Eight years ago, Adobe released Photoshop Lightroom, a unified digital asset manager and non-destructive raw image processor. Since then, Adobe has released 5 major versions of Lightroom, each making small revisions, tweaks, and sometimes adding new functionality. This is part 2 of my series looking at Lightroom in depth, inside and out, and what I think Adobe needs to do to continue to build on Lightroom as a tool for both professional and amateur photographers alike.
In this article I’m going to look at the overall Lightroom user interface at a high level. Many of the nuances and issues in many parts of Lightroom’s user interface (UI) stem from decisions made early on about the way Lightroom would work and act.
One of the problems that I run up against in talking about software UIs and how they were designed, is that there’s a great deal of interdependency in the decision process. A design decision can have ramifications that impact other decisions that in turn either reinforce or work against the initial design goal.
The other major problem I have with trying to look at Lightroom’s UI is that I’m not at all clear, even to this day, what market space Adobe is really trying to target. On one hand, as a pro photographer, Lightroom dramatically improved my workflow in terms of managing, searching, and processing images. In fact, I can say that same sentiment is generally true with most of the other pro photographers I know or work with. On the other hand, Lightroom makes this kind of workflow accessible to more inexperienced and less technically savvy photographers as well.
The trouble is that pro/serious user oriented interfaces are almost always an in scrutable nightmare for novices, and the converse are underwhelming for pros. However, without really having a handle on what market segment the software is actually targeting.
With that said, lets get started.
Lightroom’s UI stands out as an interesting exception pretty much everything else Adobe has done. To start with it’s inherently a single window, and therefore single screen, application. Yes, Adobe did add support for a second monitor, however, the support is somewhat hackneyed and contrived and generally more tacked on than though out — I’ll be coming back to this shortly.
Beyond just being designed for a single-window, the styling, overall organization, and general UI functionality inherent in the overall design is radically different, and radically simplified, compared to the rest of Adobe’s product catalog.
Modules as a means of grouping tasks
To start with, unlike any other Adobe application Lightroom organizes it’s functions into what Adobe calls Modules. Initially there were 5 modules:
- Library Module: Where images can be viewed, and organized, folders and collections can be navigated, and metadata can be applied to the images.
- Develop Module: Where images can be processed
- Slideshow Module: Where images can be played back on screen in the from of a slideshow
- Print Module: Used for printing images to either a local printer or JPEGs for online print services
- Web Module: Used to build pre-rendered HTML and Flash web galleries that can be uploaded to a web hosting service.
Lightroom 4 added two more modules:
- Map Module: For accessing Geo tagging information, as well as grouping and navigating images that have been geotagged.
- Book Module: For creating photo books that can be either printed using an online service (Blurb) or exported as print ready PDFs.
This approach does have some merits, especially for a program that offers as diverse of functionality as Lightroom does.
For example, the Library module can be linked to Bridge, the Develop module to Photoshop, and the Book module to In Design — though obviously all of the stand alone programs are much more fully featured and capable.
The module system allows each sub-set of functionality to be nicely grouped with all the relevant controls and capabilities needed to be effective, without overloading the user with extraneous options. This at least makes the number of controls manageable, and the UI somewhat discoverable (and as a counter point, if you don’t care about say books, easily ignorable by hiding the module from the Module Picker).
The ability to compartmentalize functionality is also a pretty significant point when you consider single screen users, especially those on laptops. While I could — and with other Adobe software actually do — spread out all of the controls to maximize my working space and efficiency on my workstation where I have 3 displays; on my laptop, in the field, that’s not something that’s readily possible. There absolutely needs to be a way to sort through functionality easily and efficiently on single screen devices.
At the same time, while modules contain functionality they also aren’t totally self contained. In very significant ways, the Library module is the core of Lightroom. It’s where you have to be to effectively navigate your image library to bring up the folders or collections that contain the images you want to work on.
Adobe even implicitly recognized this dependance, and made some effort to address back in Lightroom 3 or 4 when they added the Library’s collections pallet to the Left Module Panel in all of the modules. However, this only goes so far, and if you don’t really use collections you’re somewhat out of luck.
Laying out the Workspace; Panels and Sidebars
Stepping in a bit tighter to the UI, the overall interface is laid out a bit differently than pretty much all Adobe software as well. Lightroom’s main interface is divided into 5 principal areas. At the center of the interface is the primary working area. This could be an image grid or a single image in the Library, the image you’re editing in Develop, or the layout of a book in the Book module, or whatever is relevant for the module you’re using. Surrounding the window are 4 hide-able panels. These are the Module Picker along the top; the Film Strip along the bottom; and the Left, and Right Module Panels (what I’m going to call sidebars from now on) on the left and right sides of the window respectively.
