Image Selection in Lightroom Grid View

One thing I find a bit confusing about Lightroom is that it has an extra concept in the area of image selection in Grid View. Adobe calls it the Active Image.

Users familiar with simple tools like Windows Explorer are used to the concept that a file is either selected or not. Lightroom’s Active Image is a third state.

I think they needed it to handle synchronization of settings and metadata. You need to be able to tell Lightroom which image is the source for the synchronization. So the rule is that the synchronization is applied from the Active Image to the remainder of the Selected Images.

Of course the corollary is that whle any number of images can be selected only one can be Active. In the trivial case of one image it is both Selected and Active.

Lightroom Selection in Grid View

Lightroom Selection in Grid View

It gets interesting when you consider how the Active Image changes when the user does things in the Lightroom User Interface. Clicking with the mouse within a set of Selected Images changes the Active Image but keeps the selection intact.

This is different from the behaviour of the superficially similar Thumbnail View in Windows Explorer. In Explorer clicking with the mouse means that only the image you clicked on is selected.

I don’t know how a Mac or Windows Vista behave – I only have my Windows XP PC. One important consideration for Adobe must have been consistency between OS platforms.

The corner case of this selection process is when every image in a folder is selected. Clicking with the mouse does not allow me to deselect all images apart from the one I clicked on. How do I cancel the selection?

I have had trouble with this when I am working quickly. I commonly select a range of images to add keywords. That’s great – any keyword or other metadata changes I make are reflected in all the selected images. (ACDSee makes you go to separate metadata editor to affect multiple images – crazy!)

But often I click on one image wanting to select it alone in order to change its Rating. Wrong! I only changed the Active Image, the selection is the same and the Rating is applied to the entire selection. Not what I wanted at all.

Adobe had to introduce a keyboard shortcut “Select Only Active Photo” (Ctrl+Shift+D) to get around this. It cancels the entire selection apart from the Active Image.

The keyboard arrow keys behave differently. I thought that’d act just like the mouse – changing the Active Image within the set of selected images. But no, if I have a set of images selected the arrow keys cancel the selection and select / make active the next image in the direction of the arrow key pressed. That behaviour is  similar to Windows Explorer (XP).

I am sure users are confused when software sometimes works like they have come to expect and at other times it deviates. There’s a reason for it but it may be subtle.

Many years ago I worked on one of the first products that addressed some of these issues: HP NewWave. The user interface team battled with questions like this for months – trying to make a set of rules that applied to every application. It was hard: Pete Showman, where are you now?

This Lightroom dialog box

Lightroom Selection Ambiguity

shows how the Lightroom team realized that the Active / Selected concept can be confusing. I wanted to change the Metadata Preset I used when I imported some photos to reflect a different location. I selected the range I wanted to change and chose a different preset in the Metadata panel.

Lightroom wanted to be sure I knew what I was doing: the default behaviour is to apply the preset to the entire selection but that would destroy any changes I made to the metadata of individual images.

I think the “Don’t show again” option is confusing. If I check it, what will Lightroom do next time? It assumes I understand the model, which isn’t proven. I would add a line to the dialog box indicating what Lightroom will do next time without confimation.

This is all good stuff if you are into the minutae of user interface design. For me it is interesting because it recalls a previous life and also because it provides clues into what went on behind the scenes at Adobe when they were designing and user testing Lightroom.

I bet they had a camp that agrued against showing such dialogs at all: “Lightroom is a professional tool – don’t use it if you don’t know what you are doing” versus the touchy-feely, social science educated human factors folks who believed that users must be protected from unintended actions. “Don’t show again” was the compromise.

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