Showing posts with label Lightzone. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Lightzone. Show all posts

Friday, 3 April 2009

Lightroom: nearly but not quite

Regular readers will probably be aware that I've been a long-term Lightzone user but recently have been writing about Lightroom.

Lightroom has almost completely taken over my photo-editing and management duties. It has many features to commend it - simple to use, pretty quick for most tasks, great organising features and solid printing system. However, it is just a few notches short of being quite all there.

First, as Kjell has noticed, are the problems with local adjustments. I'm sure that'll get fixed in time. Most of the time I only want small amounts of local adjustment for which it's great.
Next, and a big one for me, is the handling of sharpening. I use high radius, low amount (hiraloam) sharpening on a lot (if not, most) of my work for local contrast enhancement. I find Lightroom is not so good for that - clarity is a bit heavy-handed and I can't fine tune its effect. And I'm not enamoured of the sharpening tool in the details section. Again, not the control I'm used to with USM (or PWP's excellent advanced sharpen). This is particularly bad for scans (which usually take much more aggressive sharpening). I'm finding I have to take most images elsewhere for sharpening adjustments.
I'd also like to have support for advanced plug-in in the way Photoshop does. I've tweaked my workflow to deal with this but it does mean some back-and-forth.

I could add a list of other things I'd like to see, but then it would move Lightroom away from the things that make it good.

So what about Lightzone? Well, I do still use it but for limited applications. It is still has the best shadow recovery tools anywhere. The ability to do selective white balance is invaluable as is the ability to white balance processed files. I still it has the best masking system around especially after I discovered the clunk that is Lightroom masking. And Lightzone is still my favourite black and white converter: selective masking by area, colour, tone means I can apply multiple filter effects in lots of subtle ways. There are a couple of B&W things I do that I can't do any other place.
But Lightzone is quite rough around the edges: generally slow, memory inefficient and a host of other niggles. Development doesn't seem to be going anywhere and they are lagging behind the competition.

I think my perfect editing tool would have the layering and tools of Lightzone, integrated into the Lightroom workflow. Now that would be a powerful product. No, I don't think using Lightzone as an external editor from Lightroom fixes that. It would be nice to have a develop panel in Lightroom for Lightzone, running it as an engine underneath, controlled from the same xml file format that Lightroom uses. That would get me to the core differentiator in Lightzone (the adjustments engine) without having to suffer the niggles.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Black and white shootout: Lightroom and Lightzone

At Checkpoint Charlie, Berlin, October 2008
from Lumix LX3 RAW file converted in Lightzone

As I mentioned at the end of this post, I've been using Lightzone as my main black and white conversion software for sometime. It produces really pleasing results with lots of control and minimum effort. This is where the underlying linear colourspace and the ease of the Zonemapper come into their own.

With the funky new tools, I thought I'd take a crack at using Lightroom in a sort of shoot-off. This won't be a long post because, quite frankly, there was no contest. Lightroom is very clunky and fiddly to use in comparison. Sure, it's got all the fine tuning possibilities in every part of the spectrum and masking etc. But with Lightzone I get that same power, with far fewer clicks. Plus I can stack tonal adjustment layers in Lightzone, which isn't possible in Lightroom (limited to a single curve tool).

Even for tweaking monochrome scans, I find Lightzone better, largely because I'm so tuned into the Zonemapper, but in these cases it's a closer call. I'm using Photoshop for scans mostly, anyway.

So for black and white, Lightzone wields the single stone that slays the Lightroom Goliath

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Lightzone: getting the most out of regions

Silbury Hill and Avebury, Wiltshire, January 2007

This is another in my series of tips on using Lightzone. Regions are applied somewhat differently in Lightzone than other applications. Personally I find them easier to work with than masking in Photoshop (for example) and the ability to change at will at any time is a big advantage.

Here are a few things I've picked up along the way about using regions effectively. For all of the illustrations here I've split the area in the region to be a before/after shot - the editing tools don't provide the clean slice through the middle.

