Adobe Lightroom. I remember trying it many many years ago in pre-version 1 form. It was disappointing. My overworked PC ground to a halt. I didn't really see the point of it - it seemed liked a bloated photo organiser.
Half a decade or more on, my photo collection of some 30,000 images was languishing, unloved and closeted on a humming server in the corner of my underworked recording studio. The mere thought of sifting and organising my photo portfolio had become an insurmountable brick wall - too much to handle in one go; too much, even, to divide and conquer by hand.
So, in summer 2011 invested in Lightroom version 3 - if for no other reason than all my photographer friends and acquaintances use or mention it, or its Mac "equivalent" Aperture. Lightroom has moved on hugely - now a superbly powerful workflow and editing tool, not just a photo organiser. I didn't even realise quite how powerful when I invested in it, but day by day I'm discovering more and getting increasing value and utility from it. Now I'm kicking myself: how did I manage so long without it?
In the first instance, the major achievement Lightroom delivered for me was access to my photos again. That sounds like a bizarre thing to say, but the ability to browse, sort, filter, move, organise images with trivial ease and barely a click has made discovering what was in my collection a pretty straightforward task. This had previously become impossible - despite the superior abilities of Windows 7 to search and display files, I could still not easily get the 30,000 ft view, the 10,000ft, 1000ft and move with ease between them. In this respect, Lightroom totally delivers - working my way round 30,000 images is trivial. Identifiying those I like, those I hate and those I will decide on later is simply done.
One of the other stresses I faced in the pre-LR era was the organisation and naming of my files. Was my folder hierarchy right? Should I have source and production images together? If not, how do I track forwards and backwards between them? How do I keep multiple exposures (e.g. for HDR photography) together? How do I know which are published and which are not? Keep them in a special folder? Move them? Copy them?
So, file organisation, naming and proliferation had become a total headache. That worry has gone now. And I mean totally gone. I let lightroom do pretty much what it wants. I know that I can move files around if I want to organise them physically, but by tagging them appropriately I can collate any group of pictures according to any criteria I want. Collections of images can be pulled together dynamically based on almost any criteria you can imagine. So, forget where they are on disk, they are always just one click away from you in Lightroom anyway.
These two benefits delivered what I wanted, but Lightroom had/has more to give: Publishing.
This incredibly powerful feature allows you to set up connections between your photo library and online photo publishing on sites such as facebook, flickr, 500px, zenfolio. The king of this feature is a wonderful gent called Jeffrey Freidl, who has written a large number of plugins that enhance existing and add new functionality for a raft of photo hosting locations; including in some cases the ability to two-way sync between your online pics and your local library. Wow.
At first I ignored this feature, thinking I wouldn't use it; that was until I started tagging my photos more effectively. I quickly realised that I could develop a tagging system and a set of smart collections that pull photos together and automatically publish them to multiple sites effortlessly. And keep everything in step. So, you want 5 star rated pictures, that are a final production version, containing buildings, taken at sunset, outdoors, not indoors, and you want them dropped into a collection on facebook? No problem - totally automated with one click in fact. Oh, and you want those same images dropped onto 500px and Flickr too? Yep, that's one click. Oh, and you want those Flickr photos cross posted out to 10 or 50 or 100 buildings and architecture groups? Well, that's no clicks - the plugin will do it all for you. Of course if you need some resizing, watermarking, renaming and so on while you go about it, that just all happens for you to.
For me, this has truly become one of the most powerful and time saving aspects of Lightroom. I've encoded my workflow using tags; I've classified my pictures by topic. Lightroom now decides if they should be published and where. I just push the button to say yes, make it happen. I honestly cannot tell you how something that took hours to do (and thus rarely got done) now takes seconds, and I really mean seconds. It's almost insane.
I've not even talked about editing lightroom - which is not only powerful, but non-destructive (i.e. applied virtually, totally reversible and modifiable at any time). It took me a while for the penny to drop how powerful this was; perhaps because my first experience of this many years ago was Google Picasa, which is lame in comparison. It was some sort of unhappy hybrid between destructive and non-destructive editing and limited in functionality. In contrast, Lightroom has wonderful and precision editing capability and hooks into external applications. I don't even have photoshop installed.
There are a couple of features I really love. 1) Stacking - which allows you to virtually group images together like a stack of cards. Perfect if you are an HDR shooter and want to keep your bracketed RAWs together. Or if you want to produce a few versions of an image with different looks. Talking of which, number 2) Virtual Copies - without making a copy on disk, you can simply make a virtual copy of an image, and then edit that, leaving the original untouched. It's a wonderful way to play with and compare mutliple different looks for an image. I love this feature.
Which actually brings me back to the start - I love the whole thing. Lightroom as a tool has totally transformed my workflow, brought life back to a neglected photo collection and provided a platform to take my photography to the next level, without having to worry about underlying administrative issues about file systems and folder hierarchies, about multiple copies for multiple purposes and trying to keep track of every single picture and where it has been used.
This baby is awesome and I know it has even more to give. It's worth every penny and I love it.