Lightroom is Adobe’s all-in-one image cataloguing program, raw conversion tool, photo-enhancement application and all-round digital hub for organising, editing and sharing your photos. This Lightroom CC review covers the Creative Cloud version, part of Adobe’s subscription-based Photography Plan. This plan also includes Photoshop CC, so you’re getting two photo-editing applications designed to work alongside each other.
I’m reviewing Lightroom CC, because although Adobe’s subscription software plan is controversial, it’s very cost-effective, you get constant updates and it brings Creative Cloud synchronisation tools which are becoming more and more useful. You can still get a regular ‘perpetual licence’ version, Lightroom 6, but it’s not clear how much longer Adobe will support this and I don’t think it offers the same value or the same potential.
I don’t talk much about Photoshop on this site (hence its name). As far as I’m concerned, there are a million and one other perfectly good sites that already talk it to death, and to my mind Photoshop has limitations – it doesn’t organise your photos and it doesn’t give you inspiration or speed up your thinking/workflow. It does, however, encourage a pre-occupation with technical detail and often distracts you from your pictures’ more pictorial and emotional dimensions. But that is just my opinion.
But we all need a powerful pixel-based editor like Photoshop from time to time, so the fact it’s included in the Photography Plan alongside Lightroom CC is a bonus.
Lightroom is essentially a database program designed for photography. Each Lightroom catalog or library is a database of photos, containing thumbnails and previews for each photo, its location on your computer or hard disks and a whole bunch of other information about them including the shooting (EXIF) metadata embedded by the camera, any keywords, copyright information or captions you add manually (IPTC metadata), any virtual copies of your photos that you create and any processing steps you apply – much of this information can also be embedded in the photos too.
So the first step is to add photos to the database – in other words, use Lightroom’s Import option. This is a step you don’t have to use with simpler folder browsing programs like Adobe Bridge, but it’s worth it for the extra flexibility you get later.
With Lightroom’s database approach, you get much faster searches and the ability to create virtual Collections and Smart Collections without actually having to change the location of your original photos. Lightroom now has Smart Previews which let you view and even edit lower-resolution versions of your photos when the high-resolution versions aren’t present – for example, when you’re working on a laptop and your image files are stored on an external drive somewhere else.
Lightroom’s cataloging tools are mostly effective but sometimes annoying. For a start, it displays Folders (where your photos are actually stored) and Collections (your ‘virtual’ containers) separately. This means you’re often stuck in a dilemma over whether you should be using Folders or Collections for your everyday organisation – each has advantages in specific circumstances.
Apple’s late lamented Aperture had this worked out perfectly using Projects and, stored within these, Albums. Aperture also had a better approach to ‘stacking’, where related photos can be grouped together as a single item. Lightroom also supports stacking, but it’s not used globally, so that if you stack two images in one Collection, they remain unstacked in others. This takes away much of the usefulness of the stacking concept – there’s no way of spotting whether a photo has been stacked with others elsewhere.
Lightroom is also a raw converter. The interface looks different, but it’s essentially the same as the Adobe Camera Raw add-on that works alongside Photoshop. Here, though, raw files are integrated into the whole browsing and editing experience, with no separate conversion process to go through. Lightroom treats raw files, JPEGs, TIFFs and Photoshop PSD files all the same. Thsi is much simpler than the conventional one-way conversion process still used by ACR (Photoshop) and to a degree by DxO Optics Pro. The all-in-one Lightroom model is now used widely by contemporaries, such as Capture One Pro, Alien Skin Exposure X.
Like Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom doesn’t just process raw files, it offers a whole series of adjustments for enhancing the images during the raw conversion. You get access to the full tonal and colour data in the raw file and its full bit depth, and this produces much better quality than processing already-converted JPEG or TIFF files.
All the changes you make are non-destructive. They are simply processing ‘instructions’ which can be embedded in raw files as XMP data but have no effect on the image pixels (and are understood only by Adobe apps). This means you can reverse or modify the processing at any time.