ND graduated effects

Placing zones outside the image area

As I shoot quite a lot of landscapes with horizons, a ND filter is an invaluable tool. Unfortunately, I've not always got one handy. There are also times where a straight edge filter isn't going to help. A polygon region can be used for this, together with a large feather area to soften the transition. To get a similar effect to a ND filter, we want the feather to apply edge to edge. This is where placement of the region outside of the image area is needed. To do this, zoom to smaller than the edit window size (typically 1:4 or smaller). As the feather is rather loose, we don't need to be too worried about precise zone placement.

Running regions outside of the image area is an important feature as it is the way to apply selective feathering.

Feathering and edge placement

Polygon region with small feather

When working on isolating a specific feature or object, we want an adjustment that provides a natural look without harsh transitions. I find that applying the feather to overlap the edge of the isolated feature helps with this. In the case above, I've only needed a small feather region as the effect on the surrounding part is rather limited.

Below I've done something similar but with a much large feather area for a smoother blend.

Region types

Bezier region with large feather

Although there are 3 region types (polygon, spline & Bezier) I almost never use the spline. I find the other 2 give me all the control I need. Polygon for straight edged features, Bezier for the rest. If picking out an edge with a Bezier region, it is best to place a point at every high & low spot along the curve to get a smooth match. Sharp corners can be produced with 2 points close to one another.

Editing large areas

If you are editing a very large area then a handy trick is to pick out a small portion for testing the changes. this minimises the amount of re-drawing the Lightzone does. Once happy, disable the tool (deselect the "tick" mark), place the area more accurately then re-enable the tool.

This is particularly useful when working with large files such as stitched panoramas or MF & LF scans.

Inverse versus normal

Sometimes we want to apply changes to a large area excluding a small portion. In this case it is best to place a region around the small area and use the inverse button on the tool it applies to.

If you wish to apply one set of corrections to one area and others to the rest, select the initial region and then copy it. There are 2 ways to copy: linked (--C on Windows) and unlinked (-C). Linked means that region changes in any of the linked tools apply to all the other tools in the link. Unfortunately, Lightzone doesn't let you know which are linked. I suggest using some sort of naming convention for the tool names to indicate the linked tools.

Black and white conversions

One of the great things about being able to apply regions to pretty much all the tools is that you can apply selective black and white filters. When a region is used for black and white conversion, that area is fixed and further B&W tools don't affect the region. Thus, if you wish to apply a yellow filter to the sky and red elsewhere: mark the region around the sky & apply the yellow filter, then apply a red filter with no region. The second filter ensures all parts of the image convert to monochrome without affecting the previous filter.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Lightzone 3.4: a first pass review

Lightzone has recently been updated to version 3.4. Now that I've finally installed it, here is my first pass look.

First thing to say is it doesn't look much different from version 3.2. The major change in interface is in the use and application of Styles. I rarely use Styles so haven't bothered too much with that but the new preview feature is quite nice if you expand the preview pane.

Speed seems quite a bit improved - i ran some editing on a large format scan (190MB 16-bit TIFF) and it clipped along quite nicely, until I came to do a 100% view for sharpening. Lightzone also seems to handle memory a bit better but still loads up the memory when scanning folders.

Other than that, i don't really see any changes. Is it worth the upgrade? If you're a 3.2 user I'd say so. I'll still be using 2.4 as my primary version.

Further sharpening techniques

Following my posts on reducing the need for sharpening and sharpening techniques in general, then read George Barr's post on a similar topic. An intersting point was made in the comments about applying 2 Sharpening layers to separately control the lightening and darkening effects of sharpening. What a great idea, why didn't I think of that before?

So I had a go and the results look promising in Lightzone. One problem I generally have with Lightzone sharpening is that is creates a lot of bright artefacts. This new technique can help cure that (especially when coupled with my previous techniques).

