Last week Adobe announced the public beta of Lightroom 4. The idea of a public beta is sort of unique to Lightroom for major software. There is no public beta of Photoshop or other Adobe applications that I know of , and I’m unaware of any other major software package which has an extensive public beta process. It all started when Lightroom was first introduced … Apple released Aperture 1.0 (which itself wasn’t ready for prime time even though it was “released”) so Adobe decided to release a free public beta of Lightroom which was nearly complete so as not to lose market share to Apple. (I don’t know that for sure, and Adobe might deny it, but the timing was far too coincidental and the idea of a public beta far too unique to be explained any other way). Smart move, especially since Aperture was pretty pricey and Lightroom 1 beta was free. The concept of public beta seems to have been good for Adobe because they have continued providing public betas for all 3 upgrades.
Lightroom 4 has some significant new features as well as major revisions to the development process. For the first time, we see the addition of new modules with addition of a Book module (tied to Blurb) as well as a Map module. Personally the map module seems to be something I’d expect from a program like iPhoto, not one geared for professionals. I’m sure there will be a few pros out there that will find it useful, but it seems more of a curiosity thing. The Book module shows some great promise, especially with soft proofing, one of Lightroom 4′s other new features, but it will take some additional flexibility in templates. I’m sure it will get better before the official release.
There are many advocates of soft proofing who find this one of the most exciting features. The thought of being able to tweak a file based on the output printer can be helpful, personally I don’t have much problem with getting my output to match since I only use papers using photo black ink and get a nice match (I’ve never felt a print should exactly match a computer display anyway). I’m pretty lousy at soft proofing so I’m not the best to judge how good it is, but I’m sure Jeff Schewe, who is terrific at soft proofing, was involved in at least testing and feedback of this feature, so it’s bound to be pretty good for those who can actually soft proof effectively. It also seems to be a little more intuitive that soft proofing in Photoshop so maybe I can learn to do it more effectively. The ability to soft proof and switch from Perceptual to Relative rendering intents is extremely helpful … most images seem to look best using Relative but some absolutely look much better using Perceptual. Just this alone will make the feature very useful to anyone doing their own high end printing.
I think the most significant change I see in Lightroom 4 is a new raw processing engine complete with a new paradigm.
Most sliders have been moved or renamed. Notice all sliders default to 0 and are located in the middle. Sliders now correlate much more closely to particular regions of the histogram and affect those outside of those regions much less. For example moving the exposure slider affects the mid tones and thus perceived density, trying to preserve the other 4 regions as much as possible. It takes some getting used to but after playing with it for a while it appears to offer much more control, especially when working with images containing substantial dynamic range. Most current cameras boast very good dynamic range capture and with the new process you can extract the detail in the shadows and highlights without resorting to HDR software easier than the previous process.
Lightroom 3 updated the process module over the original process in Lightroom 1 and 2, so Lightroom 4 adds a 3rd process method. They are listed as 2003, 2010, and now 2012 in a popup in the Camera Calibration panel.An exclamation point in the lower right hand corner of the image viewer indicates you are not using the most current process. Click on it to get a couple of choices about updating the image (for example a comparison of before after). You can still use any of the processes for any image, and you get the corresponding panels. When Lightroom introduced process 2010 most of the changes had no strong visual impact on the image … more under the hood type of changes. I actually updated all my images in mass to the new process back then. This time when I update images to the 2012 process I’m seeing a visual shift significant enough that I have to work on the image. Since these are images that are “finished” I probably won’t be updating any. This certainly may change (I think Adobe would be better served to try and make the new process result in a very similar file and maybe they will). I have created virtual copies and reset them to default and then worked with them. I think the process may be a little faster (although the beta is noticeably sluggish. Lots of optimization to go.) and on some images I may try a new conversion to see if I can get a better final result. But no across the board update for me this time (which is OK).
The clarity slider seems to operate much more effectively and adding clarity doesn’t tend to create halos. Clarity is basically a mid tone contrast adjustment which improves perceived sharpness. A little seems to go a long way, I find myself using less clarity than before but still getting a nice clean image with great detail. The Local Adjustments see several new options, including the ability to adjust white balance locally (something that may prove very useful) as well as more options in local sharpening. Also a new moire adjustment is available, which may be very useful for those shooting medium format backs or cameras like the M9 which have no AA filter.
There is now a full RGB point curve editor, allowing you to edit individual channels or all three, much like Photoshop. I noticed quite a few other small things … I’m sure they are numerous. If you want to try it Lightroom 4 beta, you have to create a new catalog. You can import your current images ( or a selection of them) to give things a try. Be sure to save the .xmp data out to disk for those files first in Lightroom 3 so Lightroom 4 knows what you’ve already done to them. Also be sure the option to automatically write .xmp data to disk is disabled in the Lightroom 4 beta so Lightroom 3 doesn’t freak out when you go back doing some real work.
I’ll be teaching a free class at Pixels as Lightroom 4 gets close to release to demonstrate some of the new features. Lots of free videos popping up on the web already, most noticeable from Adobe’s Julianne Kost .. as usual they are outstanding and worth watching if you have the time. You can find them at