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Every photographer needs a good tool for organizing digital photos on their computer--it’s almost more crucial than a photo editor, since not ever photo necessarily needs edits, but they all need somewhere to live, where they can be found again. Apple’s options include iPhoto (free with new Macs or $14.99 in the Mac App Store) and Aperture ($79.99). If you’re an Adobe fan, you can use a folder-browsing program like Adobe Bridge (part of Creative Suite 5) or, if you have one of the most recent versions of Photoshop Elements ($79.99), you might be using the Elements Organizer.
Lightroom is designed to let you organize your photos and edit them within a single application. Plus, Lightroom’s image adjustments are nondestructive. They’re stored within the photo library and associated with the relevant pictures rather than being applied to them directly. (iPhoto and Aperture use the same approach.) But perhaps best of all, Lightroom 4 retails for $149, down from $299 for Lightroom 3.
Improved tonal controls mean you can recover shadows and highlights more effectively, and the sliders have been rearranged to make them more logical.
At first glance, Lightroom 4 looks very much like Lightroom 3. But it has some important changes, including redesigned and improved image editing tools, integrated photo books, a new module for locating your photos on a map, basic video editing tools, and “soft proofing” for checking how your photos will look when printed.
The image-processing engine is new, and Adobe has swapped the old Recovery and Fill Light sliders for Whites and Shadows. These aren’t direct replacements, exactly, but they’re the nearest equivalents, and much improved. Now, when you recover highlights with the Whites slider, there’s far less impact on the tones in the rest of the image. Likewise, the Shadows slider recovers dark shadow detail without over-lightening the whole picture.
Lightroom 4 brings new localized adjustment tools too. It’s now possible to “paint” white balance, noise reduction, and anti-moire effects onto specific areas of the image, in addition to the existing tone and color modifications.
In the soft-proofing mode, you can see how your images will appear when they’re printed on devices with a different color gamut (the range of colors they can display), such as different printer models or even types of paper. “Out of gamut” colors are highlighted in red, and you can adjust either the saturation or the hue of these particular colors to bring them back in range. Soft proofing doesn’t enable you to get more colors out of your printer, but it does let you understand the printer’s limitations and control the outcome more effectively.
Lightroom 4 now has basic video editing tools. You can trim the start and end points of your clips and apply a range of effects.
Adobe has added basic video support, too. Lightroom 4 won’t replace your video editing app, but it does let you trim and clean up video clips so that you’re starting with better raw materials. You can even apply a range of Lightroom enhancements and presets via the Quick Edit panel. Not all of the regular Lightroom adjustments can be used with video, but it displays a helpful dialog with checkboxes for the adjustments that will be applied. For example, you can apply color adjustments to match up clips shot in slightly different lighting, or apply a warm, retro look from the range of presets available. Clips can also be exported as H.264 files, or uploaded directly to Facebook or Flickr.
The new Map module works just as you’d expect if you’ve used similar tools in Aperture, iPhoto, or on Flickr. Images with location information embedded in the EXIF data show up on pins on the map, and images that don’t have this data can be added to maps manually--they’re now “retro-tagged” with this information, meaning they’ll show up on maps in just the same way from now on.
Lightroom 4’s straightforward mapping tools even have some extra features, such as the ability to create favorite locations, which are broader, user-defined areas containing a number of different shooting locations. And you can use Lightroom’s filtering tools, displayed as a series of columns at the top of the Grid view, to filter photos in a Collection or a folder by their location.
The new Book module is powered by Blurb, one of the better-known online photo book suppliers, and offers both predesigned books and the ability to create your own layouts. It’s much better than struggling with standalone apps or online book creation tools, and you can keep track of your books from within Lightroom.
Adobe’s also introduced new options for its DNG file format, a “universal” RAW format designed to replace the multiplicity of different camera RAW files, though so far Adobe seems to be the only software publisher putting much weight behind it. You can now create “lossy” DNG files to save disk space and smaller (lower pixel dimensions) files too. That’s a rather odd thing to do to your digital negatives, given that you’d want to archive your originals at the best possible quality, but it’s an option, anyway.
Previous versions of Lightroom only let you group related images into folders, an unexpected limitation. Lightroom 4 adds Collections (think: albums)--but it’s still a bit awkward. Folders are displayed in one panel, but Collections are created and managed in a different one. You might create a Collection of images from within a folder, but they’re not listed in the same panel and they are, as far as Lightroom is concerned, unrelated. The interface remains quite dark and cluttered, too, and Lightroom can feel sluggish when you’re scrolling through large numbers of images.
This is where Lightroom 4 still feels slightly inferior to Aperture, its chief rival. Lightroom’s editing tools are more comprehensive, but Aperture is still the fastest and most effective at browsing and organizing. Lightroom is more transparent about how it manages the files on your hard disk, but Aperture has the option to store original images internally in a single library file that’s easy to keep track of and can’t be interfered with via the Finder or other applications.
The bottom line. You can compare features as much as you like, but in the end the choice is subjective. Lightroom 4 covers all the bases, and if you liked version 3 it’s an important upgrade. But its appearance and its way of working are very different to Aperture’s, and if you have a chance to try both (Adobe offers a free trial of Lightroom), that’s the best way to decide which is right for you.
Photoshop Lightroom 4
Multicore Intel processor, Mac OS 10.6.8 or later, 2GB RAM, 1GB free disk space, 1024x768 display
Improved dynamic range controls. Effective new Maps module. Scope and power of editing tools. Integration with Photoshop.
Can be slow with lots of images. Separation of Folders and Collections.