In Lightzone this is relatively easy to do: 2 Sharpening tools, one with blend mode set to Lighten, the other set to Darken. A bit of experimenting is needs but I'm finding that the darken tool can be applied a bit more aggressively and the Lighten needs less plus a reduction in the opacity.

Here is the same example as I used before (click for 100% views):

No sharpening applied

Standard sharpening

New lighten-darken technique

These are 100% plots, therefore a lot larger than an actual print. The unsharpened produces a decent print, not unlike film. The 2 sharpening techniques produce very different results. Even though I've backed off the settings (Lightzone settings generally need to be higher than Photoshop USM) in the regular Sharpen version it is still producing a much more aggressive result especially the stippling in the fields. The new method uses fairly high numbers and zero threshold yet produces a more "natural" look to the sharpening.

I've also tried this method on a few other prints and the results are very good. The effects can be fine tuned quite a lot by having a layer for both the lightening and the darkening. It's proving useful for images with lots of fine detail. I won't say it is a panacea but it is another very useful technique to have in the tool kit.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

Digital files without so much sharpening

I mentioned before that I have been developing a workflow that, in some instances, does not require output sharpening. I thought it might be of interest to go through the process to show what I've put together. This is particularly useful for all you ETTRers (Expose to the right), where the initial file can look very flat on-screen.

I realise there are specialist tools out there for sharpening. PixelGenius' PhotoKit Sharpener comes in for a lot of praise. Trouble with that plug-in is it is expensive and requires a full copy of Photoshop, also expensive (and which I'll not be buying any time soon).

Most of this work has been done in Lightzone, if you use curves in Photoshop or similar, read my primer on the ZoneMapper. ZoneMapper forms the core of this process, providing small but significant local contrast adjustments.

I'll step through a black and white image, as this happens to be the most readily to hand. I'll explain the differences for colour at the relevant points.

Initial conversion

This is straightforward: basic RAW conversion with your favourite settings. I tend to apply an exposure compensation such that the histogram just grazes the right edge. That may be either positive or negative adjustment (latter for highlight recovery). I'll also apply local white balance adjustments if there are several areas with different lighting.

Initial conversion using on the RAW tool

Basic tonal range adjustment

First up I do an overall adjustment. Scenes compressed to the right usually have the dark areas pulled to the shadows. If there are dark shadows I use Lightzone's ToneMapper or Relight tools to compress the overall range (more on these techniques in another post).

Overall mid-tone & bright contrast

Once the image has the basics of tonal range and colour, I start working on more targeted contrast. first I expand the mid-tones and having a lot of sky in my shots (typical of grand scenic landscapes) I also look to expand the contrast in the brighter portions.

Micro-contrast sharpening

I use the Sharpen tool, but not in a way that I think of as sharpening. This is the "hiraloam" (High radium, Low Amount) technique. At this stage a first pass with settings (amount, radius, threshold) of about: 20-40, 20-25, 0. Later on I apply a second pass of 10-15, 50-75, 0.

After overall tools applied. Note that the sky has had a separate contrast enhancement.

Black and white conversion

Up to this point, I've got a pretty good colour image but even if the final output will be colour I'm now applying a black and white conversion to apply tonal corrections to specific areas. In that case I use a basic B&W tool.
For a black and white output I'll convert different areas with different B&W passes. In Lightzone the black and white tool acts like a photo filter of given colour and intensity. this can be applied to achieve the desired effects. For me, I look to pick a filter that gives me the best tonal contrast for the area applied.

Black and white conversion. The lower B&W tool is used for the lower part of the image - note the inverse button used on the highlighted region (circled in red).

Dealing with contrast in individual areas

This is really the heart of the adjustments that minimises sharpening requirements and gives the greatest impact to images. Each individual area of an image has a specific, but fairly light, contrast enhancement applied. An area is usually defined by clear boundaries or tonal/colour separations.

