September 01, 2010 — On the surface, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 (LR3) doesn’t look to be packed with new features. And to the users who downloaded the 600,000 copies of the beta software, and the 2000 photographers who participated in the beta-version forums, there aren’t a lot of surprises in the release version (though there are a few, and a few disappointments, too).
But beneath the surface, there are enough changes and improvements to features and workflow to warrant the $99 upgrade price. And for professional photographers who have yet to succumb to Lightroom’s charms, now would be a good time to find out what you have been missing.
Installation is seamless on both Mac and Windows, and if you are upgrading from Lightroom 2 you have the option of importing your catalogs into LR3. I was happy to see that LR3 also imported my custom Export presets, plug-ins and custom Camera Calibrations from Lightroom 2.
When the program opens to the Library module, very little appears to have changed. There is a new Publish Service tab in the left panel that allows you to publish directly to your Flickr account, or to publish to a mobile device such as an iPad, which is quickly becoming the device of choice for portfolio presentations by portrait, wedding, fashion and commercial photographers alike. In the right panel, the Sync Settings and Sync Metadata buttons have swapped position. And a new Tools drop-down is added to the menu bar.
There are small interface changes like these throughout LR3, and it’s quite easy to adjust to them. The big interface change appears when you select File > Import Photos. The Import window now has the look of Lightroom itself, with right and left panels and a central window for the image grid. This takes a little getting used to, especially having to click tabs in the right column to customize file handling, renaming, develop settings and destination folders, rather than having them all in one window in front of you. The upside is getting a vastly larger window to display the images you will import. Oh, and you can now import and play videos from your digital SLR using Lightroom.
But strangely, Lightroom still doesn’t recognize PNG format files, even though Adobe itself distributes images for the press in that format, and Web developers and designers use it extensively.
But this new import window is also the biggest disappointment in LR3 for me and several other photographers I know who are primarily photojournalists. Adobe had the perfect opportunity when revising the import module to improve the handling of IPTC metadata in LR3, but it didn’t do so, despite requests during the beta testing.
I would like to be able to enter metadata in one window by tabbing through fields without needing to scroll down a list. It would also be nice to have the ability to see only the fields in which I want to enter information, rather than every possible field. Maybe in LR4?
If you have imported images from a previous version of Lightroom, the first thing you will notice in the Develop module is an exclamation mark in a small square box in the lower right of the image preview window. Clicking on the “!” brings up a dialog box telling you that changes in LR3 to noise reduction and sharpening can be applied to the image if you like. I honestly couldn’t see a big difference in the Before and After previews of a number of images other than a slight boost in color and sharpness. Previewing the effect seemed to update them, so I decided to check the box to update all of the images in the filmstrip and hope for the best. In the Develop module you can change the Process back to “2003” (and reactivate the “!”) if you don’t like the new look.
The Develop module has the bulk of the new and revised features in LR3. The Tone Curve defaults to the LR2 Shadows, Darks, Lights, and Highlights, but a new button at its lower right brings up a Photoshop-like tone curve that is totally customizable, and the result of which can be saved as a preset. You can also mouse over the image and see where the area falls on both the curve and in the histogram.
But it is the Detail tab in the Develop module that receives some of the most useful changes. While Sharpening may look the same, it has undergone a major revision. Adobe has licensed the technology behind PhotoKit Sharpener, which I feel is the best sharpening tool available, and incorporated appropriate parts into LR3. The improvements are easily visible, particularly in edge detail, but really throughout the image.
Noise Reduction in the Detail tab gains a Detail slider for both Luminance and Color reduction, and a Contrast slider in Luminance. The Detail sliders preserve detail throughout the image when noise reduction is applied, but I couldn’t see that the Contrast slider had much of an effect on any of the images I viewed. Noise reduction in LR3 is improved over LR2, with the improvements coming more in the highlights and midtones than in the shadows. But it still falls short of third-party options, which require another (and destructive) processing step after you export the image from LR3.
Photoshop CS5 added extensive Lens Correction tools to its Filters menu and to Camera Raw 6. Since LR3 uses the same Camera Raw engine as CS5, the Lens Correction tools are also present here as a new tab below the Details tab. The same profiles are available, along with the ability to override the profile defaults with your own corrections, such as adding back the vignetting that occurs with a wide-angle zoom. You can also apply corrections manually if your camera/lens combination is not listed. Or ignore this tab altogether, other than to manually remove any color fringing, as I will do.
The Manual option of Lens Corrections includes a new perspective control tool. Horizontal and vertical transformation sliders, along with a grid overlay, allow you to correct or simply change perspective in the image. It will automatically crop to the new framing, or you can send the output to Photoshop and fill in the blank areas with Content-aware Fill.
A real winner in LR3 is the improved post-crop vignette tool. Adobe separated it from the Lens Vignetting tool and moved it to the new Effects tab where it joins the new Grain tool. Where the previous post-crop vignette merely added a black or white paint overlay on the image, the revised tool uses exposure or color information from the image to create a more natural-looking vignette. The old tool is still there, but the new options are far superior. You still can’t see the vignette as you crop—which would be nice. It is only visible after the crop is completed.
As good as the improved vignette tool is, the grain tool is a disappointment. It only adds luminance noise, and the effect is “mushy,” not crisp. It has a ways to go before it replaces any of the third-party grain plug-ins available for Photoshop.
Changes to the remaining modules in LR3 are far less extensive. You can now add watermarking to slideshows, prints and Web images in the respective modules. A lot of thought has gone into this tool, and Adobe built a lot of flexibility into it.
The Print module has been enhanced with the ability to create custom print packages, a feature requested by a large number of photographers.
The Web module seemed to come out worse in LR3, with the only change that I found, other than watermarking, being the addition of 19 extra templates.
Studio photographers may want to take advantage of the new ability to capture images directly into Lightroom using File > Tethered Capture. They will need to own one of the supported camera models. A detailed list is available at http://kb2.adobe.com/cps/842/cpsid_84221.html.
Using Tethered Capture with a Nikon D3x, I can testify that the process is much improved from the previous Auto Import, which is still available for cameras not supported in LR3. You can now shoot and correct a test image, save the settings as a Develop Setting, and then apply that to subsequent captures. What’s missing is a “composition” mode that would allow you to shoot preliminary files that you don’t need, without transferring and storing large files on your hard drive. The tethered process could be sped up considerably, if only the embedded JPEG were displayed until you were satisfied with the composition and lighting and ready to make final adjustments and captures.
While it may not appear on the surface that Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 has changed much, beneath the surface there are enough significant changes and improvements to highly recommend it. Adobe has improved on its strengths, such as speed of import and RAW processing, and has added new features that are useful to a wide range of users. As with all Adobe products, Adobe has provided extensive learning tools and tutorials at www.adobe.com. For new users, MSRP of LR3 is $299. LR1 and LR2 users can upgrade for $99.
Stan Sholik is a commercial/advertising photographer in Santa Ana, CA, specializing in still life and macro photography. His latest book, Professional Filter Techniques for Digital Photographers, covering both on-camera analog and post-production digital filters, is published by Amherst Media.