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Thoughts on Image Editing & Lightroom 4 Wish-List


*Warning. This post probably won’t appeal to anyone who isn’t a professional photographer or serious amateur!*

As chance had it, Adobe released Lightroom 1.0 right around the time I was getting serious about photography. I remember spending a long time switching backwards and forwards between demo versions of Lightroom and Apple's Aperture trying to come to a definitive conclusion about which was the one for me moving forward. It seemed like an important decision at the time. I didn't know that photography would become my profession but it felt like I was making a choice about something that I was going to be spending a considerable amount of time with over the coming years. I wasn't wrong.

I wanted Aperture to win through. I am a passionate Apple fan, my father owned an Apple II back in the day and I grew up surrounded by Mac IIvx's, Colour Classics, Performa's and the original iMac. I remember banging on about why the Mac was a superior platform as a school kid in the mid-nineties when Apple was FAR from the tech power house it is now. Given the option of Apple or else, I’d nearly always chosen Apple.

Over the years I've bought into the Apple ecosystem and infrastructure. One of the strengths of the Mac platform is its vertical integration and I've largely committed to this cause. Apple Mac's, Apple Routers, iPad's, iPhone's, MobileMe, iTunes Music Store you name it. However, when it came down to it, I had to concede that Lightroom proved a superior tool for me than Aperture. This isn't the case for everyone, but from my point of view Lightroom integrated more cleanly with my early workflow than Aperture did. First and foremost I saw Lightroom as an editor and it performed this job better than Aperture. It was a heck of a lot faster and never asked me to overlay palettes on top of the image itself. I know there are ways to avoid this gripe with Aperture, but the fact that I had to look for them really bothered me. The image is king and I don't want to have to move tools/palettes etc out of the way to see it. Also, the loupe, though very cool from an eye-candy perspective, was inferior to a simple full screen zoom.

Aperture is apparently a superior tool than Lightroom from a file management point of view, and as I'm less familiar with Aperture 3's file management I am in no position to present a complete argument on this point. That said, I get the Lightroom file system and know it very well and, with 160k odd images in my library, I've never found it wanting. I also like the modular system that Lightroom suggests. I work in a fairly ordered way and think in a standardised flow of import/develop/export. Finally, and above all, I know how to get the best out of Lightroom from an editing point of view. I'm very experienced with it and can quickly take an unedited image through to it's finished result. Aperture by comparison, while producing good images, takes me more time. I have to think a lot more when I use it. These days, after years of use, Lightroom feels extremely intuitive while Aperture is (unsurprisingly) less like common ground.

Lightroom 2 followed the original release by roughly 18 months with a 6 month odd beta phase. Lightroom 3 had an extended pre-release run of two distinct beta versions. By the v2 beta (released in March 2010) LR 3 was largely feature complete. It seems an awfully long time ago!

Lightroom 4 Wish List

Lightroom is a pretty mature programme and one with few flaws that seriously irk me. Nevertheless, I use it nearly every day and I can think of a few additions and refinements that would improve it. I thought I'd jot down a little wish-list of some of the things I'd like to see in Lightroom 4. These are in no particular order and simply represent my own personal views:

- Adjustment Brush. Soup up the adjustment brush to bring more global adjustments to local editing. Specifically I'd love to target HSL adjustments to help solve things like localised skin discolouration. It can be done already, of a fashion, using the colour additive adjustment and saturation but it's a poor alternative to true localised HSL adjustments.

- Match Total Exposure. This hugely useful tool is hidden in the 'Settings' menu of Lightroom's Develop module. It basically attempts to match the exposure values of two images which were shot differently. It's a great starting point for similar images with different exposures that for one reason or another you desire to be relatively uniform in the final edit. I use it relatively frequently and I'd like to see it implemented in a better manner rather than hidden away like it currently is.

- EXIF Editor. 95% of my images are shot on digital and the only original metadata that EVER needs to be edited is the capture time when a camera clock occasionally gets out of sync. The other 5% of images are film scans of one sort or another and it'd be great to be able to properly update this blank metadata from within Lightroom to allow the addition of camera and lens type and whatever other information you may find pertinent. At the moment I use IPTC fields for this but I'm much prefer to add this as EXIF data, perhaps with a tag to specify non-digital origin. From time to time I may want to view all images shot, say, at f/4. At present, film files have to be left out as this information isn’t present. I’d like to manual add it.

- Import/Culling Speed. I have moved my initial import and culling from Lightroom to Photo Mechanic. This is largely due to speed. Photo Mechanic imports snappily, but also allows for very quick culling as it displays embedded JPEGs in a pretty much instantaneous fashion without waiting for the RAW file to render. Lightroom is first and foremost a RAW editor, but surely an option to display just the embedded JPEG to allow for instantaneous review and culling of images would be a possibility? Perhaps a specialised culling mode?

- File Renaming. Sequential file renaming is essentially broken in any instance where virtual copies exist. In my editing workflow I tend to rely more upon snapshots than I do virtual copies. This is partly due to issues with file naming. Let me explain. When I edit a wedding, I go through the picked images one by one and apply the neccessary processing. Once this is done I 'sequence' the images into the order that I think helps best tell the story of the day. I rarely use virtual copies, but from time to time I do, most often when I need two versions of the same image, such as when I've cropped one frame into two distinct pictures. This causes all sorts of problems in the next step when I rename the images so that their filename matches the sequence I've decided upon.