The technique I apply is this: add a ZoneMapper, define the region. Add a zone lock to the boundary 1 step above the lightest indicated in the ZoneFinder and another lock 1 step below the darkest. These 2 zone lock are then stretched to increase contrast in the given area. Usually the top goes to about the 3rd zone from lightest and the bottom to about the 5th or 6th zone from darkest. I'm looking for an effect that is noticeable but not overly so. If there are strange tonal effects & posterization, back-off. It probably takes longer to read the description than do.

I find that these adjustments help with both macro and micro contrast in the way Lightzone works. Fine detail is really brought forward.

Example of local enhancement. Top is before and below the after, with the ZoneMapper used.
Once this is done, it's the point at which I apply the second hiraloam sharpening pass.

Reverting to colour

If the final output will be colour I disable the black and white tool and just check the opacities of the previous ZoneMapper adjustments to make sure they aren't too much, adjusting the opacity as required.

Final adjustment for output

First step is to convert the Lightzone file to a 16-bit TIFF, uncompressed. I can then work this into various output formats.

Output format is the one point where I do use Photoshop because Lightzone isn't really up to the job. For the web, I resize (normally with Genuine Fractals), switch to sRGB and maybe apply some sharpening (most of my recent output hasn't had any).
For printing I resize and then do a black point & mid-point adjustment using curves. This is to ensure I capture the range & brightness my printer gives. Black & white points are checked with a Threshold layer.

I would then apply any sharpening if required for the print. USM levels have come way down. In the past I may have applied as much as 150-250, 0.6-1.0, 5-10. Now its only a tweak, 75,0.5,5 might be typical. Images with a lot of fine detail or large expanse of solid colours will get sharpened with Picture Window Pro before opening in Photoshop.

When I printed this particular image, the unsharpened print looks like it came from film - very slight softness in some of the fine detail, especially around the top of the fence post. USM 75,0.6,5 was all that was required to sharpen all the detail right up.

Final result

And this is the outcome, adjusted for the web. Prints are now sharp but more subtle in the details and jump off the page.

Fence and farmland, Wiltshire, December 2007

Monday, 28 January 2008

Lightzone ZoneMapper: a primer for curves users

As I mentioned before, I intend to write some posts on editing techniques in Lightzone. Not really tutorial, more handy hints and things I've picked up along the way. I hope it will be useful to users of other editing tools who may be considering Lightzone.

As a start I thought I'd start with the central tool in Lightzone, the ZoneMapper. I came the the realization that without an introductory post like this, any other post would be excessively long. This is a mixture of an introduction of those new to Lightzone but more specifically a comparison with curves from other tools (I've used Picture Window Pro) about achieving the main results.

getting to grips with the ZoneMapper is IMO essential to getting the most out of Lightzone. It'll also be at the heart of many of my other posts in this series, and I'll refer back to this one when I do.

So to start with basics.


I won't go on about the zone system, tonal values and all that. Quite frankly I find it confusing and unhelpful. I'm going to stick to a practical description based on visual perception: it's the way Lightzone is designed to work and should be understandable to all.

The ZoneMapper is a tool designed to make visual adjustments to the tonal balance of an image. To my mind its power lies in two features: the simple, can't-go-too-far-wrong interface and the tie-in to the ZoneFinder view that allows easy identification of tonal ranges.

It needs to be noted that the divisions are exponential. The documentation says that each division represents 1/2 stop of exposure, in practice I find it easier to think of each division as 1-bit in a 16-bit system. Each is roughly equivalent.

Another thing to note is position locking. When a zone boundary is selected it is locked in place until moved. This makes it possible to isolate the range to be adjusted in a way that is difficult with curves. In Lightzone 3.2, this can be combined with the colour/tone range selector for very fine control of the range of application without the need for masking.

