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Does Adobe need to restart and build Lightroom from Scratch?

Lightroom completely dominates the realm of digital asset management (DAM) – a solution for everything that suits most photographic workflows, but the bitter pill to swallow can be the treacle-like performance and the monthly subscription. Is it time for Adobe to restart?

Digital asset management is something we all do as photographers – whether it’s as simple as copying image JPEGs straight from your SD card and dumping them in a “Pictures” folder or consuming the raw files that are pre tag to date named folders synced for access everywhere. The care you take depends on what you want to achieve and to whom you are delivering the images.

Of course, this has not always been the case. The product that eventually became Lightroom ̵

1; Shadowland – started in 1999 with the first public beta in 2006, before version 1.0 arrived in 2007. Built into the first product was Pixmantecs Rawshooter, which enabled Lightroom to de-mosaic raw files , in addition to more traditional JPEGs and TIFFs. In one fell swoop, it was up to Photoshop, leaving the heavy lifting for layer-based editing, while specifically targeting the photographic workflow of image capture, raw conversion, and non-destructive editing.

The paradigm was to offer the digital equivalent of the darkroom so you could develop your images into a final product. Maybe this is where Lightroom really shines and highlights Adobe’s true focus: the creative process and ultimately output. Lightroom was designed to deliver print and digital media, which is why book, slideshow, print and web modules have such a prominent place. The Crown Prize is without a doubt the image catalog, which is incredibly important for maintaining a coherent digital archive and – again using the analog metaphor – as part of the creative slaughter process. It is laid out as a contact sheet for a reason, so you can tag the photos you want to develop. Of course, the catalog remains the big buy-in: if you have your library of 100,000 photos, it’s a big deterrent to moving to another product.

This process has served film photographers for decades and fits the shape of the digital world. Lightroom has hit the sweet spot when it comes to workflow, adding with each iteration increasingly sophisticated levels of photo development. All of this is non-destructive and leaves the original digital negative untouched. So what’s the problem with this?

So what’s the problem?

The dramatic expansion in digital photography from the 1988 Fuji DS-1P to the emergence of the burgeoning DSLR market suited the niche that Lightroom was intended to fill. The DS-1P could shoot up to ten 0.4MP images on its 2MB memory card, while the Nikon D1 shot 2.5MP images on a 2GB CF card. Early on, images were predominantly JPEGs, but DSLRs made the raw format more common. More problematic was the vendor-specific file, so if you shot with different brands, you would need a number of manufacturer software products to import them. Photojournalists exemplified the problem where multiple photographers, potentially with different cameras, needed to go from digital file to wide sheet.

What has changed since the birth of digital asset management is our shift as photographers to take more pictures than ever using higher-resolution sensors that create larger files. This “richness of the visual” creates a data headache that affects all aspects of the photographic workflow, first and foremost among these is the size of the data archive that is created. When shooting movies, there was always a prior price associated with image processing: you paid for the movie, the development, and then the printing. There was a price in each step before you carefully indexed and submitted your negatives. Digital was heralded as an almost “free” solution; you already had a computer and just dumped the little JPEGs into a backup directory. But with cameras like the Fujis GFX100 that create files of 100 MB + size, you need large media cards, an ultra-fast connection to your PC, manifold storage and a great backup solution. If you are a wedding photographer, it is common to record 2000 photos for a single event, which creates a significant data processing headache. It is 200 GB of data for a wedding to be consumed, deleted, processed, delivered and backed up. The entire processing chain costs a significant amount to set up.

The problem is still asset management, but added to this task is one of data management. It’s not so much that Lightroom can not manage your photos – it can – but rather how fast it can do it.

Fast asset management

As a result of the much larger number of larger image files, we are now seeing pressure on the software that manages these photographic assets; since files were small, it was not necessary to seek high-performance treatment, but this has become an obvious bottleneck. This is even more important in time-critical photography like sports and news, where you may be asked to upload your photos literally seconds after taking it. There is an urgent need for rapid asset management in these domains, but all areas of photography would benefit from being able to delete and catalog images quickly. Then I separate the processing into two areas: those that require simple batch-driven edits, and those that require more refined manual processing. The former has the significant advantage of being integrated into the slaughter process, while the latter can be more easily performed externally (for example in Photoshop). Bound capture may be a special case.

Rapid Asset Management is relatively new, as Lightroom has largely sat alone with bespoke products (such as BatchPhoto and PhotoMechanic) that target fast-moving images outside an image catalog. The competition has come in the form of image processing alone (e.g. Photoshop, Affinity Photo) or photo-based intake and mosaic products. These tend to work in the same direction as Lightroom, focusing on photo editing and broad global editing, rather than the layered model of Photoshop. This has changed over the years with adjustment brushes, checkpoints and more recently adjustment layers. That said, integrated cataloging has been late on many products (e.g. Luminar, PhotoLab, CaptureOne), yet this can be one of the most important tools for a photographer that can lock you into a product.

I know one of the tasks I dread after a wedding is ingestion and slaughter. It may be a soul that destroys monotonous tasks, but when it comes to delivering the final product, everything builds out of this. It’s important to erase the images you do not want, tag users and mark everything else that is worth returning to. I will then also color code them depending on what media stream they are delivered on. Lightroom is satisfactory for this process, but the import routine is not flexible enough to let me delete, tag and keywords at the same time. I find myself importing everything and then deleting / tagging or deleting only then returning to tagging later. This either wastes time importing all the images I do not want, or repeating everything twice and then struggling with Lightroom’s more pedestrian pace. In addition, “Adobe Subscription Tax”, when I would rather own the software directly. However, other products are starting to gain traction in the market with ACDSee PhotoStudio, DxO PhotoLab, Skylum Luminar and CaptureOne – to name a few – all offering alternatives.

It has been 20 years since Lightroom first hit the drawing board, and while it has a huge market share, photography has changed during that period. Not least the large amount of imagery and the need for software performance to be top and central. Lightroom is not known for its fast interface. But it goes deeper: I want to speed up my workflow and add more development tools to the interface is not at the top of the list. I want to see the greatest effort put into slaughtering and tagging at the first opportunity along with lightning fast performance. Does Adobe need to restart Lightroom?

Lead image compiled with permission from hamiltonjch via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.

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