Fun and Frustration with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

David Salahi Lightroom, Photoshop 5 Comments

Adobe Lightroom 3

As a photographer not using Lightroom I’ve always felt just a little out of the loop. Last year I happened to end up with an extra copy of the book Adobe Photoshop CS5 for Photographers so I gave it to an acquaintance who is a photographer. He thanked me for the book but also remarked, “I’m doing almost everything in Lightroom these days.” Having never used Lightroom I was surprised to learn that it was so powerful that you might not need Photoshop.

Since last summer I’ve been doing a lot of photography & photo processing and I’ve been thinking about Lightroom again and wondering if I should switch over to it from Bridge. So, when Adobe recently had a one-day half-off sale on Lightroom 3 I took the plunge and bought a copy.

Working with Lightroom during the past couple of weeks has been an experience both exciting and frustrating. Lightroom has some great features but, at the same time, it imposes a very different workflow than what I’ve been used to with Bridge and Photoshop. First, I’ll detail some of my frustrations with Lightroom and then I’ll end with some of the things I really like.

File Handling Frustrations

Screen shot of folders that have been added to Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

I’ve only imported these three of my photo folders so they are the only photos I can see in Lightroom even though I have thousands of other photos in other folders.

One of my key frustrations is the way that Lightroom puts a barrier between you and your PC’s file system. This starts at the very beginning: before you can use Lightroom to look at your photos you have to import them. Importing photos from disk is a fairly quick process so this might seem like a minor quibble. But I have thousands of photos in dozens of folders. They’re all in subfolders of a single root Images folder so I suppose I could do an import from the root and they’d all be available in Lightroom. But they’d be totally disorganized. I need a separate collection for every folder (or, in some cases, group of subfolders) and this is where the import process becomes tedious and time-consuming. So, I currently have thousands of photos I can’t even look at until I import them. Of course, I can browse them in Bridge (or in Photoshop Mini Bridge) and this is what I do.

Once you’ve imported your photos Lightroom continues to insulate you from your computer’s file system. When browsing a collection Lightroom refuses to tell you where it resides on disk. You can right-click a thumbnail and select Go to Folder in Library but this is cumbersome, particularly if you want to check more than a couple of files. And even when showing the folder in the Library Lightroom doesn’t show you the full disk and path on your file system.  Now, the Metadata panel also shows the partial path and if you hover the mouse over the partial path it will display the full path in a tooltip. But this panel is typically out of sight and you have to scroll down to see it.

Presumably, isolating you from the PC file system is designed to simplify things for the poor, overworked photographer but I find it needlessly limiting. Why bury the full path way down in a tooltip in a panel that is scrolled off-screen? How many people even know it’s there? Why not provide the option to simply show the file path along with the name?

screen shot of thumbnails from Adobe Photoshop Lightroom

The only way to see basic metadata with a thumbnail is to hover the mouse over it. And then you get only what Lightroom gives. There’s no option for customization.

Another problem with Lightroom is that you can’t display image metadata next to thumbnails like you can in Bridge. In addition to always showing the filename, Bridge allows you to display up to four additional lines of user-chosen metadata such as date modified, dimensions and file size. I find this information very useful but there’s no way to display such info in Lightroom. The best you can do is to display the date created and the dimensions of the currently selected image (in a tooltip by mousing over the thumbnail or by selecting an image and looking at the large image view in the main panel). Want to show the date modified? Your only option is to right-click and do Show in [Windows] Explorer. Cumbersome.  Want to see metadata for the next file in sequence? Select it and Show in Explorer again. Arghh. Another thing I’d like to know is why there is no Show in Bridge option?

screen shot of thumbnails from Adobe Bridge

By contrast, in Bridge—free with Photoshop—you get the option to choose up to four lines of metadata with every photo, no hovering required. And if you want to temporarily hide the metadata to see more thumbnails just press Ctrl+T (Windows).

Lightroom Catalog

Also of concern to me is Lightroom’s sequestration of its Develop information in its Catalog. What bothers me is that the Develop information is kept separate from the files the information refers to.  If a file is moved to another folder Lightroom loses its connection to the file. If you want to get your Develop information back you need to move the photo back to its original location. And what if you really do want to move a photo to a different folder? This is pretty easy to do if the destination is a folder already managed by Lightroom. But if not, it seems you’re out of luck. Redevelop.