In terms of the sheer number of cameras supported, old and new, Lightroom is in a class of its own, though other makers are catching up.
But while Lightroom’s support is excellent, its raw conversions are not the best. Its default conversion profile tends to produce flat, conservative colours, particularly reds, and the look of a photo be a long way from the camera’s own rendition – to get round this you need the camera-specific profiles on the Camera Calibration tabs. These are very effective at reproducing the camera’s own internal picture styles, but it requires an extra processing step and the native styles in older cameras may not be supported..
Lightroom’s default results are also noisier than other raw converters and in-camera JPEGs. You’ll often need extra noise reduction above the default even to get back to the quality of the camera’s own JPEGs, let alone improve on them.
If ultimate raw conversion quality is important to you, then you should look at what Capture One Pro and DxO Optics Pro can do.
Image enhancement and editing
Lightroom does offer a wide selection of global image adjustment tools, though. In the Basic panel, the Tone controls great for exposure, contrast and dynamic range optimisation. The Clarity is very effective too, especially in black and white.
The Tone Curve panel offers both point curve and parametric adjustments – and a useful targeted adjustment tool for precise contrast adjustments, and the HSL/Color/B&W panel is very good for selective colour saturation, hue and lightness tweaks and for more intuitive B&W channel mixing – though aggressive B&W adjustments do quickly bring out channel noise and artefacts.
The Split Toning panel is easy enough to understand and can work well for colour as well as black and white, though a single-tone option wouldn’t have hurt. The Detail tab is fine for Sharpening and Noise Reduction – and since Lightroom’s raw conversions are naturally noisy, and not the sharpest, the tools here are useful.
Lightroom’s Lens Corrections work well. It has correction profiles for the majority of mass-market lenses, correcting distortion and corner-shading very effectively, with a separate checkbox for chromatic aberration removal. DxO Optics Pro is perhaps just that little better, thanks to its edge softness correction, better noise reduction and Smart Lighting system, but Lightroom should be fine for most users, most of the time.
The Transform panel is the new home for Lightroom’s automated perspective adjustments and they are great, even if they don’t always work first attempt – and now there are manual alignment tools too. DxO ViewPoint 3 has only just caught up with this feaure, and that’s an additional purchase to work alongside DxO Optics Pro – it’s not built in.
Lightroom’s manual perspective corrections used to be less intuitive and carried out with sliders rather than control points. The sliders are still there, but you can now use a perspective gadget to mark out vertical and horizontal lines in the picture.
The Effects Panel’s Post Crop Vignette tool is still useful but looks primitive compared to rivals. The Grain effect is really good, however, and worth experimenting with. The Dehaze tool is brilliant for all kinds of contrast enhancement and not just hazy landscapes – there is an overall darkening effect, though, and it’s important not to push it too far.
As well as extensive global image adjustments, Lightroom also offers localised adjustment tools including a manual Adjustment Brush, Gradient Filter and Radial Filter. There’s also a Spot Removal tool that’s brilliant at removing sensor spots and even good enough for basic cloning, with re-positionable source and destination points.
The Red-eye tool is fine, though how many shots still have red-eye these days, especially for pro users in this market?
The Gradient Filter tool is much more useful, notably for landscapes. Remember, you’re working with the raw file data and this gives an opportunity for highlight recovery in bright skies. It’s especially useful now that you can brush/erase mask areas manually for removing gradient effect from tall buildings, say.
The Radial Filter is useful too, notably for more advanced vignette effects the the Post Crop Vignette option, and for enhancing a picture’s focal point.
All these Lightroom adjustments can be saved as presets, which can also be exported and imported. Indeed there there is a big after-market in commercial Lightroom presets. You can try out some free Lightroom presets in the ongoing series on this site.
Lightroom’s tools and adjustments are very, very good. However, they are not unique. Capture One Pro offers the same broad range of tools and a much clearer system of layers and masks for localised adjustments – Lightroom uses ‘pins’ which can be harder to see and manipulate.
