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Adobe Lightroom 5 review – Still the best photo organiser

Our Rating :
Price when reviewed : £103
inc VAT

Modest but welcome improvements keep this elegant photo manager and editor on top

Adobe Lightroom has long been one of our favourite photo managers, thanks to its high quality image processing, sophisticated, non-destructive colour correction, powerful noise reduction and automatic correction for a range of lens defects. Its raw format support is extremely comprehensive, too, with regular updates for new cameras. Its catalogue management is efficient and responsive, with filtering by metadata and sophisticated map plotting.

Adobe knows not to disrupt a winning formula, so version 5 comes with a selection of new and enhanced tools but no significant changes to the interface or workflow. It has been out over a year now, as Adobe doesn’t feel a need for annual updates to this particular package. 

We have updated this review to look at Lightroom Mobile, which lets you edit and share your photos from your iPad, iPhone or Android device. It’s available to anyone who has a Creative Cloud plan that includes Lightroom, such as the entry-level Photography plan, which costs £8.57 a month or £102 per year.

The main thing that’s changed in that time is that Adobe has created a Photography Creative Cloud bundle which includes the latest version of Lightroom, along with the mighty Photoshop CC, all for a price of £7.49 a month. It’s a good bundle for those who are keen to manipulate their images significantly, but for simple touch-ups, photo management and colour correction, you can do a surprising amount with Lightroom alone for a one-off cost of around £100.

New tools

Lightroom 4’s Spot Removal Tool for removing blemishes was previously limited to making circular patch jobs. It’s now known as the Advanced Healing Brush in version 5 and it can be applied in brush strokes to eliminate larger, irregular-shaped objects. It’s easy and quick to use, with the software automatically selecting a source area from which to clone, although this can be adjusted simply by dragging. A Heal mode helps to colour-match the cloned material with its new surroundings, but there’s no control over how much the edges are feathered. We sometimes found that the colour of the unwanted object leaked through slightly. With no way to amend existing brush strokes, the only solution was to undo and have another go. Layer-based photo editors such as Photoshop Elements are still the best option for major retouching jobs, but even so Lightroom 5’s Advanced Healing Brush is able to tackle trickier jobs than Lightroom 4’s Spot Removal Tool.

Lightroom 5 - Advanced Healing Brush ^ The Advanced Healing Brush makes it easier to remove large, complex-shaped objects from photos Lightroom 5 - Advanced Healing Brush 2 ^ Some images require a few brush strokes with the Advanced Healing Brush for convincing results, but it’s still pretty quick

The Radial Filter is another refinement of an existing feature. Colour correction could already be applied to limited areas of an image using either the Adjustment Brush or the linear Graduated Filter. The Radial Filter does the same but using circular or elliptical shapes. There’s a long list of processes that can be applied, including white balance, various brightness and contrast controls, saturation, sharpness, noise reduction and colour filters. A Feather control adjusts how hard the edge of the affected area is, and an Invert Mask option selects whether the inside or the outside of the ellipse is affected. The Sharpness control can be reduced to –100 to give a blur effect.

Lightroom 5 - Radial Filter ^ The Radial Filter is just the thing for atmospheric vignette and selective focus effects Lightroom 5 - Radial Filter 2 ^ The Radial Filter can also be handy for subtle colour correction tweaks to areas of a photo

The Radial Filter may not be much of a technical innovation but it quickly proved its worth. Not just for vignette and edge blur effects, but also for local colour correction where we required a very gentle transition from affected to non-affected parts of an image. Being able to switch back and forth between adjusting the area and effect settings was more intuitive than adding and removing brush strokes with the Adjustment Brush.

The Upright Tool skews photos so straight lines are parallel with the edges of the photo. It’s based on automatic analysis, and there are options to straighten horizontal, vertical or both axes; an Auto mode makes the decision for you. It’s useful for getting the horizon level, but only if it’s extremely straight. It’s handy for seascapes, perhaps. It proved to be more effective for aligning buildings, interior walls and floors and various other manmade structures, often producing a stronger composition. The automatic analysis comes at the expense of precise control, but the software rarely failed to produce meaningful results, and its speed was a real asset.

Lightroom 5 - Upright Tool ^ The Upright Tool automatically aligns shapes with the edges of the photo, giving extra punch to compositions Lightroom 5 - Upright Tool 2 ^ The Upright Tool is also useful for reducing the perspective in buildings Lightroom 5 - Upright Tool 3 ^ The Upright Tool can produce some dramatic changes, given the right source material

Smart previews

The new Smart Previews feature is designed for people who don’t have room for their entire photo collection on their laptop’s hard disk or SSD. Smart Preview files are in Adobe’s Digital Negative (DNG) format, and weigh in at around 4 megapixels and 1MB each. They allow photos to be viewed and even edited when the original files aren’t available such as when they’re on external storage that isn’t currently connected.

It’s a clever idea that’s generally well implemented. The DNGs are quick to create as required, and there’s an option to discard unwanted ones, although only if you can remember which folders you generated them for. We couldn’t find a way to show all files that have Smart Previews associated with them. Being able to edit on the move is welcome, and the DNG format preserves the full dynamic range of cameras’ raw files. It’s perfect for performing colour correction, but we’re surprised to find that sharpness and noise reduction settings can be edited too. These settings looked very different when applied to the 4-megapixel DNGs compared to the much higher-resolution originals. We’d love the Smart Previews function even more if it allowed us to edit the same Lightroom catalogue on both a laptop and a desktop PC, but sadly, that’s not possible.

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