Another problem with the Catalog is that you cannot change its location. Lightroom insists on placing it at a location of its choosing (on Windows 7 it’s at C:UsersusernamePicturesLightroom).  For me, this is an annoyance. I have most of my other data files located in a set of folders within a single root folder. This makes backups easy. I just back up all subfolders of that root folder. But not with Lightroom. I have to take the extra step of adding its folder to my backup program. And what if I have a disk space problem on my system drive? Too bad. My Lightroom data stays put. Earth to Adobe: the days of programs dictating to the user where its files must be placed are long gone.

Another issue is the opaque nature of Lightroom’s catalog which means that it’s not possible for someone adventurous like me to find the settings file for a particular image, look inside it, and possibly fix the problem. Right now, I have a problem with one particular file which consistently crashes Lightroom whenever I select it. The original photo file itself is fine. Before Lightroom started crashing I made a number of edits to the photo in Develop mode. But, at some point, Lightroom got confused and now its develop settings are apparently corrupted. If there were an option like Bridge has to keep the settings in a sidecar XMP file maybe I could fix it.

Can’t Stack Photos

screen shot of stacked thumbnails in Adobe Photoshop LightroomThe “5” inside the little rectangle indicates that five photos are grouped into a virtual “stack.” This is what you see after stacking photos while viewing photos in a folder in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 3.

An inexplicable “feature” is the fact sometimes you cannot stack photos.  This seems to occur whenever you have selected a collection. When working within a collection the Stacking option is absent from the right-click menu. Now, if you right-click and select Go to Folder in Library you can then see the Stacking menu with its option to Group into Stack. Unfortunately, the group of photos you had selected may no longer be selected. I’m not sure when this happens but my guess is that it happens when the photos are in different physical folders. But why should this be a limitation? And why is the Stacking option missing  when you’re working in a collection?

screen shot of stacked thumbnails in Adobe Photoshop Lightroom in a CollectionHere’s the same stack of five photos seen while viewing it in a Collection. You cannot expand the stack while in Collection View. You cannot even tell it is a stack and you do not see the other four photos in this view.

Initially, I was very confused by this behavior. Sometimes I could stack but other times I could not. There seemed neither rhyme nor reason. I only discovered these rules after spending a couple hours trying various things, reading the help and searching in the ebook Adobe Lightroom—The Missing FAQ. Most users would never have spent this much time investigating this behavior and would simply have been mystified.

Other Workflow Annoyances

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom NavigatorWhat do I want? 1:1? 1:2? 1:4? What can’t I just drag out a rectangle to zoom in?

Another mystery is the lack of a standard zoom tool like the one in Photoshop and Camera RAW. The inability to simply drag out a rectangle and zoom in is an aggravation that keeps a new Lightroom user from quickly getting to work with the product. Instead, you have to learn the Lightroom way of zooming and panning. After you’ve learned it you realize it’s not bad. But why throw up roadblocks to new users? And even if it’s not bad it’s still not always the way that I would choose to work. A fundamental rule of user interface design is to provide multiple ways of doing things and allow the user to do things his or her way.

Similarly, there is no ability to nudge sliders with arrow keys like in Photoshop or Camera RAW. This feature of those two programs is a terrific way of fine-tuning a setting. But in Lightroom you have to drag the sliders with the mouse. And I find that with both the mouse and the Wacom pen stylus it’s hard to make small incremental changes. In fact, it can often be impossible to reset a slider exactly to 0.

Develop Workflow

So, with all of these annoyances in Lightroom why haven’t I just given up on it? Well, it does, of course, include lots of very cool features, some of which I have yet to fully explore.

For starters, the Develop workflow is very nice. Having this powerful set of panels with all their abilities to adjust your image located together in one place is very convenient. I can see why my friend said he’s doing most of his work in Lightroom now. With Develop mode Adobe has made photo editing much more accessible to a wide range of photographers.  Of course, you can do all of the same things in Photoshop and Camera RAW but quite a bit of knowledge of these products is required to access all of the equivalent features. And the various features are not all grouped together conveniently as they are in Lightroom. Furthermore, in some cases, the Lightroom equivalents of the features are quicker to use.

