Digital Darkroom Software Review: LightZone

Program: LightZone (tested version: 4.1.0~rc1)
Platforms Available Tested: Linux, Mac, Windows
Installation: must register to get to the installer; installation is otherwise normal.

LightZone is an open-source, cross platform RAW converter, and little more. It was originally a paid application, but converted to open source some years ago. Other reviewers have gone into more detail on its history, and you can surf around and find more information with relative ease.

Admittedly, I gave up on this one rather early… Read on if you want to find out why.

General Comments:

  • RAW conversion/manipulation only: no cataloging, no obvious keywording
  • Tools are a bit limited compared to other darkroom softwares: include the innovative-ish ZoneMapper tool, Relight (shadows/highlights, detail, depth and fuzz), Gaussian Blur, Hue/Saturation, Color Balance, White Balance, Black & White, Noise Reduction, Clone, Spot, and Red Eyes

Test 1: Negative Conversion

  • It wasn’t immediately obvious how to convert negative to positive, as there is no tone curve in LightZone. I googled around a bit and found an answer: convert negative to positive by opening a Zone Mapper tool, changing the mode to RGB, dragging zone X to zone 0, and setting the blend mode to ‘Difference.’ (Click the tool name to rename it if you want to save as a preset, as I did.) Add a second Zone Mapper to add ability to increase contrast and whatnot.
  • Rotate tool rotates the frame rather than the image… this is backwards of many others (Lightroom, anyway), and makes it very difficult for me to get the straightening like I like it.Lightzone Straightening tool operates strangely
  • There is no readily recognizable way to flip/mirror the image. I googled around a bit, and it seems like there’s no plan to include this feature.
  • Tools are easy to use, more or less, but they don’t show what they’re doing while they’re doing it: you have to release the tool to see your changes. This makes it night-on impossible to nudge things back & forth. I tried with both the discrete (NVIDIA 650M) and the integrated (Intel 4000) graphics, and the NVIDIA was slightly faster, but still choppy. (This has been plaguing me in other apps… Strangest thing: I’ve found that the integrated graphics tends to run smoother in many applications—including Lightroom and some other tested programs—than the discrete card.)
  • The Zone Mapper is a fairly innovative tool, unlike many things you see in competing applications. Darktable’s Zone System module is close, but not quite.
  • Ultimately, LightZone is of little use to me in converting negatives. I shoot the emulsion straight on so I can get the sharpest ‘scan’ possible. This means I require some ability to flip the image to get it back to ‘as shot.’

    Test 2: ORF Conversion

  • Zone Mapper is kinda cool, but exposure, contrast, shadows & hightlights sliders in other apps work much better and are far more responsive (in some applications).
  • After using Lightroom for so long (and Aperture before that), I’m too used to responsive tools. Between that and the inability to flip, I just gave up on the test here.

Additional Comments

On the ZoneMapper

Here are some screenshots of the ZoneMapper in action. It’s really a fairly interesting tool, and some people use it to interesting effects—there’s an interesting workflow article here, for example—but it’s not near responsive enough for me. I’m not sure if that’s the software or this computer, but this computer works fine for other image processors, so I think it’s the software and not the computer.

Anyway: here’s the ZoneMapper.

LightZone ZoneMapper 1 LightZone ZoneMapper 2 LightZone ZoneMapper

On Color Selection:

One excellent thing about the tools in LightZone: you can apply them to individual colors selectively. Note the Color Selection tab next to the Tool Settings.ZoneMapper Color Selection WhiteYou can change that to select individual colors, like Green:ZoneMapper Color Selection WhiteOr Red:ZoneMapper Color Selection Red

This is very helpful, and would be an interesting thing to play around with, if only I could flip negatives and if only the preview image moved with the sliders.

Final thoughts:

  • The ZoneMapper is cool enough, but it’s hard to use in practice.
  • The lack of a flip option kills this for negative conversion, which is one of my must-haves for a RAW convertor.
  • I really probably didn’t give this app enough of a chance, but it was down one strike with the lack of keywording, another with the no flip business, and then it just got too laggy to put up with. My apologies to the developers, and my thanks and kudos to them for putting out the product (and for making it open source).

So that’s LightZone. Some people use and appreciate it, and I’m sure it meets the needs of many. But it just doesn’t suit my needs, and I can’t see including it in my workflow.

If you’d like to read a few friendlier reviews, I can recommend this one on DPReview, this one on About.com, and this one at noupe.

Next Up: AfterShot Pro 2, the only paid app I plan to test in these reviews (until Affinity Photo comes out of Beta, anyway).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *