Conclusion - Pros
- Incredibly versatile importing and organization options
- Reasonably intelligent management of offline/missing files
- Non-destructive editing (and all that comes with it, virtual copies etc.)
- Excellent graduated filter tool
- Very versatile crop overlay tool and adjustment brush
- Good (and growing) range of plugins
- Customizable interface
- Good operational speed (on the computers that we used - your mileage may vary)
- Useful lens correction profiles (albeit currently with some caveats)
- Greatly improved RAW processing engine
- Easy integration with Photoshop/other editing software.
- Advanced watermarking and web output options
Conclusion - Cons
- Lightroom's catalog takes some getting used to.
- Sometimes the options can be overwhelming (i.e. in the new full-size import window).
- Arguably illogical tool shortcuts (and totally different to Photoshop), 'K' for brush tool etc.
- Adjusting some parameters (especially grad filter position and brush size) can be awkward.
- Limited range of lens correction profiles (for now).
- Limited tethering compatibility (for now).
- No Live View support in tethering mode.
- Still no soft-proofing option.
If you're the sort of person that skips to the end of a review to read the verdict before you do anything else, then you'll be pleased to learn that Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 is a very good piece of software. (now go back and start again from page 1). During the time that I have been working on this review in earnest, I have more or less replaced Photoshop CS5 for my personal photography with Lightroom 3. At the time of writing, I have so far used Lightroom 3 to process images from a three-day music festival, almost twenty separate concerts, and one of Europe's largest air shows, totaling well over 5000 RAW images in total.
Far from feeling handicapped I have been surprised by how much more efficient my workflow has become. What surprised me about Lightroom 3 is that although I had previously been using a primarily Adobe Photoshop CS3/4/5 and Bridge-based workflow for years, it didn't take me long to adapt to the Lightroom way of doing things. There is no getting around the fact that Lightroom is very different to editing software like Photoshop CS, Paint Shop Pro, Nikon's Capture NX2 and all the rest. The idea of importing images into a catalog takes some getting used to, as does the idea of 100% non-destructive editing, making virtual copies, and working with files as smart objects in Photoshop, but what makes Lightroom seem so different (and difficult) at first is what makes it so versatile after extended use.
If you don't have Photoshop CS5 or a similar image editing program, Lightroom 3 may be all that you need. This could not always be said of earlier versions of the software, but Lightroom 3's editing options really do cover the essentials. If you do have a separate image editing program, Lightroom will work with it, allowing you to export images for further adjustment when you run up against its limitations.
Is it worth upgrading from Lightroom 2?
Lightroom 3 is a better program than Lightroom 2, without a doubt, but it isn't a huge leap forwards. Whether or not you decide that the additional features are worth upgrading for is up to you, but if you're already perfectly happy with Lightroom 2, we certainly wouldn't suggest that you rush to replace it with the new version sight unseen.
That said, we have found Lightroom 3 to be quicker than its predecessor, and the new features add a lot of value to the software. The enhanced B&W controls rival some dedicated plugins for versatility, and 'proper' watermarking capability is another welcome improvement, and one which - again - makes certain commercial plugins for Lightroom 2 a little redundant.
Arguably, apart from the speed boost which comes with 64-bit compatibility, the two most important changes in Lightroom 3 are its new raw processing engine, and lens correction profiles. We found that Adobe's lens correction profiles are a little buggy in Lightroom 3. When examining a batch of images taken using Sigma's DG 10-20mm f/4.5-5.6 EX HSM wideangle zoom, for example, Lightroom 3 alternated between applying the correct profile, and applying the profile for the DG 12-24mm f/4.5-5.6 EX HSM instead. When it decided to use the 12-24mm profile, the 10-20mm profile disappeared as an option from the 'model' dropdown list.
Bugs aside (and we're counting the CA in Nikon JPEGs issue as a bug for now), when the system works, it works well.
We're less equivocal about the new RAW processing engine (shared with ACR 6 for Photoshop) which really is excellent. The difference between high ISO images converted using the new 2010 process compared to the older 2003 algorithm is remarkable, both in terms of detail and noise reduction. It's not much of an exaggeration to say that at high ISO settings, switching to the new RAW processing engine is like switching to a new camera.
In terms of performance, we have used Lightroom 3 on three computers, all Macintosh. A three year-old white MacBook (non-pro), a 2006 Mac Pro, and a new, top-end 27in iMac. All three machines are running the latest 64-bit OS-X 10.6, with 3Gb, 5Gb, and 8Gb of RAM respectively. The only machine on which Lightroom 3 ever felt laggy was (unsurprisingly) the MacBook, which was even when it was brand new wasn't intended for high-end image editing.
That said, Lightroom 3 remains usable even on such dated equipment, and actually feels slightly snappier than the earlier software when performing certain operations. Of course, no two computer setups are the same, and the best way of establishing how well Lightroom 3 operates on your system is to install a trial version (see link below) before you commit to a purchase.
Overall, we're very impressed by Lightroom 3, and you can see why in the various examples that we've shown in this review. It isn't perfect though, by any means. Some aspects of its interface aren't as logically arranged as we'd like (although it is fairly easy to customize) and the fact that there is so little commonality between Photoshop Lightroom and Photoshop did cause us confusion, especially when it came to shortcuts. Pressing 'R' to bring up the crop tool, and K to use the adjustment brush will never make sense to us, especially when Adobe clearly expects users to send images from Lightroom to Photoshop, where these particular tools are accessed using the far more logical C and B keyboard commands.
We've already mentioned the issues that (depending on your equipment) might mar your experience of using lens corrections, and one of the major omissions from Lightroom 1 and 2 - the lack of a soft-proofing option - remains frustrating in Lightroom 3. Tethering still feels a little 'half-baked' too, and the lack of Live View support makes it less useful than it could be, even notwithstanding its very limited camera support (for now).
The great thing about most pieces of image manipulation software, including Lightroom, is that you can try them before you decide to spend any money. If after reading this review you're curious to see for yourself what Lightroom 3 is like, you can download a 30-day trial version here, free of charge.
No review can ever check off absolutely every aspect of a piece of software's performance and capabilities, but there is an enormous amount of information available online. Adobe maintains a database of Lightroom 3 resources here and also be sure to check out our software and retouching forum.