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Review: Light Crafts LightZone

LightZone blazes new trails in RAW processing

By Andrew Rodney

Correction layers, selections and blending now a part of the RAW-to-rendered process

In the last 6 months, a slew of new software products designed for photographers who shoot primarily in RAW format have come onto the scene. Apple Aperture and Adobe LightRoom are just two examples. Light Crafts LightZone enters the fray as yet another new image processing product that provides some unique and interesting tools.

LightZone has two basic modes: a simple image browser for quickly finding files and an editing mode, which is the more advanced. While the browser can preview existing rendered images (TIFF, JPEG, PNG) as well as RAW data from a number of camera manufacturers, it's limited to viewing images and embedded metadata (Figure 1). In this first released version, LightZone is all about the editing mode and rendering images.

Figure 1: LightZone has two types of Browser windows. Clicking on a single image provides the metadata information (left). There is a simple Find command to search this data. Optionally there is a “List View” that displays the images with file information (right).

On the surface, the LightZone toolset seems comparable to the competition. What makes the application unique is how the software engineers designed the user interface for some of the image correction tools. The ZoneFinder and ZoneMapper interface are easy to use yet powerful. Based on the Zone System, ZoneFinder provides a “visual histogram” that shows as many as 16 different zones from shadow to highlight, each ½ stop apart from the next, as seen in Figure 2. The ZoneFinder preview allows you to see where the highlights, midtones and shadows in a photo reside, allowing you to use the ZoneMapper tool to adjust your image.

Figure 2: The single edit window is seen here with two tools within the tool stack: ZoneMapper and Hue Saturation (left). Within the ZoneMapper stack is the ZoneFinder preview that represents the current tone mapping of the image—our visual Histogram. In the main preview window you can see I’ve created a Region. The outline and handle points are visible (they can be hidden). The inner boundary defines the feather of this mask.

Using ZoneFinder and ZoneMapper, you can select these individual regions to precisely produce tonal corrections. The ZoneMapper allows you to select a Zone and raise or lower it as well as make anchor points and affect the tones between zones. The ZoneFinder preview updates as you edit with the ZoneMapper, making it pretty easy to precisely shape the tones, but nearly impossible to introduce any posterization to an image, as you can with Curves when points are too closely manipulated. This really is an ingenious way to work, making Curves seem positively 20th century!

The ZoneMapper, and LightZone's other image correction tools, work in what can best be described as multiple correction layers. As you select a new correction tool from the Tool bar, it appears to the left of your image in an area called the Tool Stack. Each correction can be toggled on and off and includes a blending mode popup menu with 19 options, many having similar names and functions to Photoshop’s blend modes. An opacity slider further controls each effect. Moving the order of the corrections in the stack can affect the rendering. Think of it as a RAW processor with layers. And like Photoshop layers, Tools within the Stack can be named, making it easy to keep track of why you created them in the first place. Tools can be expanded or contracted to save space in the Tool Stack.

The Tool bar holds Hue and Saturation, Contrast Mask, Noise Reduction, Sharpening, Blurring, White Balance, and a Channel Mixer for creating monochrome conversions. You can crop, rotate and straighten images. New to version 1.2 is a Color Balance tool, and a Reduce Color Cast eyedropper for setting a neutral value.

The new Histogram and RGB Sampler in version 1.2 are based on the internal wide gamut color space LightZone uses rather than the color space where you’ll export your files. The Histogram and Sampler cannot be previewed at the same time but can be toggled with a keystroke.

Unlike any other software (unless I’m mistaken), LightZone lets users make complex selections, known as Regions, when processing RAW images. There are three Region (selection) tools, and though it took some time for me to get the hang of their operation, I was soon making precise Regions. The result is a mask that limits the effect of the current Stack to inside the Region. You can also invert the masks. Regions can be copied and pasted to other tools to, again, limit the effect of that tool edit. In Figure 2, with the ZoneMapper Stack targeted, I have selected one area of the fountain in the foreground and allowed it to remain darker. Simply dragging the inner contour of the region into a desired position controls the feathering.

Having the ability to fine tune all the corrections in a RAW converter has some advantages in terms of speed as well as potential image quality. However, it is important to note that LightZone is designed, at least in this version, to tweak a single RAW (or rendered) image and isn’t really a “production” tool. There are no provisions for copying and pasting a set of Stacks from one image to another within the browser. We were told this feature is coming in the next major release. If you want to precisely tweak a RAW file, LightZone is your tool. If you aim to process dozens or more of files, using a set of global corrections, it’s not.

LightZone creates a proprietary file format called LZN. LZN files are tiny because they only contain a set of processing instructions you make in the editing mode. You could produce multiple LZN files for a single RAW original, each having a different set of editing instructions. LightZone could then process any or all of these instructions from the RAW data into a rendered TIFF, JPEG or PNG file. 

There are a few issues with this early version. The color rendering in the Browser and the Edit window do not match. I liked the default color rendering I initially saw in the Browser, but the images were all quite dark once displayed in the Edit window, meaning I had to start using the ZoneMapper immediately.

Some of the EXIF data applied to .DNG files prior to editing was stripped out when I asked LightZone to export a file. Once I obtained a Universal Binary version for my new iMac, I was able to export a RAW file from a Canon Rebel 350XT in three seconds; very fast indeed.

LightZone can export the data in 8-bit or 16-bit into any RGB working color space using an installed ICC profile, but the setting always default to 8-bit sRGB.

The RAW-to-rendered image looked quite nice, so I was pleased with the image quality with no sharpening Stack applied. Default sharpening produced a rather ugly image with artifacts.

While LightZone is undeniably a 1.0 product, it has enough useful and unique tools that I think it’s worth your time to download the demo and see if it can be useful in your workflow. Once the Browser has at least similar functionality to Adobe Bridge and can apply edits to multiple images in a Batch, it could be a real winner. It currently runs under Mac OS X and Windows and costs $250. You can find the demo at: