When Adobe last updated its photo-editing application Lightroom to a new version in January 2012, the changes were pretty substantial. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 had an overhauled image-processing engine, new sliders, a new slider interface and a couple of additional modules.
Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5, scheduled for release today as a free public beta, is a considerably less dramatic update. This version focuses on adding features that photographers have been requesting, says Sharad Mangalick, digital imaging product manager at Adobe. These include tools that make it easier to do tasks like straighten crooked photos, correct perspective distortion, get rid of unwanted portions of a picture and delete sensor dust.
I took some time to check out the beta of Lightroom 5. What follows are some of the new features I tried out and my impression of how well they work.
Perspective correction. The new Upright tool within Lightroom's lens-correction panel deals with two problems you may encounter with a photograph. One is the classic "Oops, I didn't hold my camera straight so my photo is tilted." The other is a perspective issue that can be caused by the limits of your equipment, not poor technique: Unless you've got a pricey tilt-shift lens, taking building or cityscape shots often means your building lines aren't vertical, especially for a wide-angle shot.
Straightening a tilted horizon is already fairly easy -- you just rotate your photo until it's straight, although it does take some finessing to get the angle exactly right. Fixing perspective distortion is trickier, generally involving several sliders and some tradeoffs -- because often if you straighten one building in a cityscape, others start looking warped.
The Upright tool includes an auto-correction button along with three presets for level, horizontal and vertical corrections. As with any Lightroom setting, results can then be further tweaked manually.
I tried Upright on a tilted photo that was snapped through the windshield of a moving car (so it's blurry) and a skyline photo that needed perspective correction. In both cases, the one-click auto-correction button gave excellent results. For someone like me who takes a lot of cityscape and wide-angle shots, Lightroom 5 may be worth the upgrade for this tool alone.
Improved spot removal. Earlier versions of Lightroom have a spot-removal tool that can be resized but not reshaped; it's a round tool that can only be used by clicking on one spot at a time. Lightroom 5 allows you to click and drag the spot-removal tool, in essence turning it into a brush that can handle any shape, not just a circular spot.
I'd hoped the tool would use Photoshop's relatively new content-aware technology to try to figure out exactly how to fix the area being brushed -- that certainly would have been worth an upgrade. Instead, the tool either clones another section of your photo onto the area you want fixed or "heals" it by matching texture, lighting and shading from another area of the picture. In both cases you can choose the portion of the photo you want the tool to use as a guide.
This new spot-removal tool is useful for trying to remove one or two distracting objects from your photo. However, for complex tasks like removing power lines through tree branches, you're still much better off using the content-aware tools in AdobeCreative Suite 5 or Creative Suite 6. If you don't own full-fledged Photoshop or another editing software that has power retouching tools, though, the spot removal in version 5 may be a useful improvement over earlier Lightroom versions.
There's also a new slider and view that make it easier to, well, spot dust spots. I used it on one of my favorite photos and discovered a sensor dust spot I'd never noticed before -- one that might show up if I decide to make a large print.
Radial filter. This filter is aimed at helping make quick adjustments to broad areas of a photo -- for example, drawing attention to the subject by brightening the subject and darkening or blurring the rest of the photo. While this can already be done with the adjustment brush, some users may find it more convenient to do it with a single oval filter that doesn't require multiple brush strokes.
Smart (i.e., smaller) previews. If your main Lightroom system is a laptop and you've got a modern-era digital camera, chances are you don't want to store thousands of 10+MB RAW image files on that hard drive. It's easy enough to put your entire catalog and original image files on an external drive, but what happens if you want to take your laptop somewhere and still have your full catalog available?
Smart previews can generate smaller -- significantly smaller -- preview files on one drive even while your full image files reside on a separate drive. Whatever changes are made to the small version are automatically synced up with the original file the next time your system is connected to that external drive -- without the user having to initiate a sync.
There are a few dozen other changes, such as support for PNG files, true full-screen photo viewing mode by hitting the F key, saving customized book-page layouts and adding videos to slideshows.
Not sure whether Lightroom 5 is worth the upgrade? It's not as clear-cut a decision as was moving to Lightroom 4, when the software made a major leap in functionality.
Download the beta (no earlier Lightroom version or license is needed) and see whether you use the new features enough to justify the upgrade. The free beta will work through June 30. Adobe has not yet released pricing information for Lightroom 5.
If you're not a Lightroom user and aren't happy with the way you currently organize and edit photos, I'd suggest giving this version a try: It's a great chance to use Lightroom free to see if it meets your needs.
Sharon Machlis is online managing editor at Computerworld. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org. You can follow her on Twitter @sharon000, on Facebook, on Google+ or by subscribing to her RSS feeds:
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