much more.
The Heart of Lightroom – the Catalog
With the introduction of layers in Photoshop, the notion of non-destructive enhancements was introduced. The idea is that the original image is priceless and if adjustments change it and they don’t work out, you’re in trouble. You can’t start over again. So, Photoshop introduced layers. Virtually all of the adjustments you could apply to the original file could be applied in layers stacked one on top of the other.
To give the photographer the ability to make adjustments non-destructively, Lightroom took a different approach. The developers created a catalog that is at the heart of Lightroom. Understanding how the catalog works is key to getting the most out of Lightroom.
Simply put, the catalog keeps track of virtually everything about the image files. First, it knows the location of the file – the hard drive it is on and the folder it is in. When Lightroom creates a JPEG preview file that it uses when it displays the image on your monitor, the catalog knows the name of the preview file and where it is. If you use the star method of ranking files or you flag them or assign a color to them, all that data is kept in the catalog.
And when you make adjustments such as Exposure or Contrast or Highlights or Saturation or any of the other available adjustments, every one of them are kept in the catalog as a simple list. This gives you a full history of all of the adjustments. If you decide to start over, since the original RAW file hasn’t been changed, you can keep the original list and create a new list. This gives you the ability to try different approaches for an image. And the original RAW file remains unchanged.
Organize Your Files
To work on your files, you first need to get them off of your camera’s memory card and on to your computer. They can be on the hard drive in your computer, on an external drive or a drive connected to your network. And to work on them in Lightroom, the location of the files must be recorded in the catalog. Lastly, you should really be creating a backup copy of each and every file.
Lightroom can do all three of these things in one operation. It can read the files from your camera’s memory card, copy them to a destination you specify and create a backup copy on another drive And when you use Lightroom to import your files it creates a record for each of them in the catalog so it can keep track of them.
Lightroom will save the files in folders on the drive you specify. You have a lot of flexibility in telling Lightroom how you want the folders organized. For example, you can organize them by date or by shoot. It’s up to you.
And you have a backup should you ever lose your original files.
Culling Your Files
We often come back from a shoot with hundreds if not thousands of files. But not all of them are worth working on. Maybe there were focusing problems on some or maybe you took a lot of shots of the same subject. You need a way to select the handful of files that are actually worth working on.
Lightroom provides a rating system that uses from 0 to 5 stars. With this system you can quickly scan through your images in the Library module and assign from 0 to 5 stars. In this way, you can identify the images that have the greatest potential. Or, for those that have busy lives, the ones that are worth spending the time on.
Enhancing the Image
Now that you’ve selected the images you want to work on, you can begin making adjustments. This is done in the Develop module.
Remember that none of the adjustments you make will change the original image file. All the adjustments are captured, one after another, in the catalog. When Lightroom displays your image on the monitor, it uses the original image as the starting point and then quickly applies each adjustment in the computer to render the image in its enhanced state. In this way, Lightroom keeps a full history of everything you did to the image.
It’s important to note that the order in which the adjustments are made is not important. Unlike Photoshop where the order of the layers affects the outcome, in Lightroom the same set of adjustments scrambled in any order will produce the same results. So, for example, if you’ve made adjustments 1, 2, 3, 4 & 5, you get a result. If you mix them up, say, 3, 2, 5, 1 & 4, you get the same result.
And a nice thing about the history is that the adjustments you’ve made are displayed as a list in the Develop module. And at any time if the last adjustment you made didn’t turn out, you can go to the list and click on the last adjustment that you liked.
With later versions of Lightroom you are even able to edit images when the original file is not available. Suppose you are out-of-town on a shoot. When you get to your hotel room you upload your images into Lightroom and store the RAW files on your external drive. Later, you’re looking at your files, but the external drive is not attached. With this new capability, called Smart Previews, you can still work on your images.
Lightroom has the ability to create virtual copies of an image. You can start editing a color image and then later say, “I wonder what that would look like in black and white.” You can them make a virtual copy and explore it in black and white without losing your color image and without taking up any more disk space. The virtual copy is just another list of adjustments. This feature has all sorts of applications.
If you’re shooting RAW files, you’re in really good shape as far as enhancing the image is concerned. RAW files contain the widest range of brightness and the broadest colors of any file format. No other file format comes as close as RAW files. If you’re working with JPEG files, which you can do in Lightroom, you are limited to the range of brightness and colors that the file can contain which is not near as great as RAW files.
