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Lightroom 4 – What’s the big deal?

Saturday 17 March 2012

The big deal is this – Soft Proofing, Books and Maps are a great addition to Lightroom, but for me, the great leap forward is in the new Basic palette of the Develop module.

Once you have converted your Lightroom 3 catalogue to Lightroom 4, you will not actually see a difference. The new palette is invoked only when you convert from Process Version 2010 to Process Version 2012. Here’s how it works…

Process Version 2010 - as per Lightroom 3

Open Lightroom 4 and take a look at a photo you have previously processed in LR3. You will see the same LR3 Basic palette – nothing has changed there, yet. Do you notice the small grey exclamation point icon in the lower right? Click on it and you can choose to convert that photo from PV2010 to PV2012. You can also convert all the other filmstrip images at the same time and even compare with a before and after. To start, just convert the one image. After a moment, you will see a slightly different version of the same image plus a new Basic palette.

Process Version 2012 - as per Lightroom 4

At the side are examples of the same photo in PV2010 and PV2012.


LR4 attempts to “convert” the PV2010 version to a somewhat equivalent PV2012, but the conversion is rarely exact and it may not even look like an improvement – not yet anyway. This is where the magic begins. There is no direct conversion from PV2010 to PV2012 since the adjustments in LR4 are much more precise to specific tonal regions within a photograph. For me, this wonderful! In fact, what I am finding is that when I “reprocess” previous images using LR4 and PV2012, I end up with much livelier mid-tones. Images have much more “presence” without reporting to Clarity or Tone Curves.

The trick is to nail down Exposure first. The Exposure adjustment has the most effect in the middle tonal values (in the middle of the histogram). In fact, if you hover your cursor over the Exposure slider or value field, you will see the central region of the histogram turn a shade lighter in grey to show the region most affected. The same is true as you drag your cursor over the other adjustments. The only that does not do this is the Contrast slider – it spreads out the histogram to either side evenly.

What’s most important, however, is how well the extreme highlights and shadows are “protected” from becoming clipped. In PV20102, it seemed that only a slight increase in Exposure would cause the Highlights to become clipped. The Brightness adjustment was better for preventing clipping. But in PV2012, it seems the Exposure slider is non-linear meaning that it’s greatest effect in the central part of the histogram with a progressively smaller effect towards either end – perfect!!

The Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks adjustments are equally “zoned” into specific regions. They work like having point curve in Tone Curves – the level of precision is much greater and the “drift” int other zones is much less. As well, with Highlight and Shadow clipping better protected, I can make more significant changes without losing either end.

Why am I using the word “zone” so much? Well, for those of you old enough to know the zone system, it’s like being able to adjust the tones within different zones of the histogram, only it is much more precise than we were ever able to achieve with N- and N+ exposure, development or printing.

I’m finding that whatever I did using PV2010, I can do better in PV2012, but that creates a dilemma. I simply do not have the time to go back and reprocess every PV2010 image. Instead, I’m reprocessing as the need arises for printing purposes and for posting to the web.

For me, this change in the Basic palette is the single most important improvement in LR4. I must admit to being disappointed in the lack of improvements in other areas such as the now totally pathetic spot removal brush (when compared to what Aperture has had for years now, not to mention Apple’s free photo app, iPhoto). I was also hoping for a better “Transform” feature similar to Photoshop. As well, I thought Adobe could to a better job in providing more options in the Web Gallery such as graphic backgrounds instead of just plain colours.

Be that as it may, LR4 is still an improvement over LR3 i the most important area for digital photographers – in the processing of our photographs. Once you start working in PV2012, you’ll start to wonder how you got on without it!

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