I’ve never seen an application quite like LightZone. While at first glance it might appear to be a Photoshop challenger, that conclusion is off base. Yes, LightZone looks similar to Photoshop in some ways but after using it for an hour or so, I began to see it as an altogether different entity, serving a separate audience.
While both programs facilitate photo manipulation, many of Photoshop’s tools are better suited to illustrators and designers than to fine-art photographers. LightZone’s tools, on the other hand, are exclusively geared toward working with photographs. There are no Photoshop-style compositing and painting tools, but the process of adjusting images with LightZone feels smoother and is more direct than with Photoshop. And LightZone is geared toward working with Raw images.
LightZone is based on the Zone system, a photographic technique popularised by the landscape-photographer Ansel Adams, that lets photographers visualise and control the tonal range of their images.
The program features two main work areas: the Image Browser and the Photo Editor. The Image Browser is quite powerful and felt snappier than Adobe’s Bridge. With the Image Browser you can quickly enlarge and reduce the size of thumbnails using the Zoom buttons on the toolbar, as well as access all your image files, organise them into collections, and view their metadata. Forward and Back buttons allow you to navigate through folders. Once you select an image, you can then set to work on it within the program’s Photo Editor.
The Zone system
The Photo Editor contains the program’s key image-adjustment tools: ZoneFinder and ZoneMapper. These easy-to-use tools – really the heart of the program – work in tandem. Select a zone in the ZoneMapper and view a visual representation of it in the ZoneFinder thumbnail image. As with Adams’ Zone system, these controls let you visualise and adjust the tonal range of your image.
Clicking once on a region of the ZoneMapper creates a ZoneLock and selects the corresponding region in the ZoneFinder image. This makes it very easy to adjust specific areas of your image. And, it’s easy to locate, as opposed to Photoshop’s similar function, which lives within the Image➝Adjustments➝Levels dialog.
The ZoneMapper works by remapping the luminance values of the image. With this method there’s very little change to the hue or saturation in a colour photo. When you click and drag the position of a ZoneLock up or down with your cursor, the program adjusts the tonal range of the image accordingly. Moving it up compresses the range resulting in brighter values and reduced contrast. Dragging it down has the opposite effect. Clicking on two or more regions in the ZoneMapper selects a range of tones within the zone. Moving the locks closer together adjusts only the zones between the locks.
This method felt more natural to me than Photoshop’s Curves and Levels controls because the real-time interactive and dynamic visual cues make the process of adjusting tonal range feel more direct. Plus, after you tweak the tonal range, you can also apply blend modes to further fine-tune your exposure.
RegionMapper tools, a set of selection tools similar to those in Photoshop, allow you to mask specific areas of an image. Unfortunately, there’s no way to invert a selected region. So, for example, you have to separate the foreground and background of an image across its horizon line to create one adjustment to the sky and then you have to create an entirely new selection and make a separate adjustment to the landscape.
RegionMapper tools give you live control over the feathering of a region’s edge. To do this you click and drag to contract and expand the regions’ border width. It took some trial and error to figure out which of the three RegionMapper tools was best suited to the shape in my image; if you pick the wrong tool, the program may not produce accurate feathering from one hue to another. I also found that regions that bleed to the edge of an image area are tricky to select. LightZone does, however, let you hide region borders (without removing any regions) with the Hide Mask command, or by clicking on a region while pressing the Control key. This is one of several tool options that are buried within the program; if they were accessible it’d be better.
LightZone provides seven additional correction and retouching tools that are similar to some of Photoshop’s filters. These include Sharpen, Gaussian Blur, Hue/Saturation, Contrast Mask, White Balance, Channel Mixer, and Noise Reduction. When you apply one, the program forms a tool stack on the left side of the work area. LightZone processes images progressively starting from the bottom of the stack, so changing the tool order causes the image to be re-rendered. Each tool also contains Blend modes and an Opacity slider, which controls the degree of the Blend mode’s transparency effect. The more regions and settings there are in the image stack, the slower the program’s operation. Disabling some tools seemed to improve performance.
The key to non-destructive editing in LightZone is the program’s .lzn file format. The .lzn file – actually a text XML file – instructs the program on how to render an image on screen. As you save different versions of corrections to your image, the program creates a separate .lzn file each time. You need to export the final file as a TIFF for sharing with Photoshop or Fireworks.
LightZone 1.0 is an ideal tool for photographers. Photoshop has too many bells and whistles for many photo enthusiasts, who just want to make straightforward adjustments accurately and quickly. If you have a speedy processor and some understanding of light, LightZone can work wonders for you.