Adobe Lightroom verdict
Lightroom is Adobe’s bold vision of a cloud-based photo organizing and editing tool where all your images can be organised, edited and viewed anywhere on any device. For mobile users and content creators it’s a clever and effective proposition, but for regular photographers, while its editing tools continue to impress, its restrictions, the closed nature of its editing ecosystem and its cost remain a major barrier.
- All your images available everywhere
- Stripped down streamlined interface
- Seamless integration with mobile apps
- No virtual copies
- No support for plug-ins
- Expensive Adobe storage
What is Lightroom?
Adobe Lightroom is an all-in-one photo organising and editing program but with a difference. Your photos are stored in the cloud rather than on your computer and can be accessed on any device, including a desktop computer, smartphone or tablet or a web browser.
The tools and options vary somewhat depending on what kind of device you’re using, but Lightroom essentially makes all your images – and the tools you need to edit and organise them – available anywhere.
Of course, there is a price to pay. The most obvious is that Adobe’s online storage costs money, and you will need to choose a plan which includes 1TB storage. On the basic Lightroom plan you get 1TB of storage for $9.99/£9.98 per month (paid annually, so you commit to a year at a time) and further storage costs the same again per terabyte.
You can also upgrade a regular Photography Plan to include the extra storage, and Adobe does sometimes run special offers. I added 1TB storage to my account at a reduced rate of £4.99 per month (UK currency) for a year, but that’s not lapsed so I’m back up to the full rate.
The other price is in feature limitations. Lightroom does not do everything that Lightroom Classic (the ‘old’ desktop-first Lightroom) does. Each update brings Lightroom closer, but there’s still quite a gulf between these two programs. The editing tools are now very similar, but Lightroom’s organising tools are pretty simplistic.
- Lightroom review
- Lightroom Classic review
- More Lightroom articles
- How to get Lightroom/Adobe Photography Plans
Lightroom or Lightroom Classic?
Lightroom and Lightroom Classic are very different. They share the same name and many of the same tools, but really they are completely different products heading in completely different directions.
Adobe’s decision to call this cloud-based version just ‘Lightroom’ seems significant. Clearly, Adobe feels this is THE Lightroom, and Lightroom Classic is just A Lightroom.
• Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic: the key differences explained
• See also: Best image editing software – what to look for, how to choose
Lightroom Classic is the ‘old’ Lightroom, using conventional desktop storage and limited synchronisation with Lightroom web and the Lightroom mobile apps on a collection by collection basis, using lower resolution Smart Previews, a kind of editable RAW ‘proxy’ file.
Lightroom, as reviewed here, is the ‘web first’ version. It takes the bold step of moving all your image storage online, using Adobe’s own Creative Cloud servers. You can also choose to have a proportion of your images cached locally for convenience, but the whole point of Lightroom is that all your images should be available everywhere, at their full resolution and whatever format you choose to use, whether it’s RAW, JPEG, TIFF or whatever.
The Lightroom community
One of Lightroom’s unique selling points is it’s ‘community’. You can engage with other Lightroom users, swap comments and ideas and get inspiration from what other users have done. The two key sections here are Learn and Discover.
In the Learn section, you can see what edits other users have carried out and learn how they did it via step by step instructions. The Discover section is a creative showcase for Lightroom users and another source of editing ideas, but this time arranged into genres like Architecture or Food.
The value of all this will depend on how big you are on social engagement, and whether you think Adobe’s platform, which is purely for stills not video, of course, is worth your time and attention.
Lightroom storage and organisation
When you import images to Lightroom, they’re uploaded to Adobe’s Creative Cloud servers by default and that’s the primary storage location. You can choose how much of your image library is stored locally on your own computer, and by default this is 25% of the space remaining on your hard disk.
You can increase this if you have space available and want to improve image loading/caching performance, but this is not designed as a way to get back to regular desktop storage – your Lightroom images live in the cloud.
Once imported, your images are organised in a much simpler and more streamlined way than they are in Lightroom Classic. They’re all thrown into one big ‘pot’ (‘All Photos’) and from there you can organise them into Albums. You can also create folders for Albums and create a more organised hierarchical structure for your image library.
