Apple's Aperture development team must be furious. No sooner does it release a shiny new version of Aperture that works nicely and runs quickly, than Adobe announces that it too is updating its RAW image editing and cataloguing app.
There's a spoilsport tactic about the announcement of Lightroom 2. Firstly, it's beta software and secondly, the proper version won't be available until the autumn, or thereabouts. In the meantime, anyone may download the Lightroom 2 beta and play with it for 30 days.
Existing Lightroom users are able to play with it until the end of August. Why is Adobe being so generous? Simple... it wants you to be the bug testers and to put off buying Aperture.
Worth bothering with beta software?
Yes, this is truly a piece of beta software. You can't import existing Lightroom libraries for use with it, and there's no guarantee that any library you do create with Lightroom 2 will be readable when the final version ships. So, play with the new Lightroom, but don't rely on it. Treat it as a tyre-kicking exercise for reporting back any bugs or improvements you'd like to see: that's its aim.
So what's new in this latest version? Support for dual monitors, 64-bit compatibility, extra organisation tools, new editing features and external editing support for Photoshop users, a new flexible printing template and lots of other minor improvements.
Cosmetically, it's much like its predecessor. It's still divided into five modules: Library, Develop, Slideshow, Print and Web. The first module does exactly what it suggests. It's a library interface where you can import RAW images (or TIFF, JPEGS and other formats, too) and assign metadata to each image, including copyright details or caption information.
At either side of the main Library window are panels. To the left is a panel with the bare essential information relating to the catalog, folders and collections. New to this panel in Lightroom 2 is the addition of Smart Collections. Much like Smart Playlists in iTunes, Smart Collections can automatically keep track of any number of photos, using predefined selection criteria. It's very handy, and means you can collate all, say, your five-star images or pictures taken on a certain day.
To the right of the Library module's main window is a panel that includes a histogram, Quick Develop controls, keywording functions and a Metadata panel for inspecting or applying metadata to images. Beneath the whole Library module is a filmstrip for quick and easy access to your images. Any of these panels may be turned off or on at any time.
Finally, brand new is a quick and easy Filter Bar that enables you to select images based on text, filter criteria or metadata. It's a much quicker way of drilling down through multiple images to get the picture you want.
The next module is Develop. This is where the serious editing work begins. Remember, none of the editing you do in Lightroom actually gets done until you export the image from Lightroom.
Up to the very last minute, all your changes are non-destructive and non-cumulative, resulting in cleaner and better edits with Lightroom saving your changes to duplicate files.
Any changes you make can be applied to any other image or images, and any metadata that you choose to change can also be applied en masse. You can even send your edits straight to other apps like Photoshop.
Photo editing tools
In the Develop module, a new panel opens up on the right with a full selection of editing controls. Right at the top is the usual histogram, but beneath it are four tools.
These include a handy crop overlay that offers fixed or flexible cropping and a straightening tool. It's addictive, especially if your pictures tend to be slightly off beam. Next to these is a new Spot-Removal tool. This tool can be set to Clone or Heal, but it still seems more complicated than Aperture 2's new, easy-to-use equivalent.
The third tool is a Red-Eye Removal, while the fourth is a brush that can be used for applying localised corrections to just a particular area of an image. This is brand new and it does take some getting used to. You can load a correction brush with the changes you want to make and then paint them onto areas of the image or the part of the image you're working on using the brush.
Once again, it's still not as intuitive as the Dodge and Burn function that's new to Aperture 2. No doubt this will be reworked by the time the program finally ships.
The third module is the Slideshow. Not much change here, but it's still possible to construct custom slideshows of images and save them to play as full-screen PDFs that you can send to anyone to play with Acrobat Reader. There are plenty of text overlays and drop shadow effects to apply to a slideshow, but no option to add a soundtrack from iTunes as you can with iPhoto.
The fourth module is labelled Print. Here, Adobe has supplied a bundle of its own templates such as greeting cards or triptychs, but the big change is that you can customise your own templates and save them for printing your own designs. It's just a whisper away from Apple's Light Table function in Aperture, but it doesn't quite make it. That's a shame, and definitely a feature that ought to be in the final version. Outputting prints to JPEG for a lab to print off is another new feature, which will be great for wedding photographers.
The last module is Web. This is where you can optimise your images for use on the web or onscreen. Unlike the current version of Lightroom, this lets you apply sharpening to all your output images. You can choose HTML or Flash templates and load them up to your FTP server from within Lightroom. It's never been easier to post galleries online.
There are a few other little changes that we don't have room to show you in this overview. For instance, if you have 4GB or more of RAM in an Intel Mac, you can harness the power of full 64-bit computing, and that will make light work of multiple RAW images in large picture libraries, turning Lightroom into an industrial-strength image library and developing tool.