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Living with Photography: Adobe Lightroom 5 Review

By Norman Chan

Thoughts on Adobe's new RAW photo processing software, an evaluation of its marquee features, and a smart tip for making Lightroom work well if you edit photos on multiple computers.

Adobe Lightroom 5. It's been out for two weeks, and I've been using it in one form or another since the public beta was released in April. This iteration of the popular photo processing program is notable for two reasons: the relatively short time since the last major revision of Lightroom was released (just over a year, compared to the three years between Lightroom 3 and 4), and that it is one of the only remaining Adobe flagship products to still be sold as a standalone package and not as part of the subscription-based Creative Cloud program. The latter sounds like a good thing, and Adobe has publicly stated that Lightroom will always be made available as a perpetual license purchase and not solely part of a subscription service. But that calls into focus the fact that many Lightroom users already paid up to $150 for Lightroom 4 just last year, and a $80 upgrade to Lightroom 5 may not be easy to stomach.

The four marquee features of Lightroom 5--Advanced Healing Brush, Upright Straightening, Radial Gradient Filter, and Smart Previews--provide varying degrees of utility for photographers, depending on their photo editing prowess, existing workflow, and what other editing software they have on hand. Introducing more photo retouching abilities in Lightroom will allow you to do more of your edits in just one program without having to export to Photoshop, but these tools aren't as useful to editors who need Photoshop for serious editing as part of their workflow. But let's go over each of these features in detail.

Advanced Healing Brush

Spot healing is a tool Photoshop users should be very familiar with--it allows you to remove undesirable patches from images by sampling another section of your photo, cloning it on top of the selected area, and then blending the replacement patch with its surroundings. This could be blemishes on the skin in portraits, dust on the camera sensor, or even an errant cloud in a landscape photo. Using Lightroom's new Healing Brush to effectively vanish these spots is stupid simple. You simple click the Spot Removal tool in the Develop module (next to the resize/crop button) and paint over the undesirable spots in one continuous stroke. Lightroom then picks a nearby area in the photo that it thinks can serve as the replacement, and shows you an outline of how that patch will get cloned into your painted selection. You can then drag and adjust either the original painted area or the calculated fill area to find a good match.

In the photo below, I wanted to remove a blurry splotch in the bottom right-hand corner of the photo. I painted over that area with the Spot Removal tool and Lightroom found a nearby patch of red carpet that was suitable as a replacement.

If you're the type of person who pores over every pixel of an image to look for splotches to fix (or in the case of portraits, actual pores), the Spot Removal tool also has a useful feature that highlights potential trouble spots. Just click the Visualize Spots checkbox below the image preview and the photo converts into a black-and-white preview with a "posterized" outline. This preview can be adjusted with a threshold slider too, and was pretty effective for finding off-color spots that may be hidden to the eye.

Since I don't demand perfection from my photos, I actually didn't find myself using this Healing feature much in Lightroom 5. The tool works for sure, but it's something I can also do in Photoshop, and still isn't as powerful (or as easy to use) as Photoshop's Content-Aware Fill tool.

Upright Straightening

A feature that I ended up using a lot though was the Upright Straightening tool. Upright is a feature that analyzes the composition of your photos to look for dominant vertical and horizontal lines--or at least lines that it thinks should be vertical or horizontal. Getting perfectly straight verticals is a very desirable in photography, and Upright does more than just rotate your photo. It actually warps and stretches your image to achieve straight lines, adjusting for some natural lens and perspective warping. The tool sits below the (also updated) Profile Correction checkbox, and should be used in concert with that tool to adjust photos.

Upright can be implemented in a variety of ways. You can have it analyze and correct for horizontal lines, vertical lines, both, or set it to an "auto" adjust mode. I found myself clicking every one of those options for the photos I wanted to adjust, since the results were not consistant. When it worked, the effect was wonderful, such as when I wanted to straighten out this photo of a framed print I took:

But Upright's failures were spectacular as well, such as when I asked it to straighten this photo of another print. I have no explanation for why Lightroom couldn't properly analyze this photo--there are very dominant horizontal and vertical lines around the "frame" of this image, which Upright should have recognized.

So Upright is a hit-and-miss feature. And though it's not as reliable as something like Profile Correction and Chromatic Aberration removal, it's a tool I have now integrated into my workflow. Every photo I shoot with the intent to emphasize a dominant vertical line now goes through Upright analysis, just in case. And for photos shot with a wide-angle lens, the results are pretty effective.

