Lightroom Classic verdict
Lightroom Classic is the traditional, desktop-based version of Lightroom, but while it’s ‘Classic’ by name, its features are cutting edge. The most significant new feature, introduced in October 2021, is a major overhaul of the masking tools which makes them dramatically more powerful. But while Lightroom Classic is powerful and effective, its raw processing is still not the best and its interface can feel quite cluttered and oppressive. It gets a high rating for its scope and power and its value for money as part of the Adobe Photography Plan, but it’s by no means the only choice for quality conscious photographers.
+ Good value as part of the Adobe Photography Plan
+ Powerful organising and search tools
+ Wide support for camera RAW formats/lens correction profiles
+ Automatic/manual perspective correction/transform tools
+ Terrific new masking tools
– Can be slow on low/mid-range computers
– Handles high ISO images quite poorly
– Interface looks dated and cluttered compared to Lightroom
What is Lightroom Classic?
Lightroom Classic is an all-in-one photo organising, editing and RAW processing program aimed at enthusiasts, experts and professional photographers. There is some crossover in basic editing tools between Lightroom and Photoshop, but they are aimed at two different jobs. See this Photoshop vs Lightroom comparison for more.
It’s no longer sold on its own but instead comes as part of different Adobe software subscription plans. The best option for photographers is the Adobe Photography Plan, which costs £9.98/$9.99 per month when paid for annually.
• See also: Best image editing software – what to look for, how to choose
There are, in fact, two versions of Lightroom. Lightroom Classic, reviewed here, is the traditional version, where your photos are stored on your own computer – Adobe calls this the ‘desktop first’ approach. Lightroom CC (or just plain ‘Lightroom’) is a newer, streamlined version which stores your photos online using Adobe’s own servers. This is the ‘web first’ version of Lightroom and you can read the Lightroom review here.
While the name and many of the tools are the same, these are two different programs and the new Lightroom won’t be for everyone. This review covers the standard desktop-based Lightroom Classic version. To learn about the differences, read the Lightroom Classic vs Lightroom article.
How does Lightroom Classic work?
Lightroom Classic imports your images into one or more ‘catalogs’ (image databases). It stores a thumbnail of each photo and a larger preview image, and a link to the original file on your computer. You can import pictures in their existing location, or choose where to import your photos to if you are importing them straight from a memory card.
Once photos are imported into the catalog (also called the ‘Library’) you can browse them in their original folders or create any number of Collections to select and group related photos together without changing their physical location.
Lightroom Classic also has powerful image filtering and search tools, and you can also create Smart Collections based on one or more search criteria that will find and display matching images automatically.
Lightroom Classic editing tools
Lightroom Classic’s editing are ‘non-destructive’, which means that the adjustments you make can be altered or removed at any time in the future. They’re stored by Lightroom as processing ‘instructions’, so that you do see your adjustments live in Lightroom, but they are only applied permanently when you export a new, processed version of a photo. You’ll need to do this to share an edited image with anyone else, print it or use it online.
The editing tools are very powerful. You can edit a RAW file seamlessly alongside JPEG and TIFF images, without an intermediate processing – in fact Lightroom Classic is really at its best with RAW files because you can bring back extra shadow and highlight detail not present in JPEGs and choose a different white balance setting after you’ve taken the shot.
Lightroom Classic does not support LUTs, as used in video and now widely in photo editing, but it does support ‘profiles‘ for applying different looks to your photos as a kind of pre-processing step, mimicking the picture styles offered by the camera and adding many more of its own.
It also has very effective local adjustment tools for applying local adjustments, and these got a massive boost in October 2021 with the addition of AI-powered Select Subject and Select Sky tools, luminance and chroma masking and – crucially – the ability to add, subtract and ‘intersect’ masks to combine them in all sorts of useful ways.
• Read more: The Lightroom Select Subject tool and how it works
One advantage of the Adobe subscription model is that you keep getting a steady stream of updates and new features – typically around three per year. They are not all particularly significant or big, but because Lightroom is on a subscription, you are never hit with upgrade charges.
For example, the October 2020 update brought a new Color Grading panel with separate color adjustment wheels for the shadows, midtones and highlights in your images. This replaced the old Split Toning panel.
Read more: Lightroom Color grading tool: how does it work?
Adobe also added live view tethered shooting for Canon cameras, though so far the supported cameras are a handful of higher-end DSLRs. Lightroom is not famed for its speed, and this update brought faster editing with brushes and gradients and better thumbnail scrolling for folders and collections. Finally, new ‘Scrubby Zoom’ and ‘Box Zoom’ options arrived for machines using GPU acceleration.
The March 2021 update was a little lighter, with more performance improvements, this time for thumbnail scrolling and batch processing, plus a beta version of a new tethered live view option for Nikon cameras. Adobe is clearly targeting its chief rival in professional studio photography, Capture One.
