The start of the second public beta of Lightroom 3 gives the first glimpses at a new raw processing engine from Adobe. While at PMA 2010, we got a chance to speak to senior product manager and writer of Adobe’s Lightroom blog, Tom Hogarty about the Lightroom 3 public beta program and he told us about some of the changes that had been made. We also did some processing to see how it compares to the current version of Adobe Camera Raw.

The two focuses of the second phase of the beta process were, he explained 'image quality and performance.' With this in mind, for Lightroom 3 the team developed completely new image processing algorithms. However, they were aware of the need to avoid making them too processor-intensive - 'we also needed to look at the performance at the same time and, of course, these two things are inter-related.'

'A lot of our focus was on interactive performance - about not having to wait for things when you ask for them to happen. The flip-side of that is non-interactive performance - the performance of background tasks. The interactive performance was important for us because perception is a huge driver of performance.'

The changes made to the image quality mainly relate to fine detail. 'We find a lot of people focus on sharpening and noise reduction characteristics. We've been doing a lot of work in these areas and that's not over.' The biggest changes in terms of processing options, through, are for low-light, high ISO images. 'We've tried to reduce the color noise without losing sharpness or saturation - trying to avoid a 'painterly' effect. We turned on the new chroma aspects of noise reduction in the first public beta but turned off luminance NR to encourage beta testers to focus on color. The big news with this version is luminance NR and how they work together.'

The improvements in Lightroom 3 are big enough that it's tempting to go back through your library to see how much better your old images will look - both your favorites and ones previously spoiled by noise. However, Lightroom will not force the changes on your back-catalogue - you're presented with a choice of processing your images with the original 2003 profile or the latest 2010 version. 'We can't arbitrarily move you to the new version - we want to preserve it for people who've already made edits to their old images.'

Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, ISO 102,400

Adobe Camera Raw v5.6 (default settings) Lightroom 3 beta 2 (default settings)
The biggest differences are apparent in very high ISO images that would otherwise be rendered unusable by chroma noise. Based on our brief use of the latest beta, we found we could get usable images at one stop higher ISO settings with many cameras. This image is also available for comparison in our EOS-1D Mark IV review gallery, both as a RAW conversion using Canon's Digital Photo Pro, and a camera JPEG.

Nikon D3S, ISO 51,200

Adobe Camera Raw v5.6 (default settings) Lightroom 3 beta 2 (default settings)
It is obvious that in this file, too, the new process is not only better at reducing chroma noise than ACR 5.6, it does so without a significant penalty in color saturation. At default settings, files processed through Lightroom 3 (And the forthcoming ACR 6.0) are more detailed, partly because chroma noise isn't masking pixel-level detail.

The latest version also introduces a host of more subtle feature improvements, including different 'blending' modes for post-crop vignetting addition, greater control over customized watermarks, and tweaks to the behavior of the import function. These features join those that appeared in the first public beta, including the new import window and increased support for uploading and management on popular image hosting sites such as Flickr, Smugmug and Zenfolio, with metadata such as favorite counts and comments pulled down into Lightroom.

Beyond the changes to the existing Lightroom features are handful of new capabilities for the software, reflecting the changes in DSLRs. 'We've added support for video - allowing you to categorize, add keywords and tags. It's asset management of video files, not editing - we're conscious of the risks of adding too many features too quickly.'

The other headline change is the ability to use Lightroom for tethered capture. 'Initially we'll be shipping with support for a limited number of Nikon and Canon cameras. We wanted to make it super-simple, showing the camera settings and allowing you to grab an image.' For now, the company has decided not to offer the ability to change the camera settings from the software because, Hogarty points out 'with the way interfaces have developed, it's super-simple to change them on the camera.'