Anatomy of the tool

First to show what the elements are. At the top of Lightzone's tool stack is the sample window. It can show the ZoneFinder, a Colour Mask (more of which below), a histogram or a cursor sampler. Each of the first 3 gives data on what is currently visible in the edit window. The yellow highlight in the ZoneFinder pops up when the cursor is hovered over a zone boundary. This shows the areas in the Zone immediately above the boundary.
It is important to note at this point how the ZoneMapper works at a pixel level. While the ZoneFinder shows whole areas in a given zone, this is a broad average, the ZoneMapper actually affects all pixels at a given pixel value. The extreme would be a series of dark and light stripes. While the ZoneFinder might show a mid-range zone, the actual pixels are a high end and a low end. The ZoneMapper will treat them at the pixel level as high value and low value, not their zone average.

Below the main zone selector are 2 tabs, one for the normal blending options, the other for colour masking (see below).

Brightening: Upward movements

This is quite straightforward. Take a zone marker and move it upwards. This is directly equivalent to generating a 3-point curve above the central line.

Moving a zone all the way to the top is the same a curve locked to the top edge or input values in a levels tool.

The white point

White point can be moved by moving the top zone marker. This is equivalent to locking a curve to the right edge or the output value in levels.

Darkening: Downward movements

The opposite of brightening: take a zone marker and move it down. Equivalent to curves below the central line.

Taking a zone marker all the way to the bottom is equivalent to locking a curve to the bottom edge or lower input value in levels.

The black point

As with white point, the black point can be adjusted by moving the bottom zone marker up: left edge in curves or lower output value in levels.

Contrast adjustments

This is where the real power of tonal tools shows through. By taking two zone boundaries and moving them apart (lower one down, upper one up) contrast is enhanced for the range in between.
Moving them together reduces contrast.

The big difference is that in ZoneMapper it is not possible to do whacky things like this:

because the zone markers can never be overlapped.

Locking zones

One thing that s particularly good about the ZoneMapper is the ability to lock a zone boundary and only make adjustments on one side or the other (or both, independent of one another). Doing similar in curves takes a lot of adjustment points.

Colour masking (for version 3.x)

In the current versions of Lightzone there also exists the ability to mask each tool by colour/luminosity range. This is useful if e.g. you only want to do mid-tone adjustments with control on the definition of mid-tone. The 4 little arrows at the bottom show this in action. From the left the arrows are: dark feather limit, dark feather start, light feather start, light feather limit. Here I've shown the Colour Mask window which shows the mask in effect for the current tool. The 3 little RGB dots show there is a colour mask in effect for that tool (normally they're orange).
A quick note on RGB versus Luminosity

There are 2 ways to employ the ZoneMapper - luminosity only or on RGB. The first is the normal way to use it, keeping RGB relations in tack. The RGB performs the adjustments on each channel separately. I can't remember ever needing RGB setting.

So there it is, I hope that proves useful.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Lightzone 3.2: a look at printing

Now that I've got my printer back in action, I decided to take a run at printing from Lightzone 3.2. I'd previously tried from 2.4 but there were so many issues (not least a weird corruption of the right edge of images) that I gave up long ago.

So I started out to run off a couple of the recent set I've been doing for my up-coming print review. I loaded up one of the pre-prepared jpegs: correct size, white border. di a couple of contrast adjustments and set it to print. And then waited (and waited and waited) then went off to do something else. It took over 5 minutes to process the image to the printer - all in the foreground. I have no idea what was going on but it wasn't a processor or memory limit. Once that one printed i tried another to see if it would be quicker. Nope.

Another one of those annoying quirks that's getting in the way of this being a great piece of software.

Needless to say, I will into be printing any more from Lightzone 3.2 - I hope the new version (3.4) is in better shape.

Wednesday, 16 January 2008

A category for Lightzone

Having posted quite a bit about Lightzone, coupled with the fact that I get quite a few search hits, I've collated all of my Lightzone stuff into a new category (find it over on the right).

I'm also going to start an intermittent series on Lightzone suggestions based on handy processing techniques I've discovered. I'll try and make each post thematic. Where I know it, I'll be mentioning equivalents in Photoshop and software with similar workflow.

