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LightZone 1.0

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I’ve never seen an application quite like LightZone 1.0. While at first glance, LightZone might appear to be a Photoshop (   ; August 2005 ) challenger, that conclusion, for the most part, is off base. Sure, LightZone looks similar to Photoshop in some ways. But after using it for an hour or so to edit my photos, I began to see it as an altogether different entity, serving a separate audience.

While both programs facilitate photo manipulation, Photoshop features many tools that are better suited to illustrators and designers as opposed 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. However, the process of adjusting images with LightZone feels smoother and is more direct than with Photoshop. Plus LightZone is geared toward working with raw images.

LightZone is based on the zone system, a photographic technique popularized by the famed landscape photographer Ansel Adams, that lets photographers visualize 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 feels snappier to me than Adobe’s Bridge ( August 2005 ). 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 of your image files, organize them into collections, and view their metadata. Forward and Back buttons allow you to navigate through folders. Once you select an image, you work 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 visualize 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 simple 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 is very little change to the hue or saturation in a color 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 a lock up compresses the range and results in brighter values and reduced contrast. Dragging a ZoneLock down has the opposite effect. Clicking 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, allowing for limited corrections.

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.

Selection tools

RegionMapper tools, a set of selection tools similar to Photoshop’s, allow you to mask specific areas of an image. Unfortunately, there is no way to invert a selected region. This means, for example, that 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 were 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) by using the Hide Mask command, or by clicking a region while pressing the Control key. This is one of several tool options that are buried within the program. It would have been nice if the company made some of these tools more accessible.

LightZone provides seven additional correction and retouching tools 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 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.

Macworld’s buying advice

LightZone 1.0 is an ideal tool for photographers. Photoshop has too many bells and whistles for many photo pros, who just want to make straightforward adjustments accurately and quickly. If you have a speedy processor, and a good understanding of light, this tool can work wonders for you.

[ Abigail Rudner produces training videos for She teaches Dreamweaver, Flash, Fireworks, Photoshop, After Effects, and other creative software packages at the Bay Area Video Coalition in San Francisco as well as California State University East Bay. ]

LightZone’s main interface gives you size-adjustable thumbnails of your images, metadata, and EXIF data about any image you select.When you select a zone in the ZoneMapper, you can view a visual representation of it in the ZoneFinder thumbnail.
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