Outside of changing the size, hiding, or hiding one of the components of the Module Picker, Film Strip, or Left, or Right Module Panels, there’s very little you can do to customize or rearrange anything. This is in stark contrast to virtually every other Adobe application, where you can just about reconfigure the UI to whatever you find most useful for you needs.
The strict arrangement of what Lightroom calls Panels is also a deviation from the more typical Adobe design paradigm.
This is an area that goes back to my point about how it’s somewhat necessary to understand what market things are aimed at to really understand where the UI design was headed. In a whole lot of ways, panels mechanic is just awkward.
For example, if you expand all of the panels in either of the sidebars they scroll off the screen. You can kind of work around this by enabling Solo Mode, which will only expand one panel at a time. However, even in solo mode, long panels like the Keywords list, Folders panel, Collections panel, or develop History panel, can scroll off the screen anyway.
At a minimum things that aren’t on the screen aren’t very discoverable or obvious. At best, it’s a small but tangible hurdle that you have to jump every time you switch to or from that control.
Keybaord shortcuts is one place that really bugs the heck out of me with Lightroom. Adobe radically departed from their norms on this. In Photoshop and pretty much every other Adobe application, virtually everything can have a keyboard shortcuts associated with it, even if it doesn’t by default. More importantly, the Keyboard shortcuts are all user customizable.
With Lightroom, you’re stuck with not only what Adobe decided you should have shortcuts for, but what those shortcuts will be. Beyond that, they’re not consistent with, say Photoshop, for identical functionality. For example, the crop tool in Photoshop is the keyboard shortcut “C”; in Lightroom, it’s “R”. The “C” key in Lightroom brings up the Library’s Compare View.
For me, I hardly use the Compare View, at least I certainly don’t use it enough to warrant it being bound to a keyboard shortcut. At the same time, I certainly wouldn’t begrudge someone who does use it frequently from not having it on a keyboard shortcut. The most functional compromise is to let us users change the shortcuts.
Another example of this kind of frustration comes from the “F” key shortcut. Until Lightroom 5, the F key cycled forward though the fullscreen display modes. Press it once, and the titlebar would be hidden; press it a second time, and the menu bar and on windows the task bar (where the start menu is) would be hidden; press it a third time, and you were back to a regular window where you started. With Lightroom 5, Adobe decided that F should instead bring up a full screen loop view of the currently selected image.
For several years, I was always hitting F to switch to full screen mode, because the removal of the title, menu, and task bars freed up 73 vertical pixels of screen space on my display. While that doesn’t sound like a lot, it’s 6% of my 1200 px tall screen (and would be almost 7% of a 1080p screen), and is more than noticeable. All of a sudden that process gets changed to “Shift+f” to go froward and “ctrl+shift+f” to go backwards through the full screen states. It was an incongruous disjoint for me as a user, and the new fullscreen view isn’t as useful to me as the old one was.
Again, I don’t speak for everyone, and I certainly wouldn’t’ begrudge someone who uses the the new fullscreen view enough to warrant it being hot keyed as ‘F’. But again, if I could change the keyboard shortcuts to suit my needs this wouldn’t even be a point of contention.
Individually, none of these issues are really big deals. Even taken together they’re more like running frustrations for someone who is trying to maximize their efficiency when working. I certainly wouldn’t eschew Lightroom due to them; in fact, as much as they generally do frustrate me, I couldn’t imagine going back to the file browser and Photoshop approach to catalog management and image editing.
That said, you can’t push things forward if you don’t address the issues, and Lightroom is not a piece of software that’s ever really moved forward in any meaningful way. Cameras have improved, resolutions have increased, long time users have had their catalogs grow over as many as 8 years of contestant use. What may not have seemed like a big deal back in 2008, when nobody was expecting people to have million image libraries with thousands of keywords, is now more likely to be something that Lightroom has to deal with. So while I’m being hard on the software, nothing has ever gotten better by served nothing but praise.
Well, this has gotten a lot longer than I had anticipated, so I think I’m going to wrap this up here. Admittedly, I’ve really only scraped the surface here, and will be digging into more specific things in a lot more depth in future articles.