Control Surfaces for Lightroom Wedding Editing
I'm a big fan of editing using anything other than manually dragging Lightroom's various on-screen sliders back and forth. To me, locating the right slider, positioning the cursor, dragging, then repeating with the next desired slider, and so on, is just too tedious when you are working on thousands of images a week. Lightroom's built-in support for keyboard shortcuts of develop settings is limited; you have to hit a key to cycle through the sliders, then once you reach the desired one, you can adjust it with a pair of other keys (as opposed to being able to define certain keys on the keyboard to always adjust a particular parameter).
One of the first Lightroom control surfaces available on the market was RPG Keys, and I was an enthusiastic user of this product for years until it was discontinued and the software eventually became out of date.
I transitioned to a software-only product called VSCO Keys, which let the user remap keys on their regular keyboard to perform various adjustments, and I found this to be a highly effective way to edit. Later, when VSCO Keys was discontinued (it's currently an open source project, though has not been updated in a few years), another piece of software called PFixer filled that role for me, until it too appeared to no longer be in active development and recently started to have issues with the latest versions of Lightroom and MacOS.
This time, both because I was unable to find a suitable software-only product that would replicate the functionality of VSCO Keys and PFixer, and because I was impressed by the improved functionality of hardware solutions now available, I decided to try going back to a control surface.
One exciting development since my days of using RPG Keys was that hardware control surfaces now include physical dials, sliders, etc. that can instantly and smoothly make large adjustments, not just buttons/keys that would increment up or down with each push. This means that if a big exposure or white balance adjustment is needed, rather than having to hit a key a bunch of times, one swift turn of the dial is all that's needed.
It also should be noted that the dials on most of these types of control surfaces are encoders that are endless, with no stops at a minimum and maximum setting. What this means is that if you crank up the exposure on one image, and go to the next image which just needs a small exposure adjustment, you don't need to turn the dial back down to the neutral position as you would a dial with fixed upper and lower stops (nor does the adjustment instantly make an unwanted jump to the higher setting of the dial), you can simply start turning it in whatever direction you need to go, and the adjustment starts fresh from there.
One constraining factor for a hardware control surface is my admittedly unusual workstation setup. Though I have desks in my office, I typically do most of my editing work simply sitting on a small couch with my MacBook Pro on a lap desk. This puts some pretty significant limitations on what kind of control surface would work for me, as it would be preferable to have the unit fit alongside the computer on the lap desk.
But I also had wishes in terms of the number and layout of the dials and buttons, and the overall functionality of the device. Here are the options I considered and tried, X-Touch Mini & MIDI2LR, Loupedeck Live, and Monogram Creative Console (spoiler: I ended up with the Monogram).
Behringer X-Touch Mini / MIDI2LR
The Behringer X-Touch Mini is probably the most popular of these control surfaces for Lightroom users, and I was able to use it reasonably effectively in my setup. It features eight dials and 16 buttons, which are doubled in functionality by switching back and forth between two "layers" with a dedicated pair of buttons.
At just $89 (plus some money contributed to the MIDI2LR project) it's also the most affordable option by a wide margin. It may lack some of the polish and flash of the other two options, but for the price you really can't beat it.
What I liked:
- Good number of dials, plenty of buttons
- Very affordable
- MIDI2LR software is highly configurable, has some features that even the fancy commercial products don't have
What I didn't like:
- Lacks a bit of polish
- Software has somewhat of a steeper learning curve
- X-Touch Mini awkwardly sized in my particular setup (but would be fine for most people)
- Lower build quality
More interesting to me was the Loupedeck Live, which is a smaller unit with six dials, seven user-assignable physical buttons, and a touchscreen panel with an array of 12 virtual buttons. It didn't physically fit perfectly into my setup, but it was workable. I liked the ability of, in addition to my most important functions being assigned to the seven physical buttons, being able to define a dozen other lesser used button functions to the touch screen, things that I wouldn't necessarily miss if they weren't there, but still time savers on occasion. You can assign many more, through pages that you can swipe through (though I was able to fit pretty much all the buttons I needed on just one screen).
The number of dials was a bit constraining though. Six is enough to fit my absolute must-haves that I use for almost every image (exposure, contrast, shadows, highlights, color temperature, and tint), but I do have some other adjustments that I use somewhat regularly. Like the touchscreen buttons, you can have multiple pages of dial definitions, so it's not a deal-killer, but slows me down a little having to swipe to those pages and then back to the main page when I moved on to the next image (and quite a few times, I'd forget I had swiped to a different page of dials, and was confused why the expected exposure adjustment wasn't occurring as I turned the dial). If I were a landscape photographer who shot a relatively small number of images and spent a long time working on each one, this wouldn't be an issue. But editing thousands of wedding photographs each week, these extra seconds would add up.
