Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic – how do you choose which one to use? There’s the ‘old’ Lightroom, now called Lightroom Classic, and the newer cloud-based version, now simply called Lightroom.
The name is the same and there is some degree of overlap, but despite the apparent similarities, these are two very different programs. So if you have to decide between Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic, which do you choose? This comparison will help you decide!
Adobe’s decision to split Lightroom into two different products has made it more difficult for photographers to choose the right photo cataloguing tool. Although they share the same name and many of the same tools, Lightroom and Lightroom Classic are really quite different in the way they store and handle your photos and what they enable you to do.
- Lightroom review
- Lightroom Classic review
- More Lightroom articles
- How to get Lightroom/Adobe Photography Plans
Adobe’s Photography Plan is the most cost-effective way for photographers to get Adobe software, and it includes both versions of Lightroom. You can use both or either, and to some extent they can even work alongside each other. It’s best to pick one or the other, though, so this guide explains ten key differences between these two programs to help you choose.
• Find out how to get the Adobe Photography Plans, what the different versions include and what it costs.
1. Where your images are stored
Lightroom stores your images on Adobe’s Creative Cloud servers. This makes them available everywhere, but this storage space costs money. This is the key Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic difference.
• Lightroom is a designed for a ‘web first’ approach where your images are stored on Adobe’s Creative Cloud servers so that all of them are available everywhere. Adobe’s storage is not free. You’ll need to upgrade to the higher-tier Photography Plan with 1TB subscription to get sufficient storage space, and if you don’t keep on top of your growing library you may need to upgrade your storage in future, which will cost more again.
• Lightroom Classic is the new version of the ‘old’ Lightroom. Your images are stored locally on your own computer’s disk drives, and while you can synchronise images in a more limited way with Adobe’s Lightroom Web and Lightroom Mobile tools (see the next section), Lightroom Classic takes a ‘desktop first’ approach where online synchronisation is a useful add-on rather than being central to the whole software.
2. Image synchronisation and access
With Lightroom your whole image library is online and available to your mobile devices and online via a web browser. Sharing images from Lightroom Classic is more limited.
• Lightroom’s web-first approach means paying a higher subscription to use Adobe’s online storage, but it also means all your images are available everywhere, in their original format and at their full resolution. Lightroom is fully integrated with Adobe’s web and mobile apps, so that you don’t just see all your photos, they’re displayed in the same Collections across all your devices – your organisational system is preserved too. But it comes at a cost, and you are reliant on an Internet connection to access full resolution versions of images not cached locally on your computer.
• Lightroom Classic can synchronise images too, but in a different and more limited way. First, you can sync Collections, but not your whole catalog, so you don’t get to see your entire catalog online or in your mobile app. Second, it only synchronises a lower-resolution Smart Preview. It’s enough for on-screen display, social media and editing – any editing changes you make are synchronised back to the original image in the Lightroom catalog on your computer. At the moment, Lightroom Classic’s Smart Previews don’t seem to count towards the limited storage allocation you get with the regular Photography Plan.
3. Editing tools
The editing tools in Lightroom are now almost equivalent to those in Lightroom Classic. There’s little to choose between them, though the differences may be important to some users.
• Lightroom initially lagged behind Classic for editing tools but now the gap has been closed. Since Adobe added the HDR pano merge feature to both versions of Lightroom, there’s now little difference. Lightroom does not have the Color Range masking option for local adjustments that you get with Lightroom Classic, but this feels like a pretty small difference.
• Lightroom Classic may have few advantages in editing tools now, but there remain some big differences in how photo editing is handled in a broader way, where Lightroom has restrictions and limitations that anyone considering migrating over from Lightroom Classic might hard to live with, notably Virtual Copies and external editors and plug-ins – the next two sections go into more detail.
4. Virtual Copies
Unlike Lightroom Classic, Lightroom does not offer Virtual Copies. This could prove a major annoyance if you rely on them to compare ‘looks’.
• Lightroom is a ‘non-destructive’ editor, like Lightroom Classic. All the adjustments you make are saved as processing ‘instructions’ which changed, removed or added to at any time. One big advantage is the idea of ‘virtual copies’, but Lightroom does not have this. Its neast equivalent is ‘Versions’, which are more like saved snapshots within each image. It sounds similar but it’s a lot less useful.
• Lightroom Classic does support Virtual Copies, so you can try out many different effects and styles on the same picture without having to duplicate the original image and take up additional storage space. If you’re used to having Virtual Copies in your workflow, Lightroom could prove limiting.
5. External editors and plug-ins
Lightroom only supports Photoshop as an external editor, but Lightroom Classic supports any external editors and a wide range of plug-ins. In the Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic debate, this might not sound like a big deal, but actually it is.
• Lightroom does not support plug-ins and the only external editor it supports is Photoshop. If you want to use plug-ins, the only way to do it is to open an image in Photoshop and launch the plug-in from there. It also means you’ll need a Photography Plan that includes Photoshop to be able to use an external editor at all.
• Lightroom Classic supports external editors and plug-ins, and many plug-in publishers now include Lightroom support as a matter of course. It’s perfectly straightforward to ’round trip’ an image from Lightroom Classic to Photoshop, Affinity Photo, the DxO Nik Collection plug-ins, Exposure X, Skylum Luminar or a host of other programs.
