Lightroom CC & the Ghosts of Aperture
So Lightroom CC is out. Yes, CC not 6; although there is or will be a 6. Which will be the same… I think. Frankly, it’s confusing as hell and I’m pretty sure it’s Adobe’s way of slowly getting folks psychologically ready for the inevitable total cloud switch. But, having hopped on board the Photography Plan last year I guess I can’t really bitch about it anymore. And unless the prices change, I still believe the arguments that made me decide to subscribe still hold true.
I’ll be honest with you, I’m ambivalent about this release. Not because there aren’t nice additions and fixes but because I can’t help but find it lacking in imagination, given Adobe’s immense ressources. And because even at version 6, the reality is that it still trails behind the now defunct Aperture in way too many departments, even as it adds “new” Aperture inspired features. So while I started writing this post as a short overview of what was new in CC, it devolved into a re-examination of the application as a whole—something I haven’t done publicly in a long time.
To be clear: I’m happy with this release within the confines of Lightroom itself. The GPU acceleration is huge in terms of performance boost and I’ll be using the brush enhancements and other features extensively. I also welcome the smaller workflow additions. But in the grand scheme of things, I can’t help but be underwhelmed and annoyed by a certain underlying stagnation. Over three years after switching this isn’t about old habits from Aperture either—in fact I’m pretty much lost in that application now. It’s about what I consider fundamental design errors and a severe lack of vision in spite of obvious improvements.
Aperture is dead. Photos is something else entirely and for anything related to asset management, it’s a pitiful shadow of its former self—at least in its current form. Actually it isn’t even a shadow. But even now, after several years of using Lightroom every single day for hours on end, I still miss tons of features from Aperture’s digital asset management side. In fact I still miss the whole damn philosophy behind it, it’s enlightened way of treating everything as a virtual object in a database with no regards to the physical file behind unless it’s requested or needed. You know, how it should be in the 21st century. I don’t think anyone coming from a serious, in-depth use of Aperture will ever be totally comfortable with Lightroom’s schizophrenic approach to file management, where things are both virtual and physical, and sometimes you can move images around and sometimes you can’t… It still drives me nuts. I’ve accepted the idiosynchrasies but I can’t help but lament how flawed they are. Here’s a fresh example I stumbled upon while testing new stuff just last night: I’m trying the new HDR feature on two images from last year. Now, one of them has been moved to a 2014 Selects folder on an external drive; the other—the one I hadn’t used originally—is still in the original date-specific folder; same drive though. So I merge these two photos through the new HDR function and I get good results (don’t worry, I’m talking natural, tightly controlled, non garrish…More on that later). So I decide to stack this version with the original select because you know… It’s just another version of the same image. BZZZZZZ…. No can do good sir: “Stacks cannot contain photos that are stored in different folders.”
Of course not. Because… Folders, right?
Turns out HDR Merge used the location of the “unrated” image (I guess it was selected first) and stored the new HDR version in THAT folder, not the one containing the original select. But... It’s a DATABASE Adobe!!! I shouldn’t even have to care where images are stored after import. There isn’t a single reason for this limitation and if there is then fire your programmers because they’re morons. This is like being unable to put two pictures side by side in a book because one was taken in India and the other in Texas. It’s V.I.R.T.U.A.L for god’s sake. Now of course there’s a solution to this problem: all I have to do is right-click on the original select, choose Go to Folder in Library to see where it is; then go back to All Photographs, select the new HDR image, scroll back down to the other image’s folder and drag the HDR file to move it there. Then I can stack them. Instead of just… Stacking them right off the bat. All of the above is absolute nonsense.
Here’s the thing, in Aperture there WAS a similar limitation: stacks could only contain images from the same PROJECT. So the argument can be made that the behaviour was the same since projects in Aperture were master containers the way folders are in Lightroom. But a project in Aperture was a virtual entity inside the application. Projects could contain images from any external drive or folder because they were a virtual construct meant to organize images within Aperture itself, regardless of original physical location. Big, big difference.
Photography projects evolve over time, sometimes long after files have been imported. Apple recognized this at the onset and built on the premise that the application was the interface. That we would interact with our images through Aperture, not the Finder, and that this process should be free flowing and completely separate from a hard drive paradigm. That anything else would simply create unnecessary friction. The idea of forcing physical management of files inside a database is a contradiction, pure and simple. We shouldn’t have to do that.
Going back to these two specific images: obviously they’re from the same project—regardless of their location on external drives or folders. So in Aperture this wouldn’t have been an issue. At the very least, Lightroom should be smart enough to recognize the situation, identify what I’m trying to do and offer to move the file next to the other one in the appropriate folder, allowing me to stack the two together. That would be helpful. Adobe’s continued reliance on physical location is dated, it’s a hindrance and it’s backwards.