One nice feature is that the screen will label each dial as to what its current function is, which could be very helpful if you have multiple pages of dials and have a hard time remembering the assignments.
Probably my favorite feature of Loupedeck Live is that its software knows when you have a tool active (such as masking, cropping, or spot removal) and automatically switches its array of dials and touchscreen buttons to a (customizable) page of buttons and dial assignments better suited for that particular tool, and then automatically switches back to your normal workspace when you exit the tool. While MIDI2LR can do this (with a little bit of preliminary manual setup work involved), and Monogram is rumored to have this in the works as well, this is one area where Loupedeck Live will always be superior, thanks to its screen being able to actually show the new control assignments as you change from tool to tool, as opposed to you having to remember.
A brilliant marketing move by the company is that you can download the app and, even if you don't have the hardware, it still shows you a graphic representation of the device so that you play around with it to get a feel for how you would like to set up it.
At $269, it's not cheap but also not terribly expensive.
What I liked:
- Compact, fits reasonably well in my workspace (and would be good for a traveling photographer)
- Touchscreen buttons offer great flexibility
- Good build quality
- Dials are labeled via touchscreen
- Dials and buttons automatically change when a tool is selected in Lightroom
- Decent setup software
What I didn't like:
- The haptic feedback is pretty awful... I was hoping for sharp, precise haptics like iPhones and Apple Watches have, but instead it was more like a indistinct buzzing / vibrating type of thing like a video game controller
- I had to look at it while using it more than I would like... understandable for the touchscreen, but I even found it hard to pick out the correct dials and physical buttons just by feel
Monogram Creative Console
Monogram's unique claim to fame is that it can be physically configured according to what each user needs. There are four categories of controls that are available: dials, buttons, sliders, and a unique controller called the Orbiter which uses a pressure-sensitive disc to make adjustments (along with an outer ring), and these modules snap together magnetically. Someone who does a lot of audio work might want more sliders and maybe just a few buttons and dials, while a videographer would benefit from including three Orbiter modules to do color grading of highlights, shadows, and midtones. I personally find the dial controls to be the most intuitive and easy to use for editing photographs, but I also need some buttons.
But the other big benefit to this system, in addition to being able to select the types and number of controls best suited for your work, is that you can arrange these modules to your liking, to create a control surface that best fits your workspace, and prioritizes the positioning of each type of control depending on your particular usage requirements and ergonomics. Some people might like a long skinny row of controls spanning across the front of their keyboard, while others might prefer a more traditional squarish rectangle of controls sitting next to the keyboard. Or even an L-shape.
For my particular arrangement, the ideal controller would be one that fits on my lap desk, to the left of the computer, so that I can keep my left hand on those controls while keeping my right hand near the arrow keys (for moving from image to image) and the trackpad for tasks that require it (like cropping, dragging gradients, etc.), but unlike most people, I have a very specific amount of space I can work with.
Admittedly this is an edge case, so it's understandable that there's not a ready-made option to fit this kind of unusual space, but thanks to the unique modular aspect of Monogram Creative Console, I was able to experiment with the arrangement of the modules to make it not only fit the available space, but be as ergonomically correct and as efficient as possible, with the various types of controls in their most ideal positions for my particular workflow.
Now, one caveat. When I first looked at this product line, I was under the impression that they could be linked up in any desired position and orientation, but that is actually not the case. Though the modules have contacts going around all four sides, there's one particular spot on each module that has "pins", with the others being "pads" (with the exception of the main Core module, which only has pads). The pins on at least one controller module must connect to one of the pads on the Core module, and every other control module must have a pins-to-pads connection to another module that has a path to the Core module (or itself be directly connected to the Core module). I'm probably making this sound more complicated than it really is, but it does place some limits on how they can be arranged. However, it's a relatively minor constraint, and there's enough flexibility here to allow for most people to configure the modules in a way that will work for them. Considering my space constraints, what I did before placing my order is print out actual-size copies of each module, with the pin side marked, so that I could try arranging them in different ways to ensure that I would have at least several usable options.
Like the Loupedeck Live, you can have multiple different profiles set up for any given app, and the small screen on the Core module tells you which is active. So, for instance, you could have a "culling" profile with the controls configured best for evaluating, rating, and comparing images, a "develop" profile with buttons and dials set up for your typical normal editing needs, then maybe a "color" profile for detailed color grading and selective color adjustments, and a "b/w" profile set up with the b/w mix parameters.
