Lightroom CC vs Lightroom Classic CC

The name is the same, but despite the apparent similarities, these are two very different programs. So what are the key differences between Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC, and how do you choose which one to use?

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 CC and Lightroom Classic CC are really quite different in the way they store and handle your photos and what they enable you to do.

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 Plan, what the different versions include and what it costs.

1. Where your images are stored

Lightroom CC is a designed for a ‘web first’ approach, and photographers who want all their images available everywhere in the cloud. Your images are stored on Adobe’s Creative Cloud servers, though you can also choose what proportion of your image collection you want to keep on your computer too. Adobe’s storage is not free. You’ll need to upgrade to the higher-tier Photography Plan with 1TB subscription to start with, and if you don’t keep on top of your growing library you will probably need to upgrade your storage in future, which will cost more again.

Lightroom Classic CC 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

Lightroom CC’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. It’s the ultimate in flexibility and the dream of many photographers routinely working on different devices and in different locations. 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 CC 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.

Lightroom Classic CC can synchronise images too, but in a different and more limited way. First, you can synchronise individual 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 smaller prints, however, and any editing changes you make are synchronised back to the original image in the Lightroom catalog on your computer. One advantage of Lightroom Classic’s use of Smart Previews is that they don’t seem to count towards the limited storage allocation you get with the regular Photography Plan – though that may change, of course.

3. Editing tools

In the early days there was a fairly big gap between the tools in Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC, but since the latest updates where Adobe added the HDR pano merge to both versions of Lightroom, there’s now little difference. Lightroom CC still does not at the time of writing offer the Color Range masking option for local adjustments that you get with Lightroom Classic CC, but this feels like a pretty small difference.

However, there are still big differences in how photo editing is handled in a broader way, where Lightroom CC has restrictions and limitations that anyone considering migrating over from Lightroom Classic CC might hard to live with – see the next two sections.

4. Virtual Copies

Lightroom Classic CC and Lightroom CC are ‘non-destructive’ editors. All the adjustments you make are saved as processing ‘instructutions’ which changed, removed or added to at any time. Your original images are unaltered, and your edits are only applied permanently if you export a new, processed image.

One big advantage of this used by most non-destructive editing programs is that you can make ‘virtual copies’ of a picture to try out many different effects and styles on the same picture without having to duplicate the original image. It’s often extremely useful.

The point is that Lightroom Classic CC supports Virtual Copies, but Lightroom CC does not. You can’t try out different ‘looks’ in the same way, and there’s only ever one version of a picture. There is the option to ‘duplicate’ an image, but that sounds like making a new copy of the original image, which is not the same thing.

5. External editors and plug-ins

There is another major difference. Lightroom Classic CC 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 CC to Photoshop, Affinity Photo, the DxO Nik Collection plug-ins, Alien Skin Exposure, Skylum Luminar 3 or a host of other programs which can do things that Lightroom can’t.

Lightroom CC is different. It 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. Incorporating other image editors into your Lightroom CC workflow will be more complicated.

This feels like an unnecessary restriction. You’re already locked in to Adobe’s quite expensive cloud storage with Lightroom CC, and this restriction on external editors makes that feeling stronger still. It also means you’ll need a Photography Plan that includes Photoshop to be able to use an external editor at all.

6. Classic Modules

Other things have been removed from Lightroom CC that you may not miss at all. Lightroom Classic CC has 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 a bit of a bore, and you might not use the other modules at all. These feel like a throwback to an earlier time, when image presentation ideas and requirements were different.

Lightroom CC is much slicker. The organisational tools and editing tools are now presented in a single window, so that there’s no module-swapping at all. The editing tools are presented in a more modern, minimal design that’s a lot more efficient than Lightroom Classic CC’s design, and the organisational tools are simpler too, with no separate folder organisation, only Collections.

The organisational tools don’t look simpler just because they’re more efficient, though. They look simpler because a lot has been taken out…

7. Collections and Smart Collections

There are profound differences in the search tools offered by Lightroom Classic CC and Lightroom CC. Lightroom Classic CC 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 CC too.

But you don’t. Lightroom CC’s search tools are both simpler and arguably more adaptable than Lightroom Classic CC’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.

8. Filter bar options

Lightroom Classic CC and Lightroom CC both have a Filter bar for filtering images in a selected folder or Collection according to their rating, the camera used, colour labels and more. But where Lightroom Classic CC can drill down through multiple layers of camera shooting information, the EXIF options in Lightroom CC are more basic. It will be fine for simpler everyday searching, but it can’t match Lightroom Classic CC’s ability to drill down through multiple types of image data.

9. Keywords and searches

Lightroom Classic CC 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’s fine, but you do have to be disciplined and thorough in your approach to keywording.

Lightroom CC also uses manual keywording, but it supplements this 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.

It’s not as precise and predictable as manual keywording, but it can often surface images you’ve forgotten you had, or great matches for search term outside of those you might have thought of. It’s a kind of ‘soft’ search tool that can help you think (or search) outside the box, so to speak.

However, this is reliant on Adobe’s Sensei technology, which we have to assume relies on images being stored and accessible to Adobe on its own cloud services. Sensei is an online tool, not a desktop tool, so Lightroom Classic CC doesn’t have it.

10. Photography Plan cost

At the time of writing there are three Adobe subscription plans of interest to photographers:

1) Photography Plan with 20GB, £9.98/$9.99 per month (paid annually)
This includes Photoshop, Lightroom Classic CC and Lightroom CC (plus sundry extras). This is perfect if you intend using Lightroom Classic CC and Photoshop. You can instal and use Lightroom CC, but the 20GB of cloud storage included in this plan won’t get you very far.

2) Photography Plan with 1TB, £19.97/$19.98 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 CC 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, £9.98/$9.99 per month (paid annually)
This is a good Plan if you intend to use Lightroom CC EXCLUSIVELY. It costs the same as the regular Photography Plan but includes 1TB cloud storage for Lightroom CC. But you do not get Photoshop, so you effectively lose out on external editing tools, and you do not get Lightroom Classic CC to fall back on.

How to get the Adobe Photography Plans

Lightroom Classic cc vs Lightroom CC: the verdict

Lightroom Classic CC and Lightroom CC both have faults. Lightroom Classic CC feels fussy and dated, and seems to run slower and slower with each new version, while Lightroom CC’s simpler interface and Sensei search tools lock you in to Adobe’s expensive online storage and its own software ecosystem.

Lightroom Classic CC 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.

Lightroom CC 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 CC library.

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.

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