But what’s even more infuriating is that, in spite of these constant ties to physical data the programmers insist upon, the application is still subpar in terms of actually managing any of it: moving files remains a clumsy, manual, drag and drop affair. No different than using the Finder. Worse in fact. We still can’t relocate or consolidate files using metadata-based naming schemes for folders and subfolders, something Aperture had been able to do for eons. At version 6, eight years into its history, Lightroom doesn’t even have an engine to do this. It boggles the mind.
THE MYSTERIOUS CASE OF THE DISAPPEARING STACKS
Here’s a neat magic trick: stacks disappear in collections. Fun. But David Copperfield aside, how is that 1) useful and 2) smart in any way? I use stacks mainly to create alternate versions of an image, virtual copies in Adobe parlance. In fact Lightroom automatically stacks virtual copies with the “master” file. But if I add, say, the bw version of an image to a collection, then I’m stuck with it. Lightroom won’t let me SEE that another version even exists because stacks do not appear in collections; no badge, no number, nothing. They’re gone. The UI for it simply isn’t there in any type of collection, smart or otherwise. What exactly is the logic behind this? Seriously, I’d like to know.
If I happen to remember that there ARE other versions of an image, change my mind and decide to use a colour rendition instead of a bw one, here’s the little dance I need to do: go back to the folder or All Photographs, add the colour version to the collection (which hopefully I made sure to target before switching to the folder, otherwise I now need to dig and scroll back to it to drag the image in), go back to the original collection, find the bw version and delete it. Easy as pie.
In Aperture? Open the stack, right-click on the version I want, select as Album Pick and close the stack. No navigation, no back and forth, no scrolling, no digging, no deleting. And I could use the same stack in other albums with different picks ad nauseam. Ah! But what if I needed to use two or more versions from a single stack in one album? Just… Open the stack. The images were there. Done. On export? Select whatever images I need from that stack and export, along with other images in the album, naming all of them in sequential order—no copy name nonsense to deal with.
Versions in Aperture were not segregated, they weren’t second-class citizens because of a “virtual copy” status. Everything was an image as far as the application was concerned and they were all treated as such. The master was the file behind it all, never modified, never touched or altered. Philosophically, everything within the Aperture UI was a version so there was zero difference between the first, second or third copy. Lightroom technically works exactly the same way, using XML instructions to present adjustments that are rendered within the application but are solely applied on export, and yet it insists on creating what is essentially a non-existent hierarchy.
BLOOKS… ER… SORRY, BOOKS.
Lightroom 5 worked with Blurb. But not all of Blurb. CC? Same deal. No changes. Zip. You want to create a Blurb magazine in Lightroom like I recently needed to do? Tough. It’s either InDesign or Blurb’s Booksmart. So not only does Lightroom NOT allow custom sizes for books (even as PDF or JPEG as Aperture had been able to do forever) but they dont even include ALL of the Blurb formats. Is this a way to force us into using InDesign? Hell if I know. If it is it’s petty. If it isn’t: again, why? One vendor Adobe. Couldn’t you at least give us the option of all of their products? What’s the technical holdup here exactly? Can’t figure out the margins and bleed for a magazine? Snarky I know—but I don’t get it. In my mind a major release should imply revisiting every main feature and improving what needs to be improved. Apparently Adobe doesn’t see anything to improve upon in the Book module. Sorry, I beg to differ.
But hey! We can build nice slideshows now. Like those in… Well, those in Aperture. Round and round we go.
ABOUT THOSE COLLECTIONS
Collections in CC can be sorted in alphabetical order. Wait—isn’t that the same as before? Yup. I had hoped for the ability to sort collections manually. Like albums in Aperture. It’s called a meme folks. But seriously, why can’t we do this? I heavily rely on collections because projects don’t always consist of images from a single shoot. But you have to constantly think about your naming conventions if you need them in any particular order. Otherwise it’s a mess. At least if they could be sorted by date (created or modified) it would make some sort of sense but alphabetical is just random. Completely random. Yes I can add numbers but then you add another collection and you want it before the others and the numbers don’t add up anymore. Again, this shouldn’t be an issue. Manual sorting: neat, clean, end of story.
What CC does add is a new collection filtering field (like we always had in… Ok, you know by now). I love this. Finally. At least this alleviates the sorting problem, as long as you remember how you named the collection you’re looking for. It’s also now finally possible to import images directly into a collection (like we could target an album in… Seriously, it never ends). So when we get back from a shoot we can immediately create a collection and/or collection set to contain the images we’ll be working with. This works for me and streamlines the workflow.
