Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Lightzone 3.1 - a more detailed look

WARNING: this is a looong post (and taken a week to put together).

Following my earlier comments on Lightzone 3.1, I've taken a closer look at the new version.
A bit of preamble first: these are my opinions based on using the tool and my deductions as to things going on. I've been a user of Lightzone since about v1.2, and currently use 2.4 as probably my main editor. This is really an upgraders view, rather than a ground-up analysis. I'm focusing on differences. I'm exclusively a windows user, this is based around my home XP Pro set-up (dual core 3GHZ, 2GB RAM).

I'm trying to be as objective as possible & will give reasoning as to my opinions where appropriate. I do a lot of software testing as part of my regular job and work with both development and user communities in that role. Many of my opinions come from that experience.

The good

There are things that warrant merit in the new version:

Relight tool - the big new addition. Compared to the ToneMapper, there is much improved shadow lifting together with better highlight recovery. This is a really powerful tool and can, in some instances, replace bracketed and HDR blending. It also adds something like hiraloam sharpening for contrast, too. Thus, tone compression & mid tone contrast in one.
Colour masking - a very powerful control to limit the tonal or colour range over which a tool is applied. Just one early use one of my favourite ways to use this is for colourising monochrome by letting the highlights run to white and the shadows to black. Also has a feathering function for the tonal range applied so the results blend in nicely. So much better than the ill-defined shadow/midtone blending options.
Zoom buttons - a small thing but it's nice to have the option. it seems that zoom-fit now also a applies a small buffer around the image rather than butting it to the side panels. Much nicer for viewing.
Variable panel size - enables the Zone map/histo window to be enlarged. Also means I can set the main window to zoom-fit to actual print size for regular SLR shots which is nice. It's also nice to be able to collapse the panels.
Tool displays now have some nice indicators: a marker to show if there are regions applied, little "light-ups" to show if the blending mode or colour mapper has been changed. Makes for easier tracking of what's been done without clicking through all the tools.
Return of the progress bar so I can actually tell if it's saving/exporting etc. In 2.4 it was a bit hit and hope.
Zoom drag - a little icon in the corner highlights the zoomed portion and can be quickly dragged around. Saves the interminable scroll bar work.

The bad

As I'd mentioned before, Lightzone also has a bunch of problems. here I'm going to focus on lost or missing stuff.

Rotate - from powerful, exact tool to arbitrary and imprecise. Moved from one of the best rotation implementations using a wedge to precisely align verticals/horizontals to something almost completely unusable.
Crop - incorporating rotation. Unnecessary and means I'm rotating when I want to crop. There are also all kinds of arbitrary limits on when it will and will not change the size. Seems unable to determine in which direction it's free to move.
File renaming - when exporting (batch and single) my index numbers are changed instead of appended. If I add extras, they get dropped in batch mode.
Loss of XML sidecars - I've left this to last deliberately - for me, at present, it is a deal breaker. I don't use Lightroom or other DAM software. I've got a perfectly good, cross-referenced filing system. One thing that the XML gave me the ability to do was to change file references, necessary when moving files around or renaming them. I'd be happy if such info was in the sidecar metadata but it's not. That means a lot of manual re-tagging in Lightzone, which is tedious and slow. Right now it's a big issue for me because I need to re-index a huge number of files but I can't be the only one who moves & renames batched of files.

And the ugly

There are also quite a number of areas where the UI falls down and thus spoils the overall user experience. This should not be underestimated. In my experience, software users will become non-users if they are frustrated by the interface or usability. It should also work as they expect relative to their OS and other programs.
Documentation: what documentation? It's rubbish, quite frankly. With these tools being unique to Lightzone, I want a decent technical reference to explain what they're doing so I can better use them. Whilst getting going is easy, really getting the most out does require quite a lot of trial and error. There seems to be a policy of leaving this to the online community - great if it's open source or shareware: that's part of the deal there. Plus, that sort of things happens anyway (just look at the industry surrounding Photoshop). This, however, is commercial software at $250 a pop - I expect the supplier to be properly documenting the product at this price. Lightcraft's attitude just appears lazy and inconsiderate.
Large files - Lightzone balks at anything much more than a single SLR RAW file. Not exactly putting it in the "essential for photographers" branch they claim. What about my stitched images, or scans from film? If I've got 1.5GB of free memory, a 300-400MB file should be quite easy to handle. Every other bit of imaging software I've got (and there are a few) has no problem (example - using PTGui this week, it finally balked at a 150MP, 16-bit TIFF: but that would be 7GB, no problems at 20-30MP). Telling me to add hardware is not helpful. If other programs manage, so should this one.
Auto-renaming, where Lightzone decides it knows what file names I want to use. I use an indexing system that ends -xxx.ext, where the x's are numbers. If I have a number -001, then Lightzone decides I want that to be -1 on conversion (or even _lzn-1). If I've added something (say "-218 BW" for my monochrome version), it'll happily batch convert that to -218 (or even -219 if a -218 already exists). I can control this for individual files, for batches I cannot. This then means I have to either do several batches or manually rename a whole lot of files.
The there is the batch converter itself - not much improved from before. Slightly faster but still the selector slows right down after picking about 10-12 images (because it's busy loading stuff into memory, more of later). I wish I could just pick all the lzn files for conversion but I can't. So I have to do several batches. And batching doesn't run in the background, so I'm stuck while it's converting.
Lightzone has the worst memory management of any program I have ever used. It's the only one I've used that regularly (as in every time I load it) uses all resources available. I load it up and it reads a whole lot of stuff into memory. Not that it helps in caching - switch to editor mode and you still have to wait an age for the image to load. I also tried opening a folder, then deleting all of the images (i.e. nothing left to need a cache). It was still using full allocation of memory. There are limits in how much memory LZ will access: set the limit in preferences which is split 50/50 between RAM and virtual. Single images appear to use many times more memory than required. There is no way to clear the undo history cache to free-up memory. All out, this is rubbish. I've done like-for-like memory use comparisons with Photoshop and Lightzone is using about 5 times the memory and doesn't free-up unused memory properly either.


From all this you may think I hate Lightzone, and Lightcrafts as a company. Actually, I'm a fan of the software. It's easy to learn, powerful and for general editing gets me to results faster than anything else I've tried. I am, however, disappointed and frustrated. This is a tool with huge potential to meet the needs of serious & not-so-serious photographers alike yet the potential is being squandered with sloppy implementation and a poor user experience.
The tools are great, there is some real power there in an easy to use format. All the productivity I gain there, however, is lost in the management stuff: conversions, batch processing, large files, UI niggles. It's all about quality assurance and control. Effort spent on quality issues for software should be at least as much as on development. I'm not getting that feeling. This still feels more like a hobby development program than proper professional/commercial software. There are plenty of small UI items carrying across versions which is inexcusable - I've got shareware (heck, even freeware) that does better than this.


  1. I have to agree... the software has the potential of being good enough to really shake the market place... but the developers have shopwn no inclination of being support friendly.. in fact just the opposite.. They act as if this LightZone project were more of a hobby than a business venture... as such, if they don't change their approach LightZone will end up as just another has been of the electronic junkpile of obsolete software

  2. I use Linux.The only software I have ever bought for Linux (so far) is Lightzone (3.5).I tried out different OSS alternatives. But for quick results this one is the best-for me. I have some problems with printing. Have contacted support. Expect the problems to be solved.


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