As I run Lightzone versions 2.4 and 3.2 I'll be referencing techniques in both.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

Sharpening techniques compared

Fence and fields, Wiltshire, December 2007

I've been working on some of my Wiltshire photos the past couple of days. Most of them are tricky to sharpen, containing a mixture of fine detail, smooth skies and wood and foliage. I always find these kind of natural subjects difficult to sharpen satisfactorily, often resorting to a combination masks, noise reduction, sharpening and artefact removal.

For small prints and computer display, there isn't usually much problem but if I want to go up to larger prints then there are definite problems. Large expanses of sky can also be problematic.

As I had some time, and wanted to do some other evaluations, I decided to try 3 main methods head-to-head. I've been using Lightzone's Noise reduction & Sharpen tools, Photoshop USM together with Neat Image noise reduction and Picture Window Pro Advanced Sharpen. This last is part of an evaluation of PWP as a potential Photoshop replacement for specific tasks.

What do I want from sharpening?

First, an explanation of what I am searching for here. Obviously I want to sharpen images to ensure that the presented image (either in print or on screen) has crisp in-focus detail and doesn't look all muddy. that's just the basic reason images get sharpened. The tool needs to find the detail edges but miss out any noise or pixel speckling.

However, my ideal sharpening has 2 attributes - a visible improvement in the image at print/display size and yet still looks correct, without artefacts and spots when viewed on-screen at 100%. that may seem like pixel peeing but I find that such a result provides the best print results and enable more latitude for enlargement or compression. While it is generally recommended that enlargements are done for sharpening, I find that, in some cases, better enlargements can be done after ideal sharpening as the spots & edge artefacts are eliminated.

I'm also looking for a tool that is fast and easy to optimise (i.e. tweak for each image). It's all very well having a general preference but many images need their own settings and I want to get to that fast.

How did I do the tests?

I've kept this fair through-out, testing just the sharpening. I used a small section of the shot above which displays all of the elements of a tricky image.

First I converted the RAW using CaptureOne LE - no sharpening or noise reduction. Of the converters I have, C1 gives results with the least problems of noise, spots, speckling etc. I cropped a small area to work with.

The resultant 16-bit TIFF was then sharpened with the respective software. First was a contrast sharpening USM ART (amount, radius, threshold) of 20,50,0. This sort of contrast sharpening gets applied to nearly all images. Then I used the various sharpening tools.

For each output I was looking for the maximum sharpening possible without degrading the image with grain, spots, edge artefacts or detail loss. I tried with and without various noise reduction techniques in each case to see if I could reduce artefact problems. Noise reduction applied after sharpening - I want to remove only sharpening artefacts and this is easier once they've been enhanced by sharpening. This kind of NR before sharpening destroys too much detail.

Below are the results, click each to get the 100% views.

Take care in viewing these images: some things are visible in the original TIFFs that may be lost in the JPEG conversion. All JPEGs converted in Photoshop from the output sharpened TIFFs at quality 9.

Photoshop Elements

I've only used USM here. I have a couple of plug-ins but they only work on 8-bit images.

USM ART 300,0.5,5 was applied. this gave best overall visual results after some tweaking. Noise reduction using Neat Image and then Dust & Scratches (RT 1,40). the USM has left some speckling across the fields and the sky. Noise reduction has reduced the effect but also appears slightly softer.

Applying NR takes quite a bit of time - Neat Image has the control but thus needs more time for optimal results.

Lightzone 2.4

My everyday editing tool.

I used the Sharpen tool at ART 200,1,20. It works slightly differently than PSE, so different settings are required.

Lots of speckling introduced, especially in the sky - while I could mask it out, it isn't always practical and becomes hard to avoid a smooth/speckly interface zone.. Noise reduction helps but removes some detail too. I find Lightzone 2.4 OK for smaller prints and web display but not so good for larger stuff or finely detailed images.

Lightzone 3.2

This is the current version which I use for specific images (especially for shadow recovery).