However, unlike the Loupedeck Live, there's no screen to tell you what each of the buttons and dials do in any given profile. It does give you the option of changing the color that is around each individual control depending on what profile you are in, which can be marginally helpful in identifying them. Additionally, if you employ multiple profiles and use the Core module's buttons to switch between them, you can hold down one of those buttons to instantly show a diagram on your screen to remind you of what all your controls are set to. Of course, the goal would be to have the controls all memorized so as to be able to work without having to look, but it would be nice to have the on-screen reminder handy just in case. I keep my controls pretty simple though, with everything I most commonly use set up on one Lightroom profile.
In addition to configuring my Monogram Studio setup with an additional Dial module (for a total of 9 dials), a feature that really helps facilitate not having to frequently switch profiles is how most of the controls can have multiple functions that are all instantly and easily accessible depending on how you interact with them. For instance, a button can have a certain action defined for when it is pressed, and a different action for when it is long-pressed (held down for a bit rather than pressed and immediately released). Dials not only have the expected turning function and can act buttons when pushed (which is not uncommon among these types of devices), they also have a separate "turn while pushed" function, which means one dial can adjust two different parameters (for example, turn to adjust Clarity, turn while pushed to adjust Texture), effectively doubling the number of dials at your fingertips. That being said, the buttons are a bit hard to push, so turn-while-pushed is best for your lesser-used settings.
The modular configurability of this system comes at a fairly hefty price. The Studio Console set currently sells for $499, which comes with two Dial modules (with three dials each), one Button module (with three buttons), an Orbiter module, and a Core module (which has a small screen, and two buttons).
The Core module's buttons can be configured to switch between profiles, or can just be used as regular buttons for Lightroom commands (I have mine set to Copy and Paste). This is also the module that connects via a USB cable to your computer.
The Orbiter module is a unique module. It features an outer ring that has a satisfyingly smooth and pleasant turning action, and works great for adjusting exposure, as it's very easy to make large moves or very precise adjustments. The inner portion is a disc that can be tilted in any direction, with each of the two axis adjusting a different parameter. For Lightroom, the natural choices for this portion of the Orbiter are either color grading, or white balance. The latter is what I chose to use it for primarily, with the up/down direction controlling color temperature, and the left/right direction controlling tint.
How it works is that if you push the disc just a little, the adjustment associated with that direction of movement will increment or decrement slowly (for as long as you keep it held down). Push it more forcefully, and the number changes quicker. Very simple and easy to understand, but I was originally on the fence as to whether this was truly the ideal tool for adjusting white balance, as it still felt like it might be easier and more natural to turn dials for temperature and tint rather than "nudging" white balance around with the Orbiter disc. After using it for several weeks though, I quickly warmed up to it. I did initially consider selling the Orbiter and replacing it with two more Dial modules, but I love that luxurious outer ring for exposure adjustments too much, and it didn't take too long to get used to using the disc for white balance.
What I liked:
- Uniquely flexible hardware configuration, can be adapted to fit well in just about any space
- Dials have secondary turn-while-pushed function, buttons have secondary long-push function
- Excellent build quality
- Once I got it set up to my liking, I was able to do my main adjustments without looking at the controls
What I didn't like:
- Higher cost
- Some limitations on arrangement of modules
- Shipping time was a bit longer than what most people expect these days (can only be ordered directly from Monogram, and it drop-ships from China)
- Setup software is pretty bad... gets the job done, but at times can be very frustrating to use
- Dial push action (for button and turn-while-pushed functionality) is somewhat stiff
I found I could edit well with all three of the options, though again, the MIDI2LR / X-Touch Mini combo didn't physically fit well in my setup, so it was quickly ruled out, and I focused my attention on trying to decide whether the Monogram or Loupedeck Live was the best choice for me.
The Monogram's ability to fit perfectly into my particularly unusual computer setup made it the heavy favorite, but admittedly there were some aspects of the Loupedeck Live that I really liked, such as how it automatically changes to a different assortment of buttons and dials depending on what part of Lightroom you are in (Library vs. Develop) and when tools are activated. You can sort of get this same effect with Monogram, but you have to manually switch profiles by pushing a button repeatedly until it reaches the appropriate one, and then switch back to the main profile when you're done. There is talk that automatic profile switching for tools will be added to Monogram, but still, this is an area where Loupedeck will always have an edge thanks to its display showing you the new dial and touchscreen button assignments when the profile (or workspace, as Loupedeck refers to it as) changes.
