Into the Future – Lightroom 3 Beta

Thu, Oct 29, 2009

Lightroom

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A week ago Adobe dropped a bomb on the Lightroom world. They released the new Lightroom 3 Public Beta, giving a preview of the newest incarnation of Lightroom before it is complete. The new Beta presents a few new tools, heavy refinements to existing tools and a completely new Raw demosaicing engine. Some new tools that will be in the final version are currently withheld, forcing Beta testers to test the features the Lightroom team most wants feedback on currently, but the Beta is still a very usable product.

First, I would like to mention that the Lightroom 3 Public Beta is Beta software, and not in the way Google presents its Betas. This beta is crippled, as it does not have a complete feature set yet. There are glaring bugs that you will have to contend with.

Unlike Google’s refined definition of beta, where software is actually ready for full time use, Lightroom 3 is in no way ready for production use.

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Be aware of this, and if you are not into testing new software, you may want to pass. However, if you want to see the cutting edge of Lightroom development, definitely grab the Beta.

If you haven’t done so already, you will need to download Lightroom 3 Beta from the Adobe Labs website. While there, make sure to read all the information Adobe has for you and to read the release notes. There is some important information in there, but it primarily reinforces that the Lightroom 3 Beta is not ready for production work; Adobe released this Beta for public use and feedback.

By downloading the Beta you become part of the Lightroom 3 community that Adobe is hoping to leverage to squash bugs and perfect features, simply using the beta and communicating your experience to Adobe helps them deliver a better product in the end.

Once you have the Beta in your possession, go ahead and install it. Lightroom 3 Beta installs parallel to your existing Lightroom installation. It will not overwrite your Lightroom 2 install. Of note to Macintosh users; you must be running Intel hardware to use Lightroom 3, Adobe has dropped support for the PowerPC platform.

I am assuming that the PowerPC architecture has been abandoned by Adobe, so if you are running PowerPC you will most likely be left in the dark.

Once installed and opened, Lightroom 3 will look incredibly familiar, as little has changed in the overall interface. The install will not import any libraries from previous versions of Lightroom, you will need to import them specifically for Lightroom 3. My recommendation is to start with new images, as they will be ready to use as soon as you import them into Lightroom 3. If you decide to import photos that you have already worked with a prior version of Lightroom of Photoshop ACR, you will have to convert the images for use with Lightroom 3.

The import dialog has been greatly refined in Lightroom 3, with a beautifully rendered dialog box, with simple graphics.

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On the upper left side of the dialog you will choose your Import location. In the middle portion you will choose your basic import settings. The right side of the interface denotes where you wish to copy the files to on your hard drive. The interface itself shows the flow of data, making the import experience even more intuitive. The lower portion of the dialog box has you import tagging and import preset selections available your use.

A click on the arrow in the lower left corner explodes the import dialog from a simple import tool, to a full fledged file navigator, looking much like the Library Module. Here you can find all the additional import features you may need.

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The import dialog, while greatly improved, does still have a few bugs. On my Windows 7 installation, the basic import dialog will not allow me to access other drives on my PC other than the main disk drive. This appears to be an issue with the interface with the core Windows system, and should be corrected before the final release. The only work-around I found was to switch over to the expanded import. You may or may not have a similar issue, depending on your system. It just goes to show that this is a Beta and not ready for prime time.

To convert imported images, simply watch for the warning triangle in the histogram in Lightroom.

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Clicking on that will switch the rendering engine from Lightroom 2/ACR to the new, improved Lightroom 3 rendering engine. Now any imported photos previously edited are ready to rock in Lightroom 3. You can also change the processing mode by selecting Settings -> Process Version from the toolbar at the top.

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Process Version 2 is the new Lightroom 3 engine. Version 1 is the old Lightroom 2/ACR engine. To try out the new features, make sure you are in Process Version 2.

So now that we have photos ready to edit, we can start looking at the new Lightroom 3 features. First and foremost, lying under all the lovely Lightroom controls, is a brand new RAW rendering engine Adobe has been developing. First, the demosaicing algorithm has been drastically altered (demosaicing is the process used to render a raster image from RAW data) leading to better quality images.

When viewing an image in Lightroom 3 as compared to Lightroom 2, you will likely notice a higher level of definition to your images, while at the same time noticing more texture to the image. The new RAW processing engine pulls more detail than previous incarnations of Lightroom. When looking at fine detail you will really see the difference. All the more reason to shoot RAW, as technology advances, your images can improve, no so with Jpeg.

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The sample above shows the same image from both Lightroom 3 and Lightroom 2. The left side of the image is the Lightroom 3 interpretation, Lightroom 2 is on the right. This crop was taken at a  1:1 zoom. The shot was taken at ISO 100 with a Canon XTi, the Lightroom 3 side shows more detail and no noise. The Lightroom 2 side shows no noise, but the level of detail is lowered as detail gets smeared away with the removal of the noise.

On that note, the RAW processor no longer applies automatic noise reduction at any ISO. Previously, Lightroom would apply a level of noise reduction before you ever saw the image on your screen. In Lightroom 3, this is no longer the case, noise is left where it is at. This seems wrong at first, as noise is generally considered bad.

