Lightroom 3

Lightroom 3 is out. Hooray! I’ve been using the beta for months, and it’s a powerhouse. My initial impression was that the quality was a huge leap from LR2, and so it’s proved – the difference is night and day, and I can get away with ISO 6400 shots that were unusable in LR2. It’s also the best photo manager I’ve used. I recommend it to RAW shooters unreservedly.

If you want to buy it from the Adobe website, though, the direct-download option is more expensive than the physical copy (not including delivery charges). This annoys me a lot more than is perhaps reasonable. Still, if you can swallow that, it’s still the cheapest option I know of – unless you’re a student, in which case Student/Teacher version is lots less.

Noise processing in Lightroom 2 and 3-Beta-2

A new public beta of Lightroom 3 came out yesterday. Lightroom is Adobe’s RAW processing application for photographers1, and they’re making some big claims for version 3. In particular, they’ve reworked their noise-reduction features from the ground up.

Noise is a problem in shots taken with very high sensitivity, and there are two types: colour and luminance. The second diagram on Cambridge in Colour’s page neatly shows the difference – colour noise is random areas of the wrong colour; luminance noise is grain-like dotty structures. Anything to reduce this is a good thing, but in my experience there’s only so much you can do. LR2 was a pretty good noise remover2 – how much better could LR3 be? So I had a quick play.

Here’s a 100% crop of an ISO 6400 shot, processed in LR2 and LR3. In both I’ve cleaned up the noise according to personal preference – the best balance I can find balance between noise and detail. LR2 is on top, LR3-beta-2 is below:

LR2vs3

That’s a hell of a difference for software to make. There’s no colour noise that I can see, and the luminance noise is finer, revealing much more detail. For this particular image, I’d say it’s given me an extra stop’s worth of detail – the equivalent of letting in twice the light (in terms of LR2 processing quality). It’s absolutely the difference between a shot I can use and one I’ll ditch.

Now, there are all sorts of problems here. Firstly, viewing images at 100% is a bad idea: photos are almost always printed or downscaled for the web, and should be judged in their final output – there’s no point obsessing over fine detail, or lack thereof, that’s invisible in practice. Secondly, this is ISO 6400 – a sensitivity only used when absolutely necessary. Thirdly, this may not be representative of all situations – much more testing is needed.

Still, though. That’s very promising. Enough that I’m switching over to LR3 for all my processing (providing I don’t find any major bugs). I tried it with a load of shots from yesterday, and the new approach to noise is immediately evident even in lower ISO images – the grain is more visible, but is much finer, and the shots at least seem more detailed. If I don’t like the extra grain, I can soften it to LR2 levels, but still benefit from the superior colour noise processing. Nice.

If the above results are sustained, LR3 will be a must-have upgrade.

  1. RAW files are straight data dumps from the camera’s sensor. Normally the camera converts this into an image for you, but you can have greater control in a dedicated RAW processor. []
  2. third-party noise-reduction programs are a bit better, but nothing to write home about []

Lightroom 2.0 beta

Abode released a beta of Lightroom 2.0 this morning, which was quite the surprise. The feature list is impressive, but most interesting are:

  • Much better Photoshop integration. Images can now be sent directly into CS3 without requiring an export. It can also send a group of pictures straight through to be merged into a panorama or HDR image. Now they’ve implemented this feature I really don’t see the need for Bridge, Photoshop’s built-in image browser.
  • Localised masking. This is the big, attention-grabbing one – Lightroom can now edit specific areas of images. It’s nicely implemented, although since it links so well into Photoshop I might just use that instead. Well, I say that. In practice it might be quicker to do lots in Lightroom – we’ll see.
  • Smart collections. These are a bit like iTunes’ Smart Playlists. You can configure a bunch of rules, each with individual AND/OR inclusion settings, that give you a very nice way of focussing on specific images. So you can have a dynamically created set of recently-edited images, or anything with the keyword ‘monkeys’ taken last May, with a wide-angle lens. Etc..
  • Dual-monitor support. I’ve got two monitors, so I can have the smaller one displaying an overview of an image as I change particular elements. Or it can show the grid of photos while I edit on the main monitor. My smaller monitor’s colours are a bit dodgy, but it’s still useful as a rough guide.

There’s a fair bit more: export sharpening, better filters, a loupe in the details panel, and the interface has been overhauled and some of the existing features tweaked. A full guide is here.

