Friday, October 30, 2015

Review: Lightroom 6

I actually upgraded to Lightroom 6 a while back, but waited until I did a couple of trips with large amounts of photography before writing a review to get a realistic view of what it does, and which features I turned out to use a lot, and which I thought I bought it for but didn't end up using.

I'd skipped Lightroom 5, mostly because it included zero features that I thought were useful to me. Lightroom 6, however, featured several features that I thought were potentially ground-breaking:
  • Photo-Merge: including merge to Panorama and merge to HDR. I hadn't been experimenting with HDR, but prior to Lightroom 6, I was using Microsoft ICE to stitch images. It got to the point where I used a pre-set to automatically export and merge using Microsoft ICE via the command-line. The benefit of Lightroom doing it all internally is that you end up with a RAW merged file, which means that you can use ND grad filters and other tools uniformly across the final image. This is huge! Suffice to say that I would have paid the upgrade price (albeit reduced because of an employee discount) just for this feature alone.
  • Face recognition. I gave up tagging all my kids photos manually because it was too much work. It'd be nice for this to be fully automated.
  • Performance. While my i7 920 is still faster than most machines out there (very impressive given its age --- but mostly an indictment of how laptops have taken over the world), I also have a high end GPU sitting in the machine that's just begging to be used. Lightroom 6 promised to make use of this otherwise idle silicon. More performance is always good!
So in practice, how did these features fare? Face recognition was an obvious bust. Turn it on, and let your machine chug for a day, and come back and discover it's still not done. The face-recognition software seems to be single-threaded, and doesn't make full use of the CPU or GPU.

GPU acceleration was also disappointing. First of all, it crashes a lot on the 7870. I finally found some article on the internet on how to configure the driver so Lightroom stopped crashing. However, I'm not sure I noticed any performance difference: I'm guessing my machine was already fast enough, and the acceleration didn't do much for the batch jobs I use (bulk-export, import of photos). Where I thought it might help a lot would be on my wife's Surface Pro, which didn't have quite enough CPU power so Lightroom was frequently laggy, but in practice, I didn't notice much difference there either.

Photo-Merge, however, paid for the upgrade all by itself. I found myself using it a lot, and even better, the UI is designed right. You select a few pictures and hit the Merge button. The machine chugs for a bit and delivers you a preview. If you like the preview, hit the "Merge" button, and the merge happens in the background, using spare cycles while you go on to do other editing tasks! This is pretty amazing. The resulting merged image was frequently too large for Facebook (not a surprise) and also taxed the Surface Pro to the limits when loaded into RAM. But that's what I want. The same image on my desktop took appreciably no extra time to load and was subject to all the manipulation I wanted.

There are other nits in the UI that have carried over from previous versions of Lightroom (for instance, when you shell out into Photoshop to do some editing, it creates a second copy of the picture but doesn't place it next to the original for easy selection/culling). But by and large, I'm happy with this upgrade. If you don't already use Lightroom, moreover, and you want to be a serious photographer, there's really no other tool out there that does what Lightroom does (believe me, I've looked). There's good reason why many photographers go to the trouble of building a machine just so Lightroom flies. It's too indispensable a part of a serious photographer's workflow to forgo. If you trouble yourself with any camera other than your smartphone, then you owe it yourself to spend a fraction of that camera's budget on software to get the most out of it. Recommended.
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