As to sharpening, gain ART 200,1,20 but this time using a luminance mask (the Zone masking built in to the Sharpen tool). This way I could mask out the sky and the dark areas, especially on the fence post but keep the edges. A much better result than 2.4, far fewer artefacts. NR was then applied to just the fields in the lower left corner. Very good overall result, I think.

In both versions of Lightzone I use the Difference blend mode to control the masking.

Picture Window Pro 4

Current version and under evaluation by me.

I tried 2 sharpening methods - USM and the Advanced Sharpening. USM has much different range than PSE or Lightzone, here I use ART 75%,1,5. Very nice results, far better, I think, than PSE or Lightzone. Don't really need noise reduction.

For the Advanced Sharpen there are 3 parts to the tool. Noise reduction is a subtle grain removal tool (from what I can tell), I actually didn't use any here. There is then a Speck removal tool which takes out small speckles that might get sharpened otherwise (I would normally remove these after sharpening, here it is before). I use a very slight amount, reducing both light and dark specks.

Last is the sharpening but with very different controls. It has a sort of luminance masking similar to Lightzone 3.2 but also is far more effective at finding the edges (there is a mask preview available). There are then radius and amount sliders - I use R,A 1, 120%. The result I present here is somewhat over-sharpened but shows that PWP can go further in sharpening, leave detail intact and still not introduce extra problems. It is also fast and easy to use at this level of optimisation. Given that I've only been using it 2 days, I'm getting better results that PSE or Lightzone in a similar amount of time. I'd expect to get faster with practice.

I also like the level of control given and the ability to see the masking for each of the 3 steps of advanced sharpening.

With these results, it's almost worth buying PWP for the sharpening capabilities alone. Very impressive.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Lightzone 3.2: a brief look

After my review of Lightzone 3.1, I spent some time looking at the latest update, 3.2. Main reason for re-evaluating was the tidy discount for November. Plus a weak dollar means that upgrading was pretty cheap for me. Question was: was it worth upgrading, even at low cost?

I was really looking to test 2 related aspects memory management and speed. There are no documented new features and there wasn't any specific release mention of enhancements but I know that these things are constantly tweaked.

My major gripe with the memory management is that Lightzone loads a whole bunch of stuff into memory, eats its full allocation then slows to a grind. It doesn't use Windows virtual memory so is severely limited in available memory (I've cranked it to use the max memory which means about 890MB real and 870MB virtual in practice). If you've a lot of images (or just a few TIFFs) in the current directory, that gets eaten quickly. Memory is also not released well when changing modes (especially from Edit to Browse).

For Lightzone 3.2 things are better. Reading a folder with 40-50 images gets up to max memory use but edit mode seems to see some memory released. Running through a series of edits on images I was rarely getting full memory allocation and memory was getting released between modes. This certainly speeds things up. When all the allocated memory did get used, screen refreshes were noticeably quicker than before. This is all better - not outstanding but much more usable.

I've also found that large files (~200-300MB scanned MF & LF) get handled better than before. I'm being cautious, though, and editing them one-by-one from a dedicated folder (i.e. only one image in the folder at a time). As less memory seems to be used in general, things tick along nicely. Not super fast but workable.

Overall, then, some noticeable improvements in the right direction. I paid the money & upgraded (just need to get the license key working). I think 3.2 is a worthwhile upgrade, especially as it sits alongside v2.x. I'll still use 2.4 as my main version (.lzn files) and use 3.2 for the shadow recovery capability on under-exposed stuff.

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.

Saturday, 6 October 2007

The feedback on Lightzone 3.1

Bridge over Le Sereine, France, June 2007
Here, I was playing around with softening effects on an otherwise dull image. I'm looking for ways to add particular feelings to photos.

Colin Jago, of auspiciousdragon, posted the following comment on my thoughts on Lightzone 3.1:
"I'm still using Lightzone 2.3 (I hit a bug in 2.4 and trashed the installation). It has always frustrated me. It has loads of potential but the guiding hand behind the product seems out of touch."
I must say, I sympathise. I've found more than 1 bug in 2.4 but felt the tool improvements were worth living with them - just.

