Hands-on with Adobe’s Lightroom 5

While I’ve gone all-in on Apple hardware and software for most of my creative projects (see, my Logic Review), for my graphics needs, I’m still a heavy user of Adobe’s products. This is mainly due to the direction taken with Lightroom; Adobe usually does a public beta so you know what changes are coming and can test out your workflow. A few of my presets, like Trey’s Presets, are also only available for Lightroom.

Lightroom 5 ($149, $79 upgrade) has introduced a number of improvements to the healing brush, a new radial filter, improvements to the auto-straighten tool, and a new Smart Preview feature that lets you work off a compressed copy of the image if the drive you normally keep your images on isn’t mounted.


New features

Advanced Healing Brush

The old healing brush was somewhat limited: you could only apply the healing brush to a circular area. Now with Lightroom 5, the healing brush is much more flexible, and you can draw the shape you want to heal.

In the demo I received from Adobe, they showed how easy it is to remove a person from a photo. The example photo was kind of a best-case scenario: a small child in a uniform field of grass. In actual use, I found the tool to not be quite as fire-and-forget. I did have some luck removing parts of a pitcher in a baseball game (The screenshot below is just a test; a little more effort would have removed the ghost effect). Removing people is an extreme example of what the new tool can do. But it is great for general touch ups: removing unwanted elements like spots and stains, and doing some touch-up work on portraits to remove age spots. Being able to remove your estranged uncle from a photo is just a side bonus.

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Radial Filter

While Lightroom 4 had a vignette feature, it pretty much just feathered the edges of the image. Lightroom 5’s Radial Filter tool enables you to create multiple, off-center, vignetted areas to highlight specific portions of a photograph.

Basically, it’s a way to rescue bad photos. You can use the filter to highlight certain areas of a photo. Digital Photography School has a nice run down of the tool here. You can tell Lightroom to either apply the filter within the selected area, or spare the selected area from the filter. You can also have multiple filters on an image. There are some other corrections I’d make to photos before using the radial filter (closer crops and the like), but sometimes the only photo of you have of an event is a bad one, so you need to make do with what you’ve got.

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You could straighten your photos in Lightroom 4, but Lightroom 5 adds some power to it. Under Lens Correction, you can tell it to level the image based on the horizontal or vertical axis or choose “auto,” which lets Lightroom take its best guess on how to level it. I had assumed it would work best on shots of buildings, but it actually did a good job at straightening a photo of a baseball pitcher in a windup; it had caught enough of the infield dirt to generate a plane on which to base the level.

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Smart Preview

This feature is the one I plan to use most often, just because of how it changes my workflow. My primary Mac is a 15” 2011 MacBook Pro. I’ve replaced the internal drive with an SSD, and replaced my optical drive with another hard drive. On this hard drive sits my photo library.

I’ve been looking for a way to move my photos to an external drive, but the problem of editing these photos while I don’t have the drive plugged in is problematic. So, I’ve just sucked it up, kept the photos in the unibay, and tried to back up as best I can.

Smart Preview changes that piece of the workflow for me.

Now, I can move the photos to an external drive, and check off “make smart preview.” This then places a smaller, compressed version of the photo in the same folder as my Lightroom catalog. I can edit the photo like normally on the Smart Preview (with two caveats that I’ll get to), and when I plug the external drive in, it’ll sync the changes.

The two caveats are: the preview is a very lossy DNG file, and is limited to 2.5k resolution on the long edge. According to Adobe, this may affect some filters like sharpening, especially if you are going to print the image poster-sized. In my case, since 99.9 percent of what I shoot just goes on the web, this isn’t a problem. Also, I can do most of my post work in the Smart Preview and, if needed sharpen when I’m back at my desk.

Final Thoughts

I’ve been very happy with Lightroom 5 so far. It’s full of little features that just make my post workflow so much more efficient. Tools like straighten help me ensure my photos are nice and level. There’s even a true full-screen mode that gets rid of the UI, which is a big help for when you’re going through your shots for picks and rejects.

At an affordable price of $149 for new users, and $79 for upgrade, Lightroom is a great tool for photographers of any level.