6. Classic Modules
Lightroom Classic’s module-based workflow now looks dated and redundant – Lightroom has a much slicker single-window workspace.
• Lightroom is much slicker to use than Lightroom Classic. The organising and editing tools are in a single window and there are no separate ‘modules’. The editing tools are presented in a more modern, minimal design that’s a lot more efficient. However, part of the reason the organisational tools look simpler is because a lot has been taken out.
• Lightroom Classic is based around a series of modules: Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, Web. Having to keep swapping between the Library and Develop modules for organising and editing can be annoying, and you might not use the other modules at all. These feel like a throwback to an earlier time, and feel overdue for retirement or replacement.
7. Collections and Smart Collections
Lightroom Classic supports Collections (Albums) but not Smart Collections. It’s a surprising omission that many users might not be expecting.
• Lightroom‘s search tools are both simpler and arguably more adaptable than Lightroom Classic’s (see ‘Keywords and searches’ below), but you can’t use them to create Smart Collections, because they’re not supported. Regular ‘manual’ Collections are the only type on offer, so if you want to carry out searches you’ll have to do it using the Filter bar or the keyword search field.
• Lightroom Classic offers in-depth image search tools that can also be used to create Smart Collections – Collections based on search criteria rather than images being added manually. This is such a common tool in programs of this type you might take it for granted that you’re going to get it in Lightroom too – but you don’t, and this may hamper your usual image organising system.
8. Filter bar options
Both versions of Lightroom have a Filter Bar, but Lightroom’s is stripped back and doesn’t offer the in-depth filter parameters in Lightroom Classic. Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic is like stripped back and straightforward vs technical and deep.
• Lightroom offers more basic options in the Filter Bar. It will be fine for simpler everyday searching, but it can’t match Lightroom Classic’s ability to drill down through camera data.
• Lightroom Classic‘s filter bar is much more powerful than Lightroom’s, offering all the same basic filter options but allowing you to drill down into multiple layers of camera shooting information.
9. Keywords and searches
Lightroom can use regular keywords, filenames and basic camera EXIF data for searches, but also Adobe’s Sensei AI tech for fast and simple ‘fuzzy’ searches – but it does not offer Lightroom Classic’s in-depth search options.
• Lightroom supplements manual keywording with its own ‘automatic’ keywording system, using Adobe’s AI-based Sensei technology to identify objects within images so that you can search for ‘boat’, or ‘mountain’, or many other generic object types and be shown matching images in your library based on their content rather than keywords you’ve added.
• Lightroom Classic takes a traditional approach to keywording. You apply keywords manually and you can then search for keywords or use them as criteria for Smart Collections. It doesn’t have Lightroom’s useful Sensei search technology, but it supports the full range of industry-standard IPTC metadata and is much better suited to professional image management.
10. Photography Plan cost
Lightroom adds the extra dimension of storage cost to the Photography Plan options. Lightroom Classic does not. There are three Adobe subscription plans of interest to photographers:
1) Photography Plan with 20GB, $9.99/£9.98 per month (paid annually)
This includes Photoshop, Lightroom Classic and Lightroom (plus sundry extras). This is perfect if you intend using Lightroom Classic and Photoshop. You can install and use Lightroom too, but the 20GB of cloud storage included in this plan won’t get you very far.
2) Photography Plan with 1TB, $19.98/£19.97 per month (paid annually)
This is the same as the regular Photography Plan, but with 1TB cloud storage included. This is what you’ll need if you intend to use Lightroom seriously (rather than just trying it out). As you can see, adding 1TB storage effectively adds £9.98/$9.99 to the monthly cost. You can upgrade your storage beyond that, but you’ll need to speak to Adobe about it.
3) Lightroom with 1TB, $9.99/£9.98 per month (paid annually)
This is a good Plan if you intend to use Lightroom EXCLUSIVELY. It costs the same as the regular Photography Plan but includes 1TB cloud storage for Lightroom. But you do not get Photoshop, so you effectively lose out on external editing tools, and you do not get Lightroom Classic to fall back on.
The bottom line is that if you want Lightroom’s web-based convenience AND Photoshop and a usable amount of storage, you’ll need the most expensive Photography Plan with 1TB option.
Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic: the verdict
Lightroom Classic (above) and Lightroom both have faults. Lightroom Classic feels fussy and dated, and while it has seen a series of recent speed improvements, you still wouldn’t call it quick. On the other hand, Lightroom’s simpler interface and Sensei search tools lock you in to Adobe’s expensive online storage and its own software ecosystem.
• Lightroom is an interesting proposition for photographers who need all their images everywhere, even if it does mean being locked into the Adobe ecosystem, and it’s an especially strong proposition for ‘mobile’ photographers who shoot with a smartphone or a tablet, not just a camera, as you can capture images straight into your Lightroom library.
Lightroom Classic remains by far the best tool for photographers who want to store their own images locally (and avoid online cloud storage costs). Its organisation tools are more powerful and it works very well with other software applications.
It’s just a bit annoying that Adobe continues to offer these two somewhat contradictory Lightroom choices and hasn’t found a way to bring them together into a single program.
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