Do you need Adobe Lightroom?

Do you need Adobe Lightroom? - Why would you need Adobe's Lightroom 3 if you already have a good photo editor -- whether Photoshop CS, Elements or something else? Here's one way to tell. If after a holiday weekend you've got 20 or 30 digital photos, you probably don't need $300 workflow management software. But if you wind up with two or three hundred photos -- and find it a bear to pare them down to the ones you want to share or print -- Lightroom may be worth a look.

I couldn't quite figure out Lightroom's niche when it was first introduced. Organizing software? I already had Organizer in Photoshop Elements. Workflow software? I upload my files to my computer, pick the ones I like, add them to Organizer and tag them. What else did I need?

Well, it turns out that as you get more serious about photography, you shoot a whole lot more. That means you've got orders of magnitude more files to slog through. You also start getting a lot pickier about whether an image is good enough to share; and are more likely to be doing at least a little editing on almost every image you print or post. My old workflow was fine handling a few dozen photos at a time, but didn't really scale when I returned from vacation with 800+.

I'm somewhat embarrassed to admit that I ended up looking at my vacation images in Windows photo viewer, jotting down the file names on a piece of paper and then copying the files manually into a "highlights" folder. That's a somewhat ridiculous workflow, but it wasn't all that easy to browse and tag hundreds of pictures at a time within Elements Organizer.

Lightroom, on the other hand, is designed to make it as simple as possible to go through scores or hundreds of images and select your "keepers." You can do a fair amount of editing on those images right within Lightroom, instead of switching back and forth between editor and organizer in Elements. And Lightroom is quite a bit speedier, thanks to an architecture which doesn't actually change the image as you work on it, but simply shows you a preview of what you're doing and stores data about all your changes -- not altered versions of the actual image files -- in its database.

This so-called "non-destructive editing" makes it significantly quicker to both edit photos and perform searches through a robust catalog; changes don't become part of the files until you choose to export them.

"You don't have to be a professional photographer to have professional-level needs," Tim Grey, co-author of Learn Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3 by Video, told me. "It's really well suited for any photographer who needs to to manage a large number of images" -- or those who get frustrated trying to find certain photos, such as the best picture you snapped at your child's soccer game or of holiday lights.

You've got to invest a little time and effort in setting up Lightroom the way you want. Once you do, though, becomes much easier to share photos, Grey says. For example, photographers who shoot using RAW files -- a format that captures all the original data from a digital camera instead of processing and compressing it -- can edit those RAW files and send them straight to a Web site like Flickr or Facebook, even though RAW files aren't viewable in a Web browser; Lightroom takes care of all the details in the background, instead of requiring you to convert to JPG.

Be aware that as a new Lightroom user, you'll have to invest a fair amount of time learning the software, even if you're already comfortable with Photoshop or Elements. (Even many of the keyboard shortcuts for the same tasks are different -- R for the crop tool instead of C, for example -- which seems a somewhat maddening way for Adobe to demonstrate that Lightroom is indeed a different animal). It's more logical than most image editing software, Grey says, but he admits it's got lots of "buttons and knobs." It's unlikely Lightroom will be saving you much time after a day or two.

In fact, after playing around with the software for a couple of weeks, I'm still learning the initial "library" module for importing and cataloging images. Hopefully I'll get to the "development" (editor) and sharing modules before too long. Nevertheless, I'm pretty enthused that Lightroom will make it much less painful to slog through dozens or hundreds of images the next time I'm shooting on vacation or at a family wedding. I also expect it to help solve a problem I wrote about earlier: uploading images to multiple Web sites.

The main drawback to Lightroom isn't so much the learning curve as the price. Full-time students, teachers and education staff/administrators can buy the software for a very attractive $89, but list price for the rest of us is a steep $299. I do hope Adobe will eventually follow the Microsoft Office pricing model and offer a moderately priced version for non-commercial home use. I essentially got that when I nabbed Lightroom on sale at for $149 last month, but this week the best I've seen is $219 at Amazon and NewEgg -- NewEgg's sale price ends today. (It's currently on sale for $249 at; I also saw a $177 price from a third-party seller at with decent ratings, but I can't vouch for them).

I expect the cost is more than worth it for commercial photographers whose time spent processing, searching and sorting images impacts their bottom line. If you're a serious amateur, though, you'll need to decide if the current price point is worth a streamlined, less painful workflow. And that depends on just how satisfied or frustrated you are with the process you've got now.

Meanwhile, if you're interested in seeing what Lightroom is all about, you can download a free trial or take a peak at the video below from Peachpit Press.

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