Lightroom – New Age Dark Room

Here at last, a photography related post…

If you recently purchased, or are thinking of purchasing, a digital SLR, there are two accessories I’d recommend to go with the camera. The first thing is a prime lens; a prime lens is a lens with a set focal length (i.e. 50mm) that also has a low aperture setting. I’ll talk more about

Prime Lens Depth of Field Example - I focused on the Coke bottle and blurred the rest of the image

prime lenses in a future post, but some of the benefits of prime lenses include improved shooting in low light conditions and artsy picture compositions using a short dept of field (i.e. focus on one piece of the image while making the rest blurry). The second thing I’d recommend is photo management software. I currently use Adobe’s Lightroom 3 but there are other alternatives like Apple’s Aperture. Here are some of the benefits of using Lightroom to manage, develop, and share your pictures.

Managing Pictures

Lightroom has five major modules – Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print, Web – and the Library module is where users manage their pictures. Most free photo management software like Google’s Picasa or Apple’s iPhoto, are primarily focused on the rudimentary functions that are needed to manage your photos. These functions include managing the library and offering basic photo editing functions (cropping, red-eye correction, filtering, etc). When it comes these functions, Lightroom doesn’t offer a large advantage over it’s free counterparts. I still use Picasa web to import my pictures from my camera to my computer, and to do my first review of my pictures, because Picasa doesn’t hog as much of your computer’s memory resources. Lightroom does, however, offer some benefits that the other software do not have or do not promote. Using the “Collections” or “Publish Services” features, you can create collections of pictures on your local computer or on online services like Flickr. I recently signed up for a Flickr pro account and I can create online collections that are uploaded to my Flickr account with the click of a button as opposed to having to use Flickr’s Uploader. Other software packages offer similar options, but none are as seamless as Lightroom’s.

Lightroom Comparison

Lightroom's Comparison Tool

Some other useful features within the Library module are the meta data fields, photo comparison, and keyboard shortcuts. The meta data fields are data fields that are stored about a picture; they  can be automatically set by the camera (date taken, camera used, lens, etc), or data supplied by the user (rating, text, flags, colors, etc). The meta data can be set when you import a group of pictures, managing a single picture, or modifying a group of pictures in post processing.  You can use the meta data to search pictures, or to manage pictures when you are in the other modules. The comparison tool allows you to compare two or three pictures, which is essential when you are trying to decide which pictures to keep within a repetitive set. The most commonly used feature, keyboard shortcuts, allow you to do things without using your mouse. Lightroom has keyboard shortcuts for every action within every module to make commonly used tasks easier for the user. One useful reference guide around keyboard shortcuts can be found here.  All of the features in the Library module  are designed to improve the user experience when managing a large number of pictures.

Develop

The Develop module is where Lightroom leaps above many other free alternatives. The module is the new age dark room for digital photography. Using the module you can transform pictures into professional looking pictures. Lightroom is still only meant to be a tool to supplement photographers, composition is still key when taking pictures. In addition to the common functions that most editing software provide – cropping, red-eye adjustment, etc – the tool allows you to edit color, exposure, contrast, brightness, clarity, vibrance, tonal curve, and many, many more. You can apply changes to part of the picture, or to the entire thing. You can apply your own edits or use one of the standard or user defined presets. More to come on the presets.

I used to shoot all my pictures in JPEG, a common file format used by most digital cameras that compresses the picture format. The JPEG format is meant to save room since it’s a compressed file format, but it doesn’t give users the same ability to adjust the picture in post processing activities. Now I shoot in RAW format, which is a larger file that saves all the picture settings without compressing the file, so I can adjust the picture in post processing in Lightroom (JPEG vs. Raw). I typically use the Develop module to:

  • Modify Exposure – You won’t always get the right exposure in your pictures, and Lightroom allows you to modify pictures that you might have under/over exposed. You can touch up parts of your picture or use the gradient filter to apply it to the entire picture.
  • Tweak the clarity or vibrance - Some times you can make parts of your picture pop by adjusting the clarity (decreasing the clarity gives portraits the soft feel that you commonly see in professional pictures). Adjusting the vibrance can also make certain colors pop out.

    Clarity & Vibrance Example - in this picture I decreased the clarity and increased the vibrance to give more focus on the green color.

  • Color Modification - you can control all colors within the color spectrum to adjust how much of each color appears in your picture. One common use of this feature is color isolation (i.e. a black and white picture that shows an object in red).

    Example of color isolation - in this picture I isolated the red of the sign.

  • Other Calibration Elements - Every camera comes with it’s limits and Lightroom allows you to adjust for some of the vulnerabilities of your camera or lenses. You can increase or decrease vignetting (where the corner of your pictures are black) or you can adjust the hues and saturation of certain colors. Regardless of what equipment you’re using, be aware of it’s limitations so you know what adjustments to make while taking the picture or post processing.

The beauty of Lightroom is that it is designed for users of all levels. If you find all the settings to be intimidating, you can use the some of the provided presets or download some from the web. The presets are pre-configured adjustments that can be used as minor tweaks or creative outlets (download some free presets from here). Advanced users can by-pass the presets and modify pictures as if they were in a dark room without all the hassle. I consider myself an intermediate Lightroom user; some times I’ll use one of the presets while other times I’ll roll up my sleeves and use the manual configuration. The Develop tool is not meant to develop pictures and it is not a design tool like Adobe’s Photoshop.

The changes you make to your pictures aren’t applied to the picture until you save, or export, your pictures. This allows you to make modifications to a picture without affecting the original until you’re ready to apply the changes. The one disadvantage of shooting in RAW is that you have to export all your pictures to JPEG for most programs to ready the file. I tend to review all my pictures in bundles, modify those that need it, and export them all to JPEG for sharing. I tend to only keep the RAW format for pictures that I want to develop in the future; RAW files are larger so they quickly fill up your hard drive.

Sharing

The modules I use the least are the Slideshow, Print, and Web modules. Those modules come in handy if you want to share your pictures without having advanced coding knowledge to build a website or manually cutting a slide show. The Web module gives you multiple templates to easily share your pictures via flash or non-flash galleries. I use my wordpress blog to share my pictures, but it does require some coding knowledge. If you aren’t tech savvy I’d recommend using Lightroom to share your pictures without any coding.

Lightroom is a powerful tool that should be in every photographer’s arsenal. Picasa and iPhoto are commonly used programs but Lightroom offers many advantages for managing, developing, and sharing digital photographs. You can find more about purchasing Lightroom on Adobe’s site. They offer student prices, and you can easily find the software on those BitTorrent sites (not that I’m advising you to do that). You’ve spent the money on expensive DSLR, now make sure you have the right tools to take advantage of that camera. This article gives a high level overview of Lightroom, reach out to me if you have questions about how to complete certain activities. I’ll write some specific tutorials in the future.