Wait around long enough for a photo-editing application and like buses three come along at once. Joining Apple’s Aperture and Adobe’s Lightroom is Light Crafts’ LightZone. To be fair, it’s been available since October, but only gained visibility from a prestigious “Macworld Best of Show Award,” at San Francisco’s Expo in January. Like Aperture and Lightroom it offers some editing and embellishing tools designed to enhance and accelerate digital workflow. It also offers some new tools, which it claims will allow editing based on light values and shapes.
LightZone works in linear colour space instead of a gamma-corrected colour space. According to Light Crafts, this allows for more precise colour calculations, giving consistent and predictable results both on a display and on paper. Primarily aimed at professional photographers, it’s also simple and intuitive enough to appeal to the more casual hobbyist.
A clear but unspectacular browser and image viewer lets you search your computer and any attached external files for photos. You can preview images by simply double-clicking on any files on the left of the screen in what’s dubbed the Studio Zone. Highlight any image in the main window, click on the Editor button or double-click on the image and you launch LightZone’s Photo Editor. Disappointingly, the look is a bit like iPhoto for Windows, with some unattractive tool icons loitering at the top-left of the main editing window.
These tools include some that will be familiar if you already use image-editing software, such as sharpening, blurring, and Hue/Saturation, but there are also some that are new to LightZone. Based on the Zone System, a photographic technique popularised by famed landscape photographer Ansel Adams, LightZone lets photographers visualise and control the tonal range of their images.
LightZone’s ZoneFinder analyses and displays an image in shapes and tonal values, while ZoneMapper offers ways to control and adjust the light and tonal values of an image. The ZoneFinder Tool and ZoneMapper Tool are both unique to LightZone and offer interesting additional options for photographers.
What looks like a blocky, Photoshop-filtered thumbnail of your image sits at the top-left of the screen. Each time you select a tool, a novel tool stack starts to form down the left panel. Each tool control box you add has its own slider and set of presets for manually tweaking images. You can easily drag these tool boxes up and down the stack, like layers in Photoshop, changing the order in which tools are processed. The ZoneFinder Tool analyses the image, recognises and segments the digital negative, then displays the shapes and their densities, both light and colour values, as zones. ZoneFinder uses 16 different zones, each separated by exposure stops.
The ZoneMapper Tool is a tonal control and correction tool that allows the user to remap tonal values for colour correction and set the optimal points for highlights and shadows, as well as correct contrast. In addition to the ZoneFinder Tool and ZoneMapper Tool LightZone introduces the RegionMapper Tool. This is used to modify a specific area of an image rather than tweaking the entire photo.
The tool provides three methods of making a regional selection – Polygon Region, Bezier Region and Spline Region. Used correctly, you can adjust light or tonal values of one part of an image without affecting another. Significantly, LightZone’s non-destructive image-processing engine does not alter any portion of the original image file or hog space on your hard drive. You can create multiple versions of an image without duplicating files.
Frustratingly, some TIFF files took an age to preview in the main Studio Zone window and then load into the Photo Editor. LightZone struggled at times on a respectable Power Mac G4, even when all other applications were closed. This appears to be related to a reliance on a Java-built engine, and has been noted on several respected photography forums. This sluggishness both frustrates and stalls any creativity; not every photographer will be armed with the latest G5 or additional memory. It’s a great shame, as LightZone has some very positive attributes, not least its subtle colour and tonal adjusting abilities and ease of use.
Also missing are any brush-type tools associated with repairing, patching, cloning and restoring images – tools fundamental to the success of Adobe Photoshop. Claims of being a “complete digital photo-editing solution” are therefore a little premature. Light Crafts promises that future versions of LightZone will include tools for one-click, non-destructive removal of spots, dust and blemishes, and the ability to clone pixels from one area to another. This is all good news but why are they for future upgrades and not now, when such additions would be a major plus for potential LightZone users now?
That’s not our only concern about the current release. If you’re looking to manage your images there’s no good way of organising and archiving images within LightZone. And another potential headache is that you can edit just one image at a time. Click on the browser to select a second photo to work on and you’ll have to save or discard any changes to the one you’re currently working on. Some Camera Raw and DNG files aren’t supported, while there is no general or specific preference panels we could find to adjust any settings.
It’s ironic perhaps that at a time when Adobe releases a free public beta of Lightroom that feels like a finished product, Light Crafts should release LightZone that still feels like a beta. The software seems pricey for something that’s still buggy and missing some vital editing tools, especially when Linux users can download a copy for free. LightZone’s patent-pending new features show real potential and it’s certainly intuitive and easy to learn. Used correctly, LightZone has the power to refine exposures and retrieve lost and hidden detail in any photo. However, those merits aren’t yet enough to fully recommend another image-editing application above those from Apple and Adobe.