You Shouldn't Be Using Lightroom for That

You Shouldn't Be Using Lightroom for That

I'm the first to admit I love Lightroom. Sure, it has its issues, like occasionally slow performance on good hardware and an admittedly aging interface, but I'm comfortable with it. There are a number of tasks, though, that you just shouldn't be using Lightroom for. Want to know what they are?

Transforming

One that I most recently noticed, when working on a number of architectural photos, was Lightroom's lackluster support for transform/upright corrections. Sure, you can make these corrections, but between Lightroom's slower rendering performance and lack of options for rescaling, I was always disappointed. I found that I was losing the edges of my frame, without any way to fix it. Bringing these photos over to Photoshop made things much easier. I could rescale my canvas to avoid losing the edges, fill in small gaps with content aware fill, and iterate through the process more quickly. Now, the best solution would just be to buy a tilt-shift lens, but until then, I'll do my architectural corrections in Photoshop.

Correcting the verticals and tilt on this image in Lightroom will mean losing the top of the sign.

Retouching

It's not just photos of buildings, but photos of people. While accurate skin tones are a whole new issue, let's talk about retouching first. Lightroom is lacking support for significant retouching capabilities, which is understandable. What I'm sad to see is just how bad the basic retouching and cloning situation is. 

Lightroom is fine for cloning one or two dust spots out of a sky, but for anything more, the spot tool is not up to the task. With many corrections, it slows to a crawl (noticing a theme?), while for large corrections, it lacks the control and versatility of the healing brush, clone stamp, content aware fill, and the patch tool. Furthermore, if you're a skilled retouching artist and are trying to work with frequency separation, Lightroom has nothing of relevance to offer. For anything more than a lone dust spot or errant zit, you'll want to bring your images over to Photoshop for any retouching.

The brush and gradient mask tools, right near the spot healing tool, are another example of Lightroom's skin deep feature set. Luminosity and color masking were added a while ago, but are far from the complete package. Both are relatively slow to preview, without much possibility of refinement. Compared to a dedicated panel or plugin in Photoshop, they too are only good for small adjustments.

Panoramas

Another example of Lightroom's half-measured support falling short is panorama stitching. While I love the idea of Lightroom retaining all your raw information throughout the stitch, Lightroom only supports a very narrow use case. Essentially, you need to be shooting a textbook panorama. Perfect rotation around the nodal point, no moving elements, no parallax issues; if you have something even slightly off, you'll spend a minute waiting on a progress bar, just to see an error message.

If you don't follow Lightroom's exact requirements for stitching, expect to see this message a lot.

I've had much more success editing one file, syncing the changes across, and exporting to stitch in a dedicated program. While I lose some of the flexibility of the raw files, the much better stitching performance makes up for it. Lightroom still doesn't make this workflow easy, since you have to make sure to set a custom white balance and lens corrections to avoid inconsistencies in the stitched shot. Whether you're using Hugin, PTGui, or just Photoshop, you'll appreciate the greater control over your stitch.

Color

Color adjustments, particularly for studio or portraiture work, have always been a strength of Capture One. While I haven't had the opportunity to work extensively with Capture One, its features and reputation make it the clear choice for this kind of work. Support for intensive color matching, via the Xrite ColorChecker Passport, goes far beyond Lightroom's HSL and white balance tools. Additionally, Capture One supports dedicated panels for skin tone adjustments, making it a better tool for tweaking the color of portraits. While my work doesn't typically involve these tools, I've seen other photographers use them to great effect.

Beyond working with raw color, many users just prefer the default look of other raw processing software. Past testing has shown that you can generate an almost identical look with any program, but for many users, getting to that desired look with the fewest steps is preferred. I didn't have a strong position on this issue in the past, but Lightroom appears to interact weirdly with some settings on my Z 7. Besides locking some of the profile corrections on, I find that my raw files don't appear to be as neutral, requiring either changes to the default settings or profile. While I've since worked out a default profile I like, I don't enjoy how Adobe approached this change.