External editors and plug-ins
There are some things Lightroom can’t do, of course. It can’t do complex pixel-based editing with additional image layers, masks, type and vector shapes. For that you need Photoshop or a program like Serif’s Affinity Photo. And while it can produce a reasonable range of effects, you still need dedicated plug-ins for full-on black and white work, analog effects, blur effects and more.
All this is perfectly possible thanks to Lightroom’s support for external editors and plug-ins. Once they’re installed and configured, you can send an image from Lightroom to another app, modify it and save it, and you’re returned to the Lightroom catalog with the new image imported and displayed alongside the original.
Photoshop is the default external editor but you can add another, and practically all plug-ins are now Photoshop and Lightroom compatible – most even include Lightroom in their installers.
This is where Lightroom really scores. Whatever Lightroom’s own image-enhancement limitations, it’s a terrific digital ‘hub’ for all your other photo-editing applications.
Lightroom Mobile and Creative Cloud
And then there’s the mobile angle. Lightroom CC is integrated with Adobe’s Creative Cloud, so you can synchronise chosen Collections with your mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets, use those devices for editing and rating your photos, and then have your changes automatically synchronised back to your desktop version.
These Lightroom Mobile features are gaining in power and usefulness all the time. In fact this is a major advantage of Adobe’s Creative Cloud, but one that’s not immediately apparent.
It’s a simple job to synchronise a Collection and it then becomes available both online (Lightroom Web) and on your mobile devices (the free Lightroom Mobile app.)
Lightroom Web displays any number of photos/Collections online for you to browse, download and share with others. It even has a editing tools – a surprisingly comprehensive subset of those in the desktop application.
The smartphone and tablet apps offer increasingly powerful editing and rating tools and now includes a camera with useful manual controls, support for raw files (such as they are, from such tiny imaging units) and shoot-through presets that can be changed or replaced later.
Photos taken on your mobile devices are saved straight to your Lightroom catalog and will appear online and in your desktop catalogs – it’s like using iCloud Photos or Google Photos, but for experts and professionals rather than casual novices.
Should you buy it?
If you’re conscious of the need for a powerful image cataloguing tool to form the basis for all your digital imaging work, then this is it. Lightroom has weaknesses and flaws, to be sure, but no other program comes as close as this to ticking every box.
But it almost certainly won’t be the only photo-editing tool you need. It’s likely you’ll also need dedicated image effects plug-ins like the Google Nik Collection or MacPhun Creative Kit 2016. Many photographers look for instant inspiration not just a set of tools, and programs like Alien Skin Exposure X or ON1 Photo 10.5 can give you an off-the-shelf ‘look’ you can rework and modify as much as you like. And from time to time you may also need a conventional bitmap photo editing tool like Photoshop or Serif Affinity Photo for more complex layering and masking work.
But whatever other tools you might need from time to time, Lightroom’s the ideal organisational tool to have at the heart of everything you do.
So should you get Lightroom CC as part of Adobe’s subscription-based Photography Plan, or should you get the standalone Lightroom 6 version on a regular perpetual licence?
For me, it’s a no-brainer. I was as sceptical as most when Adobe introduced its subscription-based software, but the price has come down and the system has shown itself to be very effective. You get automatic ongoing updates, new features and new camera support as soon as they arrive, and the Photography Plan also includes Photoshop CC – and there is still a time and place for Photoshop for specific tasks and projects.
Lightroom 6 is less appealing. It costs as much as a full year’s subscription to the Photography Plan and you do just get Lightroom 6 on its own – Photoshop is not part of the deal. Worse, you don’t get all the advantages of the Adobe Creative Cloud, including Lightroom Web and Lightroom Mobile. Adobe isn’t even saying how much longer Lightroom will continue in a standalone form.
For me, Lightroom is a must-have. I prefer other software for image effects and even raw conversions, but right now I feel there is no serious alternative as a centralised all-in-one photo management application.