Adobe Lightroom 4.1 Review: A Mature and Balanced Digital Workflow Tool
At a Glance
Adobe Lightroom 4.1 is a comprehensive, self-contained environment for importing, editing, organizing, printing, and sharing your photos. Lightroom accommodates JPGs and video, but it's primarily designed with RAW image files in mind: All of its editing is lossless, and its many tools are designed to tease hidden visual information out of your RAW photos. Unlike the jam-packed but expensive Adobe Photoshop toolset, the $149 Lightroom is optimized for digital photographers. The latest iteration isn't revolutionary, but it adds an impressive number of important new features.
Lightroom's design is set up around "modules," with each tab revealing context-sensitive menus pertinent to a specific task.
Among the most visible changes to Lightroom are two new modules. The Map module seems to be a concession to the pervasiveness of GPS-enabled smartphones: When you import geotagged photos, you can see them arrayed on a Google Map. Most cameras don't perform location tagging, so Lightroom lets you drag photos around on the map, or associate groups of photos with saved locations.
Meanwhile, the Book module gives you a new way to share and publish your work; it's essentially a page layout program, where you can arrange text and photos on various predesigned page templates--as on Shutterfly, for example. When you're done, you can save the project as a PDF file, or order the completed book through online bookmaker Blurb.
In addition, the existing Develop module, where the main image editing action happens, has undergone some very positive changes. The new Highlight and Shadow Recovery sliders hugely simplify the tasks of recovering details lost in shadows and improving the contrast in bright regions. Indeed, you can dramatically improve many photos by judiciously using those two sliders.
Beginning with Lightroom 2, you could "paint" mask layers onto your photos and then apply localized improvements (such as exposure, contrast, and saturation) to those areas. Lightroom 4 adds some new tools, including sharpness, noise reduction, and moiré to your localized toolkit. You can even apply white balance this way, which is ideal for photos in which different light sources illuminate the subject and the background.
Also, you're no longer limited to painting masks with the adjustment brush. Lightroom now supplies a graduated filter, which you can use to apply a gradual effect across photos vertically, horizontally, or at any angle in between.
If you've ever struggled to make your prints look as good on paper or on the Web as they do on your own monitor, you'll appreciate Lightroom's new Soft Proofing. Turn it on, and you can graphically see the parts of the photo that are out of the destination's color gamut, similar to the way you can see "blown out" areas when you activate brightness clipping. Soft proofing doesn't fix your color problems for you--to handle that job, you'll have to tweak the hue or saturation of the affected regions--but it's a powerful way to ensure that your final prints look the way you want them to.
And if you have multiple destinations in mind--perhaps you're posting a photo to SmugMug and making a photo book through Blurb--you'll appreciate being able to make virtual copies of soft proofs so that you can adjust the colors in each one for optimal appearance wherever they appear.
Though Lightroom remains primarily a photo management program, you can now use it to trim video clips that you've taken with your camera, and share or publish them. Most photo organizers handle only still photos. Just don't expect to apply any Develop module editing magic for videos.
Unfortunately, some of Lightroom's little annoyances remain. For one thing, cropping a photo still feels as backward as working in a mirror: The mouse moves the image, not the crop box. And you still have to import your photos into Lightroom's library before you can do anything with them. But at long last, Lightroom has a slider to control the zoom level.
Finally, if price can be considered a feature, Lightroom's hottest selling point may be its 50 percent price drop. The full version costs just $149, down from a previously staggering $300 for Lightroom 3 (and the upgrade is just $79). The new price may reflect the fact that Adobe now has some real competition on its hands with up-and-coming photo management packages like Corel AfterShot Pro and CyberLink PhotoDirector 3. Nonetheless, Lightroom is now a real bargain.