HOWEVER, Lightroom does not support smart albums. You can’t create automatically populated albums for certain keywords, camera models or other search terms like you can in Lightroom Classic.
But Lightroom does have something Lightroom Classic doesn’t. Because your images are stored online on Adobe’s cloud servers, they can be analysed and searched by Adobe Sensei, Adobe’s artificial intelligence based search tool. Sensei can detect and identify objects in pictures and find all (well, most) of your shots of ‘boats’, or ‘mountains’ for example, and without you having to enter a single keyword.
Sensei’s guesses aren’t always good, but they can often resurface images you’d forgotten and you’re rather pleased to be reminded about!
There is also a Sensei-powered Best Photo tool, but this is only on the mobile and web versions for some reason.
This is a big organisational difference. Where Lightroom Classic will suit organised, methodical photographers who want their image cataloguing to be a precise science, Lightroom’s simpler freeform approach will suit those who have no time for keywords and are happy with a process that’s part science, part discovery.
Lightroom also lacks any kind of ‘container’ or definitive location for your images. Photos are not stored in Folders, only Albums. A photo can be in lots of different Albums or none of them. It won’t suit photographers who like their images to be found definitively in one place.
Lightroom editing tools
Lightroom offers an extensive set of global image adjustment tools but also offers local adjustments via masking tools which have steadily grown more sophisticated. All its adjustments are non-destructive, so your original photo is never altered and you can go back at any time and change any of the settings you’ve applied.
Lightroom has almost all of the editing tools you get in the regular Lightroom Classic. They are accessed via fly-out panels on the right side of the screen and they’re arranged in a much more efficient and modern-looking way than in the Classic version.
They include all the panels Classic users will be familiar with. There’s an Edit panel with Profile, Light, Color, Effects, Detail, Optics and Geometry sections that handles most basic editing, and underneath that there is the Crop and Rotate tool and the Healing Brush tool, and below this is a Mask button for accessing Lightroom’s masking tools.
Recent Lightroom updates have completely changed the masking tools, the way they are displayed and how they work:
- Masks you create are displayed in their own special panel
- You can combine, or ‘intersect’ masks for more sophisticated masking effects
- Lightroom can now use AI to offer automatic sky or subject selection
Lightroom also supports the HDR merge and panorama merge options in Lightroom Classic, so there’s really very little difference between their editing capabilities. Both also have Adobe’s new Color Grading panel, which is actually very powerful.
In one key respect, though Lightroom’s editing options are very limited.
Lightroom does not support any external editor or plug-in other than Photoshop. There seems no obvious reason why it should lock you in this way, when Lightroom Classic supports both non-Adobe external editors and a large number of after-market plug-ins. This only increases Lightroom’s ’locked-in’ feeling.
The obvious workaround is to open images in Photoshop and launch plug-ins from there, but this means you’ll need an Adobe plan that includes Photoshop, which – if you want the 1TB storage that seems a necessary starting point for Lightroom – means stepping up to the next tier of Photography Plan subscriptions, which is the £19.98/$19.99 per month Photography Plan with 1TB.
And there’s another thing. Lightroom does not support virtual copies. One of the big plus points of non-destructive editing tools is that you can try out different processing options on an image without having to create new files. But not here. This omission is both bizarre and frustrating. Again, this is a personal opinion, but for me, virtual copies are a crucial part of any non-destructive editing/cataloguing tool – they are part of the whole process of photographic experimentation.
You can duplicate images, but they really are duplicate files and they will take up extra space, and while you can create and save ‘Versions’ within an image, these are like saved snapshots, however, not virtual copies, and Lightroom will only display a single image thumbnail for all the versions you create – you have to choose the one you want it to show.
Lightroom does have an Enhance Details option powered by Adobe Sensei which apparently takes a new and powerful approach to raw file demosaicing to produce better fine detail and improved results with Adobe X-Trans files.
