We spoke to Tom Hogarty, Lightroom's Principal Product Manager, about the changes being previewed in the latest public beta of Adobe's processing workflow software. The beta version of Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 4 introduces a wide range of additional functions, tight integration with a third-party vendor and significant changes to some fundamental image editing tools. Hogarty explains how these features came about, their impact on Lightroom users and what Adobe hopes to learn from user feedback during the beta process.

 Tom Hogarty, Principal Product Manager for Adobe Photoshop Lightroom.

The headline features of Lightroom 4 include two extra modules (for book creation and geo-tagging of images), a soft proofing workflow, enhanced support for video files and a reworking of the 'Basic' panel's editing tools. We've examined these and other new additions in our Lightroom 4 Public Beta hands-on preview.

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Hogarty says that the public beta process is valuable to Adobe which, 'gains a lot', from such a broad range of user feedback. While the company has a strong history of incorporating user feedback from public betas into the shipping version, each public beta serves a unique set of purposes, he explains. 'With Lightroom 4 we're confident we're headed in the right direction', Hogarty says. 'We're not introducing a brand new concept to users, as was the case with Lightroom 1, obviously. But we've added book creation and greater video support, and user reaction to them is important. We want to know if our choices work for our customers.'

This latest release introduces new functions on a scale not seen since Lightroom 2's introduction of localized editing tools and dual monitor support. Yet it was back in the development of Lightroom 3, with an eye towards these bigger ticket items that the Lightroom team took a critical look at the software's underpinnings. As Hogarty states, 'In developing Lightroom 3 our priority was to improve the underlying performance and image quality architecture of the software. These under-the-hood changes are what allowed us to provide the new features you see [in Lightroom 4].'

Basic panel revision

Hogarty notes that the earliest adopters of Lightroom were primarily professional photographers who needed little convincing to embrace a workflow-oriented way to manage and edit the hundreds of images they were generating on a daily basis. The growth of the software's user base, however, is coming from enthusiasts who have a wide range of competitors' offerings - both desktop and cloud-based - from which to choose.

One of the primary goals with Lightroom 4 was to simplify the user experience for new customers, Hogarty says. This can be seen in the overhaul of the Basic panel's tools that accompany the new processing options that come with the latest 2012 process version (PV). This decision grew out of internal feedback from Adobe's Revel (formerly Carousel) team as they explored Lightroom's interface to integrate it with their services. 'They questioned some tools whose use seemed obvious to us because we'd lived with them for seven years,' says Hogarty. As a result of these changes he believes that with Lightroom 4, users can get the image editing results they want more quickly.

Many of the Basic panel sliders familiar to
users of Lightroom 3 (above)...
...have been changed in Lightroom 4, which
now sets a global default value of 0.

Using PV2012 does require long-time Lightroom users to adjust their work habits to accommodate the revised tools. Hogarty feels confident, however, that current users will adapt to the changes relatively quickly. 'If you've been able to figure out the concepts of our old tools like Fill Light and Recovery (which have been replaced in Lightroom 4)  it shouldn't take you long to become familiar with the new ones,' he states. He also notes that Lightroom 3 users are not required to update any of their images to PV2012. 'We are, and always have been flexible, by allowing users to maintain their existing process version,' he states. 'You can stick with PV2010 or even PV2003 until you're ready to switch. It is always our intention to support older process versions'.

His personal recommendation is that users migrating from Lightroom 3 begin using PV2012 initially on newly imported images. Then, once comfortable (and satisfied) with what the new tools offer, consider revisiting a select number of older images that can benefit from what PV2012 has to offer. In general, he argues that if your old images look fine as they are, it makes the most sense to leave them at their current process version.

Book and Map modules

Lightroom 4 introduces a Book module that offers template-based book layout and design and the ability to place your order directly with Blurb. A Map module allows uses to tag their images with GPS data and then search for images based on location using a Google Maps-powered interface.

The book-creation module includes a direct order link to Blurb, the popular San Francisco-based book publisher, and represents Lightroom's tightest integration with an outside vendor. While Hogarty says Adobe is open to evaluating and exploring possible relationships with other providers, several reasons led to the decision to directly support Blurb as a book vendor. 'Blurb has a very knowledgeable support team that we feel is well suited to our users. Their physical proximity to us provides the opportunity of a tight feedback loop between the two companies. And of course the image quality during our internal testing was at a level we're comfortable with,' he says.

Adding support for geo-tagging of images and the ability to more easily search by location using the Map module may seem to be slightly ahead-of-the-curve, as GPS-enabled cameras currently make up a small fraction of the enthusiast market. Yet, as Hogarty points out, even professional photographers - notably photojournalists - are producing published work using smartphone cameras, which automatically store location data. He also sees signs in recent releases like the Canon S100, not to mention a number of Sony models like the SLT-A77, that built-in GPS capability is destined to become a standard feature in the not too distant future.

The big picture

With addition of the Book and Map modules, Lightroom's Module Picker is growing more crowded. This calls into question the expansion capability of Adobe's modular approach to the Lightroom interface, as there is clearly a limit to the number of additional modules that it can comfortably accommodate. Hogarty acknowledges this challenge, noting that, 'while we do now offer you the ability to hide modules, the current approach is not ideal and calls for a more elegant design solution. We may have to find a solution that incorporates higher level items [in the Module Picker] based on what you want to accomplish rather than a list of modules.'

One feature that some users had hoped to see in Lightroom 4 is face recognition, in which the software identifies specific faces in images and embeds this information as metadata for easier image searches. Hogarty says that when allocating resources for a new release, highest priority is given to features that benefit the greatest number of users. 'Face recognition is very important to some', he says, 'but irrelevant to others, leading to [internal] debates about what solutions are tackled in a release cycle.' Perhaps even more important, he notes there are serious privacy concerns about, 'the ability of software solutions to collect person-specific information.' He says that the challenges in implementing a face recognition workflow in Lightroom involve: 'privacy controls, integration with third party solutions like Facebook, tolerance for false positives - and the effort required to correct them - as well as the time required [by the user] to teach recognition tools.'

When asked about Lightroom's rivals, Hogarty sees a broad range of competitors beyond Aperture and Capture One, which notably includes Photoshop. And, as Lightroom continues to add capabilities that previously required a trip to Adobe's flagship image editing software, the obvious question is whether photographers still need Photoshop. While Hogarty stresses there are still things that can only be done in Photoshop, he also recognizes that for a majority of users' images Lightroom may indeed be the final destination. He notes that with his own images, 'I tend to work in Photoshop less often, but now I am happier when I do.'