LightCrafts takes LightZone to the 3rd Level
by Thomas Theuerkorn, ©May, 2007
Only a few months ago, LightCrafts LightZone 2 has been released with positive feedback and special pricing for owners of Adobe Lightroom or Apple Aperture. While that applied to the basic version only, it's all you would need when using it with any of those editors. At that time the full version and the Basic version were one program where the workflow functionality was simply disabled in the basic version depending on the serial number used to unlock the software. Now, LightCrafts released the new version 3.0 which doesn't seem to share the same code anymore (since Basic is listed as not yet available). At this point that may appear as poor judgement, but we will have to wait until the Basic version gets updated. However, it appears easy enough to limit the Basic version to the Editor mode which essentially is the same as in version 2.
The price tag of just under $250 for the full version places Lightzone in good company (where it has been before). In this price range, solid workflow tools are expected just like a complete set of tools to generally process digital pictures to final quality (or at least to the degree that doesn't require Photoshop or the likes). Compared to the Basic version, LightZone 3 has to answer tougher questions and the competition is certainly stiffer.
[Interface] - The revised interface now uses a dark background and is divided into Browser mode and Editor mode, with both acting as quasi separate tools in one. (You have to complete your editing and save the picture before returning to the browser. New tabs allow to easily show or hide panels, though I would like to have the option to maximize the available preview area by having all tabs shown on the right side. The tools are still listed on the right side with each palette while in Editor mode the file functionality is now permanently hidden and new styles panel as well as the History panel took its place. When switching back to Browser mode, none of the editing functionality is available.
Lightzone 3: Most obvious is the change in color scheme, but numerous small interface tweaks are all present while maintaining overall organization.
The other changes to the interface are relatively subtile but not to be discarded too quickly. Simple things like actual buttons for 1:1 and Fit to Window Zoom are just as useful as the navigator which is now overlayed to the preview whenever the actual picture exceeds the shown area. Starters may appreciate the "Edit" display to remind you that you have to click on the picture. Stacking multiple versions of the same (!) picture is now supported in the browser, but cannot be applied to a group of different pictures and looses some of its functionality compared to the competition. If it wasn't for the release notes, a great improvement might be unnoticed for seasoned LightZone users which have been used to the lack of drag'n'drop support. Version 3 finally allows to drag any number of pictures directly into the Browser window. Time savings can be significant depending on your work style.
The new interface looks great and overall is well organized and functional. A few quirks are still visible as some functions (like selecting multiple pictures in the thumbnail view of the browser) are not very responsive and the interface freezes occasionally.
New: 20 powerful Styles
[Functionality] - Taught to be an improvement for the novice, the newly introduced styles are a powerful way to get quick results by simply choosing the look you're after. Basically, a style is one or more function panels that can be added to the picture at any time. The panels are accordingly named and settings of course represent the desired look. This is not only a time saver, but also a good tutorial of sorts since the panels are fully editable (just as if you added them via any of the function buttons). Only one Style can be applied at the time, and it can be combined with any number of tools. Selecting a new style will find and replace the corresponding panels of the old one. That is until you figure out that the little check mark next to the style name can make "permanent" and that allows you to apply another style on top of it.
The Relight tool replaced the ToneMapper
Amongst the improvements is a revised ToneMapper, which was powerful before, but a bit hard to keep apart from the ZoneMapper (especially when you're trying to learn what zones are all about). With better naming and much more flexibility, the new Relight tool is one of the most significant improvements in the new version. The new Depth and Fuzz parameters are best explored by trying it out in 100% preview.
What appears to be a newly gained ability to copy and paste settings from one picture to another is basically a renamed "template" functionality from version 2.4, but with a few slight differences. First of all it's now hidden in plain sight by an unfortunate name choice. Shown under the initially cryptic "Lift Tools", this is also the only way to batch processes by "lifting" tool settings from a reference picture and then apply that to a selection of fresh originals. Usage appears easy enough, but doesn't allow for processes with different settings in one batch, which is very likely needed in anything other than controlled studio sessions. Further, unlike the templates it doesn't allow to save the recipe for later use.
The new History panel is a nice thought as it keeps track of your actions, but also confuses as it's more or less a list of things you tried and not what's actually applied to the picture. In that sense, it's easy to "remember" what you already tried, but not a true history as one would expect in the traditional sense to allow reverting previous actions applied to the picture. However, since all functionality is non-destructive to the original anyway and any applied tool can be removed or changed independently, the History is more a less a tool to step back and forth between different stages which are not necessarily present in the picture anymore.
The Editor mode: The RAW panels are only available when processing RAW files. Notice the red rectangle. It's the navigator!
[System Requirements] - LightCrafts Inc. made already in version 2.4 a "bold" move to require a processor with SSE2 extensions. Most computers with processors no older than 2 - 3 years should be fine. Yet, that move caused a minor uproar in user blogs as a few users certainly found themselves unable to apply the free update (from 2.3.2 to 2.4). The new version 3 doesn't increase hardware requirements yet, but SSE2 support is still required.
The cpu graph reveals good usage of multiple cores.
The engine appears to be multithreaded and even single picture processing effectively uses multiple cores. The batch process (as seen in the graph) acts virtually identical and while apparently not running more than one picture at the time, the actual process still allows to make use of available resources.
Performance under normal use is great. That may not apply completely to the speed the interface and when the preview is rendered, but the actual conversion process is very fast. Granted, there are no geometry functions included other than rotating and cropping, but even several layers of applied tools (including sharpening) still finish the conversion of a typical RAW picture from my EOS 20D in a matter of seconds. In any case, the process rarely takes more than a minute on my aging AMD X2 4200+ with 2 GByte of DDR400 memory - even with 10 to 20 layers (tools).
[Overall] - The sooner-than-expected introduction of version 3 only a few months after the previous release, shows impressive dynamics in LightCraft's pipeline. Generally welcome, interface changes and added functionality are nice and certainly improve a good product. The core competency of the program remains the Zone Editing, and improvements over version 2 are mostly geared towards the user and better flexibility of an excellent concept. The zone concept is still unique in the market and using LightZone Basic as an add-on for other tools like Lightroom highly recommended.
Shortcomings include a few oversights like missing presets for white balance (daylight, cloudy etc.) and lack of any optical (geometry) corrections. The interface acts up occasionally and the stability issues are signs of birthing pains that may inspire thoughts that version 3 is a bit premature. Within the next update or two, this should be taken care of and some users certainly might appreciate to have access to the latest and greatest.
As the only solution for zone editing, Lightzone 3 is both an easy and a tough recommendation. The workflow tools are useful but not unique. The editor, on the other hand, is a great addition to any available program by virtue of the powerful zone editing implementation. The lack of any optical correction still requires a second editor. When stripping workflow and using Lightzone only as a secondary zone editor for other programs, the Basic version fits those needs exactly and is $100 cheaper (save $150 if you own Aperture or Lightroom). Given that DxO Optics Pro 4 costs roughly as much as the difference between Lightzone Basic and the full version, it's easy to conclude that combining the two is an easy way to fix either shortcommings and still pay about the same money. (However, DxO does currently not support external editors other than Photoshop.)