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A review of LightZone

I’ll get right to the point: LightZone is so good, it was worth installing Java for.

In over eight years of PC ownership, I’ve never yet found a need to install Java - the megabytes of libraries, the bloat, the slowness, just for a few footling GUI applications. LightZone changes that (and the bonus is, after holding back for so long, it seems like Java performance has finally caught up with real world expectations).

LightZone is a photo-editing and raw converter application for digital images. It’s sold for Windows and Mac, but there’s also a Linux version which is free (although unsupported, but that’s par for the course). This isn’t a complete review - see the Light Crafts site for full details of the product. What makes it different to other image editors, and so much fun to use, is the ZoneFinder and ZoneMapper features. These graphically indicate the various zones of brightness in the image and allow you to adjust them simply by stretching or compressing sections of the tonal range. If you’re used to Curves and Levels in a traditional editor, this rapidly changes from a complete mystery to a bloody revelation - suddenly, you feel like you have half a clue about what you’re doing.

That apart, LightZone has a number of other benefits in the Linux arena:

  • 16 bit processing and colour management throughout. Maybe one day the GIMP will get there, but it will probably be the last graphics application to do so.
  • Non-destructive editing. The LightZone “stack” of edits provides the equivalent of Photoshop’s adjustment layers. This gives you much more freedom to manipulate the image, since you’re not doing anything that can’t be undone (or simply disabled) at any later date, and you know you’re not impacting the quality of the original data. (Although perversely, my initial edits in LightZone have turned out less dramatic than equivalent work in the GIMP, perhaps because the ZoneMapper encourages subtler, more gradual tweaks than simply hitting “auto levels”.)
  • Editing stacks are saved separately to images (in a descriptive XML format). Hence you can, say, reapply the same edits to a 16 bit rescan of a negative that was originally only done in 8 bits. (If you want a finished image, you “export” it to a new file.)
  • Handles raw image formats and standard ones. In comparison, other raw converters like Bibble and UFRaw will only recognise, somewhat ironically, proprietary raw files (although Bibble now does JPEGs too); this is mainly because the underlying dcraw program they’re based on doesn’t read standard image formats either. I can apply LightZone to my scanned TIFF images.
  • All selections (regions) are automatically feathered, and you can see and directly alter the amount of feathering. The region creation options appear limited, but in practice the feature has been so well implemented that they quickly become intuitive.
  • Unlike the rest of the crop of newer image editors (e.g. Krita, Pixel), performance is acceptable. I’m running it in 1GB of RAM on an Athlon 2000XP, and it’s perfectly usable - not as fast as I’d prefer, but it doesn’t annoy me.

There are downsides, which are certainly apparent but not sufficient to deter a user. You might occasionally need to import a LightZoned image into another application to finish it off, which is another step in the workflow.

  • LightZone is still a 1.x product, and the UI lacks polish - those little extras that the GIMP has picked up over many years of development. For example, it doesn’t predict the size of an exported JPEG for a given quality, which can be useful if there are limits on uploaded file sizes.
  • In addition, LightZone misses all the bells-and-whistles tools of a mature editor. You can’t add text or borders to an image. There’s only one blur algorithm. There are no straightforward toning options for monochrome images, although you can fiddle with the White Balance or Color Balance tools and blend mode to approximate this.
  • Sharpening is done with one or more USM passes in the stack. You can’t resharpen after resizing the image to its final output size to recover clarity, since this occurs at export time. (It would be possible to address this if “resize” were simply another tool in the stack, rather than an export option.) To be fair, this is an issue that many similar tools fail to recognise (Bibble is the same).
    Furthermore, I normally apply edge-sharpening on scanned film negatives to avoid over-emphasising the grain. This isn’t possible with LightZone at present, since you can’t select edges easily - possibly some more flexibility is required in the region selections.
  • Although the regions concept is so well implemented that it quickly becomes intuitive, at the pixel level it’s still not as precise or convenient as simply painting on to a layer with a brush; e.g. for burn & dodge operations.
  • The resizing algorithm appears much coarser than the GIMP’s bicubic scaling; for example, it preserves the graininess of a scanned neg, whereas resizing in the GIMP always smooths it away. At present, resizing and output sharpening are best done in some other app.
  • Very little documentation. There are some online tutorials and tool descriptions, and the Windows/Mac versions include a help feature if you’re prepared to download the eval versions, but a proper manual is still outstanding.
  • The file selectors are quite poor; each one retains its own state between runs, so not only will you not necessarily find yourself browsing the current directory on startup, but the Open, Save and Export dialogues are quite likely to refer to different directories unless you re-navigate in each one. You can easily save the edits to a different directory than the original file by accident, which means that LightZone won’t show them in the browser.
  • It’s Java on UNIX so the fonts are atrocious and there’s no preferences option to change them (e.g. to a sans typeface).
  • (“Hey Ade, what about Digital Asset Management capabilities?” - “La-la-la, not listening, what’s that?!”) Proper management of all my digital images is something I’ll look at when I take my head out of this nice cool sand.

However, I feel there are only two extra features that would really improve the product. Firstly, a “before/after” comparison mode that would redisplay the (buffered) image without the last change made simply by mousing over it (similar to the examples in the tutorials on LightCraft’s site). You can disable or re-enable any step in the editing stack with one click, but it takes a moment to update the display so it’s difficult to judge the precise difference. (This would be a novel feature for any editing app.) Secondly, Light Crafts really ought to create an official user forum. This is such good software that it deserves to have a community built around it to share tips and explore the possibilities.

LightZone is addictive; it actually makes you want to process your images so you can play with those fantastic zone manipulations, whereas most other editors make the job seem like a painful chore in which you don’t entirely feel in control. If, like I initially did, you mistake it for a novel interface in an “experimental” program that may one day be useful, try it now. My one worry is that the Linux version may be following the crack cocaine business model; give out free samples to get the customer hooked, then jack the price up. Because I’m afraid I’d have to buy it if that ever happened.

Other bubbles

  • Digital Outback Photo have an informative review-cum-tutorial.
  • Auspicious Dragon has a number of postings about LightZone (although note that a representative of Light Crafts feels these are overly weighted with negative comments ;-).