Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 is yet another evolution in the life of this impressive and increasingly capable raw photo processing and digital asset management (DAM) application. If you’re not familiar with Lightroom and you’re a photographer, you’ve either been living under a rock or you just got your very first camera kit. Regardless, here’s a quick refresher. Lightroom combines two major modules, along with five additional peripheral modules, all designed to simplify the process of managing and processing the large intake of photographs people take today.
The Advanced Healing Brush in Lightroom 5 brings a far more useful and, well, advanced healing tool.
Lightroom is not a replacement for Photoshop, but rather a companion. In fact, Lightroom is so robust, we find that Photoshop is relegated to very specific tasks and 95 percent of our work can be done in Lightroom alone. Photoshop only becomes necessary for things like stitching panoramas, doing highly customized image sharpening, or very sophisticated image patching or object removal.
Don’t confuse Lightroom with Adobe Bridge (the company’s media asset manager), either. Superficially, there is some overlap in their functionality, but don’t fall into the trap of thinking that Bridge is “good enough.” We’ve encountered photographers who initially believed that learning Lightroom would be a waste of time because “Bridge does everything Lightroom does.” In every case, these same photographers end up regretting that they didn’t transition to Lightroom sooner.
So, what’s new over version 4? For us, the big changes are the Smart Preview system, the enhanced Spot Removal Tool, and the Radial Filter Tool. If you’re a landscape or travel photographer who embeds GPS data in your images, you’ll love the new Map module, which shows your images overlaid on a map. If you often find yourself tweaking perspective in the lens corrections module, you might love the new Upright feature, which automates major perspective corrections. If you do video side-by-side with your still photography, you can now mix video and stills into Lightroom-generated slideshows. All of these improvements plus much more mean there’s something for everyone.
The Smart Preview system enables full raw edit-ability in a very lightweight package. We find ourselves wanting to take our work on the road, but taking the tens or even hundreds of gigabytes associated with a large shoot can be daunting. Now with Lightroom 5, we can go to our master collection that’s typically on our big desktop box, select the images we want to take on the road, then select File > Export As Catalogue. In the next screen, uncheck “export negative files,” and check “build / include smart previews.” Under the hood what happens next is that Lightroom exports a new catalog with lightweight, down-sampled files based on Adobe’s Lossy DNG tech. These files are tiny compared to your master raw files, but still maintain full raw edit-ability. If you outsource your raw processing to someone else, now you can realistically deliver jobs via Dropbox rather than shipping a hard drive. When you’re finished working on the road, simply re-import the export catalog to your master catalog, and Lightroom seamlessly integrates all your changes into the master raw file.
Fortunately, the new Radial Filter gives you the ability to quickly apply radial gradients as well as other adjustments.
The enhanced Spot Removal Tool is improved in three ways. First, you have control over edge feathering. Second, you can control the opacity of the removed spot, meaning it’s now capable of doing more natural skin and blemish removal. Third (and this is the big one), you can now paint non-circular removal areas. In LR4, all you could do was click to create a circular spot removal. Now on LR5, if you click and drag you begin painting a mask of any size and shape you desire.
The new Radial Filter Tool is marketed by Adobe as a vignette tool with more control, which is true, but we feel this under-sells how useful it is. All the controls you associate with the Graduated Filter tool can now be applied in a radial fashion, as well. This means new ways to quickly correct entire areas surrounding your subject.
Unlike most of Adobe’s other apps, Lightroom 5 continues to offer a stand-alone license, which means you “own” it once you’ve bought it rather than paying every month in perpetuity for it. Adobe does offer a “cloud” version, which is bundled with Photoshop Creative Cloud for $40 a month. By itself, Lightroom 5 is $140 new or $80 as an upgrade.
The Smart Preview mode gives you an easy way to edit photos on the road with your laptop and then merge the files back with your powerful desktop once back home.
All of this doesn’t mean Lightroom is perfect. We’ve previously criticized the underlying code and task scheduling for being sluggish, not taking full advantage of the computing hardware, and not scaling well on faster hardware. Unfortunately, Lightroom 5 doesn’t offer any change here, but it should. Performance isn’t horrible but we’d love to see a lightning-fast preview mode that takes advantage of a raw file’s built-in preview data, à la Camera Bits’s PhotoMechanic, to make culling large volumes of images faster.
Ultimately, though, just because a tool is the best choice doesn’t mean it’s flawless. If you’re a hobbyist or professional photographer, Lightroom deserves to be your tool of choice. In spite of its weaknesses, Lightroom 5 offers enough new utility to be a worthy upgrade or outright purchase for anyone who needs help dealing with large amounts of images.