Digital World: Picasa killer?

Developing digital pictures is quickly becoming a home-only activity.

picasa 88 (photo credit: )
picasa 88
(photo credit: )
With film-based cameras nearly all but extinct thanks to the rise of digital cameras, the auxiliary industry of film developing, once a major commercial venture, is now just a blip on the business scene. Where film-developing labs once could be found on every other block, nowadays you have to drive kilometers out of your way in many places to find one. To survive, some tried to go into the digital business, quickly boning up on Adobe Photoshop and printing photos for customers. But even Photoshop is not enough to keep photo shops in business; with programs like Picasa ( ) that let you do basic editing on digital pictures, and cheap high-quality photo paper available practically everywhere, "developing" digital pictures is quickly becoming a home-only activity - even for people who prefer to let professionals do their photography work for them. With even the most inexperienced photographers today using highly sophisticated digital cameras, manufacturers like Canon and HP have tried their best to make taking digital pictures as foolproof as possible (see, for example, m4). With dozens of settings and options to cover every possibility, it's difficult for someone who has read the manual to take a bad digital picture nowadays. But take bad pictures they do, and when it comes to "developing" those photos - i.e. printing them on a home inkjet printer - many camera-users just fall apart. What looks good on the camera's viewfinder or the computer screen, sometimes looks washed out, too bright or extra-red on paper. And really, being able to edit the photo by adjusting the color or cropping out something that doesn't belong in a book of treasured family memories is one of the great advantages the switch to digital cameras was supposed to give the average camera fan. Otherwise, what was the point of chucking the 35mm that worked perfectly well? Amateur photographers are really stuck in the middle when it comes to photo editing. On the one hand, there's Picasa and its cousins, which offer only very rudimentary editing capabilities. The only real alternative, until now, has been Photoshop, which is big, expensive and complicated. Now, however, Lightroom ( chnologies/lightroom) could be the "Photoshopkiller" that software folk have been on the lookout for seemingly forever, but which has never materialized. Lightroom, however, could very well be "the one" because it's made by Adobe itself! Photoshop isn't just a program - it's an industry. Thousands of books and training programs have been developed for it, all designed to help digital photo developers get the best results possible out of their photos. It is very clearly aimed at professionals - and even pros who aren't used to the program require a lot of time and effort to figure it out. As essentially an "old style" program, built in the days when the chief interface between user and computer was the printed word, Photoshop's commands are often hidden away on esoteric menus and windows. Not user-friendly, by any means. Lightroom (it's actually called Photoshop Lightroom), on the other hand, wants to be your best digital friend right out of the gate. Instead of musty old menus, the program - a complete redesign of some of the most powerful picture editing elements of Photoshop - has been rewritten from the ground up, in consultation with real-life photographers who let Adobe know what they needed and what they didn't. Lightroom could in fact be called the first antibloatware advanced edition of an already wildly successful piece of software. How so? All of Lightroom's controls are on the right or left of a loaded image, so instead of clicking on a menu, you click on an editing category organized under titles including Library (organizing and labeling), Develop (editing), Slideshow, Print (separations, layout) and Web (uploading to a site, Flash productions). Detailed manual controls and settings are on the right side of the screen, while presets and templates you can apply to photos are on the left side (left brain vs. right brain?). You also get an automatic thumbnail preview of any change you propose to make before committing, and if you do make manual adjustments, you can save them as a preset for future use with one click. It's also clear that Lightroom was developed with the multi-media generation in mind - instead of menus there are icons, tabs, arrows, buttons and adjustment bars. It's worth the download (about 20 MB without the sample files) just to say what software could be look, if companies put their mind to it. Best of all, the program is now in beta (fourth version), and is free for downloading from hnologies (available for Macs and PCs). If you truly want to compare Lightroom's performance to Photoshop, you can do that too, by downloading the beta of Photoshop CS3 (you have to already own a previous version of Photoshop or Adobe Creative Studio; the Lightroom beta is free for everybody; it expires when the production version comes out sometime this year). As would behoove one such as I (clueless?), I must ask - why? What is Adobe's motivation in making such an accessible program when it still has plenty of copies of Photoshop to sell and is even upgrading their prime photo-editing product? Clearly the company feels it will be able to expand its user base to include the legions of amateur photographers who yearn to do power editing, but don't want to spend years learning a complicated program like Photoshop, or spending the large amount of money needed to buy it. Apparently there are enough people seeking to develop and print their digital pictures on their own, and who seek a higher quality picture than they can get from Picasa, et al. Of course, Picasa, which is free and very simple to use, isn't going anywhere (because it's free etc.). But there is without question a growing class of digital camera owners who would be willing to plunk down some money (I figure about $100 at street prices for the basic program, without the inevitable addon modules) for a program that will give them Photoshop-level results without the excess baggage. And, of course, the program will appeal to professionals as well, especially those who work with Photoshop's basic plug-ins (like the ever popular Gaussian Blur) or whose major forays into the Photoshop menus is to enable the histogram or curve tool to adjust their pictures. So, it's not just a Photoshop killer - it's a Picasa killer as well, and what will really be interesting is whether Google will try to advance Picasa's capabilities to more resemble Lightroom's, if indeed market research shows users eschewing the Google freebie in favor of the Adobe payware. Adobe is not the only company to have discovered this consumer space. Apple this year came out with Aperture ( perture), which is of course only available for Macs (Aperture only works with G5 or Intel Macs, while Lightroom Mac works with all PowerPC and Intel Macs). Interestingly, Lightroom Mac came out before the Windows version, a pattern that a number of programs have followed (including Photoshop itself), but as usual it's likely that the Windows version popularity will eclipse the Mac's. Regardless of platform, though, Lightroom is definitely a new development in the digital photography world - and looks to become the 21st century's answer to Fotomat and other old-school photo development chains ( wiki/Fotomat).