Lightroom 5 Beta Makes a Good Thing Even Better
This past Monday, Adobe announced the public availability of Lightroom 5 Beta. This gives users a chance to try the cool new features Adobe is working on and possibly influence their thinking. If you haven't yet given it a try, I encourage you to do so.
Hands down, my favorite new feature has to be the updated Spot Removal Tool (Advanced Healing Brush). Rather than having to click one distracting spot at a time, the new version of Lightroom provides a brush tool you can actually paint with. You can still do it click by click if prefer too, but there's now a better way. Painting makes the experience much closer to what Photoshop's Spot Healing Brush provides, meaning I have one less reason tempting me to open Photoshop for problem images. Lightroom 5 provides content-aware replacement matching logic to find another part of the image that can be blended with the area you paint over. This generally works surprisingly well, but when it does make a bad guess you can easily drag the replacement outline to find a better match.
I'm not one to attempt removal of large objects, but if you try you may find the replacement too noticeable. There are limits, but freaking the task down into smaller replacement strokes though seems to help. Just to see if I could, I removed a large foreground flower from a shot yesterday. It took some doing and I couldn't help being tempted to do it in Photoshop but that would have spoiled the fun. Small spots work great. Bigger ones aren't easy. In other words, the spots that that are troublesome are the ones I really wouldn't mess with anyway. I like it.
If you need help finding those pesky little dust spots, there's a new feature for that too. The Visualize Spots option makes them jump right out at you by turning your image preview into a high-contrast pure black and white version similar to "find edges" or the Threshold adjustment in Photoshop. You can paint out the spots with this view enabled and just move any replacement areas a bit as needed once you return to the regular view.
The other big feature everyone is talking about is Smart Previews. I haven't done much with it yet but I can see huge potential for it when traveling. Smart Previews are cached renditions of your images saved along with the catalog so they are available even when the image itself isn't. Store an image on a removable drive with previous versions of Lightroom and you were out of luck. You couldn't do anything with it until you remounted that drive. But if you have a Lightroom 5 Smart Preview of it you can work on it almost as if you actually had the image. Yes, these previews do take space, but they're basically jpegs so the cost is minimal for what they offer. Develop changes you make against Smart Previews automatically sync back up when you return home and plug that drive back in. You can check a box to generate Smart Previews for all images when you import them or do it later for specific images. And since everything in Lightroom is nondestructive you can tweak your changes later with no loss of quality.
But that's far from all. The new Radial Gradient tool allows selective editing constrained by any form of circular or elliptical area you drag a border around. This provides a great way to locally adjust lighting or just about any other Develop tweak you may have in mind. There are a couple things I don't like about the implementation in the Beta release though. First is that the only shapes you can create are all circles and ellipses — no arbitrary shapes. It's kind of like the Control Point concept in current Nik filters or Nikon Capture NX2. With enough circles and ellipses you can cover most any shape you need, but it may take a bit of clicking. Lightroom does do a great job of blending your selective edits into the surroundings, but I find I long to more easily create shapes that require more than one point. The world isn't all circular or elliptical. The idea of "surroundings" leads me to the second aspect of Radial Gradient adjustments I wish they would change. By default the circle of ellipse you drag defines the area not to apply your changes too. You have to click on the "Invert Mask" box to reverse this. With the old Vignette tool that constrained you to having the area centered on the middle of your image, the natural assumption was that you wanted to edit what lay outside the circle. After all, that's what vignetting means. You can do the same thing with the Radial Gradient implementation, but I find more often than not I want the edits inside the circle rather than outside. If didn't have to Invert the mask all the time, Lightroom 5 makes it easy to add a touch more light to emphasize what you want people to focus on.
The new "Upright" tool attempts to automate the process of straightening lines made diagonal by perspective issues. I've seen demos that work great when the edges are those of buildings that provide clear contrast with the sky, but in my testing with nature scenes and trees that vary somewhat naturally, it does a less than stellar job. I'm hoping the engineers at Adobe improve this more before Lightroom 5 actually ships.
There's still more goodies in the new version. Slide shows can now have embedded videos. The book publishing module lets you save your own templates. There are plenty of other subtle tweaks hidden here and there too. There will undoubtedly be more by the time Lightroom 5 is actually released.
Keep in mind that this is just the first Beta release of Lightroom 5. Adobe isn't saying how many more betas there will be, nor when the final version will actually ship. This beta will work through June 2013. This beta is a free download and can live along side your current Lightroom 4 (or earlier version). You can't upgrade your existing catalog nor would you really want to since you will likely want to retain the ability to use it in your current version. I haven't had any issues with stability so far, but there are no guarantees given that this is beta software. Check out the operating system prerequisites if you haven't kept your computer current.
I have to say, the new Lightroom release excites me a lot more than did the announcement of Photoshop CS6 a year ago. It may be called "Photoshop" but most photographers I know have moved on to using Lightroom for the majority of their work.