Verdict: 4 stars ★★★★
Lightroom CC’s stripped-down interface is like a breath of fresh air compared to Lightroom Classic’s complex, somewhat oppressive workspace, but the loss of some key tools – notably plug-in support – and the cost of online storage do currently blunt its appeal.
The new Lightroom CC changes everything. Announced on October 18 2017 it marks a shift to a whole new ‘cloud first’ way of working, where your entire image catalog is stored online and can be accessed, organised and edited anywhere.
The ‘old’ Lightroom CC has been rebranded ‘Lightroom Classic’ and continues to be a ‘desktop first’ product where your image catalog is stored locally. That’s seen some updates too, but that will get a separate review.
This is a challenging review to write on a number of levels. The first is knowing what to call this software. Adobe’s official title is Lightroom CC which is the same name as the previous, very different version.
But the splash screen names it as version 1.0, so that’s what I’ll call it, adding the year in brackets to distinguish it from the first ever Lightroom, launched a decade ago.
Adobe has launched a new Lightroom CC Photography Plan to make this cloud storage system work. It includes Lightroom CC, plus Lightroom web tools and Lightroom for mobile apps, plus 1TB of cloud storage for your files.
You don’t get Photoshop in this plan, but the existing Photography Plan continues, so if you want to carry on with Lightroom Classic and its ‘desktop first’ approach, you can.
There are lots of permutations amongst Adobe’s new plans that don’t need repeating here. You can get the full details from this Lightroom CC news story.
I suspect there’s going to be a significant backlash from users who will complain firstly that Adobe isn’t satisfied with renting out its software and now insists on charging for storing your image files, and secondly that Lightroom CC, or at least version 1.0, offers only a slimmed-down subset of the tools they’ve become accustomed to in Lightroom.
But it’s important to take a step back to appreciate what Adobe has achieved here:
- All your full-resolution image files will now be available everywhere, on any device, not just lower-resolution Smart Previews from selected Collections
- You get a standardised organising and editing interface across all your devices so that you can work properly on your Lightroom catalog wherever you are.
- You even get custom cloud storage as part of the plan – admittedly, it’s not cheap compared to some rival cloud services but it is fully and seamlessly integrated with the Lightroom CC experience.
- Adobe can apply its new cloud-based Sensei technology and its object-recognition capabilities to automatically keyword your images.
So this review will pick out a whole bunch of limitations and omissions which might sound like major annoyances or even deal-breakers, but keep in mind that Adobe has also produced something new, powerful and exciting with enormous potential.
I can’t resist pointing out that Apple did it first with Photos and iCloud. Photos is admittedly an ‘amateur’ app with modest ambitions, but it did demonstrate that universal cloud storage and the ‘all your files everywhere’ approach can be made to work, with a unified editing experience on all your devices. Just saying.
Lightroom CC organisation
In its press presentation Adobe made it clear that Lightroom CC was deliberately stripped back to its essentials for a cleaner, more efficient user experience. If you secretly crave the comforting complexity of the ‘old’ Lightroom’s Folders panel, separate Collections panel, Collection Sets and Smart Collections, you’re going to be appalled.
In Lightroom CC Adobe really has stripped everything right back to the basics. On the left side of the screen is a My Photos button that opens a fly-out library panel with just two sections. First, the My Photos section can show All Photos, Recently Added and By Date. Second, the Albums section displays a list of all your albums, with the option to organise them into folders.
These are virtual folders for organising virtual albums. There are no actual folders in Lightroom CC’s cloud-based storage system. All your images are thrown into a single giant pot, and the only organisational tools you have are albums and album folders.
But maybe this simplified organisation is good? I’ve always struggled with Lightroom’s separate Folders and Collections as organisational tools, so having Folder organisation effectively taken away suits me just fine. Sometimes, being made to work in a simpler way can help you think more simply too.
There are no smart albums, though. Searches have to be done ‘live’ using the search box at the top of the screen or the filter bar.