Layers

One of the classic differentiators for Lightroom has been layer support, or lack thereof. While this was fine five years ago, times have changed. Lightroom's competition, like Capture One and Affinity Photo, have brought layer support to the party. Other tools, like Skylum Luminar, also offer some form of layer support, although not to the same extent as Photoshop.

As I've come to rely more on layers and as my workflow has evolved over the years, the lack of layer support is really starting to stick out. I'd love to see an implementation of layers into Lightroom's non-destructive editing style, but I dread to think of the performance impact it would bring. Until then, it seems Control+E is going to still be my friend.

The roundtrip workflow between Lightroom and Photoshop has been fine, but doesn't feel as efficient as it could be. Having to jump over to Photoshop just to use layers feels unnecessary, since an increasing number of tools have come over to Lightroom, at least in some form. The left side panel in the Develop module feels like a natural fit for a layers menu. It already includes history and preset support. Layers, along with better masking support, could go a long way to cutting down my need for Photoshop.

Conclusion

Lightroom can't do everything for every type of photographer. If you're a dedicated studio shooter, you're probably already tethering with Capture One. If you're unhappy with the pricing model, maybe you've given an alternative product a try. If you're like me, having used Lightroom for years, you've grown used to some of the peculiarities. I definitely still see value in Lightroom, however. Particularly as part of the photography plan, Photoshop and Lightroom can cover photographers of every skill level and style, even if you have to rely on both apps for the complete picture.

I've used it for years, for both personal and professional work, and haven't been too unhappy with it. I love the dedicated catalog and ability to go back to refine a years-old shot at any time. I've gotten comfortable with the interface and quirks from years of working with it. Combined with my catalog going back years, I've got quite a bit of lock-in. Features like keywording, GPS support, and the wide (if a bit shallow) variety of editing tools means I can do 90% of my work in Lightroom. For that last 10%, however, I'm relying more on external tools, and it seems that 10% is only growing, despite Lightroom's updates.

Speaking of updates, Adobe has recently introduced an update for ACR and Lightroom that provides improved performance and GPU processing support for a number of tools. In my preliminary testing, things have gotten a bit snappier. I'd still like to see a number of feature updates, but I agree with Adobe's path in addressing performance first.

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83 Comments

Daniel Medley's picture

I've never viewed or used LR as a standalone tool for what I need/want to do. Also, I don't think that Adobe markets it as such. I use it in conjunction with Photoshop. I import into LR, catalog and organize, apply global adjustments, sync WB and profile across the session.. I then move the images over to Photoshop and do the editing heavy lifting over there.

If it weren't for the organization and tethering, I would probably just use PS with ACR.

Alex Coleman's picture

Yeah, I know a number of people still like to use Bridge and PS. I'd love to see some more features come into LR that enable more work to remain within the program. Between wasting disk space every time a TIFF is generated and the delay in opening it, keeping a all LR workflow would be great.

Dave Morris's picture

BTW, if you need layers – you can just open photoshop and apply Camera Raw Filter (Cmd + Shift + A) to any layer converted for smart filters. I often use this trick to blend the RNI film styles in a non-destructive way.

I agree. Software is a tool to get some work done. You don't use a hammer in the same way you would a screwdriver. How you use software depends on what you need get done and what works for you.

David Pavlich's picture

For most of my stuff, wildlife and landscape, LR is quite good. But, for my occasional foray into portrait work, I purchased Portrait Pro Studio. You have to be careful with it as the default corrections for PP are usually overly so. But it allows a lot of slider latitude and works really well for cleaning up blemishes and the like.

And I do a fair amount of HDR stuff, so I use Photomatix Pro.

If I do have to remove stuff, I move the image to PS. I'm not well versed in PS, my fault for not working at it, but for those instances, it's worth the price of admission.

I do agreee with you concerning Portrait Pro. I also have the software although at first I wasn´t so sure about "artificial intelligence" doing the work for you. But actually if you are careful with the sliders the results can be quite pleasing. I usually edit an image with it and look at it again the next day to see if I overdid it. Also, often I´ only retouch the eyes.

Alex Coleman's picture

I haven't worked with Portrait Pro, but I can definitely see the appeal in working with additional speciality software. LR doesn't cover everything, so I thought I'd discuss some of the workarounds I've found.