As standard I use a filename followed by a three digit number such as "examplewedding-001.cr2". When implementing this renaming scheme with virtual copies present, Lightroom will proceed sequentially until it comes across a virtual copy, which it will skip renaming (as the image only exists as an instruction rather than a file in it’s own right). This is only part of the problem. The next issue is that when LR encounters a virtual copy it will skip a digit entirely. For example, a sequence such as the following (where VC indicates a virtual copy):

jackjill3789.cr2, jackjill3790.cr2, jackjill3791.cr2, jackjill3791.cr2 (VC), jackjill3792.cr2

will be renamed to this:

jj_edited-001.cr2, jj_edited-002.cr2, jj_edited-004.cr2, jj_edited-004.cr2 (VC), jj_edited-005.cr2

Effectively "jj_edited-003.cr2" has ceased to exist. It's downright stupid and a poor implementation. It makes it super easy to get confused when looking at cells in grid view when you expect the file numbering and cell number to correlate. A much better solution would be to firstly recognise VC's as special cases when undertaking renaming and offer the option of appending an additional VC title during the rename to keep things ordered sequentially. On exporting under the current system the absence of a "jj_edited-003.cr2" becomes all the more confusing. Perhaps this inspiring screenshot of RAM for an eBay auction can clarify an issue that is hard to explain in words alone. Note how the file naming, which is meant to be sequential makes very little sense.


- Panoramic tools. I don't do a huge number of pano shots but having to go elsewhere to work on these sorts of images is annoying. Photoshop does a superb job with most panorama's but keeping the function within Lightroom makes total sense. Panorama's are a classic photographic technique and therefore should be part of LR's bread and butter and by keeping the workflow contained within Lightroom it offers a number of possibilities for cross-referential metadata that keeps track of which images are used in which panoramas.

- HDR tools. HDR is no longer a new technology. It's been around for a while and although I don't use it all that often, it does have it's place. Sadly, Photoshop pales in comparison compared to dedicated solutions such as Photomatix. Adobe has been the image processing leader for decades and should be able to come up with something that'd push this area forward in LR.

- Slideshow improvements. I own Aperture 3 and use it primarily for slideshows. Lightroom has it's own slideshow features but they are far less potent than Aperture's. First off, there is no ability to 'construct a slideshow' and tailor music and blank/text slides within a design. In theory graphics can be imported into LR to accomplish this feat, but it's a bodge rather than a process intended by the software engineers. One of the earlier LR versions allowed for iTunes integration for accompanying music. This was removed in favour of a simple file browser. A better solution would have been to enhance the iTunes integration while adding the option of browsing for specific music files.

- Web Enhancements. One of the areas that I really like in Lightroom is the web module. I've used Lightroom's web options since the beginning along with additional galleries from the likes of The Turning Gate and Lightroom Galleries. To this day I still use the LRG One PayPal gallery for my print orders. It's straightforward and does a good job. That said, these days a more modern, more powerful solution is called for. Adobe would win the hearts of many by integrating more advanced web options and adding some level of e-commerce support.

- Album integration. From the start Lightroom set itself up as a one stop shop for the serious/professional photographer. It's modular system suggests a place for everything. Initially this was far from the truth, but as time has gone by it's become less and less necessary to leave Lightroom for supporting software. However one area that this tenet breaks down completely is album design. Wedding photographers spend countless hours working in album design software created by companies with a tenth of the scale and capability that Adobe might bring to the table. Add to this the fact that we have to export to get it all done and that Aperture offers this service as standard and you have one of Lightroom's most significant weaknesses.

- Expand Publish services to integrate with Apple products. I know. I'm a self-stated Apple fanboy and of late Adobe and Apple are far from bosom buddies. Nonetheless, Apple is a MAJOR player in the personal tech market and although they've never made it easy for others to integrate with their gadgets it's been proven time and time again that it is possible. On some level it'd be great if Adobe could simplify the process of transferring images to iPad's and iPhones and streaming them to an Apple TV.

- Folder Moves. Improve how Lightroom manages folder movement within the Lightroom file browser. Let me explain a situation I often encounter. I have the following local storage hierarchy:

- Internal 256GB SSD: Used for edits in progress
- Internal 2TB HDD: Once complete an edit lives here until it's no longer in regular use
- External 4TB Drobo: Once an edit, such as a wedding is complete, it is archived here.*

*These archived edits live here for local access but are also backed up via another, separate process.

These discs all appear within Lightroom and I simply drag and drop folders (a folder per shoot) from one storage disc to the next as they move down through the hierarchy from current to archive. What bugs me is that Lightroom prevents me from selecting more than one folder at once and dragging it to a different disk. I can overcome this because Lightroom allows you to move nested folders, so I place multiple folders into one container folder and move this. Still, it seems unnecessarily arbitrary and could use a fix.

- Clone/Heal Tool Bug. I use the clone/heal tool a heck of a lot. I am a big fan of its simplicity and power and use it for all but the most complex removal/edit jobs. It usually works fine, but for as long as I can remember it's been afflicted by a bug which causes its cursor to sporadically disappear. It happens rarely, but during day long wedding editing sessions it inevitably rears its ugly head at least once and forces a relaunch of the app. With every new LR point release I pray for it to be squashed but I have yet to get lucky!

- Faces and Places. Aperture has these tools and they help add genuinely useful metadata without the arduous job of exhaustive key-wording. Faces can be a bit hit and miss (though it's improving all the time) while places seems like an obvious and easy implementation. Many cameras have built in GPS functionality these days and for those cameras without such features a setting to import GPS data from an iPhone or other device could serve well.

- Nested Preset Folders. Pretty self explanatory. At present you can only place presets within one folder. I have a few folders dedicated to my personal presets. TH Sport, TH Wedding, TH General etc. I'd like to sub-nest these within TH Presets. It's a little thing but it'd help make the workspace tidier and allow for more screen real estate to be allocated to other things.

There are probably other things I’ll think of as time goes by, but these are some of the main issues I’d like to see addressed in any future Lightroom 4 release. Would love to hear your views, so feel free to leave a comment and tell me what you think LR 4 is in need of!

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