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Z-Cage

Review of Kubota Image Tools
RPG SpeedKeys for LIGHTROOM 2

by Ron Risman -- October 2009





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Users of Adobe Lightroom 2.x already appreciate the programs simplified interface and its ability to help shave hours off of your image editing, however a new product called RPG Speedkeys from Kubota is aiming to reduce your editing times even further.

RPG Speedkeys is the brainchild of a Maine based company called RPG Keys. The company makes full size and mini keypads that allow for quick editing tasks in Photoshop and Lightroom. Their mini keypad product called the RPG mini LR1 is the product that Kevin Kubota has licensed and customized to include special key functionality and direct access to his highly-rated Kubota presets that are also included at no extra charge. This is the product that I am reviewing - The Kubota RPG Speedkeys!

What are Speedkeys?
The Kubota RPG Speedkeys is a wireless keypad that is modeled after a typical numeric keypad. However, instead of numeric and math keys, the RPG Speedkeys has keys that are specifically designed and labeled for use in Lightroom 2.x and with the Kubota presets that are included.

While Adobe Lightroom 2 has made image editing faster and more intuitive, it is still very mouse intensive. Having to move the mouse around the screen for every simple little task, such as increasing brightness or exposure increases editing time. Unfortunately, Adobe didn't provide keyboard equivalents for many of the simple tasks that can help power users fly through their editing tasks. Imagine how much easier it would be if you could just press a key to select your favorite preset instead of having to scroll through the list to find it. This is where the Kubota RPG Speedkeys comes in.

You will learn quite a bit about the RPG Speedkeys in this review, but I wanted to save some of you time by letting you know that this product isn't for everyone. It's a product, that in my opinion, mostly benefits those who need to edit a lot of photos in the shortest time possible - mainly event photographers. The ability to shave off 5 seconds of editing time for a few images will never justify the price of this product, but taking 5 seconds off each image in an 800 image set from a sports shoot can save you over an hour of editing - and that's just one event. For those on a busy schedule, time is money and often a precious resource.

What's included
The Kubota RPG Speedkeys comes pre-loaded with 29 Kubota Lightroom presets. As a bonus, the SpeedKeys also includes the entire collection of Kubota Lightroom Presets v3, which includes develop, export, print, and filter presets. All of the presets included in Kubota Lightroom Presets v1 and v2 are included in the set, PLUS brand new presets never before available!

Installation
Installing the Kubota RPG Speedkeys is very simple. Just install the drivers and presets from the CD included, plug in the small USB wireless 'dongle' into an available USB port on your computer or USB hub, launch the RPG Speedkeys software and start Lightroom. That's it. If for some reason the keypad stops communicating with the wireless 'dongle' you can use a pen to press the reset button on the back of the keypad to get connect it back up. This happened to me just once during the testing period.

Using the Kubota RPG Speedkeys
As mentioned earlier, the Kubota SpeedKeys is a wireless numeric keypad that provides fast access to 29 specially designed Lightroom presets. Thanks to two large option keys (OPT 2, OPT 3) each key on the keypad can provide access to three different controls. For example, the upper left key when pressed by itself acts as an "UNDO" key. If pressed along with the option 2 (OPT2) key it will increase exposure or if pressed along with the option 3 (OPT3) key will reduce the exposure. This design provides finger tip access to 29 Kubota presets as well as control over exposure, color temperature, black levels, fill levels, brightness levels, vignettes, and there are also keys to activate the fill, burn, and skin softening (adjustment) brushes.

Adjusting Your Workflow
Before using the RPG Speedkeys I did most of my Lightroom editing inside the DEVELOP module since this is the only mode where you have access to both preset previews and adjustment sliders. However, the Kubota RPG SpeedKeys does most of its magic in the LIBRARY module. This mode is not only faster rendering previews, but it also gives the keypad direct access to select presets and adjustments. At first you might wonder why you would edit in grid view (LIBRARY Module), but the Library module is actually made up of several different views (Grid, Loupe, Compare & Survey). The recommended view for editing is actually the Loupe view within the LIBRARY module. You can get to the Loupe view by clicking the appropriate icon on the screen below the thumbnail grid or just press "E" on the keyboard as a shortcut.

If you press any of the keys on the keypad that require the use of the adjustment brush (add fill, burn or skin softening) the software will automatically switch to the DEVELOP module and will initiate the adjustment brush requested. While you're in the DEVELOP module you'll also be able to use the Next/Pick/Reject key as well as make adjustments to the exposure, fill, black level, and brightness from the keypad without being taken back to the LIBRARY module. However, if you press a key to select one of the 29 presets, the view will automatically switch back to the Loupe view. If, like me, you do most of your editing in the DEVELOP module this new method will take some getting used to, but it does help to speed up the editing process, at least when using the Kubota RPG SpeedKeys.

Mac Users: When using the SpeedKeys inside the LOUPE view make sure that all right-hand panels are expanded. For some reason the keypad cannot access adjustments in this mode if the panels are collapsed. This isn't a problem on the PC version.

The RPG SpeedKeys software utility allows the user to fine-tune the key-press adjustment settings. These settings determine how many 'steps' an adjustment will make when the appropriate key is pressed. You don't want to have to press the exposure or brightness key 50 times to get to the desired level, so this utility allows you to control that. I've set up the software to increase (+) most of the adjustments by 4 steps (instead of 1) with each press, but to only reduce them by 1 when I use the need to back off the adjustment. This way I can get close to the desired effect more quickly but then lower the levels down in smaller steps in case the last key press went a bit too far.

Kubota Presets are Awesome, but....

See Highlighted Note Below: One issue I have with the Kubota RPG Speedkeys is that the keys cannot be remapped, meaning that the named preset associated with each individual key or combo-key press cannot be changed by the user. If you're happy with the presets that are assigned to each key then this isn't an issue, but more likely than not you'll find that you'll use some of them often, and rarely use others. It would be nice if, through a software update, Kubota and/or RPG allowed you to remap the keys to other presets. There would still be the issue of having to relabel the individual keys, but an overlay could solve this.

It has come to my attention that Kubota Imaging had already announced that they are developing future updates to allow for customization of the SpeedKeys for Lightroom. This will be a free update to early adopters of the Kubota RPG SpeedKeys. Based on this information please know that the paragraph above is only a temporary problem, one that will be corrected shortly with this upcoming update.

For now, you could always rename a different preset so that it has the same name as the one that is called when the key is pressed. Just remember to remove or rename the original one first. Another solution would be to just alter the preset yourself. Here's how to do it:

How to customize a preset

Before making any changes I recommend backing up (exporting) any of the standard Kubota presets that you wish to change. Do this by right clicking on a preset and selecting "export." This way you can always revert back to it down the road. All the originals presets are also on the Kubota CD that was included with the SpeedKeys, so backing them up is not really a requirement if you have the original CD.

To tweak a preset do the following:

  • Click on the one that you wish to change
  • Switch to the DEVELOP module (Shortcut "D" on your keyboard)
  • Make any changes using any of the Lightroom controls on the right panel.
When finished it's time to update the preset:
  • Right click on the preset you want to update
  • Select "Update with Current Settings" on the pop-up menu.
  • When asked to select which attributes you want updated select "Check All" (*) since you want this update to reflect all prior preset settings including the ones you've changed.
To Fully Change a Presets Function:

You may also wish to totally change what a preset does - for example making the Vignette 1 SK preset reduce vibrancy instead of adding a vignette. To do this, select a photo and press "CTRL-SHIFT-R" or press RESET in the Develop module. This resets all of the adjustments sliders to the way they were when you first imported a photo. Then, in this example, change the vibrancy setting and nothing else. I've changed mine to -14. Now, when you update the PRESET make sure to uncheck ALL of the boxes and only select the one that pertains to the slider(s) you have changed. This example provides a decent workaround for the fact that you cannot alter color intensity by itself using the keypad. Whenever I now press the 'Vignette 1 SK" key on the keypad it lowers the vibrancy to -14 and leaves all other settings that might have come before it alone.

I have also found that while the SpeedKeys provides access to most of the important editing features, there are still a few additions I would like to see in future versions or updates.

  • Access to Vibrance and/or Saturation
    I think the lack of saturation or vibrancy control on the keypad is a mistake. Yes, there are times you can compensate by increasing or decreasing black level and brightness, but not all the time. As a pseudo workaround you can try using the method I describe above to alter a preset to adjust an images vibrancy, but hopefully this will get added in future versions of the RPG Speedkeys.

  • Rotate Function
    One of the features I use often in Lightroom is the rotate/crop tool. It would be great to have keys that when pressed would rotate a photo in x-increments right or left so I don't have to keep bouncing back to the keyboard and mouse. If not, then lets add a way to flag an image that might need straightening or cropping for later review (see the next bullet point).

  • Image Rating
    The ability to rate an image beyond pick / reject is crucial, as it would allow me to give a score of 1 to images that need to be cropped or rotated, allowing me to quickly find those images after I am done with the basic edits. I chose the number 1 for this example because I would never normally give an image a score of 1. If an image was so bad that it deserved a score of 1, then I would just use the reject key on the keypad to flag it for later removal.

  • Duplicate (Paste Settings from Previous)
    Since I often find the right look by using a combination of keys, it would only make sense to allow me to apply that exact same effect on subsequent images. This could be done by either mapping Lightroom's "paste settings from previous" feature to one of the keys or by allowing a key to act as a macro recorder that remembers the last combination of keys pressed while in a photo. It could then automatically reset itself when you move to another photo.

  • Reset Key
    Sometimes we just want to start over. We went through a combination of key presses and ended up somewhere far off the mark. Sure, we can continue to press undo until we're back at the beginning, but a reset key would make things simpler and quicker.

  • Quick Zoom
    Without being able to zoom in on a photo to 100% it's often hard, if not impossible, to determine whether your new adjustments have deteriorated any part of the photos, especially in shadow areas. It would be great to have one of the keys programmed to quickly zoom in on the photo. Press it again to zoom out.

