Lightroom 4 was the gigantic leap in image development that really set Lightroom ahead of the Aperture curve for many Mac users. It was a tremendous update, and just over a month ago, Adobe followed up with Lightroom 5 and is jumping ahead of the curve again.
I still use Aperture, which I find fits better into my workflow, but I always want to try the latest and greatest to see if it’s worth switching. And Lightroom 5 is tremendously tempting — check out a sample list of the new features. Let’s take a look at it to see what extra power under the hood it brings both seasoned pros and hobbyists.
The first thing you’re going to notice is that not a lot has changed. Visually, Lightroom 5 is still very similar to its predecessors — although the entire app has now been optimized for Retina displays. Adding photo Collections is still done in the same way, and not much has changed regarding the way Lightroom visually organizes itself (or your photos).
This is actually my least favourite part of the app. Compared to apps like Aperture and Pixelmator, Lightroom and its Photoshop brother have always looked like ugly step siblings. There’s a big learning curve with the program, not the least thanks to the cluttered interface. Some file interactions that take multiple clicks Lightroom will take significantly fewer within Finder, which makes it feel a little antiquated.
That being said, there are some major additions to file management within the app.
Smart Previews are so ahead of the curve that it’s worth switching to the program for — in fact, I have to wonder what took so long. Smart Previews allow you to view and edit your files, even if they’re offline. Yes, that means if you like to store your photos on an external hard drive, you can have Lightroom build Smart Previews of the photos for you.
Here’s how it works: Files are naturally compressed to a maximum width on the long side of 2450px and give a .DNG filename. They are also compressed, but still very usable. In fact, on my Retina screen, I noticed no real inconsistencies with RAW images when using Smart Previews. Compression artifacts are rare, even at a 1:1 ratio — further evidence that .DNG is one of Adobe’s most under-praised achievements.
Beyond developing your photos and making specific image adjustments, you can also export or email pictures without reconnecting a hard drive. It’s also possible to change metadata, including rating and keywords.
Smart Previews don’t take up a ton of space on your hard drive, especially when compared to the alternative. My 12mp RAW shots took up 1GB of space on my hard drive when all was said and done, and like I said, there were 680 of them. All the more reason to praise Lightroom.
When you’re done on the road and can reconnect your Mac to your external hard drive, Lightroom is smart enough to handle the rest for you. It automatically updates the files and keeps all the metadata and changes you made in the Develop module.
I can’t understate how important this all is. Editing Smart Previews is so quick and painless that it quickly became my preferred way to work, as I made my way through a 680-shot football game. If you’re on the fence about upgrading, do it for that alone.
Standing Up Straight
Aperture also includes a new feature called Upright Straightening. It’s supposed to be an easy one-click way to adjust the angles of your photos so that everything is straight, which is a great idea. It works in tandem with lens corrections and adjustments, which is handy.
When it works, it works really well, but I found the entire thing was pretty finicky. In fact, it took me a good deal of fighting to get a picture that straightened properly.
There are some problems with making Upright Straightening. Quite simple, it doesn’t always work. It works best with slightly off-skew vertical lines; anything horizontal in the image seemingly makes it much more difficult for Lightroom to process it.
Let the Healing Begin
The Healing brush has gotten significantly more advanced in Lightroom 5 as well. Apart from Smart Previews, I’m going to say this is Lightroom 5’s most important feature. The Healing brush can now take on any shape, much like the brushes in Aperture.
Instead of spot-removal, this feels like real image healing. In fact, it’s quite sophisticated.
Adobe says the underlying code is pretty sophisticated, which is a minor understatement, but suffice it to say the brush feels pretty snappy. I experimented with it and the brush within Aperture for over an hour with about a dozen images. I feel pretty good saying that Lightroom’s brush provides nearly instant good results, but if you have the patience to play with Aperture’s, you might get better ones.
What Else is New?
Well, Lightroom finally has true fullscreen support, accessible with the hit of the F key. I don’t like it as much as I like Aperture’s because Aperture allows me to activate an Adjustments pane with the H key in full screen mode, but I am impressed with how quick Lightroom responds.
Radial filtering is new to Lightroom 5 as well, which is another form of vignetting that’s leaps and bounds ahead of what the competition is doing. It’s fast and it’s convenient, but Adobe’s expertise in this realm is already so impressive that it feels like a minor change.
There’s also a new view and slider that allow you to more easily see dust and spots. If you’re having trouble finding it, click Visualize Spots below the image after selecting the Spot Removal tool. For whatever reason, Adobe has the checkmark in what I think is the wrong spot.
And that sums up what isn’t new with the program: The tremendous learning curve and the outlandish user interface. There’s a difference between simple and accessible, but Lightroom is still neither.
Is It Worth Buying?
For people who use and love Lightroom 4, if you haven’t already ponied up the relatively small upgrade fee of $79, it’s worth doing. Smart Previews alone are worth that kind of money — they’re brilliant and, typical of Adobe, way ahead of the curve.
Otherwise though, it does feel like there isn’t a whole lot new here. There’s a lot of code optimization going on in the background and the app runs pretty quick — much faster than Aperture, if you’re considering switching — but it still feels more like a 4.5 release than a 5.0.
For the most part though, Lightroom 5 could tempt those weary of Aperture’s RAM-hogging ways, and it will only strengthen the resolve of the faithful. It’s available for a $79 upgrade, $150 first-time license or as part of a $49.99/month Creative Cloud subscription.