Review: Adobe Lightroom 3

Remember when managing your photos used to involve dropping them into a folder and forgetting about them? Those days are over. Now, practically everyone from soccer moms to CEOs have ditched amateur hour handouts like iPhoto and Windows Live Photo Gallery for more capable, grown-up image-editing software.

One such piece of software is Lightroom, Adobe’s flagship kit for processing and organizing RAW image files — the unfiltered, uncompressed image data generated by your camera’s sensors. And its newest iteration, Lightroom 3, is reworked from the ground up to create a fast, proficient and generally awesome photo editing experience.

Adobe rewrote much of the underlying code for Lightroom 3 and it shows the minute you fire it up. In Lightroom 2, large image libraries frequently meant blurry, pixelated previews that took a few seconds to resolve into sharp thumbnails. At times it felt like using a prehistoric, web-based editor. Not Lightroom the Third. Thumbnail previews remain sharp even when you’re scrolling through massive image libraries (we loaded up a collection with 35,000 RAW images). Common tasks like switching from Library view to Develop view and exporting images to Photoshop are noticeably snappier. Essentially, everything about Lightroom 3 is really freaking fast when compared to Lightroom numero dos.

Also improved in Lightroom 3 is the new Import dialog, which has been rejiggered to resemble the rest of the app. The Import panel also has a few nifty tricks like the ability to zoom before you import. That means no more importing, then weeding out the blurry shots. Also kicked up a notch are the new set of sharpening and noise-reduction tools, which make it simple to get rid of noise in high-ISO images. The upgraded algorithm Adobe uses to weed out noise does an excellent job and manages to preserve the details of your image.

If you’ve got a RAW-capable point-and-shoot camera that is capable of high ISO settings, Lightroom 3 is worth the money for the noise reduction alone. While stand-alone noise-removal tools, like Noise Ninja, offer more fine-grained controls, Lightroom 3’s built-in tools are good enough that we’ve largely cast Noise Ninja aside.

Unfortunately, we can’t say the same for the new chromatic-aberration tools. Chromatic aberration refers to the unnatural fringes you sometimes see in the borders between dark and bright parts of a digital image (it often manifests as a purple halo). We were disappointed to find that Lightroom 3’s new tools failed to correct anything more than very light chromatic aberration. That’s not a problem for newer DSLRs, which generally don’t produce much distortion, but if you’re looking to patch up some heavy distortion, look elsewhere.

If you frequently use a wide-angle lens with significant barrel distortion, the new lens-correction tools can make fixing those distortions a one-click process — provided your lens is one of the supported Nikon, Canon or Sigma lenses.

Of course sometimes the lens distortion is exactly the effect you want, so Lightroom has separate controls for each type of distortion — for example you can correct barrel distortion, while leaving a natural vignette.

For those who use lenses without profiles, Adobe Labs offers a separate app, Adobe Lens Profile Creator, which you can use to make your profiles. Unfortunately, if you’ve got one of the new Micro 4/3 cameras, like Panasonic’s slick GF1, you’re basically screwed, there is currently no way to create a profile for Micro 4/3 cameras.

Lightroom 3 has also gone social, integrating with Flickr so you can upload, view comments and interact with your Flickr stream. Keep in mind that you’ll only see Flickr images published from Lightroom, there is no two-way sync. However, if you’ve got a Flickr Pro account you can edit and update images you’ve already uploaded from Lightroom.

Curiously, Lightroom does not currently offer any integration with Photoshop Mobile, Adobe’s own online storage and editing service.

The new Publish panel, which is where you’ll find the Flickr tools, does have a second option to publish to somewhere on your hard drive. As a bonus feature, the new publish tool means that you can now use Lightroom to manage your iPhone photos — just publish your Lightroom images to a folder and tell iTunes to sync photos from that folder.

While it’s not without it’s shortcomings, Adobe Lightroom 3 secures Lightroom’s place as the Cadillac of RAW editors and is more than worth the modest upgrade price.

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