Scott Kelby etc. have some introductory videos up, and their FAQ has some interesting details. They reckon the full version will be released June-ish, and there won’t be any beta updates between now and then. No word on pricing yet.

I’ve been playing around with it today and they’ve certainly been listening to the feedback. Lots of things work just that bit better, but it’s the Photoshop links that are the most useful for me. There are a couple of bugs, as is to be expected with betas, but nothing show-stopping yet. The program was pretty good already, but v2 adds enough that I can’t see me not buying the upgrade.

Because I own version 1.3 I can invite people to be on the beta program for six months – otherwise you’re limited to a 30-day trial – so let me know if you’d like an invite.

RTF Lightroom M

My university’s library has a huge photography section, and I’m allowed to keep books indefinitely providing nobody else requests them. I checked out Martin Evening’s guide to Adobe Lightroom in late November, and quickly glanced at some issues that were confusing me at the time. The book has been in the ‘I should really read that properly’ pile ever since, until yesterday when guilt got the better of me. I moved it to the ‘take back to uni’ pile, then just before midnight started flicking through it. I was still going at 0200.

Adobe Lightroom is my favourite image processing program, and I thought I had a pretty good grasp of how to use it. I really didn’t. The Lightroom manual detailed a huge variety of tips and tricks, as well as a few features I’d somehow missed. It also took me step by step through a digital workflow, explaining when it’s best to make each adjustment, giving basic primers in tonal range and broadly indicating what I should be trying to achieve. For example, I now understand how Lightroom tells me about overblown highlights, know a quick way to temporarily view only these pure-white areas of an image, and can judge which to leave intact. I also now see that Lightroom’s tone curves are much more powerful than I realised, and are in fact superior to Photoshop’s. I’d only scraped the surface of their functionality before.

I wish I’d read this book months ago! I re-edited a batch of photos using the book’s workflow suggestions this morning, and they all looked much better. Embarrassingly so – I replaced their Flickr versions immediately. 

I should have known better. I’m reasonably proficient in Dreamweaver, and that’s entirely down to working through a huge manual when I bought the full version. Such complex software is fun to play around with, but playing can’t pick up design rationales and subtleties. Lesson re-learned.

Colour problem #1 – fixed!

In the comments of yesterday’s post Ben asked whether any other 400D owners had run the calibration process. I hadn’t thought of that. I’d searched for Lightroom ‘presets’ that fixed the colours and come up empty, but it didn’t occur to me to check for raw results of the ACR calibration script. A bit of googling and I found this post, in which a wedding photographer lists the results of his 400d calibration. I copied the settings into Lightroom and there was an immediate improvement. It was a touch too saturated for my tastes, but a quick fix later and I’ve got something that’s great. It’s not quite perfect – I imagine the values change based on individual cameras and specific colour temperatures – but easily good enough for the meantime. I’m happy. Thanks, Ben!

Colour problems with my photographs #1

Friends, stalkers and the easily bored might have noticed that I haven’t uploaded many pictures to Flickr of late. This isn’t because my Year 25 project has stalled – I have the last couple of weeks worth of images ready to go – but because of a problem between Adobe Lightroom and my new camera. Two problems, actually, both related to colour. Here’s the first:

Problem #1 – RAW Colour Deconstruction

Every time a digital camera takes a picture it gets a stream of raw data from its sensor. The camera then converts this data into an image file. Higher-end cameras, though, are capable of saving the raw data so that it can be processed on a computer rather than in-camera. This has a few advantages:

Firstly, RAW files contain slightly more information of the extreme shadows and highlights in an image, so extra detail can be extracted.

Secondly, RAW files allow the white balance to be manipulated after-the-fact. If you hold a white piece of paper under the noon sun, then under a motorway lamp at midnight, you’ll see the same white piece of paper both times. But the lighting is actually very different – it’s obvious that motorway lights are very, very orange compared to daylight. Take a photograph in both circumstances and the digital camera has no way of knowing what colour things ‘really’ are, so it makes its best guess. A standard image file takes the guess, alters all the colours and saves the results. You can manipulate it manually afterwards by pointing out which particular area of the image should be white, but a RAW file skips the guessing part – it lets you say exactly ‘I was standing under a light emitting light of this particular colour, please adapt all colours appropriately’.

Thirdly, RAW files aren’t compressed. Even the highest quality standard image will exhibit signs of compression. Zoom in on a blue sky in a normal digital photo and you’ll eventually see unpleasant blocks.

