As an amateur photographer, I joined the Adobe Lightroom beta primarily to gain access to the latest version of the ACR Raw converter. I hadn't expected it to completely change the way I worked.

I can't remember how I first heard about the public beta of a new photo editing product from Adobe* but, according to Adobe's Lightroom blog, it must have been after July 23, 2006, when the Windows version of the software became available.

Having used Photoshop since university, I'd seen it become both more powerful and more complicated. I had friends working on their Biochemistry Ph.D.s who were just as dependent on Photoshop as I was, in preparing photos for publication in the magazines I worked on, but who relied on a different set of tools than the ones I used.

I'd quickly become frustrated with the limited software my camera came bundled with

The purchase of a Raw-capable superzoom (one of those decisions I now flinch at), quickly left me frustrated with the experience of using the limited software it came bundled with, so I found myself processing my best images, one at a time, staying late to use my work computer.

Clearly this wasn't a way of working that was either a) sustainable nor b) scaleable (to use two words that would never have occurred to me at the time). So the idea of being able to access the power of Adobe Camera Raw for free, rather than having to find hundreds of pounds for my own license of Photoshop seemed appealing.

Lightroom meant that, weeks after first processing an image, I could go back and backtrack on some of my changes and, with fresh eyes, produce something better, without the need to fill my hard drive with multiple TIFFs, saved along the way.

As the name hints, Lightroom was intended as an analogue for the film-era darkroom. Unlike Photoshop, which had become all things to a very diverse set of uses, Lightroom was just the tools required for photographers. The terminology of the tools was intentionally photographic: exposure adjustments, measured in EV, white balance measured in Kelvin.

In essence its editing tools were simply those of Adobe Camera Raw, only with the ability to process more than one image at a time. That and a crop tool that, while it seemed incomprehensible and backwards compared with Photoshop's behavior, quickly began to seem not just obvious, but indispensable**.

The real power of Lightroom, though I didn't immediately spot it, was in how it imposed a structure on your workflow. It cataloged the images you 'imported,' and gave you the tools to sort and tag those images, then pushed you through a logical process of first editing and then outputting your images.

At first I, along with many other beta participants, found the 'Shoots' categorization confusingly out-of-step with the way I thought about arranging my files on my computer (the two were connected when you imported files but could diverge if you moved the files or their associations). Adobe recognized this and adopted a more explicitly folder-based pattern with a later update.

What's this? I can take a series of edits I've applied to one image and selectively apply them to others? Mind. Blown. (and, more importantly, time saved).
Used with kind permission from Imaging Resource's original coverage.

In these early versions, all edits were whole-image corrections: every change you made affected every pixel in the image, meaning its role was very distinct from that of Photoshop. There was some ability to export to Photoshop if you needed to make localized edits, but it meant Lightroom wasn't quite the 'all you'll ever need' tool I was hoping for.

However, so long as you didn't immediately rail against being forced to make changes to your workflow, the pattern of importing, sorting, editing and exporting became second nature. So, although I was initially just rushing through the import stage to get to the 'Develop' editing module, I quickly found that my life was easier if I engaged with the workflow as a whole.

In those early versions all edits were whole-image corrections: every change you made affected every pixel in the image

By the time I started work at DPReview a year or so later, I was regularly shooting huge numbers of images and appreciating the way adding ratings as part of the import process could help me home straight in on my best shots so that all of my efforts to crop, polish and tweak were focused on my strongest images. I could also take some of the edits I'd made to one image and apply them to similar shots, as a better starting point. It saved so much time, even though I never used the Print or Web output modules.

When the beta finally ended, I thought I'd revert to my existing way of working: selecting and then working-up single images at a time in ACR. But no, once I'd become accustomed to being able to quickly organize, prioritize and process only the best images from every shoot, I couldn't go back.

I'd discovered that not having a workflow was unworkable

The idea of having to manually trawl through and select images, before processing each one, one-by-one, suddenly seemed exhausting. I'd discovered that not having a workflow was unworkable.

The inability to go back and find or fine-tune existing edits was the factor that finally tipped it for me. I bought a license for Lightroom v1 within a couple of weeks of the beta ending. For a lot less than the cost of Photoshop, it should be noted.

By the time it was launched, Lightroom had officially become 'Photoshop Lightroom.'

The first full version, launched just over ten years ago now, was still pretty basic. Adobe had learned lessons from the beta, but by today's standards, it was pretty primitive. Redeye and spot removal tools (cloning, rather than 'healing,' if my memory serves me correctly) finally brought the first localized corrections. But brushes and gradients didn't arrive until v2.0, eighteen months later, so there were still plenty of occasions I needed to export to a pixel-level editor.

It would also be many years before Adobe began to add manufacturer JPEG mimicking color profiles, thus putting an end to a million 'why do my pictures look flatter in Lightroom' threads on the DPReview forums. Lens corrections and the ability to add, as well as remove, noise and vignetting were also some years off. But, for me at least, the core concept worked.

The quality of processing and the power and subtlety of the available tools has only improved since then. It's also, with a few hiccups, tended to get faster over time, which is pretty rare.

Compare this screen-grab from Lightroom v1.0 to the one at the top of the page and you'll spot a host of additional filtering options.
From Imaging Resource's original coverage.

It's strange to find myself looking back so fondly, since my job essentially precludes me from using Lightroom: I regularly shoot with cameras it doesn't yet support, have to deliver unedited, straight-out-of-camera JPEGs and deal with large numbers of remote files that become irrelevant, the moment a review is published.

Adobe's monthly license model, to my mind, runs counter to the longevity benefit of building a database around my images

I'm also aware that the latest version of Lightroom is getting to the stage that it has a range of tools I'll simply never use. That it risks developing the kind of Photoshop-esque learning curve that it was originally intended to circumvent. There's always the threat that it'll eventually be permanently ingested into Adobe's Creative Cloud monthly license model (which, to my mind, runs counter to the longevity benefit of building a database around my images).

Yet, if I found myself with the time to shoot for myself again, the first thing I'd do is to buy a standalone version of Lightroom and pick up where I left off. Because, for all that I've tinkered with other Raw converters, I really like what it forced me to do, all those years ago: focus my time on getting the best out of my best photos.


*There's every chance it was this story
** These days the crop tool in Photoshop mimics the Lightroom way of working