Both have the useful feature of automatically remapping the regular overall basic adjustment dials to control their corresponding local adjustments when a masking tool is active. So, in other words, if a dial is set to adjust the exposure of the image, if I drag a gradient, that same dial will then control exposure for the local adjustment instead (until you exit the masking tool). Same with contrast, highlights, shadows, white balance, etc. While this might seem like a relatively trivial thing, it's quite significant for me, as I use Lightroom's masking tools frequently, and having these additional controls at my fingertips is a big time saver.
They also both can execute macros with button pushes. While I'm not a heavy macro user, there are two instances where this feature saves me time. The first is when I'm stepping through a series of images and using the Paste Settings from Previous command. This is great until I reach an image that needs to be culled out, because at that point, from Lightroom's perspective, the now rejected image is the "previous" image from which the next image will have the settings pasted to (as opposed to the image right before the rejected one). So, I set up a macro for my reject button that flags the image as a reject, then pushes the left arrow (going back to the last good image), and the right arrow (going back to the next image to be edited), which has the effect of letting me reject an image while making the Paste Settings from Previous command work as I want it to.
The other macro I set up is for when I'm syncing settings from one image to a selected group of other images. Rather than just assign a button to the Sync Settings command, I have a macro that does that command and follows it up with the return key (to dismiss the Settings box that appears and execute the Sync), then Deselect Others (so only the main/source photo is selected), then one press of the right arrow, which selects the first of the series of images that the settings were just synced to, since I do step through these images after the sync just in case there are any additional adjustments needed.
In the end, I found that I worked more efficiently and with less movement with the Monogram setup, so that's what I decided to go with, though it was a closer competition with the Loupedeck Live than I expected. What tipped the scales in favor of Monogram was how, when I eventually got the modules configured to best suit how I worked, my left hand naturally fell in a position where I could access my most-used controls just by touch. Without moving my hand much and without looking, I could adjust exposure, white balance, highlights/whites, and shadows/blacks, as well as reach buttons for reject, undo, cropping, reset cropping, paste previous, sync settings, WB dropper, and B/W. Additional regularly used controls such as contrast, clarity, texture, and dehaze, as well as buttons to activate gradient and radial masks, select subject, and invert mask were within easy reach as well. Controls that I don't use as often (but still wanted access to) such as spot removal, level, upright, saturation, vibrancy, sharpness, and a few particular selective color saturation adjustments were assigned to dials further away from my hand's "home position", but were still quicker to get to than going fishing in the panels for them.
How Much Faster is It
My scientific-as-I-could-make-it testing found that, not surprisingly, there wasn't much difference between editing with no control surface (standard Lightroom keyboard / trackpad), Loupedeck Live, or Monogram when it came to a series of very basic edits (all in the same lighting, so mostly culling and batch edits, with an occasional small exposure adjustment and a little cropping/straightening). But with a sampling of 100 somewhat more complex images with varying lighting, requiring more individual tone and color adjustments, it would take about 12 minutes to edit these with the keyboard and manually moving sliders, while I could do it in about 10 minutes with the Loupedeck Live, or 8 minutes with the Monogram.
Although this quick test supported my impression that I edited faster with the Monogram compared to the Loupedeck Live, I wanted to drill down with a more comprehensive and realistic test to confirm that it really was the best option for me, using one typical wedding with about 1,200 photographs as my proving ground, editing half of the images with the Monogram and the other half with the Loupedeck Live. So as to not skew the results by giving one device the advantage of doing the earlier portion of this particular wedding day (which was in easier and more consistent light) and the other being weighed down by the more difficult reception shots, I broke up the various segments of the day (prep in the hotel room, first look and couple portraits outside, formal group shots, ceremony, reception, send-off/second line parade), and edited half of each segment on one device, half on the other.
The total cumulative editing time with the Loupedeck Live half of the images was an hour and forty eight minutes, while with the Monogram I spent an hour and twenty five minutes. So it's clear that the Monogram was the better choice for me. Though I did not incorporate regular keyboard/trackpad (dragging sliders, clicking, etc.) editing in this test, based on the separate smaller test mentioned above, it would obviously be considerably slower than using either of these control surfaces.
And of course, that's what it's all about, allowing you to work more efficiently, which over the course of editing 75,000 - 100,000 images in a given year, can add up to a lot of saved time. A tool that allows you to implement the needed adjustments to your images just a few seconds faster each means 40-60 hours less work each year! Either of these options would accomplish this goal, but the Monogram Creative Console system was the better choice for me.
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