There are disadvantages, too. For example, RAW files are larger and therefore slower – my camera can take 27 consecutive JPEGs but only 9 RAWs before its buffer fills up. Also, processing RAW files takes time, and needs special software. Here’s where Adobe Lightroom steps in.

Lightroom is a powerful and very capable RAW processor, as well as a library management tool. I think it’s fantastic. It can recover shadow / highlight detail while keeping the rest of the image stable, it can apply changes to batches of images simultaneously and it can edit a photo while rendering a PDF contact sheet and importing from a memory card. I used it for months and eventually paid £200 for a license, figuring I’d use it for years. It is the business.

At least, it was with my old camera.

The problem stems from differing RAW files. My old 300D used CRW files, while my new 400D uses CR2 files. Both RAW formats are proprietary, meaning that the exact structure of the file is known only to Canon. I don’t know whether Lightroom’s programmers reverse-engineer the formats or there’s some other scheme, but either way the result is the same: Lightroom interprets the RAW data in the best way it knows. With the CRW this was spot on, and Lightroom’s processing would produce results as-good-as-if-not-better-than the camera’s own processing (a Canon camera knows exactly how to deconstruct a Canon RAW file to display the optimal image). But the CR2 is broken – the colours just aren’t correct.

It’s most noticeable in the reds. Here’re three different versions of the same holiday scene:

Lightroom Colour Problems - Mr Christmas

On the left is a JPEG produced in-camera; on the right is Lightroom’s interpretation of the RAW file; in the middle is the RAW interpretation by Capture One Pro, a rival to Lightroom. All used the same aperture/shutter speed/white balance/flash power. As you can see, Lightroom is waaaaaay orange compared to the JPG and Capture One. Visually, I’d say the JPG has the most accurate colour rendition, if slightly over-saturated. This makes a big difference in skin tones, and I have a fair few pictures of sickly-looking babies.

Why don’t I use Capture One Pro instead? Because it sucks compared to Lightroom. Also I paid £200 for Lightroom, and I’m not giving it up, so there.

I investigated the issue, and it turned out to be a common complaint with CR2 files. But no easy fixes presented themselves. So, I figured, why not just use JPEGs? In practice the extra exposure data isn’t useful very often, and compression isn’t noticeable in high quality images. White balance can be convenient, but that’s the trade-off to get decent colour. For a while this was exactly what I did.

It was like taking a step backwards. A series of images from a cold New Year walk were just…annoying. The white balance would shift depending on whether the sun was out or hidden by clouds, and in the most extreme pictures people’s skin tones vary wildly. I can fix this in post-production, but only roughly – it’s not like I had people holding a grey card in every shot. Obviously I would have this problem with RAW images too, but I can at least say ‘the average light from a cloudy sky is this colour, please show me the appropriate colours’, rather than having to slide things around until it looks right. Even after fixing there’s still a fair difference between shots taken only a few minutes apart. Also, altering the exposure was far more tricksy. With RAW I can say ‘alter the exposure by one stop up’, whereas with JPEG it’s, again, an approximation.

I found JPEGs far more limiting than I expected. Often the results were great – the camera’s guesses are usually excellent – but whenever I wanted to alter anything I’d get frustrated by the lack of precision. I didn’t like it. So it was back to the RAWs.

Reading up on the topic revealed that plenty of people are having the same problems. But others say: so what, RAW is meant to be more work! I apparently shouldn’t expect perfect results – RAW just gives you a basis from which to start. I should just fix the colours manually in Lightroom and apply the same fix to every photo I import (Lightroom can do this automatically, even limiting it only to photos from a particular camera).

Unfortunately, I cannot for the life of me get Lightroom to match the JPEG colours. It’s more than upping the reds – there’s extra blue in there too, along with saturation differences and blah. I’ve tried pretty hard, and I just can’t match it with Lightroom’s calibration tools. Others have struggled similarly. I can get it not-too-bad, but that’s not good enough – I want it pretty-good.

Some people are very cross about Lightroom’s obvious problems with CR2 files. I admit that it’s frustrating. But, there is a solution. It’s just not cheap.

Solution: Get hold of a Gretag Macbeth ColourChecker chart. This is a 6 x 4 grid of reference colours. Take a photograph of one of these in RAW, and run the Thomas Fors ACR Calibrator Script in Photoshop CS. Because the colours are standardised the script knows exactly what they should look like, and it’s capable of telling Lightroom exactly how to adapt its colours to get the correct results. Brilliant!

