Lightzone Review: Free Darkroom Software for Windows, Mac, and Linux

01
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Lightzone Introduction

Lightzone screen shot
Lightzone Free Raw Converter. Text and images © Ian Pullen

Lightzone Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Lightzone is a free RAW converter that is in a similar vein to Adobe Lightroom, though with some distinct differences. As with Lightroom, Lightzone allows you to make non-destructive edits to your photos, so that you can always return to your original image file at any time.

Lightzone was first launched in 2005 as commercial software, though the company behind the application stopped development of the software in 2011. In 2013, the software was released under a BSD open source license, though this latest version is essentially the last version that was available in 2011, though with updated RAW profiles to support many digital cameras that have been released since then.

However, despite this two year hiatus in development, Lightzone still offers a very strong feature set for photographers looking for an alternative tool to Lightroom for converting their RAW files. There are downloads available for Windows, OS X and Linux, though I've just looked at the Windows version, using a rather average laptop.

Over the next few pages, I'll take a closer look at this interesting application and share some thoughts that should help you to decide if Lightzone is worth considering as part of your photo processing toolkit.

02
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Lightzone User Interface

Lightzone User Interface
Text and images © Ian Pullen

Lightzone has a clean and stylish user interface with a dark gray theme that has become popular in most image editing type apps now. The very first thing that I noticed, having installed it on a laptop running Windows 7 in Spanish is that there's no option currently to change the interface language, which means labels are displayed in a mix of Spanish and English. Obviously this won't be an issue for most users and the development team is aware of this, but be aware that my screen shots may look a little different as a result.

The user interface splits into two distinct sections with the Browse window for navigating your files and the Edit window for working on specific images. This arrangement is very intuitive and will feel familiar to users of several similar applications.

One potential little issue is the font size that is used to label buttons and folders as this is a little on the small side. While this works from an aesthetic point of view, some users may find it a little hard to read. This may also be compounded by some aspects of the interface that present text in light gray against a mid to dark gray background, which could lead to some usability issues due to the low contrast. The use of a shade of orange as the highlight color is quite easy on the eye and adds to the overall appearance.

03
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Lightzone Browse Window

Lightzone Browse Window
Text and images © Ian Pullen

Lightzone's Browse window is where the application will open when first launched and the window breaks down into three columns, with an option to collapse both side columns if desired. The left hand column is a file explorer that allows you to quickly and easily navigate your hard drive and networked drives too.

To the right is the Info column that displays some basic file information and EXIF data. You can also edit some of this information, such as giving an image a rating or adding a title or copyright information.

The main central portion of the window is split horizontally with the upper part offering a preview of the selected image or images. There's a supplementary menu bar above this section which includes a Styles option. The Styles are a range of one click quick fix tools, that are also available in the main Edit window, and which allow you make a number of easy enhancements to your photos. By making these Styles available in the Browse window, you can select multiple files and apply a style to all of them simultaneously.

Below the preview section is a navigator that displays the image files contained in the currently selected folder. In this section, you can also add a rating to your images, but one feature that appears to be missing is the ability to tag your files. If you have a large number of photo files on your system, tags can be a very powerful tool for managing them and quickly finding files again in the future. It's also becoming more common for cameras to save GPS coordinates, but again there seems no way to access such data or manually add the information to images.

This means that while the Browse window makes it quite easy to navigate your files, this only provides rather basic photo library management tools.

04
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Lightzone Edit Window

Lightzone Edit Window
Text and images © Ian Pullen

The Edit window is where Lightzone really shines and this also splits into three columns. The left hand column is shared by Styles and History and the right hand is for the Tools, with the working image displayed to the center.

I've already mentioned the Styles in the Browse window, but here they are more clearly presented in a list with collapsing sections. You can click on a single style or apply multiple styles, combining them together to form new effects. Each time you apply a style, it is added to the layers section of the Tools column and you can further adjust the strength of the style using the available options or by reducing the opacity of the layer. You can also save your own custom styles making it easy to repeat your favorite effects in the future or to apply to a batch of images in the Browse window.

The History tab opens a simple list of the edits that have been made to a file since it was last opened and you can easily jump through this list to compare the image at different points in the editing process.  This can be handy, but the way that the various edits and adjustments that you make are stacked up as layers means that often it's easier to switch layers off and on to compare your changes.

As mentioned, the layers are stacked up in the right hand column, though because they aren't presented in a similar way to Photoshop or GIMP layers, it's easy to overlook the fact that the effects are being applied as layers, much like Adjustment Layers in Photoshop. You also have the option to adjust the opacity of layers and to change the blending modes, which opens up a wide range of options when it comes to combining different effects.

If you've worked with a RAW converter or image editor before, then you will find the basics of Lightzone very easy to grab hold of. All the standard tools you'd expect to find are on offer, though Zone Mapping may take a little getting used to. This is similar to a curves tool, but it's presented quite differently as a vertically gradated series of tones from white to black. The Zones preview at the top of the column breaks down the image into zones that match these shades of gray. You can use the Zone Mapper to stretch or compress individual tonal ranges and you will see the changes reflected in both the Zones preview and the working image. While it feels a slightly odd interface at first, I can see how this could be a more intuitive way to make tonal adjustments to your photos.

By default, your adjustments are applied globally to your image, but there is also a Regions tool that allows you to isolate areas of your image and apply adjustments to them only. You can draw regions as polygons, splines or bezier curves and they each automatically have some feathering applied to their edges, which you can adjust as necessary. The outlines are not the easiest to control, certainly not when compared to the pen tools in Photoshop and GIMP, but these should suffice for most cases and when combined with the Clone tool, this can be flexible enough to save you opening a file in your favorite image editor.

05
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Lightzone Conclusion

Lightzone Documentation
Text and images © Ian Pullen

All in all, Lightzone is a pretty impressive package that can offer its users a lot of power when converting RAW images.

Lack of documentation and help files is a problem that often affects open source projects, but, perhaps because of its commercial roots, Lightzone has quite comprehensive and detailed help files. This is further supplemented by a user forum on Lightzone's website.

Good documentation means that you can make the most of the features on offer and as a RAW converter, Lightzone is very powerful. Considering that it's several years since it had a real update, it can still hold its own among current competitive applications like Lightroom and Zoner Photo Studio. It may take a little while to acquaint yourself with some aspects of the interface, but it is a very flexible tool that will make it quite easy to get the most from your photos.

The one point of weakness is the Browse window. While this does a fine job as a file navigator, it can't match the competition as a tool for managing your photo library. The lack of tags and any GPS info means it isn't as easy to track your older files.

If I were considering Lightzone purely as a RAW converter, then I'd happily rate it 4.5 out 5 stars and perhaps even full marks. It is very good in this respect and is also enjoyable to use. I certainly expect to return to it for my own photos in the future.

However, the Browse window is a significant part of this application and that aspect is weak to the point that it does undermine the application as a whole. The options for managing your library are too limited and if you handle large numbers of images, you will almost certainly want to consider another solution for this job.

So taken as a whole, I've rated Lightzone 4 at 4 out of 5 stars.

You can download your own free copy from the Lightzone website (http://www.lightzoneproject.org), though you will need to go through the free registration process first.