Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5 Review: Top Image Processor

EDITORS' NOTE: A newer version of this software is now available. Adobe Lightroom 6 brings with it new camera and lens support. It also adds features such as a panorama merge. A full review will be coming soon.

Who it's for: Professional photographers and serious enthusiasts.

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom is a high-powered production tool for professional and enthusiast photographers. It costs $140 to buy outright or $10 per month as a subscription service that also includes Photoshop CC. The typical Lightroom user is happy to put time and effort into the process of creating the best possible photo — for earning a living or just for personal satisfaction.

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With each new version, Lightroom has become smoother and more efficient, with creative tools that give users more flexibility and freedom. Version 5, Adobe’s newest iteration, is no exception, with improvements that include a better healing brush tool for touchups and more flexible photo book templates.

Design and Interface: Streamlined Workflow

Photoshop Lightroom is a professional-grade tool, designed for getting work done. The main tabs of the interface guide the user through a typical workflow: Library (for organizing your photos), Develop (the image-processing area), Map (for geotagging) and the output modules: Book, Slideshow, Print and Web.

The interface is also an attractive showcase for your photographs. In fact, it’s customizable, allowing photographers to replace the Adobe branding in the upper left corner with their own Brand Identity plate, which consists of text or a custom graphic. That’s good marketing for pros who may use Lightroom for presentations or might have a client looking over their shoulders while they work on their pictures.

Importing and Organizing Your Photos: Designed for Efficiency

You typically start with Lightroom by importing pictures from a photo shoot into the Library module.

The source may be a memory card, a folder on your computer or network, or a camera tethered by USB that sends photos over as you capture them. The right panel in the Import window features nested menus that provide a wide range of automatable tasks that you can set up for your import. For instance, you can set Lightroom to automatically rename all your pictures, add keywords, assign your copyright notice and other metadata, and specify where to save pictures on your system.

These batch-import and auto-processing features allow you to quickly organize and prepare to edit large numbers of images. You can also set the program to ignore duplicates, to simultaneously back up the pictures to a second location and to build Smart Previews of the imported images.

New in Lightroom 5, Smart Previews are smaller live proxies of your image files that may be saved on a remote device. For instance, if you’re working on the road on your laptop, Lightroom can display Smart Previews of a photo catalog from your main computer at home or at the office. You can rate, organize, edit and even share Smart Previews on the laptop. Then, when you get back to your main computer and mount your laptop as a hard drive by a direct connection or over your network, Lightroom will automatically update the original files with the edits done on the Smart Previews.

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With its focus on production, Lightroom makes short work of quickly sorting through imported photographs. The Library’s side-by-side view allows you to speedily inspect and compare similar images, and rate them with stars and/or color labels.

Another valuable function in Library is the ability to create Collections (virtual folders that link to related pictures) and Smart Collections. The latter save search parameters that run every time you open them. Say you have created a Smart Collection based on the keywords winter, stream, snow and ice. Whenever you add new pictures to Lightroom with those keywords, the pictures will be automatically added to that collection.

Photo Editing: Top Quality, Non-Destructive Edits

The Develop module is the heart of Lightroom, where you process your images. 

While Lightroom can work with most major image and video file formats, it is primarily a RAW file converter. One of the things that sets Lightroom apart from other photo-editing programs is that all its edit tools work on the original RAW data from the camera before the file is converted to a photo file such as TIFF or JPEG, rather than afterward. When edits are applied afterward, image data (pixels) can be destroyed in the process. In addition, whatever the format of the image you work on, all edits in Lightroom are nondestructive, meaning that you can always restore the original image data.

Global edits and local brushes enable full control over parameters such as color, light, detail and shadows, providing the tools to get the best image possible from the originally captured photo. Though the feature set is deep and rich, it is also designed with an eye toward efficiency. For example, with presets, you can save and reuse complex, multistep processes to apply on future photos, as well as import presets developed by other photographers, which are becoming more widely available online.

Adjustment brushes include a redesigned healing brush, which can paint out imperfections such as skin blemishes or unwanted telephone wires in your photographs. Instead of being limited to circles, Lightroom’s Healing Brush now works with irregular shapes. Like its counterparts in other programs, the Healing Brush works best on removing imperfections on a homogeneous background. An important image quality use of the Healing Brush in Lightroom is to efficiently spot clean a photo that may have been taken with a dirty image sensor or lens. This is achieved with a Visualize Spots view that temporarily converts the image into a black and white simplified view, making it very easy to see and deal with dust spots.

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Edits applied to one photo can be copied to an entire series of pictures. These include exposure and color adjustments, crops and spot removal, and are particularly useful in saving time when you're editing batches of photos that were captured at the same time, under near-identical conditions and often using the same settings.

Naturally, Lightroom is tightly integrated with Photoshop, and images in Lightroom may be directly opened in Photoshop as a photo or as a Smart Object for additional editing or compositing. (In Photoshop, a Smart Object retains all its original data, creating layers of edits that may be altered at any time.)

The Develop module is such a mature photo-editing environment that the enhancements and additions introduced in the newest version are incremental improvements that make things easier or smoother or offer greater creative freedom. For instance, the Radial Gradient tool can now create far more creative off-center vignettes and even multiple focal points within a single image.

Output and Sharing: Creating Professional Photo Products and Online Presence

With Lightroom’s output modules, a photographer can easily create professional-looking books, slideshows, prints or Web pages — as a final product or as promotional materials. These projects use layout templates that you can customize and save.

The Book module’s options for laying out and customizing a photo book are not as extensive as those of Adobe's InDesign program (which many graphic designers and photographers use to create books). However, it does provide a smooth, efficient workflow, because it’s directly connected to the Lightroom Library and Develop modules. The newest version of Lightroom gives you more control over text; you can even add page numbers in different locations on the page, choose what page to start the numbering on, and hide the number on specific pages.

In the Slideshow module, you can control timing and fades, add a beginning and ending slide (using your Brand Identity plate) and add music.

The slideshow may be played immediately within the interface, or exported as a PDF, individual JPEGs or a video. Like the Book module, the Slideshow isn’t a fully realized presentation program, but it is convenient and the results can be attractive.

The Print module offers an excellent range of flexible and editable page layouts beyond the ordinary, such as an off-center Fine Art Mat, a Triptych or a variety of contact sheets. It’s unfortunate that you can't use the page templates you create here in the Book module.

In the Web module, you can create attractive HTML or Flash Web pages of your photos. Lightroom automatically generates the code so you can upload the page to your website.

The Publish Services panel in the Library module comes with direct sharing links to Facebook, Flickr and Adobe's Behance online portfolio site; and you can add other websites. For instance, we had no difficulty finding the free Lightroom app for SmugMug (where Sally has her portfolio websites) through the Find More Services Online button. The SmugMug app then installed automatically into Lightroom.

Lightroom Mobile: On-the go-edits and sharing

Lightroom Mobile is a free app from Adobe that shares your images on your phone or tablet. You can edit the pictures on your iPad, iPhone or Android mobile devices , and those changes are synced back to the desktop Lightroom program. To use Mobile, your Lightroom desktop and mobile apps must both be logged into Adobe via your Adobe ID (which is also free).

Learning and Help: Great Resources

You will need to develop a certain level of expertise to take advantage of Lightroom’s power and diversity. However, as with all Adobe products, the free online video and text tutorials for Lightroom are superb. In addition, the Help menu is context-sensitive (unlike in Photoshop CC or Photoshop Elements), making it much easier to find answers to questions related to whatever you are currently doing within the interface.

Price: Buying vs. Subscribing

Lightroom may still be purchased as a perpetual license ($140). If you’re willing to buy into a subscription, the Creative Cloud Photography Plan is a great deal. For $10/month, you get both Lightroom and Photoshop CC. Upgrades to the programs are included as part of your subscription. If you need other Adobe products (such as, perhaps, Illustrator or InDesign), you can opt for the complete Creative Cloud membership, which gives you access to more than 20 Adobe apps for $50/month.

Bottom Line

Lightroom’s tools enable photographers to get the best exposure, color and tonality from their photographs. In addition, it helps to make short order of organizing and sorting a large volume of images, as well as providing professional-quality output and sharing options, such as photo books and HTML portfolio pages.

If you are serious about working with your photographs and developing them into the best they can be, Lightroom is the powerhouse product you need, delivering creative flexibility, professional productivity and top-notch image quality.

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