It’s been just almost a decade since Adobe released Lightroom, their digital asset manager (DAM) and non-destructive raw image editor. In that time, Adobe has made a number of improvements in many respects, from improving the raw engine to adding new processing features, to finally adding GPU rendering support. However in many ways Lightroom hasn’t changed much at all, and there are all kinds of interesting quirks and issues from it’s nearly decade old heritage.
Truthfully, age hasn’t been kind to Lightroom. The user interface (UI) is dated and clunky. There are a whole host of quirks, pit falls, and short comings. A lot of the internals and back end processes make interesting trade offs that sometimes are woefully inefficient. Finally, based on the few fits and starts we’ve seen from Adobe, it’s not clear at all whether they ever plan to address any of the deficiencies going forward.
When the first public release of Lightroom hit the market in February 2007, it wasn’t the first commercially available raw processor and digital asset manager (DAM). Apple beat Adobe to market by more than a year with Aperture. However, Lightroom was the first cross platform non-destructive raw editor and DAM, which was largely a first for us Windows users.
I switched from using Bridge and Photoshop to using Lightroom with version 2 back in mid 2008. At the time, for me at least, Lightroom was a breath of fresh air and quite revolutionary. The develop/process as a recipe style of editing made it significantly more space efficient than doing a similar kinds of edits in Photoshop, and the ability to make tweaks and easily sync them across many images made working with large numbers of similar images, very efficient.
However, even back in 2008 there were quirks and issues. Performance was middling at best, the Camera RAW engine didn’t have all that great of noise reduction or fine detail rendering capabilities, and the UI had a number of holes. At the time, I certainly didn’t find any of this all that big of an issue; the improvements from the workflow as a whole vastly exceeded the drawbacks that might crop up from time to time. Besides, in 2008, Lightroom was only on version 2 and there was plenty of time to smooth out issues.
Fast forward to 2016. Lightroom is now up to version 6. In the intervening years, Adobe has significantly overhauled the rendering engine twice, once in 2010 and again in 2012. Most notable in these changes were significant improvements in noise reduction — though still not nearly as good as other commercial noise reduction software is capable of — fine detail rendering, and the addition of lens distortion and camera color corrections. Along with a whole host of other tweaks and improvements.
However, while progress as being made, all be it slowly, on the rendering engine. The same can’t really be said for the rest of the application and UI.
The only major change that Adobe has made to the Lightroom UI was the addition of multi-display support way back in 2008 when Lightroom 2 was released. Yes, there have been some smaller changes, like the addition of the Collections pallet to many of the modules, or the reworking of controls in develop with changes in the development engines. However, as a whole, the Lightroom UI has remained remarkably steadfast.
As far as functionality goes, that too has remained largely constant. The only major additions were in 2012, when Lightroom 4 added two new modules, Map and Book, to the existing Library, Develop, Print, Slideshow and Web modules. The Map module, added a mechanism for geotagging images and manipulating those tags, as well as visually placing and grouping images. The Book module added support for producing and publishing photo books, primarily though the Blurb service, but prepress files could be generated as PDFs for any service.
The open question is what does Adobe intend to do with Lightroom moving forward and what audience are they going to target. As a pro photographer, I’ve found Lightroom to be an indispensable and invaluable tool to make my life easier. However, by and large it’s capable and accessible enough that it can also be used by less serious users. Moreover, again at least in my experience, it’s easy enough to use that you don’t have to be a real computer expert or image manipulation expert to get along with it.
Unfortunately, at least as far as most software companies are concerned, serious and novice user bases are diametrically opposed positions. Generally speaking the “thought” process is that novice users wan’t simple programs that hide the actual controls behind abstractions and pros want direct access to those handles without having to figure out what the “coolness” slider is actually doing to their images.
The kind of clash between these two lines of thinking came to a bit of a head in late 2015 when Adobe patched in a new import dialog with Lightroom 6.1. The outcry against the new import dialog was so fierce that it was subsequently completely removed in Lightroom 6.2 just a few months later.
I wrote up a piece about the dialog when it was released. But the short version is that I thought it had promise. It was cleaner and more streamlined in many ways than the existing dialog. However, instead of continuing to refine the idea and reimplement the missing features, Adobe yanked it as a whole. What was clear though, was that there was a focus on making things more accessible to novice users; and while I rather liked some of the design of the new import dialog, the undercurrent of dumbing things down for simpler users concerned me, and still does.
Over the following weeks, I’ll be publishing a series of articles looking at Adobe’s Photoshop Lightroom, where it’s come, what’s improved, its shortcomings, its technical issues, are and what needs to be improved to make it better going forward.