A Tale of Digital Workflow

Warning: this is a long one…

Back in 1995, I bought my first digital camera: an Apple QuickTake. It took a couple years to make the psychological shift to digital–no film to pay for; take as many pictures as you want and throw away the bad ones–but once I did, I embraced it enthusiastically. Only I never really throw away the bad ones. Digital storage is cheap, why not keep ‘em all? Since then, Kathy and I have managed to amass a collection of over 42,000 digital pictures. Managing that many pictures can be quite a challenge.

"iView Media Pro"

For a long time, I used iView Media Pro (update: as of 2010, iView Media Pro is now Phase One Media Pro) to organize and keep track of all of our digital photos. It had plenty of quirks, but overall it was a great media manager and served me well. I tried switching to iPhoto a couple times, but it was just too much of a compromise in too many ways. Especially in its early versions, iPhoto just wasn’t designed for someone who takes–and keeps–as many pictures as I do. I looked at a few other options, too, but always returned to iView.

Meanwhile, back in 2002, I bought my first digital SLR, a Canon EOS D60 (not to be confused with the new Nikon D60). Along with its myriad other features was the ability to shoot pictures in raw format. Most digital cameras process the data coming off the image sensor before saving it as a JPEG. This processing includes sharpening, white balance adjustment, and compression, all of which are non-reversable. If you shoot a JPEG with the wrong white balance setting, you can kinda sorta fix it later, but the result will never quite be right. You simply can’t recreate data that isn’t there in the JPEG (as much as CSI would like you to believe otherwise). Raw files are different. They contain the exact unprocessed data coming off the image sensor. The camera’s white balance setting is just a piece of information stored along with the image data, so changing it after the fact is trivial. And because most image sensors capture 12 or 16 bits per color, raw files also contain more image data than 8-bit JPEG files. This difference may not seem like much, but because we’re dealing with powers of two, it’s substantial. Eight bits can represent 28 = 256 levels, which gives us a little over 16.7 million possible RGB colors. By comparison, 12 bits gives us 212 = 4096 levels, or about 68.7 billion possible RGB colors. One very happy consequence of this is that you can effectively adjust the exposure of a raw file by as much as a stop or more after the fact. Blown-out highlights can be dialed back, revealing detail you’d never see in a JPEG.

Anyway, I was well convinced of the advantages of shooting raw as soon as I bought the D60, yet I continued to shoot JPEGs most of the time. The reason was the workflow. Dealing with raw files was a big pain in the butt. Most programs couldn’t read raw files at all and if they could (like iView), they would only read the JPEG preview that the camera embedded in the raw file. Taking advantage of all that raw magic involved using a specialized program–Photoshop, Bibble (update: Bibble is now Corel AfterShot Pro), or Canon’s own tools–and doing so one image at a time. Raw processing was slow and frustrating.

The situation gradually improved over time, but the big change came in 2005. Apple released iPhoto 5 in January with support for raw files. Then in April Mac OS X 10.4 introduced built-in support for raw files which allows pretty much any application to open a raw file as easily as it would a JPEG. Then, in October, Apple released Aperture, a sort of professional version of iPhoto with full end-to-end support for raw files. Best of all, Aperture treats raw files as digital negatives and stores all your edits and modifications as a list of changes rather than destructively modifying the original (or rendering out a new copy). You can create separate versions of an image that appear distinct in the Aperture interface, but are actually just different sets of editing instructions applied to the same master image. Very cool. I was sold and immediately bought a copy.

Unfortunately, Aperture 1.0 was a carnival of frustration. It was glacially slow, even on fast hardware, and very inflexible in its handling of files. Importing my existing library of images into Aperture was a multiple-day endeavor. Once my images were in Aperture, the things it could do with raw files were really incredible, but it also had a lot of problems with basic raw conversion, introducing introducing excess noise and sometimes doing weird things with color. It was also a step backwards from iView in in its organizational capabilities. And did I mention it was slow? Ugh! It was so promising and so close to what I wanted to have, but that just made it all the more frustrating. In the end, I went back to iView and hoped that a future version would work for me. I tried each successive update and by version 1.5 Aperture was almost there, but still way too slow.