But, a Gretag Macbeth ColourChecker chart is £60 (I don’t actually have the £130 Photoshop CS either, although I may have to bite the bullet on that soon as my course will probably require it). £60 on a piece of cardboard is simply unjustifiable at the moment, even if I can use it as a grey card afterwards.

So I’m not sure what to do at the moment. I can run RAW files through a demo of Capture One Pro and manipulate the resulting JPEGs, I guess, but that’s far from ideal. I might put out a call to see whether someone has a ColourChecker chart I can borrow 🙂

I ran into another colour-related problem recently, but I’ll save that for another post.

Update: I found a non-expensive solution! Ben in the comments suggested searching for 400D owners who’d already run the calibration, and something turned up! It’s not completely perfect, but easily pretty-good.

Torquay pictures

I’ve finally finished uploading photos from the Torquay dancing weekend. There are a bunch of images from our trip to Paignton Zoo, which aren’t of great quality as I hadn’t a telephoto lens1. There are humping monkeys, though.

My favourite shot of the weekend is definitely this:

Budleigh JUMPINGS

I love jumping pictures. There’s a whole flickr group devoted to them.

All importing, editing and captioning was completed in Adobe Lightroom (using heretical colour modes) and I’m very impressed. I’ll try to write a full review before the trial runs out.

  1. I have plenty of other excuses 🙂 []

Adobe Lightroom and colour management

I took a geekily pleasing 256 photographs this weekend, and I was planning to use Adobe Lightroom to process them. I’d heard good reports of the new photo management / editing app, so last week I downloaded the 30-day trial. After a few hours play I was impressed, with a few caveats (that I now understand). A trial run with this weekend’s photos seemed like a good idea.

Immediately I ran into a problem. There were differences between the appearance of photos in LR and anything else:

Colours in Adobe Lightroom vs. ACDSee

Even exporting from LR produced something almost identical to the right-hand image, when viewed in anything but LR – what was going on? I considered asking for help on the LR Flickr group, but a quick Google suggested my question was common. To understand it, I needed to learn about colour management. I’m not there yet, but here’s what I know so far:

The average photograph viewer assumes everybody has a perfect computer monitor. They see a photograph with a blue sky and tell the monitor to display a blue sky. However, monitors are not perfect. Yours may be bad at displaying reds, mine might be too strong on the greens. The differences can be dramatic. The solution to this is the monitor profile, which contains information on the shortcomings of the particular unit. ‘Colour-managed’ applications look at the blue sky and adapt it according to the monitor profile: if your monitor isn’t good with blues, it’ll punch up the blue by an appropriate amount that you see the photograph as it ‘actually’ is.

My usual picture management utilities – Picasa, ACDSee and Microsoft Picture Viewer – don’t support this kind of colour-management. Adobe Lightroom does, hence the differences.

As it happens, I think the right-hand image is far more representative of the actual scene. It appears my Dell-supplied monitor profile is a bit dodgy. But even if I had a perfectly calibrated monitor, the only people to see exactly the same colours as me would be the ones using equally well calibrated programs. Neither Firefox nor Internet Explorer have this kind of colour-management (although the Mac-only Safari does, I think), so the vast majority of people are not going to see the image exactly as I intend. Having said that, I haven’t seen major differences when viewing my images on other people’s computers, suggesting that gambling with colours works passably most of the time.

However, I’d like to use a colour-managed application like Lightroom, as then I at least know similarly equipped people will see the colours as intended. I need to calibrate my monitor. How to do that? With a calibration device like the Pantone Eye-One Display Pro 2, currently listing at £140. Screw that. Adobe Gamma might be able to produce a roughly-correct profile without attached hardware, but AG only comes with Photoshop, the 30-day trial of which isn’t currently working…

Even if I can’t properly calibrate the colours, Lightroom’s management and editing facilities are excellent and I’d like to use them. Unfortunately as of now the colours are too far out for it to be useful, and LR doesn’t have an option to turn off colour-management (which makes sense). I could get around this by changing the monitor profile to a ‘perfect’ monitor. This would effectively turn off all LR’s colour-management functions and cause photos to display identically in all my programs. It’s frequently described as heresy.

I’m a bit stumped by this. I’ll have to stick with Picasa for the time being.