The filter bar is broadly the same as the one in the regular ‘old’ Lightroom, but without the in-depth EXIF drop-downs. You can search for specific cameras, but apart from that you’re limited to ratings, flags, (no color labels), masters or virtual copies, keywords and locations.
So we need to talk about keywords. Adobe Sensei can ‘keyword’ your cloud-stored images automatically, but it doesn’t add those keywords visibly to your images. You can still add keywords manually, and these are the only ones you see in the Info panel for each image, and the only ones which appear in the drop-down Keyword menu on the filter bar.
But freeform searches do work very well. Typing in ‘bridge’, ‘tree’ or ’sunset’ produced a remarkably accurate list of matching images from my own catalog, some of which I’d forgotten I’d had and which I probably wouldn’t have located using my usual manual Lightroom organising and browsing processes.
I have to admit, I love this feature already. I don’t think it necessarily finds every match, and some can be quite dubious, but already I’ve seen how it can find me images to fit a theme in a way that I could never do before.
If you’ve already synchronised some Collections from your current catalog, Lightroom CC will show these in its catalog, with a small badge to indicate they are lower-resolution DNG files. Any images you subsequently import into Lightroom CC are uploaded into the catalog at their full resolution with a different badge (a tick in a circle) to show their status.
The cloud is a great idea, but…
There a thorny technical issue. Should you now try to migrate your old desktop based catalog into the new Lightroom CC cloud storage? There is a tool to do this, but the real problem is how long this is likely to take over a domestic Internet connection. In the US, the average domestic upload speed is 20-25Mbps (roughly 2.5-3MB per second). In the UK it’s around 20Mbps (2.5MB per second). Now if a typical RAW file is 25MB, and let’s say you come back from a wedding shoot with 1,000 RAW files… well, this is where it all starts to come undone. By my calculations, your 1,000-shot wedding could take 10,000 seconds, or 3-4 hours to upload.
Now I’m willing to give that a go from this point onwards to see how practical this is, but I don’t think I’m going to attempt to migrate my 1.4TB image archive to Adobe’s servers. By my calculations, that would take around a week, and while I haven’t checked my service provider’s fair usage conditions, I’m pretty sure they don’t include a 1.4TB upload.
So this could prove a bit of a sticking point for existing Lightroom users. Even if they’re seduced by Adobe’s cloud-based image storage, it may be completely impractical to migrate their existing catalog, which means they need to keep on using Lightroom Classic.
No doubt there is a way around this. At least I hope there is.
In the meantime, I have to mention a couple of annoying shortcomings in the organisational system. The lack of smart albums is one, the slimmed down filter bar another, and the fact that thumbnails and full size image views don’t show a metadata overlay – in particular the filename, file type or master/virtual copy status. I’m often working with collections/albums of images with RAW+JPEG pairs, multiple virtual copies and externally edited images, and I rely on being able to distinguish between them quickly and easily.
Lightroom CC editing tools
First, the good news. In Lightroom CC, Adobe has dropped the module-by-module workflow of Lightroom Classic in favour of a single-window approach. If you double-click on a thumbnail you see a full size version straight away in the same window, with a fly-out toolbar on the right side of the screen.
This is a lot more efficient than the Classic version. It’s a lot less fussy and visually confusing and uses the available space much better. The top button is for global adjustments including Light, Color, Effects, Detail, Optics and Geometry. The next one down is the Crop tool, the one below that is the Healing Brush and below that are the three localised adjustment tools – Adjustment Brush, Linear Gradient, Radial Gradient. They’re all quick to access and quick to use.
I like this layout a lot, and I’m particularly pleased at how easy it is to access and use some of my favourite Lightroom tools, including Highlights and Shadows, Clarity, Dehaze, lens corrections and geometry (perspective) corrections.
But there is some bad news. While most of the Lightroom favourites are here, some are missing, notably from the global adjustment tools.