But the example given in Adobe’s video for this feature shows how it’s possible to also set this new collection to be synchronized with Lightrooom Mobile. Great idea… If you want 1200 unedited and unrated pictures to fill up your iPhone, iPad or Android device. This would make a little bit of sense if Mobile could edit metadata in any meaningful way but it can’t do anything beyond flags and ratings. Which leads me to another dashed hope in this release: it’s still not possible to sync a smart collection. Do they fear too much traffic from constantly updating collections? I don’t know. I have trouble understanding the technical hurdle behind this. Here’s what I’d like: a synced smart collection for “4 stars images from the last two weeks”; or month. This would give me a dynamic best of collection, always updated with my last shoots. That’s just one example. Add any other criteria you can think of to this scenario (family, client, portfolio etc) and the potential is obvious. This would make LR Mobile the best portfolio app out there, requiring little to no interaction while always containing the very best of our images. Didn’t Aperture do this for home sharing? I forget. It probably did.
Fingers crossed for Lightroom 7 I guess.
A RAY OF LIGHT: DEVELOP! DEVELOP! DEVELOP!
Thank goodness we have the Develop module. It was my reason for switching in the first place and although not perfect it is by far Lightroom’s best and most important asset. So we can now move to the good news (!)
The biggest change: GPU acceleration. For the first time in its history, Lightroom can now leverage the computational power of the graphics card and it’s a phenomenal improvement. For more information about this I suggest you check out this dedicated page. We all knew this was coming but I was very pleasantly surprised to see my aging 2009 iMac’s Radeon being supported. Everything in Develop now feels much faster including sliders which are now positively fluid—an adjective I never would’ve used before on my system. As I inch towards a 5K machine this is welcome news. And Lightroom CC also adds an Auto function for previews that will determine the best resolution depending on the monitor in use.
I also welcome the improvements to local adjustments, namely the ability to move brush control points and the new brushes in radial and graduated filters. I’ll be using these last two quite a bit to refine adjustment masks but I don’t see it as something entirely new: all adjustments in Lightroom have always been additive and substractive, so it was already possible to neutralize the effect of a gradient filter by applying negative values of the same parameter with a brush—boosting exposure by +3 with a gradient and then painting out portions of it with a –3 exposure brush for example. But this is easier and more streamlined, especially when several parameters are being affected at once.
As my friend Bert Stephani tweeted on release day:
Yup. I’m not a fan of HDR. But Adobe went to great lengths to tout the natural results of its new HDR function as well as its ability to create high dynamic range images from just two files instead of multiple exposures. The only time I’ll shoot multiple exposures is when I shoot interiors, something I’ve been doing for one specific project these past two years. If I have a difficult lighting situation, I’ll sometimes shoot two or three frames to either composite afterwards or simply to choose from. So I loaded that client catalog and tested the HDR Merge function on a few of these: it works very well. But most importantly: the resulting files are DNG. Not TIFF or PSD. They remain raw files with everything this implies in terms of headroom. Very, very slick. In most cases I wasn’t satisfied with the results straight out of the box but with a bit of tweaking, every single attempt gave me extremely pleasing results. This is not something I’ll be using on a regular basis but when I do, I’ll be happy it’s there.
As for panorama: nothing to test this with for now.
Has Adobe made my life easier than it was a few days ago? Yes, absolutely. So the state of Lightroom within the Lightroom universe is fine. But all the ranting above remains valid. There’s a laziness—for lack of a better term— to this release that I can’t really shake, a failure to imagine. Apple sometimes dares too much but they do dare and when it works it can make a hell of a lot of sense. They nailed the concept of DAM for digital photography right from the start and Adobe hasn’t even begun to catch up, in spite of Lightroom’s unequivocal victory.
As much as I like the new features, at this point I doubt they ever will.
But I can't help hoping they do.
- I had problems with this version at first: it wouldn't launch, immediately quitting at the splash screen. Rebooting didn't help. I had to sign out of Creative Cloud and sign back in to fix the problem. Conversations on Twitter made it clear others were having the same problem so I'm mentioning it here. You can sign out of CC by clicking the gear icon in the Creative Cloud Desktop menubar and choosing Preferences.
- I had a discussion on Twitter about Capture One with fellow photographer Kale Friesen following this release. I completely agree with him about the amazing quality of its rendering compared to Lightroom. But he admitted to using PS whenever he needs local adjustments and this is where we diverge. I hate the round tripping workflow and until C1 gets serious about local adjustments I won’t budge. I’m ok with PS for enlargements or compositing etc… But not as part of my regular process.
- I’m not seeing improvements in the raw decoding of X-Trans files; as far as I can tell it’s been left unchanged. I'll have to test it more closely.
- LR Mobile still doesn't have curves. Pixelmator for iOS has curves. Most iPhone photo editors have curves. Until LR Mobile gets curves I can't edit the way I do on the desktop.