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Replacing LightZone

January 18, 2012 at 12:48 AM

In December 2010, I bought LightZone from Light Crafts to use as my principle RAW processing photo editor (and to potentially teach to clients) and had been working with it until learning of its demise in the autumn of 2011. When routinely checking to see if the long-awaited version 4 was available, the program returned an error, so I headed to the Light Crafts website; it was gone - nothing.

A little searching revealed that the main man behind Light Crafts now works for Apple. Whatever.

Later, I discovered - a support network for bereft LightZone users. Perhaps it will become a proper open-source project one day? But I'd waited nearly a year for V4, and I wasn't going to wait any longer.

I needed to look for a replacement ....

Why not Lightroom or Photoshop?

Of course, some would assume the convention, with blind faith, and head straight for Adobe Lightroom/ Photoshop/ Elements. But not me. I've never really got along with Photoshop's approach; I always found it quite incohesive and counterintuitive. From what I've seen, Lightroom seems much better in that respect, but I must confess to never having actually trialed it because of what it has in common with the full version of Photoshop - a silly price!

LightZone - What I liked ...

I liked the Tool Stack:

The concept just made sense to me; much more so than "layers" in other editors.

I liked the Relight tool:

This tool evened up exposure to make a photo look more like what we actually see. Adjustable sliders recovered highlights and brightened shadows (hence reducing global contrast), and the "Detail" slider introduced local contrast.

I liked the Zonemapper:

Far more cohesive than "curves", the Zonemapper showed you where each of 16 different tones were by highlighting them on a small sketch of your image as you hovered your mouse over each value on the tool. Using this tool, you could adjust your image to cover the full range of tones from black to white, making fine proportioned adjustments of each tonal element as you go.

I liked "Regions":

Regions were vector selection zones that you set and shaped with nodes. You could apply a region to any tool in the Tool Stack.

I liked colour and tone selection, and blend modes ...
Further to applying regions and adjusting a tool's opacity, you could specify the range of colour and tone that a tool would be effective on. You could also use different blend modes for each tool.

What I didn't like ...

I didn't like LightZone's resource hogging and desperately slow speed (AMD dual core 2GHz, 4GB RAM). It would take an absolute age to zoom from full image view to 1:1 and other viewing ratios; you could simply lose the will to live waiting for it! Applying or adjusting tools became slower as you added more of them too. This was the biggest drawback and often resulted in my not having checked fine detail in images simply because it took so long to load each portion of the frame.

The other main let down was that LightZone was incomplete as an editing solution. Having discussed this with Light Craft's Richard McKeethen prior to purchasing it, I expected V4 to address most, and in later updates, all, of the obvious shortcomings, which for me, were as follows:

  • No chromatic aberration correction
  • No barrel/ pincushion distortion correction
  • No perspective correction/ adjustment
  • No option to reduce size, sharpen and save as (when preparing small-sized images for the web etc)

What else is there?

So LightZone, albeit enthusiastically facilitated by for existing licence owners, is gone as a viable consideration for my requirements. What else is there for such as myself, looking for a non-Adobe replacement?

Well, I sort of took up from where I left off with last year's research and continued to dismiss those annoying applications (Elements included if I remember correctly) that, during installation, spend hours painfully indexing every image file on your hard drive; I couldn't install the trial version of one of those at tuition appointments! And I don't recall any of them being outstanding anyway.

Picture Window Pro

One editor I wanted to explore the potential of was Picture Window Pro from Digital Light & Colour. This is highly regarded by some as being a more cost-effective and user-friendly alternative to Photoshop and brethren. It is indeed a very powerful photo editor that stays on remit with photography rather than drawing and graphics.
It's outstanding features are its very powerful masking system and three zone adjustments.

However, the image browser and interface aren't the most intuitive and look extremely dated, although functional; the system of new windows being opened when each tool is applied might not be to everyone's' liking either.

Those who like it, really like it, and despite the subjectives, Picture Window Pro is a very powerful and worthy RAW workflow image editor, presenting excellent value for money, and which I'd be happy to consider using in the future.