Meanwhile, Adobe had cooked up their answer to Aperture: Photoshop Lightroom (to be fair, they’d been working on it since 2002). I downloaded one of the early betas back in 2006, but I ran into some typical beta issues and didn’t use it for long. When Lightroom 1.0 was finally released in January 2007, I felt committed to Aperture and confident that the next release would finally make the grade. I kept hearing great things about Lightroom, though, so a few months later I finally downloaded the demo and gave it a try. Wow! For my needs, it was everything Aperture promised to be but wasn’t… and it was fast! I made the jump from iView to Lightroom and I’ve never looked back. Shortly thereafter, I started shooting raw exclusively on my current digital SLR, a Canon 20D.

"Adobe Photoshop Lightroom - Library Module"

"Lightroom's Develop Module"

Once I got up to speed, Lightroom turned into one of my favorite applications. It’s such a joy to use that I would find myself firing it up and just playing around with my images. The first of those banner images up at the top of the page came from one of these sessions. They’re just virtual copies in Lightroom. The originals are untouched; only the virtual copies are cropped and tweaked. And because the image data is not duplicated, virtual copies take up almost no disk space.

"Virtual copies in Lightroom."

Lightroom’s interface is incredibly flexible. All the tools and information that surround the main center area of the window can be hidden, either individually or all together (or you can use a “lights out” mode that dims everything but the picture you’re editing). It can run in a normal window as I’ve shown it here or in full-screen mode, which is the way I usually use it. Unfortunately, the current version doesn’t take advantage of multiple monitors, which is a shame. Version 2 has great multiple monitor support, including the ability to show the library browser on one screen and the develop interface on another. The develop interface is arranged just about perfectly. The most common image adjustments are at the top of the toolbar:

"Lightroom's Basic Development Tools"

For the vast majority of images, all the adjustments I need to make are right here in the “Basic” section of the develop module. Even within this section, the sliders are arranged in roughly the order I normally want to use them: color balance first, then exposure and tone adjustment, and finally a very useful group Adobe calls “Presence.” Clarity is Adobe’s implementation of Local Contrast Enhancement, which on many images can be like a little dose of magic. There are tons of other options I haven’t shown here, including full tone curve control, sharpening, noise reduction (both luminance and color noise), split toning, and more. And, of course, you can rotate, crop, straighten, and remove red-eye. Oh, and there’s a healing brush, too, that has been very helpful for taking care of the spots caused my my dirty camera sensor. For adjustments that can’t be done in Lightroom, you can just choose “Edit in Photoshop” and Lightroom will create a copy with all your adjustments applied and pass it off to Photoshop; when you’re done in Photoshop, just save and your work will automatically end up right back in Lightroom.

Since the release of Jeffrey Friedl’s free Flickr Export Plugin I barely have to leave Lightroom at all. The only things that keep me going to Photoshop are localized correction (dodging and burning, etc.) and photo merging (like creating this montage). Fortunately, the recently-announced Lightroom 2.0 has support for non-destructive localized adjustments and it’s even better than I’d hoped for. Not only can you lighten or darken a specific part of an image (dodge or burn), but can apply any image adjustment locally: contrast adjustments, sharpening, saturation… anything. Lightroom 2 is still in beta and I’m not ready to trust it with my images, but soon…


If this little big software hagiography has convinced anyone to buy Lightroom, here are a couple suggestions for getting the most out of it. The video tutorials over at Luminous Landscape are excellent, if a little low key. The Photoshop Lightroom Adventure book is also wonderful. Back when Lightroom was in beta, Adobe sent a group of professional photographers to Iceland. Their experience helped shape the software and led to this book, which also features many of their gorgeous photographs of Iceland. They’re repeating the project in Tasmania for Lightroom 2.