Doubles as a wireless controller
Thanks to the wireless nature of the keypad you don't have to be right next to your PC to use it, so sit back and let the keypad act as a lightroom remote control.

But here's another undocumented trick.

When the RPG Speedkeys software is running, the wireless keypad acts like a standard keypad when in other windows applications. That means you can use the RPG Speedkeys as a wireless remote commander to control Power point presentations, slideshows, and virtually any application that allows a user to move forward / back using the arrow keys on a traditional numeric keypad.

While the individual keys on the keypad aren't labeled with numbers or arrows, the layout is so similar that it'll take just a second or two to figure it out!

This works in reverse as well. If your using a full size keyboard with its own keypad, you'll find that once the Speedkeys software is running, your PC's numeric keypad will duplicate the functionality of the Speedkeys keypad while inside Lightroom. This could prove handy once you have become accustomed to the layout of the keypad. On my keyboard's keypad there is one less key on the upper right, so I would lose keypad access to Brightness and Auto WB, so the overall convenience of this solution will be determined by the keypad layout of your keyboard.

No room next to your keyboard?
If your keyboard and mouse are in a slide out draw, the way mine is, you will most likely not have room for comfortable positioning of the RPG SpeedKeys. A simple solution is to place the RPG keypad on top of the keypad built into the desktop keyboard. This positions the RPG SpeedKeys keypad right where it should be without taking up additional space. When positioned like this, take care when pressing any of the keys near the corner.

Keep Your Catalogs Small
An important tip to keeping peace between Lightroom and the Kubota RPG SpeedKeys is to keep your Lightroom catalogs small. When I first started testing the SpeedKeys I ran into problems where some of the keys would stop doing what they were supposed to do (the Exp +/- key would reduce exposure regardless of whether I was pressing the + key combination of the - key combination). I finally had to call RPG SpeedKeys tech support and was told that due to the large size of my Lightroom catalog (40,000+ images), the software might start to have trouble keeping clear communications going with Lightroom. The trouble is more likely within Lightroom itself, but that's really a mute point. The RPG representative suggested the following workflow:

  • Create a new Lightroom catalog (File/New) and have Lightroom save it to the same folder your images will ultimately be transferred to
  • Import your latest collection of images into this new catalog.
  • Make original backups onto CD or DVD
  • Go through and edit / enhance your images
  • Finish exporting, uploading or printing your photos to which ever medium you normally would

  • Once you're done editing the images
    • Close the catalog
    • Re-open your main (large) catalog
    • Import the previously created & edited catalog into the larger catalog
The idea behind the smaller catalog is that Lightroom will be more reliable, faster, and you won't have any issues with the communication between the SpeedKeys software and Lightroom. Lightroom will also render previews more quickly which also improves overall editing speed. The idea behind importing them back into a larger catalog is that you'll want to be able to search your catalog of images using the powerful search tools built into Lightroom (keyword, metadata search, star rating, etc.).

The utility has two tabs, one for the Library module and another for the develop module. When using the DEVELOP module the keypad can be set to specific increments (1,2,3,4,5,etc.), however when editing in the LIBRARY module, you'll have to choose either "big" or "small" steps. Again, I've set my software up to take bigger steps as I increase the effect and smaller steps as I decrease the effect.

Final Thoughts
Overall, I love the idea of the SpeedKeys and feel that the products value will truly be realized once the ability to remap the keys to any of your Lightroom Presets becomes available. As mentioned in my update above, this will be a free update for all owners of this product. For consumers I think the price is too high to justify the small savings in editing time, but for professional event photographers to whom time is money, SpeedKeys will most likely speed up your editing workflow enough to justify the $350. If the keypad can cut just 5 seconds of editing per image, that quickly adds up to over an hour if you have to get through 800+ images.

Given the limitations of Lightroom connectivity, the Kubota RPG SpeedKeys does a remarkable job at turning Lightroom adjustments into one-key 'macros' both for adjustments and for presets. I would like to see the ability to remap the keys to any of the other presets and feel this could easily be achieved through a software update. Even with this solution there's still the issue of key labels, but that worries me less since ultimately I won't need to look at the keypad to know where a particular preset is.

When you purchase the SpeedKeys you'll also get the Kubota Lightroom Presets V3 ($49 value), which includes all of the presets from V1 and V2, along with the 29 that come mapped to the keypad. You can also purchase the Kubota RPG SpeedKeys along with Kubota's RAW Workflow for Lightroom DVD for just $49 more ($399), a savings of $50. This DVD is invaluable to anyone who wants to better understand how to streamline your RAW workflow using Lightroom. It covers efficient editing and adjustments, batch processing, preset secrets, final presentation, and more. I've watched it and learned a ton from it - probably due to the fact that I've been using Lightroom in a very inefficient manner up until watching this DVD. Whether the RPG SpeedKeys is the right solution for you, you should definitely check heck out the RAW Workflow DVD if you use or want to use Lightroom to speed up your workflow.

Get more information on the RPG SpeedKeys

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