I'm going to digress a little first to talk about my CS3 suite choice and upgrade experience - as that puts my comments into context. If you want to get directly to the Lightroom stuff, skip to the line of ****.
I deliberately didn't start to evaluate Lightroom until I'd bought, installed and got to grips with my Creative Suite 3 Design Premium upgrade from Creative Suite 2 Premium. From the Adobe site, it was clear that there were significant workflow and workspace enhancements likely to boost my productivity. For that reason, I pre-ordered my CS3 Design Premium upgrade 'sight unseen', and I'm not disappointed at all, especially not with the workflow and workspace enhancements.
Indeed, overall, I'm very happy with the CS3 upgrade - the improvements in InDesign, Illustrator and Photoshop make it well worthwhile for me in my various uses (not just photography) and I'm much more productive.
Having Flash is a bonus as I'd thought about buying it a few times but couldn't justify purchasing it as a standalone, and I already prefer Dreamweaver over GoLive. Once I got used to the new UI (mainly cosmetic changes, but it takes a bit of getting used to), there's some worthwhile improvements in Acrobat as well.
One query I had with the CS3 bundles is why is there no "Creative Suite 3 Design and Web Premium" offering. Master Collection is significantly more expensive, especially in the UK, and I, for one, have no use for After Effects and Premiere, the two significant extra applications in the Production Premium strand that I don't have in Design Premium. I don't own a video camera and I already have Audition, so I don't need Soundbooth.
As it is, you have to choose between InDesign (Design Premium) or Fireworks and Contribute (Web Premium). InDesign is a key application for me, so I was always likely to go for Design Premium. In truth, I'd probably barely use Fireworks and Contribute - I don't do much web work, and with me being so familiar with Illustrator and Photoshop, I'd probably use those tools when I could alongside Dreamweaver in preference to Fireworks even if I had Fireworks.
Whilst not having Fireworks and Contribute is no great loss to me, I would have happily paid a bit more to have a suite that included them. I've heard of people buying Web Premium and InDesign CS3 as a standalone to get round this (it's less messy and probably cheaper for future upgrades to have one standalone application, rather than the two standalone applications you get by buying Design Premium, Fireworks CS3 and Contribute CS3).
With the former Macromedia applications, I expected Adobe to prefer Dreamweaver over GoLive, and the Macromedia application I really wanted was Flash, which was an unexpected bonus for me in CS3 Design Premium.
Lightroom is not included in any of the CS3 suites - I thought it might make its way into the Master Collection and possibly Design Premium, but Adobe seem to have decided, for whatever reason, that it has no place in the suites.
The same is true of GoLive (though I expect GoLive to disappear into something of a quiet backwater, joining Pagemaker as a product that has essentially been superseded, and even, arguably, Framemaker - though Framemaker is a powerful tool for certain tasks and is slated for an upgrade as, indeed, is GoLive). Many loyal Audition users fear that Audition will equally go into a quiet backwater.
Some question why InCopy doesn't appear in the suites, though it's arguably a specialist product and most of the core functionality is already available in InDesign itself. I guess including or excluding Lightroom and InCopy are similar arguments.
Lightroom and InCopy are different to the other applications that have been omitted from the suites - they're powerful tools for particular people, but they're probably not of interest to the majority of Creative Suite users.
Lightroom is a new product that Adobe have promoted quite aggressively. If you buy now you'll probably still find boxed product at the introductory pricing, but that is soon to disappear. Having set myself the task of not evaluating Lightroom until I was used to working with photos in Bridge CS3, ACR 4 and Photoshop CS3 Extended, it left me a tight timescale of 48 hours to be sure of being able to order Lightroom at the promotional price before supplies disappeared.
I spend quite a bit of time working in the Creative Suite, and yes - there are worthwhile improvements in Bridge CS3 when used with ACR 4. My expectation was that at my relatively modest picture taking rate, Lightroom would have little to offer me over Bridge CS3 and Photoshop CS3 which were already licensed and sitting on my machine. Meanwhile, another thought that sat loosely in the back of my mind was opting for a fairly heavyweight DAM solution, such as iView MediaPro (soon to become Microsoft Expression Media).
I couldn't have been more wrong in my assessment of Lightroom. I think I've done my best with Bridge, but there are some things that Bridge doesn't make easy. After all, Bridge is a general tool, not one specifically aimed at photographers.