From my original observations I contacted Lightcrafts about the new lzn.jpg files. What I wanted to know was whether there was a way of editing the info in them as per the XML .lzn files of old. (When the jpg sidecar is opened in a text editor all the old XML data is visible, just not editable.)
Their response: "sorry, you can't create lzn files from 3.1" - an answer to a question never posed.
I replied as much and asked if there were plans to return the lzn files - that was a week ago, no response since.

Not only are the development team wandering in the wilderness, the support team has upped and joined them.

When I first signed up the LZ, response was quick and effective. Just like the product, I want the old stuff back, please.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Lightzone 3.1: a first look

So Lightcrafts updated Lightzone again. This has been my favourite photo editor, despite some flaws for various reasons. Low cost, easy editting and natural workflow (in no particular order) were the key ones. Each update to 2.4 seemed worthwhile.
Then came 3.0. That wasn't a major update, IMO. Actually a big step backwards. The tools were little changed, performance didn't improve, they binned the handy XML format .lzn file and still wanted me to pay for the upgrade. No thanks.

Now 3.1. I can say, this is the major upgrade that 3.0 never was. Significant changes in tools and performance improvements. Here, then, my initial observations (not a huge amount of files done):

The good

Relight tool: a big step up from the Tonemapper and much better than 3.0. Combines highlight recovery, shadow "lift" and micro contrast (similar to hiraloam sharpening) in one handy tool. It's so good, final sharpening needs are much reduced.

Colour/tone selection: a feature I've wanted for a while. The ability to edit by colour mask or tonal range mask is very powerful and very nicely implemented although the sliders are a bit small.

Noise reduction: much improved. Both stronger and yet retaining detail. Ability to also restrict it to tonal ranges enables shadow noise to be attacked without touching the rest of the image.

Zoom buttons: nice to add on top of the short-cuts. Still need a drag zoom feature.

Nice to finally see a history stack, but ability to clear it (and memory) is needed.

The bad

Losing the .lzn files. If I want to batch rename files I can no longer batch edit the sidecars to maintain file associations. Frustratingly, all the appropriate data can be viewed in a text editor, just not editted and have the file keep working. This is annoying squared for me.

Load up is still not fast. First time I ran it, it was slower than my old tape drive load-ups (it even installed faster). Subsequent starts were better behaved. The constant scanning of folders still annoys me, though.

No way to clear the history stack. I'm sure data caching is eating memory and as LZ is memory hungry in the first place, this is a bad thing.

Crop tool also includes rotation. Very annoying and very hard to undo an accidental rotation. There are 2 tools, lets keep them separate as they always were.

Auto-renaming. I name files with -nnn at the end for indexing. LZ seems to think I don't need it and bins the lot. Bang! My index is gone from the sidecar. It also does different naming things when copying tools than editting. Very annoying and needs constant vigilance. For software that advertises as a DAM solution, these are not conducive to file management.

Not yet tested (as I got annoyed quickly)

Printing: I had a load of problems, to the point that I could not use LZ to print. Plus my printer is down at the moment (thanks Canon).

Export/save times and behaviour. Again, each point you save from has a different way of naming, colour managing etc. I want one default TIFF setting, and one JPG setting and to use them everywhere, without LZ changing them on my behalf.

A few tools not yet tried and those I have tried need in-depth testing.

My Conclusion

Significant improvements in the tools. Way too little QA on the UI. Lots of annoyances still. Yes it's a big upgrade but not enough, especially with the hike in price. On another note, I don't use other software linked to LZ (Lightroom and the likes) so do not care what features have been included for that. I want my tidy, all by itself LZ back, please.

I'll hold off upgrading for now until I've tested further.

I'll probably contact Lightcrafts on some of the issues, too, see what they have to say.

UPDATE: if you're just dropping in - check out my more in-depth look here.