- Tone Curve: this is a surprise because for many photographers this is a basic and vital tool. I don’t use it too much myself, preferring the regular Basic/Light sliders, but I think there’s going to be a backlash here.
- Split Toning: another missing panel and one that I do use now and again. Interestingly, some of the Lightroom Classic presets appear to use a split toning effect, but I haven’t quite figured out how it’s created yet.
- Camera Calibration: this is a big disappointment for me at least. I find Adobe’s default RAW conversions quite insipid and desaturated so I always use the preset camera simulations in the Camera Calibration tab to restore the camera’s own ‘looks’.
There’s another, probably less important omission in the local adjustment tools. Lightroom Classic has a new Luminance and Color Range masking tool, but I don’t see that here.
Interestingly, Lightroom CC comes with its own collection of presets, arranged neatly into Color, Creative and B&W panels, with a Components panel for a small selection of Curve, Grain and Vignette effect presets. As before, you can modify these and create your own presets. It’s not clear yet whether you can copy presets from your current Lightroom setup, but that’s something to investigate in a separate post.
True, there are some bothersome omissions from Lightroom CC’s editing tools, but against that it does offer a very clean, quick and efficient place to work and it leaves me wishing that Adobe would redesign the Lightroom Classic interface in the same way.
Map, Book, Develop, Slideshow, Print and Web
At the moment, these are all gone. It will be possible to publish image galleries from Lightroom CC and it will integrate with Behance to offer more ways to showcase your work, but the old Web module is gone. Lightroom CC does support Locations as a metadata search option via a drop-down in the filter bar, but while you can add location data in the info panel for an image, you can’t just drop pins on a map any more. There’s no sign of a Slideshow option in Lightroom CC and right now I’m struggling to find a Print dialog, so it’s no surprise to find the Books module is gone.
Presumably it was too difficult to incorporate all these features into the mobile and web apps and they had to be dropped for the sake of cross-platform consistency.
I didn’t use any of these things very much, but I suspect there are lots of photographers out there who use them all the time. For them, Lightroom CC is the wrong product and Lightroom Classic will continue to be the best option.
Lightroom CC verdict
The idea behind Lightroom CC and its cloud storage is great, but it’s disappointing to find that the desktop app does not have all the tools we’ve grown used to in Lightroom Classic. You can find a full blow-by-blow list of the differences in this Lightroom CC vs Lightroom Classic piece I’ve written for Camera Jabber.
I’m also not sure how the migration from desktop to cloud is going to work for photographers who already have a large Lightroom catalog. For new users it’s easy – you sign up, start uploading and enjoy the benefits of easy photo organisation and editing wherever you are and whatever device you’re using. But for users like me with a large existing catalog, it’s not so easy.
There are two choices:
- You can migrate your entire catalog to the cloud. There are some problems with this. First, it could take a very, very long time. Second, your catalog may already be larger than Adobe’s 1TB storage capacity – and we have been told that additional storage will be available for $9.99 per month, per terabyte. This potential escalation of costs is the third problem. Fourth, Lightroom CC is brand new and you might want to see how it settles down before making such a big commitment.
- Or you can keep your old catalog and start from Day One with a new Lightroom CC cloud catalog. But this leaves you running two apps and two catalogs at the same time, and it’s unlikely your ‘old’ images will become redundant to your workflow any time soon.
I don’t know what the answer is, and that’s bothering me because I really like Lightroom CC. It feels like a brilliant solution that’s just a little far ahead of its time. If we lived in a world of free, high-speed Internet access and where cloud storage didn’t cost $9.99 per TB per month (doesn’t Adobe know rival cloud storage rates are cheaper?), it would be easy to decide, but given the cost and difficulty of migrating fully to Lightroom in the cloud, its potential might not be so easy to realise straight away.
The bottom line? I really like both the idea of Lightroom CC and the software itself, but for me the current realities of Internet upload speeds and cloud storage costs make it impractical to fully swap from an established desktop-based image library. And who wants to run both a desktop and a cloud library at the same time?