Zoner Photo Studio

I had tried an earlier version of Zoner Photo Studio Pro and been quite impressed with its power, speed and user-friendly interface. Upon revisiting it at version 13, I was very impressed; as version 14 was rolled out and introduced tone mapping, I was impressed further.

It's so refreshingly coherent and intuitive. Everything just seems to make sense!

The modern, dark grey interface comprises of four modules that are neatly accessible via a series of tabs at the top right:

The manager is folder based (like Windows Explorer), with the directory tree on the left, thumbnails in the middle, and EXIF data for the selected image on the right, although you can customise all this with the reassurance of returning to the default workspace. It also remembers the last folder you were using and conveniently takes you straight there as the program starts.

The Viewer. Next in the tab sequence is the Viewer. Simple enough - you get to see the selected image at screen size, or inspect it more closely at various magnifications; scroll through images forward or back, watch them in a slide show, or select them from an optionally displayed film strip.
You also have the options to "rate" your images, label them with a colour code, and add a title and description (stored as text in the EXIF data) which can be displayed with the image.

The editor has a pleasant, modern interface with customisable toolbars, a multitude of powerful tools, and tabs to work with more than one image at a time. Each tool is implemented via the editing layer which can be applied with the traditional blend modes and opacity levels selected from the layer toolbar. Displayed below this are the variables for each tool.

The tools work in real-time on the main image, at any zoom level, and have the option (default) to remember their last settings. There's also a powerful selection/ masking system too.
It's the most intuitive editor I've worked with.

The RAW module. The last tab is a rather comprehensive RAW converter module where there's the usual exposure, highlight recovery, shadows, contrast and clarity sliders, together with white balance; sharpening; CA, vignetting and geometric distortion correction; a tone curve; saturation and more.
I'm not certain about notion of the HDR tools offering to blend exposures through adjustable masked thresholds; we're dealing with just one RAW file after all. I suppose it's another option for those used to thinking in HDR terms.

Altogether it's a powerful, comprehensive and user-friendly RAW converter. Don't forget to set the output to "TIFF 48" to ensure full 16 bit performance for finishing in the editor.


I've been working with Zoner Photo Studio Pro for a few months now and consider it to be a comprehensive and cohesive solution to photographic workflow for all, from novice to expert:

It's as powerful as you wish, but never too complex for anyone.

Of course, ZPS Pro has some major differences to LightZone in its approach, but the approach itself is just a means to an end for me, not a rigid belief. For example, those who'd concern themselves on reading that ZPS isn't "non-destructive" should perhaps consider the context of the workflow:

The RAW module tools are all as non-destructive as they come, making no changes other than to notes on the sidecar file. Furthermore, if you set the output to TIFF 48, you have 16 bit colour depth to use in the editor, and by this time, you've already made the major tonal adjustments anyway. There's also a properly logged and labelled undo sequence, so you can go back several operations with one click - clever!

It all seems rather constructive to me.

There's a cut down (but still quite comprehensive) freeware version too; my clients will be able to use that straight away, with no commitment, and have the option to seamlessly upgrade at any point thereafter.
User-friendliness, power and quality are my priorities, and when everything seems so effortless, coherent and comprehensive with ZPS Pro 14, I think it's job done in my search for suitable photo editing software.

I'm only scratching the surface of ZPS Pro's features and virtues here, and I'll be writing a more comprehensive review and a series of tutorials in due course.

Zoner Photo Studio Pro 14 costs just $69. You can download a free 30 day trial from the Zoner Website. Alternatively you can download the free version of Zoner Photo Studio here.


In April 2012, Adobe brought out Lightroom 4 with a new, lower price! Here in the UK it costs just over £100!

Check out my follow-up article "Lightroom 4 - Replacing LightZone Part Two" for my latest thoughts.

Further update - 2013

LightZone is now ongoing open-source software. Check it out here:

Tags: LightZone RAW Editing Software Lightcrafts
Category: Photography

Peter Finch

I am an independent digital photography tutor and writer from Irlam, Manchester, England. I offer one-to-one photography training in Greater Manchester, Cheshire and other north-west areas. Click "Tuition" on the main menu to read more.



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