Another nice feature of Lightroom is its Compare mode in which you can view a pair of photos side by side. You can even sync the zooming/panning of the two photos so that you can compare each part of the images in detail.

Support for Dual Monitors

I love Lightroom’s two-monitor mode. In this mode you can have your filmstrip, navigator and develop panels on one monitor and a maximized copy of the image in loupe view on the other. You can even be zoomed in differently to the same image on the two monitors. This makes it very convenient to track the effects of your edits.  (Note that you can open a single image in two windows at different zoom levels on different monitors in Photoshop, too.)

Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Dual Monitors ViewLightroom on two monitors at once is especially nice.

In addition to Lightroom’s loupe and compare views the second monitor can also display grid, survey and slideshow views.

Fun & Useful Features

Lightroom has some handy features which are not offered by Photoshop or are present only to a limited extent. For example, Lightroom has a feature which allows you to quickly create a slideshow from a set of photos. Numerous features are available to customize the slideshow, watermark photos, and add an intro screen & a soundtrack.

Another feature allows the quick and easy creation of contact sheets and custom print layouts. Finally, a variety of attractive web layouts can be quickly generated.


At this point, I have a love-hate relationship with Lightroom. I love some of the features I’ve written about above. And I expect there are more features I haven’t yet explored which I will come to love. At the same time, I find its “my way or the highway” workflow to be limiting. The simplicity of Lightroom’s Develop workflow isn’t a big advantage for me. I’ve been using Photoshop since V4 (that’s V4, not CS4) so I know my way around it pretty well.

Lightroom’s philosophy of keeping a single “negative,” “developing” it, and exporting it differently, as needed, for various purposes is, in principle, a good one. However, I often find myself inhibited when trying to do something that is outside of its natural workflow. For example, I often like to use a photo as a starting point for further creative development. I’ve been playing around with Alien Skin’s SnapArt and sometimes create a copy of a photo for that purpose. Similarly, I might want to copy two or more images into a single file to create a collage. I have yet to devise a workflow that will conveniently support such projects. HDR processing poses similar challenges. Using stacks helps to keep all the exposures of a bracketed set together—if you can figure out the stacking rules and work with (or around) them.

For tasks like these or whenever I simply want more control and power than what Lightroom offers I still find myself needing to use Photoshop. But, right now, I’m not quite sure whether using the Edit In Photoshop option adds the edited copy to the collection with the original photo or only to the folder where the copy is saved. It’s probably not difficult to figure out but for a product called “Adobe Photoshop Lightroom” the integration of the two products feels less smooth than I would expect.

To be fair, the complications around stacking photos detailed above are not as important to me as the amount of space I’ve devoted to the problem here might imply. But these problems are symptomatic of the frequent need to spend time figuring out just exactly what Lightroom’s rules are.

So, I expect to continue using Bridge for much of my work and using Lightroom mainly for the things it excels in, like printing and slideshows. In fact, Camera RAW, which is included with Photoshop, includes many of the features in the develop mode of Lightroom.

Other users might find Lightroom more to their liking. A professional photographer with lots of photos to process quickly may value its streamlined workflow and ability to export and print photos at various resolutions for different purposes. Or a photographer who is less advanced in Photoshop or who simply doesn’t own Photoshop might find Lightroom to be just right.

Which should you use, Lightroom or Bridge? Watch “The Complete Picture with Julianne Kost” on Adobe TV.

Comments 5

  1. Adobe’s use of side car files for LR and ACR is simultaneously a blessing and a curse. They facilitate the processing speed of LR and yet they create all kinds of issues with synchronization of changes between different programs. If you do exactly as Adobe wants, life is good. Stray over the line, and things get confusing quickly. I’d be willing to live within the constraints, if the quality of their RAW converter and lens corrections was great; but that’s what finally tipped me away from using LR or ACR. I’m a Nikon shooter, and any of Nikon’s Capture NX2, Phase One’s Capture One, or DxO Optics are far better RAW converters. With Phase One’s Media Pro, there is an excellent DAM. The logic of Capture One and Media Pro takes some getting used to, but I’d heartily recommend the trial.

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