However, Lightroom 3 renders the noise in your image differently, leading the noise to appear more natural and grain-like than before. The effect is even more noticeable in High-ISO situations.

Keep in mind this is an early beta, a lot can change between now and release. As it is though, Lightroom 3 renders higher quality images with better definition than before. Noise reduction is now left entirely up to the end-user, eliminating loss of definition and blurring that noise reduction can create.

Sticking with the image quality issues, we’ll jump right into the Develop Module and explore the new features. First and foremost, Noise Reduction has been revisited. With the new, hands off approach to Noise Reduction in Lightroom 3, you control how much Noise Reduction will be applied and when.

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To this extent, Adobe has overhauled the Noise Removal tools in the Develop Module. As before we have Luminance and Color Noise Removal, but now we also have an Edge Detail slider, helping to clean up sharpening after Noise Reduction has been applied. Do note, Luminance Removal has been disabled in this beta of Lightroom 3. Only Color Noise Removal and Edge Detail sliders are available for use. Adobe is currently interested in the effectiveness of the new Color Noise tool and chose to leave Luminance correction disabled.

The Color Noise Reduction tool in Lightroom 3 functions the same as prior versions, however seems a lot more intelligent in its application of its effect. Colors seem to normalize with surrounding colors smoother than before and blurring due to Color Removal is negligible. Over all, it seems to be a great improvement of the previous tool, and one can hope the Luminance tool gets the same treatment.

Next, Sharpening was improved, although the sliders remain the same. Sharpening functions just as before, but due to the overall RAW engine improvements Sharpening functions better than ever. Before Sharpening could introduce halos and banding into your image, but now the tool again seems more intelligent at time of application. Also, there seems to be noticeable improvement in the function of the Detail and Masking tools, allowing you to retain fine detail and not oversharpen easier.

The downside to the sharpening improvements seems to impact speed of the tool. When using the Alt/Option key to bring up the monochrome preview, Lightroom 3 seems to chug a bit and take a few seconds to kick in the preview. Most likely this is just a side-effect of Lightroom 3 not being optimized yet and should go away at release. Be aware either way.

A new addition to the Develop Module that I am really excited about is the addition of a Grain tool. Finally you can apply a fairly realistic grain to you images within Lightroom. I have been unable to ascertain if the grain produced is rendered from Raw data or if it is simply an overlying layer of semi-translucent grain, but either way it is a welcome addition.

I can say that with the temporary elimination of the Luminance Noise reduction tool, you can alleviate some of the noise in the image by applying a slight grain to said image. This smoothes out the noise a bit, replacing it with a more natural appearing grain.

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As it is, the grain tool looks better than most grain addition solutions on the market. However, if the grain generated is compared to traditional film grain, it is noticeably fake. Hopefully more refinements will occur to this tool before release, but if not, it is still a welcome addition.

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Also of note, Adobe has finally revisited the Post-Crop Vignette tool. Previously this was viewed as a flawed too, but the new revision expands options allowing you to fine tune your vignette effect.

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On the Export front, there have been a few welcome changes. First, support for exporting directly to many photo sharing sites is built directly into Lightroom now. This is a small but useful addition. Bigger yet, Lightroom now supports watermarking better than before. Lr/2 Mogrify is still a more robust solution; however you can do more than a simple copyright line directly from Lightroom now. As this has been asked for since the betas of Lightroom 1, it is good to find more robust watermarking options finally available from Adobe.

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A new feature for exporting slideshows is also presented, allowing you to create slideshows with audio as standalone video files. This is another great addition to improve workflow productivity and limit trips to external programs.

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The Print Module received a large overhaul, allowing you to finally create custom layout to use every square inch of paper. You are no longer stuck with predefined templates and image sizes. Finally you can layout as many images in as many sizes as you desire, eliminating wasted paper and allowing you to produce more prints at one time.

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Other improvements in the Print Module include the ability to set the background color for any image that is printed. Another small, but useful addition.

All in all, this Beta may not be the greatest user experience at the moment. A lot of features are either disabled or not present, the software has not yet been optimized leading to sluggish performance on older systems and there are obviously bugs to be squashed. However the new features definitely make it worth you time to download, install and work in the Lightroom 3 Beta. Just don’t try to rely on it as your primary editor, we have no clue how well the beta will upgrade to any upcoming betas or the final version.

Relegate Lightroom 3 to playing and learning, rely on Lightroom 2 for all your production needs.

Also, if you run into issues with the Lightroom 3 Beta, or have suggestions for the developers relating to existing features, be sure to let Adobe know. Right now Adobe is using a forum for Lightroom 3 for bug reporting and issues. By using the forum to communicate your issues and to help others you are assisting the Lightroom team in delivering a well-rounded product, ready to rock on day one. It is in everyone’s interest that we come together as a community to further the development of our favorite imaging tool. Find the Lightroom 3 Beta forum over at the Adobe Forums.

For more in depth coverage of the new features in Lightroom 3 Beta, make sure you subscribe to the X-Equals Digest. We will be covering the Beta’s features more in-depth in the digest, so if you want to get more from the Beta subscribe today!

Michael W. Gray – LifeInDigitalFilm

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