Photography Software Raises the Usability Bar

Adobe’s Lightroom 2 and Phase One’s Capture One 4 are applications for correcting, enhancing and managing digital photographs. Both applications surprised me because they are well designed—really well designed. These applications exemplify the kind of software that user-centered design can produce. Both Lightroom 2 and Capture One 4 were designed with photographers for photographers. And it shows.

Lightroom 2 and Capture One 4 are RAW workflow applications. RAW is the image format in which digital SLR cameras store images before producing JPEG images. A RAW image is a set of pixel data and a list of instructions for processing that data. To display a RAW image, rendering software applies the processing instructions to the pixel data. Many photographers prefer to work with RAW images because RAW is more flexible than JPEG. For example, editing RAW images is non-destructive and every action can be undone because editing a RAW images means editing the list of processing instructions; the original pixel data is never changed.

Both Lightroom 2 and Capture One 4 maintain a history of actions performed on each photograph, such as exposure and white-balance corrections, shadow and highlight tweaks, and crops and rotations. Lightroom 2 presents a list of actions; to undo one or more actions, one selects the action before the one to be undone. In contrast, Capture One 4 uses the traditional undo/redo pattern so one must repeatedly step back one action at a time. While this pattern is not as fast for undoing multiple actions as selecting an action from a list, the undo safety net is welcome nonetheless.

The designers at Adobe and Phase One have resisted the temptation to add extra features—there is no feature bloat in either application. Lightroom 2 and Capture One 4 offer the right features and only the right features. As a result, both interfaces are clean, tidy and well ordered. Each menu has fewer options than the menus in other applications and popup dialogs are used sparingly. Less is definitely more.

Both applications support the natural workflow of photographers by organizing tools into tabs that reflect the order in which photographers correct photographs. Everything seems easy, which at first is a strange feeling because software doesn’t usually work this well. Another feature of both applications that takes some getting used to is that one never has to save one’s work. Both applications remember which image one was editing when one closed the application, including the value of each drop-down menu and slider. Eliminating save though persistence is not a new idea but it is rarely implemented. Persistent designs ask for one’s trust because years of experience make one want to save. However, persistent designs eventually feel right, so right that returning to non-persistent designs highlights their clumsiness.

We all deserve software that works the way any good tool should—it should meet our needs and work effortlessly. With Lightroom 2 and Capture One 4, photographers are well taken care of. Lucky them.

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