In my tests, the differences were occasionally visible but not exactly worth changing my workflow to achieve – because the issue with this tool is that it generates a whole new DNG version of your raw image. This immediately demands its own chunk of storage, and while you could in theory then delete the original, past experience of Adobe’s various DNG versions and generations suggests other software applications may or may not be able to open these new ‘enhanced’ DNGs.
The other Enhance option is Super Resolution, which generates a DNG file with twice the width and height of the original and uses AI to interpolate extra details. This works pretty well on RAW files, though the DNGs produced are HUGE. It’s less effective on JPEGs, where you don’t seem to get any more real detail than if you’d used regular resampling options – and in some instances it can produce nasty ‘mazing’ artefacts at a pixel level.
Quality of results
Lightroom’s RAW processing is all right, but you might need to spend a little time optimising the noise reduction and sharpening settings to get a good compromise between noise and detail – with the default settings, Lightroom’s default RAW processing is certainly noisier than Capture One’s and DxO PhotoLab’s and often not quite as sharp.
The local adjustment tools work well, though you only get a sub-set of Lightroom’s full adjustment tools when using the Brush, Linear and Radial Gradient tools – unlike Capture One, which uses layers-based adjustments where all the tools are available for each layer.
Lightroom does support presets, and you now get an extensive selection of Premium Presets which are rather good, and there’s a Recommended tab which uses AI to analyse your image and find a recommended preset from the Lightroom ‘community’. This is a bit hit and miss and no more appealing, really, than the attempts of Skylum Luminar AI at AI-driven ‘look’ suggestions. Between them, I can’t help thinking Lightroom’s Premium and Recommended presets have surely all but killed off the third-party preset market.
It is easy to get great-looking results with Lightroom. The AI Sky and Subject masking work well – sometimes uncannily well – but you can’t really refine them much afterwards, so they either work or they don’t. The mask intersection tools are useful if you want to blend a sky with a graduated filter for a more natural look, and while the local adjustment tools are a subset of the full range, they do the job.
Some things are especially good, like the automatic Geometry corrections for fixing converging verticals, horizontal convergence or both, and the Healing Brush can blot out everything from sensor spots to irritating passers-by with almost no effort.
Ultimately, though, the skill lies with the judgement of the operator, and while Lightroom is slick and efficient, apart from its AI tricks it doesn’t really do anything that others can’t – and if you’re more into quality and control than speed and efficiency, you’ll get more out of your RAW files with Capture One or DxO PhotoLab.
Lightroom does offer a very effective all-your-images everywhere cloud-based storage, organising and editing workflow. Its appeal for photographers whose editing is based around desktop or laptop computers is limited (compared to Lightroom Classic), but if you use your phone to capture images, or like to transfer images from your camera to your mobile devices, it makes a lot of sense. But there are plenty of strings attached, even here.
First is the one that’s likely to prove most unpopular – having to pay $9.99 per month for extra cloud storage you will definitely need. Second, there are the operational limitations of Lightroom compared to Lightroom Classic, i.e. no virtual copies, no external editors and plug-ins (other than Photoshop), no smart albums or search tools other than Adobe Sensei.
I was enthusiastic about Lightroom (originally called Lightroom CC) when it was first launched in 2017. I thought its stripped-down interface and web-based storage had real potential, and that before long Adobe would bring feature parity with Lightroom Classic so the the two programs could be merged into one ‘perfect’ cloud-based cataloguing program.
That hasn’t happened. Instead, Adobe has continued to develop two competing Lightroom versions following two different trajectories. Lightroom has strong appeal for mobile photographers and those who can’t tolerate being tied to a single desktop computer or laptop and are looking instead for integration with a broader ‘community’, but there’s both a financial cost and a series of operational limitations which continue to be frustrating.
Paradoxically, if Adobe could bring Lightroom’s slick single-window interface to Lightroom Classic, I think that would give Classic a major boost. But maybe Adobe doesn’t want Lightroom Classic to get any more popular, not when there’s money to be made from cloud storage and a gated community of Lightroom users.
Adobe Photography Plans
• Adobe Photography Plan: $9.99/month
• Adobe Photography Plan (1TB): $19.99/month
Lightroom Plan (1TB): $9.99/month
A trial version lasting just a few days is available