Radial Gradient Filter

This was the new feature I used least in Lightroom 5. Its intent is to allow you to tune only areas defined by a radial (elliptical) mask, so you can spotlight certain areas of your photos, for example to isolate a subject from the background. Using the tool, you draw and ellipse around the area you want to edit, and a full suite of Develop tools are available for you to apply for just that area. You can also invert this selection mask, to only apply those edits to areas outside of that ellipse. I found it useful to adding creative vignetting around the edges of a photo, such as when I experimented with Instagram-like filter effects in Lightroom last week.

Smart Previews

Finally, we get to my favorite new feature in Lightroom 5: Smart Previews. In previous versions, Lightroom created a small preview file for each of your photos as you import them, which is what the Library view loads when see your grid of photos. These previews serve a few purposes--namely to make sure Lightroom isn't more of a memory hog than it already is and to let you see your photos when you aren't connected to the original image files. This is primarily for people who work with their photo libraries stored on an external server or hard drive. Smart Previews are made for those people.

Instead of just being a sized-down preview of your source images, Smart Previews also contain enough data to let you apply edits to those images in the Develop menu. That means you can make all the tweaks you would normally make to a photo in Develop, and Lightroom will save those changes to your Catalog file and apply them to the original image when you're connected again.

The place where Smart Previews really comes in handy is with Dropbox syncing. I use Lightroom on my Desktop PC, since that's where my photos are imported and saved. But I also have a MacBook Air at the office, and want to be able to tap into my Lightroom Catalog while on the road. Since installing Lightroom 5, I've changed the location of my Lightroom Catalog (and consequently Preview files) to a folder on Dropbox, which syncs between all my machines. Since Smart Previews are also saved in Dropbox, I can now import photos on my Desktop and then make edits on my laptop without being connected to my source photos. Plane rides back from work trips are about to get much more productive and fun.

Since Smart Previews contain more data than regular Lightroom Previews, they also take more space. But surprisingly, not that much more. As a size comparison, my library of 12,000 photos takes up 725MB in regular Preview files. I've only converted my most 1,500 photos into Smart Previews, and those files take up 1.46GB--or about 1MB for each photo.

You can create Smart Previews at any time from any original photo as long as you are connected to the photo source, or you can set Lightroom to automatically create Smart Previews during imports. In my experience, adding the creation of Smart Previews during import didn't add a significant amount of time to my workflow. Yes, it takes a little longer than importing with photos just regular previews, but I import dozens of RAW files at a time and just step away from the computer instead of staring at the progress bar.

Conclusion

If it wasn't for the Smart Previews feature, Lightroom 5 would really feel like more of a point release than the full-fledged follow-up to last year's Lightroom 4. The new image manipulation tools are welcome, but they're not going to dramatically affect your workflow if you already own an editor like Photoshop Elements. And if Adobe was really trying to make Lightroom 5 really appealing for photographers, they would've integrated the Shake Reduction feature from Photoshop CC. I also didn't notice any speed or performance improvements with Lightroom 5 over 4, since it's likely that Adobe used the same rendering code between the two versions. Thorough performance tests by users online have basically confirmed that assumption.

If you own and use Lightroom 4, the $80 upgrade to Lightroom 5 is only worth it if you edit on multiple computers and want to take advantage of Smart Previews. But if you're new to RAW photo editing and don't already have access to Photoshop or Camera RAW, Lightroom remains totally worth it and is great deal at $140 on Amazon. Keep in mind that Lightroom, previous to version 4, was a $300 piece of software. The drop in price from $300 to $150 signalled not only Adobe's desire to make Lightroom more accessible to amateur photographers, but also its plan to speed up its release schedule for the software--meaning users would pay roughly the same amount in the long run. Incremental annual updates is Adobe's new MO, so if you're unhappy with buying a new software license every year, maybe you should consider a Creative Cloud subscription.

Don't Forget about Tested on Flickr!

This week's knolling photo spotlight was taken by Sam Clarke of the Tested Flickr Group. Sams says he had to find the right angle so that the lights in his room didn't show up in any nasty reflections on his devices' screens. A challenge that anyone who shoots indoors is familiar with!

Photo credit: Tested Flickr Group member sam_clarke

Have a knolling photo you'd like to share? Post it in this ongoing thread in our Flickr group!