Palette Gear hardware controls connected to Adobe Lightroom

PaletteGear Beta Testing with Adobe Lightroom

I’ve been beta testing PaletteGear hardware controls for Lightroom 6 / CC 2015 for the last four or five months.  Over that time, I’ve gone from a blend of cautiously excited, to frustrated, to delighted, to surprised at how much I’ve come to depend on it.  My present relationship with the hardware is something like, using it far more than I ever imagined, and simultaneously wanting it to do even more.

Before I get too deep, I should clarify that this is not to be taken as a review.  The software is still in beta, so that’s one good reason to anticipate that lots more will be coming.  In addition, the good folks at PaletteGear selected me because of my involvement with Adobe Lightroom beta.  They needed someone who was running LR6/CC2015 well before public release so I could get involved early in the beta process.  Beta testing of this nature is time consuming, especially when it comes to feature feedback and bug reports.  Given the time investment, PaletteGear invited me to keep the hardware they sent.  It’s a fair and respectful trade, but it also means I cannot be unbiased in a purely journalistic sense.  Please keep that in mind as you read this.  I will focus more on how I’ve come to use the controls with Lightroom, and avoid making any recommendations whether you should purchase it.

I am a Lightroom expert.  I use keyboard shortcuts as my primary means of navigating the application, and I am fast and proficient at it.  This is why I was initially cautious in my enthusiasm for PaletteGear.  On one hand, given LR’s lack of native keyboard controls for Develop operations, it could be pretty cool.  On the other hand, if it didn’t gracefully handle those operations, and just ended up being a replacement for keyboard shortcuts that already existed, then it would end up being an expensive gimmick.

The hardware really does snap together however you like.  The clever use of magnets makes it simple.  You can’t switch your brain off completely, because like legos, there’s an input side and an output side.  Input can happen on three sides of a square module, and output happens only on one side.  You’ll need to rotate the modules into the correct orientation so the signal flows through the system, but it’s simple enough to understand when you see it.  You can pull it apart and snap it together on the fly, while it’s powered up, and the software responds admirably to changes in the configuration.  If you pull a module off when it was assigned a function and a custom color, when you re-attach it in a different configuration it retains that function and custom color. Here’s a quick demo:

Slider modules may seem like the obvious fit for Lightroom.  Lightroom has sliders, so the hardware sliders would be a perfect match, right?  Actually no.  Dials are far, far better.  For one, dials are much more precise when making fine adjustments, and you can depress-turn the dial knob to get an accelerated response from them.

The other reason sliders don’t work well is that they do not move on their own.  Imagine for a moment that you’re working on a series of images.  On the first image, you use the slider to adjust the exposure up by +1 stop.  You move to the next image.  This image has not been processed yet, so the exposure slider in LR is set to 0 EV, but the hardware slider in your Palette controls is still in the +1 EV position.  It cannot move itself back to center.  This image looks a little too bright, so you grab the PaletteGear slider and begin to slide it down.  Only now does LR discover the true +1 EV slider position, and suddenly the image on the screen jumps to +1 EV, then starts to darken as you slide the slider to the -1 EV position.  Sure it works fine, but it just doesn’t feel as elegant as the dials.  The dials do not have any “locks” – that is, they spin freely in either direction forever.  So if you set an image to +1 EV using the dial, then move to the next image which is still at 0 EV, then the fact that the dial is in its previous position is irrelevant.  There are no locks, so there is no center position to concern yourself with.

The dials have one other trick up their sleeve that the sliders can’t match.  By default, the dials make very precise but slow adjustments.  This makes it easy to use them to fine tune the image, but if for example you’re confronted with an image that needs a dramatic white-balance change, it could take a lot of spinning that knob to get there.  No matter, the dials depress like a button.  Turning while they’re depressed drops the precision, but greatly increases the speed.  While sliders can deliver the high speed / low precision experience, they can’t deliver the fine tune / high precision experience.  Once again, the dials are much better for Lightroom.

My last argument in favor of only ordering dials is size.  One dial module is a single-size square, but the sliders are a double-size rectangle.  An arrangement of dials takes up less desk space for the same number of controls.  It also gets more controls closer to your keyboard and your hands, putting things even more at your fingertips, and improving the overall editing experience.

Buttons are useful, though you probably don’t need more than one or two.  Lightroom has lots of keyboard shortcuts, and most of the time it’s faster to hit the key on the keyboard than it is to move your hands to the Palette Gear buttons.  I did find that for shortcuts that require two key presses, it’s faster to use the Palette button.  My setup has a button assigned to Shift-M, which triggers Lightroom’s radial filter tool.

So what’s it look like to actually use Palette with Lightroom?  Here’s a short sample:

So do I like them?  Yeah, I do.  And that caught me off guard.  I do most of my work at my desktop, but occasionally I take some images with me and work from my laptop.  The last time I was working on the road, I found myself unconsciously reaching for the Palette controls even though they weren’t there.

Have you tried Palette controls?   Do you plan to?  Comment below!


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