Some of you (older readers of this blog) might remember the old Saturday Night Live skit that aired in 1976 with Dan Akroid, Gilda Radner and Chevy Chase in which they argue whether a canned substance by the name of New Shimmer is a floor wax or dessert topping. As you’d expect from an SNL commercial parody, it’s both.
After using Adobe Lightroom for about a year now, I remain similarly confused about what, exactly, it is. Is it a photo editor or is it an asset management tool? Well, it’s both; and neither. Whatever it is, once you know how to use it, it’s a great tool for doing . . . stuff with your pictures. Let me explain.
In a photo processing workflow, there is generally a tool for managing photos and how they are stored. That is, where they are located (locally or remotely) and how they are organized in directory structures and with their metadata. And, there is a tool for processing or editing photos – actually adjusting the way the photo looks. Sometimes, these are the same tools. Most often, however, best of breed tools win out and photographers use separate tools for each function.
Adobe develops the 800-pound gorilla in the photo editing business – Photoshop. It’s the absolute leader in the segment. It’s robust, has a million features and loads of add-ons available from third parties. It also has a huge learning curve and an arcane user interface. It’s meant to address the needs of a broad range of people, not just photographers. As such, photographers have to sift through a boatload of functions that they will likely never use and learn techniques to make changes to photographs that aren’t always aligned with how photographers think.
On the asset management side, even Adobe doesn’t try to pack in organizational functions into it’s behemoth. Adobe has another product called Bridge to fill that roll. IMO, Bridge doesn’t cut it for many reasons. It appears to be primarily designed to front-end Photoshop and as such, is stuck with some of the same non-photographic concepts that weigh down its big brother. It’s also slow. To me, speed is an absolute critical factor in asset management. Especially considering that gigabytes worth of photo data are often somewhere on the network, not stored on a local disk drive. The asset management tool needs to be ultra-fast to overcome network latency.
To address these issues, Adobe came up with Lightroom (actually, it came with Macromedia as part of Adobe’s acquisition of the company). Lightroom is for photographers – it has a photographic workflow, including asset management tools and photo editing functions. It doesn’t have all the asset management tools of some dedicated asset management products and certainly doesn’t have all the editing capabilities of Photoshop, but as you get to know it and use it more often, it seems to strike the right balance between the functions and in a way that’s mostly logical to the photographer.
In terms of photo management, Lightroom isn’t as good as my long-time favorite tool, ACDSee Pro. ACDSee is fast and it’s storage paradigm parallels that of a standard directory tree, making it a natural and easy to understand extension of how the files are physically stored. I was never in love with ACDSee’s metadata handling though and even though it has editing tools built in, I really had to export photos to Photoshop to get what I wanted done. The breadth of photo metadata is much easier to manage in Lightroom, but the way photos are managed isn’t as logical.
What’s hard to get used to about Lightroom is that Lightroom maintains all it’s data about a photo in a separate database. That is, not in the photo file itself. So, while the database and photos aren’t physically connected, they are both necessary to reconstruct any changes made to the photo. This is not only true for the photo’s metadata, but also for edits to it. If you brush over some skin to remove your kids’ zits, those changes are in the database and not in the file. If you change the IPTC data to give the photo a caption, that’s in the database and not in the photo file. This separation takes a while to get used to, especially if you use other tools in your workflow. If you grab the JPEG you just edited in Lightroom in a new tool, you’ll get the original file and not the modified one.
For sure, you can write metadata changes in the Lightroom database out to the file. You just have to remember to do that, it’s not automatic. Writing the editing changes is another thing all together. This requires “exporting” the file from Lightroom which, at it’s best, is a bit confusing. In the end, like most things Adobe, you have to choose to make Lightroom the cornerstone of your workflow and adopt the way it wants to do things.
That sounds bad, except it does so much so well. In fact, there aren’t many reasons why Lightroom can’t be the only tool used by the photographer. No only can metadata be managed as discussed above, but the editing functions are broad and deep. For those that know about Adobe’s RAW photo handling, Lightroom’s Develop module does all that Adobe RAW does and more. In my experience, I can make almost all the adjustments to photos that I want without ever leaving Lightroom. For the few things that Lightroom doesn’t do, I can easily export to Photoshop to get done. For you Photoshop geeks, Lightroom doesn’t have layers, but you can mask areas of the photo. There are also no tools for HDR, stitching panoramas and the like. For those, you have to export to the mother ship, Photoshop, which is pretty easy because . . . Adobe wants you to do it.
So, Lightroom is a dessert topping and a floor wax. It’s a photo asset management tool and editor. In my experience, it’s also the best all-around digital photo tool available. As usual (with Adobe products), the learning curve is relatively steep, although nothing like for tools like Photoshop. Once you know how to use it (there is loads of help from users on the web), you can modify your photos amazingly fast, create some really cool effects and, ultimately morph the picture in your camera into the one that was in your head to start with. Isn’t that how it’s supposed to work?