One specific thing comes to mind to show how Lightroom is different. To get round the lack of collections in Bridge, I've been using some keywords that are workflow related - which, of course, make their way into the final files. With Lightroom, I can keep workflow related matters out of my keywords, and use collections instead. I intend to go across my files, make the appropriate use of collections in Lightroom and remove the keywords that aren't really keywords.
That's just one example of the use of collections. There's many more things that you can do with them. The big picture is, as has been said, that Lightroom is database driven - so you can rapidly search amongst files in many folders (the search functionality could be more powerful, but I think it'll get there in future versions). Further, you can have pictures in your database that aren't actually online - Lightroom becomes a sort of lightweight DAM offering.
For example, say a friend is coming to visit, and you want a collection of pictures of him for your digital photo frame. It would be much easier to find these files and export them as the appropriately sized JPEGs on a memory card in Lightroom than it would in Bridge.
I find the limitations in Lightroom's card downloader frustrating - so like quite a few others, I use Breeze Downloader Pro instead. Once I've got the files into Lightroom, the task of sorting, classifying, renaming, discarding rejects, titling and setting metadata, keywords and Camera Raw options is much faster in Lightroom than in Bridge - the workflow is much more optimised. Even with my very limited experience in Lightroom I'm probably three to four times faster doing these tasks than I am in Bridge CS3. Bridge CS3 is improved over Bridge 1.0 (the CS2 version), but it's not as good a tool for photographers as Lightroom is.
My particular joy in Lightroom is comparing similar shots to choose the best. The loupe in Bridge CS3 is a welcome addition (the best you could do in Bridge 1.0 was move rapidly between shots or use large thumbnails next to each other), but is rudimentary by comparison to the corresponding features in Lightroom. Having done this in Lightroom, I never want to go back to doing this in Bridge. Lightroom makes it quick to stack the images, discard the obvious rejects, then put the best image at the top of the stack. It's much more awkward to do the same task in Bridge CS3.
Most metadata can be shared between Bridge and Lightroom by turning on the XMP option (which is not the default in Lightroom, but which I'd recommend). There are some frustrating deficiencies in interoperability which I hope are addressed soon - the most notable of which is that Bridge CS3 and Lightroom don't share stacks when they could so long as the stack doesn't span a folder. On Windows Bridge stores the stacks in the hidden .BridgeSort file in the folder, whilst Lightroom stores them in the database. I hope Adobe fix this deficiency in a future point release of Lightroom - I find it very annoying.
There's also a couple of features that are in Bridge CS3 / ACR 4 that aren't in Lightroom. (I had originally written "An excellent new CS3 feature, which Lightroom doesn't have, is the ability to use Camera Raw to adjust JPEGs and TIFFs. I shoot almost exclusively RAW, that's not as much a bother to me as it is to some, though my compact is JPEG only." here - I'm happy to withdraw this comment as mistaken, with thanks to Jeff Schewe for pointing this out). Further, Lightroom doesn't have 'full' curves, unlike ACR 3 or 4 in a 'full' version of Photoshop - it only has the Shadows / Darks / Lights / Highlights variety. The Shadows / Darks / Lights / Highlights variety of curves is implemented so well in Lightroom that 'full' curves often aren't needed - but it's still an omission. I'm not sure whether Lightroom will get either of these capabilities.
A further misfeature when using Lightroom with Photoshop CS3 is that you can't open a file from Lightroom in Photoshop CS3 with the Camera Raw object as a Smart Object. The Smart Object / Smart Filters functionality in Photoshop CS3 is very powerful when teamed up with the existing Adjustment Layers. In Photoshop CS2 there's no way of returning to Camera Raw to change the options there whilst keeping other edits - but if you've opened a file using ACR 4 as a Smart Object in Photoshop CS3, you can change the Camera Raw options later on.
Indeed, the whole way that Lightroom hands files off to Photoshop is messy - I'd rather be able to save with my own filename and Lightroom notice the file being saved than Lightroom create the PSD for me and name it according to built in (and unconfigurable) rules. My way around all this is to drop to Bridge CS3 when I want to open files in Photoshop - but I have to remember to import the files to Lightroom afterwards. I think Adobe have some fixing to do here now that Creative Suite 3 has shipped.
The next big thing in Lightroom is the range of (non destructive) processing and toning options available, together with the ability to make virtual copies (that is, references to the same underlying file with different settings). You can, for example, have a black and white and a colour version of the same image stored in Lightroom, or several different crops of the same image.