Will check out Portrait Pro over Wine (I run GNU/Linux extensively) and if it works (on the platform + my needs - skin retouching), I will buy

C. Broken's picture

There's nothing like a real image without ANY post processing.

Strange comment. I'm sure Ansel Adams wouldn't agree.

Alex Coleman's picture

Right? It's a classic counterargument, but adjustments have been a part of photography forever.

Timothy Turner's picture

First of all I use jpeg, simply because I'm too cheap to purchase a post production software, secondly Ansel Adams constantly retouched his images, I have read three of his books, the camera, the negative, the print.

Logan Cressler's picture

Which is why S Browne said "I'm sure Ansel Adams wouldn't agree." Meaning that Ansel Adams would not agree.

You could try Darktable to do minor adjustments

There isn't such a thing in digital. Those who accept how the camera has chosen to do the processing are doomed to less than optimal images. For film see comment above about Ansel Adams.

Alex Coleman's picture

The adjustments to a picture profile in camera (thereby affecting the JPEG) are post processing steps with less control. Even if you just shoot and display a raw image, your choice of raw processor's default appearance will affect the outcome.

Simon Patterson's picture

There's nothing like eating a juicy steak without seasoning, either...

Alex Coleman's picture

True chefs don't need salt or pepper.

Alex Coleman's picture

If you shot raw, that's not really going to be possible. The image is artificially flat, needs sharpening, noise reduction, and more. Beyond that, cameras are now "baking in" lens corrections, further affecting the image. An image without post processing isn't really possible either way you cut it.

If you use a camera there's some processing done already.

Yet you've rated photos that have obvious and extensive post processing to achieve an image not possible straight out of camera

Dave Terry's picture

Not to pile on (but I guess I'm going to anyway), this attitude shows a lack of understanding about how the technology is designed to work in the first place. The cameras are DESIGNED with the intentional understanding that people will process the images afterwards. Shooting on a Neutral color profile begs for processing, it's the only reason it exists - to provide great raw material from which a photographer can craft the image into their own vision... as opposed to simply be handed someone else's vision baked in.

I’m not saying I’ve made a lot of panoramas, but I will say I’ve had much less success with other tools besides Lightroom trying to make them. It hasn’t given me an error like that yet.

Alex Coleman's picture

Interesting. Which programs have you tried? I'm not saying LR's functionality is broken, but instead I've had better luck merging handheld panoramas in other programs.

I have done hundreds of panoramas/composites in Lightroom. And that was after years using specialized tools. Lightroom covers about 80% of what I shoot very nicely. Sure, I occasionally get a set it can't merge (but always try a different projection). The main advantage to other applications is more control over the compositing -- deciding what is kept, what is rejected -- as well as different projections and occasionally tweaking the overlap matrix.

Some of it may also be how carefuly you shoot the handheld sequence. I generally use in-viewfinder spirit levels to ensure the lens stays level for all shots.

Alex Coleman's picture

Hi Dave, I mentioned that 80% sentiment at the end of the article. For some panoramas, Lightroom works fine. Once you get into more complex cases, you don't have enough options to get the proper results - that holds for essentially all the tools I mentioned.

Logan Cressler's picture

I have merged so many panos in LR I dont know how many. Most of them handheld since I discovered you dont really need to use a tripod, none of them perfectly shot, some of them going up to gigapixel size panos to get mountains to be as tall as they actually are.

Perhaps it is how you shoot the panos that is limiting your use of the tool, how much overlap do you leave between images?

Alex Coleman's picture

You can leave plenty of overlap, but if you have distortion from bad rotation or complex foreground overlap, they won't turn out as good as a dedicated pano tool.

Logan Cressler's picture

I have shot countless panos that lightroom stiched just fine, completely hand held, with angles off and lines not straight, sometimes out of order in the shooting, at higher focal lengths (largest was at 200mm) and never had lightroom completely reject the pano. A couple of times I had to pull out a couple of images, and one time I had to stitch together two groups and then stitch together the two resulting images.

But I really dont see where you are having so much difficulty when I do handheld panos all the time, some of them having 30-50 individual images in them.

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