Therefore, when you make adjustments to a RAW file you are working on an image with the highest possible quality.
No Color Management Worries
Color Management is a very complicated, highly technical aspect of digital color photography. You need to specify color spaces (sRGB, Adobe RGB, ProPhoto RGB, etc.) and pixel depth (8 bit, 16 bit, 32 bit). It can get overwhelming.
With RAW files in Lightroom you don’t have to worry about any of that. RAW files are not limited by color space or pixel depth. As mentioned above, RAW files have the highest quality of any file format.
Lightroom has some powerful and convenient sharpening capabilities built-in. You can sharpen the image when you import it. That is called ‘capture sharpening.’ This is a very subtle form of sharpening that is designed to remove fuzziness due to the pixel configuration of the sensor. And you can perform output sharpening when you export or print your images. The amount of output sharpening depends on the medium and Lightroom takes this into consideration. The sharpening is sophisticated but easy to use.
Lens Calibration and Correction
Our lenses all introduce some distortion into the image. The image itself can be distorted, there can be vignetting around the edges and chromatic aberration. Lightroom contains an exhaustive database of lenses and can automatically make corrections.
Exporting and Printing
One of the things about RAW files is they are not the finished image. You can’t do anything with them. You need to either export or print them in order to use then.
Exporting the file is a way to convert it into another file format like JPEG or TIFF. JPEG files are used extensively on the internet. TIFF files are used by serious photographers to print their images.
Issues of color management come up when you export or print images. Now the color space and pixel depth becomes important. The standard for the internet is sRGB, a very limited color space with an 8-bit pixel depth. Also, there are only 72 pixels per inch (PPI) on most of our monitors. You are able to specify all of these attributes in the Lightroom Export function.
Creating TIFF files to print requires a much more robust color space and a pixel depth of 16 bits. When exporting the file, a typical color space is Adobe RGB or ProPhoto RGB with a resolution of in the neighborhood of 200 PPI or more. When printing the file, the printer’s color space depends on the ink and paper on which the image is printed. These properties are contained in a profile file called the ICC Profile. You can specify the appropriate ICC Profile file in Lightroom so that when the image is printed, the colors will be faithfully rendered.
Lightroom is a very comprehensive and powerful tool that, for many serious photographers, professionals and amateurs alike, is all they need. But there are some things that Photoshop does better than Lightroom (and vice versa).
Photoshop’s masking abilities make it much better at making local adjustments. And while Lightroom has Curves, that function is not as powerful or flexible as in Photoshop. Lightroom has Presets that let you apply complex adjustments with a single click. Photoshop has user-defined Actions that can apply a complex sequence of layers and edits.
On the other hand, Lightroom’s HSL adjustments are far superior to Photoshop’s Hue/Saturation. Also, Temperature and Tint in Lightroom are far better at adjusting global color balance than Color Balance in Photoshop.
So, each tool has its strengths and I prefer to use the best of each.
Photographer CC Subscription
Many people are upset with Adobe for offering Lightroom only by subscription. And while the Photographer’s CC package is, at $9.99 a month or roughly $120 a year, a good deal if you 1) also use Photoshop as part of your workflow and 2) are the type that benefits from keeping your tools up to date. The other move that Adobe has made is to offer a subscription to a cloud-based version of Lightroom. The desktop version is now called Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic. Moving Lightroom to the cloud offers some advantages for some photographers and an additional cash stream for Adobe by renting additional storage.
Personally, I bought into the Photographer’s Creative Cloud. It makes sense to keep up to date and I use Photoshop for every one of my photographs that makes it into my portfolio. But I don’t need the cloud version of Lightroom. I have many terabytes of redundant storage devices for storing files in the studio, and that is supplemented with a very cost-effective cloud backup for my most important files. Read What Would Happen if Your Hard Drive Failed?
But for those whose needs are more modest Lightroom is still available as a stand-alone product. B&H for example, is selling Lightroom 6. But you will need to pay for major upgrades.
Lightroom has competitors, the most serious one among professionals is Capture One Pro from Phase One. A Google search for Lightroom competitors will turn up more viable alternatives. Some of these products may be superior to Lightroom in some areas but none of them command the market share that Lightroom enjoys.
Lightroom is a highly capable tool with a massive following. There is a lot of third-party support to help you come up to speed with it. Adobe is a big company with the strength to continually improve its products. And with both the subscription and stand-alone options, you have a choice in what best fits your needs.