Again, this is a powerful tool in terms of time (because settings can be reused) and disk space for images that don't need individual attention in Photoshop. It doesn't take many layers and masks in a 8-12 megapixel 16-bit document for you to have a 300MByte Photoshop file.
The other area that I've used (I've only really dabbled with the slide show, and I have my own PHP / MySQL based web gallery system that works from the metadata in the images) is the print functionality. It's not going to set the world on fire - it's not a match for Qimage or similar, but it will allow you to print your images, create layouts, resize to the printer resolution and print using a profile fairly easily. Soft proofing would be a nice enhancement here - I think that's something that others have already wished for.
All in all, everything that Lightroom does can be done better by specialist tools, and there is a definite "version 1.0" feeling about some of it, in that it feels a little incomplete and as if some options are missing. The often wished for synchronisation facilities between a desktop and a laptop, and the current unavailability of the promised SDK to allow plugins to be written are part of this.
Downloading is done better by Breeze Downloader Pro (no question about this - the Lightroom downloader is inflexible and poorly featured). DAM could probably be done better by Extensis Portfolio or iView MediaPro / Microsoft Expression Media. For developing, there are more options in ACR 4 accessed via Bridge CS3 or Photoshop CS3, and obviously you can do more with an image when you take it into Photoshop CS3 - at the moment, some tools, such as sharpening, are pretty rudimentary in Lightroom. Printing could probably be done better by Qimage. I've not really got into the web functionality, but I'm sure I could create something far richer using Flash CS3 Professional and Dreamweaver CS3. Meanwhile, the slideshow functionality could probably be bettered using Flash CS3 Professional as well.
However, that misses the point. The value of Lightroom is as a central workflow component, with functionality that handles most of your standard workflow in one place. It's an application that gets quality results quickly and is well designed for working with a client sitting alongside you if that's your chosen workflow. You can undoubtedly do more by using some of the other applications I mentioned - but Lightroom may well be all you need for many pictures and you'll likely be more productive using it.
Lightroom can probably deal with 90-95% of most people's photographs, whilst laying the foundations for working on the remainder in Photoshop. When you turn the XMP option on, the vast majority of what you do in Lightroom is also available via Bridge CS3 / Photoshop CS3 (or the CS2 versions if you're still on CS2 - though there are more limits as Photoshop CS2 won't get Camera Raw 4) for those images that need more individual attention.
I find Lightroom 1.0 to be well worthwhile.
If Adobe fix some of the interoperability glitches with Lightroom and Creative Suite 3, also the promised SDK is made available, Lightroom will become a very powerful tool. Even as it is, I wouldn't want to be without it - and I'm glad I managed to evaluate it quickly enough after getting CS3 to buy at the promotional price. At the regular price, I would have found it harder to justify bearing in mind that photography is my hobby, not my job.
In future versions (hopefully along the journey to Lightroom 2, rather than paying for incremental upgrades) I hope for synchronisation between a desktop and a laptop, soft proofing, and more fully featured sharpening facilities. A better downloader (or more complete support for external downloaders) is also needed in my opinion. Overall, though, they're relatively minor things, though.
In the end, I bought Lightroom, and I bought Breeze Downloader Pro (I was thinking about it for a while, just for the geotagging functionality - it's an excellent little utility).
I realised that I just don't need a heavyweight DAM solution - especially as Extensis Portfolio never really appealed for reasons I can't fully quantify, and some of the limitations with iView MediaPro (particularly if you don't want to convert everything to DNG) and the seeming confusion over the upcoming re-release as Microsoft Expression Media switched me off to this seemingly promising feature.
I may well add a copy of Qimage to my software arsenal - though for most prints I think I'll be printing directly from Lightroom.
Lightroom cost me the same as iView MediaPro would have - and I think it's the tool I really wanted and needed, even though I thought otherwise!
If you're not sure, I'd evaluate Lightroom and see what you think - you'll lose nothing if you decide to uninstall it at the end of your trial so long as you remember to enable the XMP option in preferences. Some of the Camera Raw functionality requires Camera Raw 4, which will mean upgrading to Photoshop CS3 (or a Creative Suite 3 product that includes Photoshop CS3 or Photoshop CS3 Extended) - but you can work, with some loss of functionality, against Camera Raw 3.7 and Photoshop CS2.
Apologies for the very long post - but I hope this is helpful.