I am a happy user of Adobe Lightroom. It has helped me get a handle on my growing photo library. While it largely replicates the functionality of Adobe Bridge, it does so with a much better interface, and includes extra functionality that makes its price worthwhile. I do most of my photo processing in Lightroom these days, and don’t go into Photoshop unless I absolutely need it.
There are a few things that need to change in order for Lightroom to become a truly valuable addition to a digital photographer’s tool set. Sure, there are some small features that could be introduced here and there, and there are some bug fixes that need to occur as well. By and large though, what I see as the biggest needed improvement can’t be explained in a few words. It requires a more detailed explanation.
Say someone starts getting into photography in a serious sort of way. They begin editing their photos on their computer, and soon find, as they get into the several hundreds and thousands, that they need something to help them organize and manage their photos. Right? Well, say they get Lightroom. They’re happy campers now. They take more photos, and then even more. They can edit the meta-data, batch process photos, export for web and print, put together photo galleries, etc. It’s great!
Here’s where things start to get tricky though. As that photo library gets bigger, it needs to be moved off the primary computer, be it a laptop or a desktop machine. Its sheer size demands a large external device, and hopefully one that stores the data in redundant fashion, to guard against hardware failures. Well, no problem, they get a huge drive and move their photos onto it. That drive is connected via USB or Firewire, and they continue to work with Lightroom. Things are just peachy.
Guess what: at some point, that photographer will need to shoot on location. They’ll take a trip either out of town, or out of the country. If they don’t have a laptop already, they’ll need to get one, because every digital photographer knows they’ll very likely need to process some photos on location, away from home.
But guess where their photo library is? It’s at home, of course. So what do you think happens when you open Lightroom while you’re away from your photo library? Why, you can’t! It tells you drive X is not available. (I should specify this occurs when the Lightroom library is stored on an external device. You can, of course, store the library locally and the photos externally, but as the library gets bigger, you’ll run into space problems. I did.)
So what can you do? You can create a new photo library, import the photos into it, and work with them that way. But wait a minute? Where’s all that beautiful meta-data that you worked so hard at? Where’s your keyword database, with its hierarchical structure, so you can tag easier without having to remember all the keywords you’d want to use? Where are all your locations? Where are your collections? Nowhere. You have to start fresh, and then when you get home, you have to re-import those photos into your main library, then reconcile keywords, locations, etc. It’s just not pretty, and it’s not practical. And on top of that, you may run into certain import bugs…
What Lightroom needs is the ability to have a two-part library: a portable, main library, that travels with the machine where Lightroom is installed, and an archive library that can sit on an external device, or multiple external devices. This is NOT the same as the Vault concept one finds in Aperture. No, it goes far beyond that. The Vault concept is meant for backing up the photo library, but doesn’t address the problem of running out of space in the main library. It simply allows you to back up your work on multiple devices.
Hear me out, because I realize the concept I’m introducing is a bit complicated. The Lightroom user needs to have the ability to have access to all of their meta-data from all of their photos while traveling or while away from their main photo library. It doesn’t matter whether that person uses a laptop or a desktop. If they separate their computer from the external device that hosts their photos, they should still be able to have access to their photo library — everything but the actual photos which are to be found elsewhere.
Huh? Stay with me on this one. This isn’t the same thing as having your photo library on the laptop itself instead of the external drive. In that case, should you have your laptop with you, only the photos stored on the laptop will show up in the library, while the ones to be found on an external drive will not show up when you open Lightroom. But this points out two problems.
One, you’ll run out of space on your laptop very soon if you have a large library, even if you store the bulk of your photos elsewhere, because Lightroom builds either full-size previews, or fairly large ones (you decide this in the Preferences). Those previews are stored with the photo library, and if it resides on the laptop, the drive will fill up pretty soon.
Two, simply making those photos stored externally unavailable when Lightroom is separated from the external device doesn’t help you much. You need to be able to see at least the thumbnails, and have the meta-data available for searching, not crossed out or grayed out.
Let me outline the main points of my proposed functioning for the Lightroom library. Perhaps this will make it easier to understand:
- A two-part library. A local/portable one, that holds all of the meta-data and thumbnails, plus a portable collection of photos that the photographer would like to have ready for processing and use no matter where they are. And the main/archive library, that holds a backup copy of the library’s meta-data and thumbnails, plus all of the photos that have been moved off the local/portable library.
- Obviously, the ability to move photos freely from the local/portable library to the main/archive library, as needed. This would allow the photographer to decide which photos to keep local and portable, and move others to the archive in order to save space on the laptop or desktop that they’re taking with them on location.
- The two-part library syncs the meta-data and thumbnails automatically and perhaps offers choices for conflicting data when the external device that holds the main/archive library is reconnected to the laptop/desktop.
- Just to make things clear, the local/portable library would hold meta-data, thumbnails for all of the photos in the library, plus whatever group of photos the photographer decides to keep local. This would keep its size small and portable while allowing the user to view thumbnails for all of the photos in the library even when away from the archive library. They would even be able to do searches on the meta-data and update it as needed. The changes would sync when the archive would be re-connected. The photos stored in the archive would be marked by a special border or icon to let the user know they’re not available in their full size while the archive would be disconnected.
This is the sort of functionality I will expect from Lightroom. It would make it a truly powerful and portable piece of software. I know some people say that Bridge does the same things, but I’ve used both, and I like the Lightroom interface a LOT more.