The June 2021 update was altogether more substantial. The big news for Mac owners was that Lightroom Classic now offered native support for the revolutionary new M1 Macs. It also brought its Super Resolution image enlargement tool into Lightroom Classic from Adobe Camera Raw, and the tethered live view for Nikon cameras came out of beta to become a proper feature.
• Read more: Is Adobe’s Super Resolution tool any good?
This update also introduced new Premium Preset packs at no charge. Lightroom Classic now comes with such a wide range of presets by default that users may not have to look to the third party presets market quite as much as before – and Lightroom also offers Profiles as another alternative for creating distinct image ‘looks’.
• DxO PhotoLab vs Lightroom vs Capture One – which is best for RAW processing?
There is a strong after-market in paid-for Lightroom preset packs, though to be honest the profiles and presets included in Lightroom now are so good that you should probably make sure you’ve exhausted these before you spend any money. Not only that, some companies offer presets free as a ‘taster’ for commercial products, or just as a goodwill gesture to users. ON1 Software offers a whole bunch of free Lightroom presets with no strings attached, except for supplying your email address.
Lightroom Classic integrations
Lightroom Classic integrates with Adobe Photoshop, also part of the Adobe Photography Plan, so that you can send images to Photoshop for further editing from within Lightroom and the edited versions are automatically returned to the Lightroom catalog as new images alongside the original. Many third party software publishers make Lightroom plug-ins too, so you can use the DxO Nik Collection plug-ins or Exposure X7 from within Lightroom too. ON1 Software has recently configured its key tools as Photoshop/Lightroom plug-ins too.
Even better, you can choose Collections to synchronise with Lightroom Web and Lightroom Mobile too. These Collections and the images inside them can then be viewed and edited in a web browser and on a mobile device via the Lightroom Mobile app.
Here is a key difference between Lightroom Classic and the new Lightroom CC, though. Lightroom Classic synchronises lower-resolution ‘smart previews’ via the cloud, so that although any adjustments you make on other devices are synchronised back to the main library, if you want a full-resolution version of any image, you’ll still need to get it from the Lightroom catalog on your main computer.
Lightroom CC works differently. Here, all your images are stored in their original format at full resolution on Adobe’s Creative Cloud servers. This means your entire image library (not just synchronised Collections) is available everywhere, but it takes a lot of online storage space which you have to pay extra for.
For many photographers, the lower-resolution Smart Previews and selective Collection synchronisation offered by Lightroom Classic CC will be enough.
Quality of results
Lightroom Classic has both good and bad points. It is a very powerful all-in-one image organising, processing and editing tool, but while it can open and edit RAW images from the widest range of cameras, it’s not quite as good at optimising fine detail and noise as some other programs, and you can spend a long time juggling the noise reduction and sharpening sliders trying to get closer. DxO PhotoLab produces cleaner and sharper images with its default settings, and its DeepPRIME image processing is spectacularly superior to Lightroom’s for high ISO shots. Capture One 22 also offers better RAW processing, plus has better colour and tone controls than Lightroom and a more advanced layers-based system of local adjustments.
Interestingly, DxO has introduced a new program, PureRAW, which can ‘pre-process’ RAW files with its own demosaicing, lens correction and DeepPRIME noise reduction but still deliver ‘Linear DNG’ files which Lightroom will treat as regular RAW files, but with DxO’s processing already applied.
Many photographers will automatically gravitate towards Lightroom as the most obvious tool for organising and processing their RAW files (it has the same RAW processing engine and tools as Adobe Camera Raw), but it can often take a little work to get the best out of your images, and even then they may not be quite as good on close inspection as those from DxO PhotoLab or Capture One.
On the other hand, Lightroom’s integration into the whole Adobe ecosystem is a major advantage. It’s not just that you also get Photoshop as part of the same Adobe Photography Plan and that they work together brilliantly, but the fact you can also synchronise images with Lightroom Web and Lightroom Mobile on your smartphone or tablet and have your adjustments (and ratings) synchronised automatically.
The Lightroom Mobile app also has a camera mode, incidentally, which can capture RAW images (in Adobe’s DNG format) straight to your Lightroom catalog.
Where do you get Lightroom Classic, what does it cost?
Adobe no longer sells Lightroom Classic CC separately as a standalone produce on a regular ‘perpetual’ licence. The only way to get it is via an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription, and the best value option for photographers is the regular Photography Plan at £9.98/$9.99, which includes Lightroom Classic CC, Lightroom CC and Photoshop, or the Photography Plan with 1TB at £19.97/$19.98 per month, which adds 1TB of cloud storage. You won’t need this for Lightroom Classic, but you will if you decide to go with Lightroom CC instead (and you may have to get more storage in future as your library grows).
• The best image-editing software: what to look for, where to find out more
• Capture One vs Lightroom: which is best?
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