Several people I know got new digital cameras for Christmas, so I think it’s time for me to finally publish my thoughts on Adobe Photoshop Lightroom (I’ve had a half completed draft sitting around that I’ve been meaning to finish for a couple of months now). Let me preface this by saying that I am in no way a professional photographer, or even a “pro-sumer” as the popular category goes these days. But I do have a digital SLR camera, and I do shoot everything in RAW format, and what I really needed was a tool to organize my photos and let me tweak the (many) photos I take that need a little bit of help. And after trying several alternatives (there are many on the market), the best tool for me is definitely Lightroom.

Lightroom is basically the RAW processing engine from full Photoshop, along with a great set of features for managing a large number of images. One nice thing about Lightroom is that it’s a bit less than half the price of Photoshop (roughly $280 for Lightroom vs about $630 for full Photoshop). Lightroom has everything you need to work with photographs, including cropping, increasing or decreasing the exposure from how the image was actually shot, bringing out details from shadows that were a bit underexposed, toning down highlight areas that were overexposed, adjusting color balance, removing red eye, noise reduction, sharpening, and adjusting overall brightness and contrast. You can also use some more advanced tools that let you correct for chromatic aberration and lens vignetting. It also does a very good job of converting color photographs to black and white. It’s missing some of the things in full Photoshop, like combining two images into one or removing one person from a group shot or other things like that, but I’ve found that I don’t really use those functions much when I’m working with photographs that I’ve taken.

One of the key things about Lightroom is that it is designed from the ground up to work with RAW images. Internally, Lightroom never alters your original RAW image. It stores the image exactly as it comes off the camera, and each change you make is just stored as kind of a script of changes that is applied to the original image. So you can change your mind and go back to the original image at any time with no damage whatsoever to the original file. Since the changes you make are stored as a script, you can also make multiple “versions” of changes to a single image. You can have one where you fix the issues in the color photo, another where you convert the image to black and white, and a third where you do something else. All three “new” images are just three scripts of changes that are run against the same original image.

The other great aspect of Lightroom is that it is designed for managing a large volume of photos. This is what really sets Lightroom apart from most other image editing programs (including full Photoshop, which does not include such extensive features for managing photos). I’ve shot all of our digital photos in RAW format since Charis was born, and I have all of them loaded up in Lightroom (well over 6000 images now). It automatically sorts images by the date the photo was taken, the date I imported the photo into Lightroom, what camera was used, what lens was used, what ISO the image was shot at, and quite a few other things (and it picks up all of that information automatically from the RAW file from the camera). Beyond that, there are lots of things that you can do to sort images in other ways. You can “tag” an image with any kind of tag you want. For example, I created tags for each person that commonly appears in our photos, and I mark each image with those tags when I import them into Lightroom. A picture of Charis and Cai gets two tags, one for Charis and one for Cai. Once the images are tagged, I can have Lightroom show me all of the pictures with Charis in them, or, even cooler, show me every picture with Charis and Cai in the same shot. It’s pretty handy to be able to find those images almost instantly from a pool of over 6000 photos. I also have other tags for location (at home, at work, vacation…), subject matter (sunsets, flowers, family…), major holidays (Christmas, Thanksgiving, birthdays…), and several other things. Beyond that, you can also give star ratings to your pictures so you can record which photos are your best. So then I can combine star ratings with tags and view all of my 5-star images from Charis’s birthday parties. It’s quite amazing, really, and immensely useful as your collection of images grows.

One other Lightroom feature that I find very useful is a set of tools for comparing similar shots to pick the best one. Suppose you have a dozen shots of a similar scene. You can tell Lightroom you want to just work with those 12 photos temporarily, and then flip through each photo in turn. As you flip through, you may be able to quickly mark photos as “picks” or “rejects” by clicking small flag icons in the corner of each photo. Once you’ve done that, you might want to pull up all of your possible “picks” (not looking at the rejects anymore) and look at them at full resolution, either individually, or in sets of two side by side. The side by side view is great for picking the better of two images. Then you can give your final pick a five star rating and either given the unselected photos a lower rating or completely delete them and just keep the one you chose.

So I’m a big fan of Lightroom. It has pretty much everything I need to manage our growing collection of digital photos, and it’s pretty easy to use. I’ve always found full Photoshop to be a bit intimidating because there are so many options and tools, but Lightroom is streamlined and straightforward. I picked up a “how to” book from Borders to get me started, but once I read the book and got going, I didn’t need to refer back to it because everything is so easy to use. There are, of course, lots of tools out there for working with RAW images, and Lightroom may not be right for everyone, but I’m very happy with it.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom