Lightroom has become a standard tool for a large number of photographers and it does streamline the organisation and editing of large numbers of photos. But while it’s powerful and effective, its raw processing is not the best and its organisational system can feel quite awkward. Worse, for many users it’s become very slow to use. But it is convenient and powerful, and Adobe’s Photography Plans are very good value and include a constant stream of free updates.
+ 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
– Can be slow on some computers
– Not the best for detail and noise rendition
– Interface looks dated and cluttered compared to Lightroom CC
What is it?
Lightroom Classic is an all-in-one photo organising, editing and RAW processing program aimed at enthusiasts, experts and professional photographers. 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.
There are, in fact, two versions of Lightroom. Lightroom Classic CC (Creative Cloud) is the traditional version, where your photos are stored on your own computer – Adobe calls this the ‘desktop first’ approach. Lightroom CC (without the ‘Classic’) is a new, 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 CC review here.
While the name and many of the tools are the same, these are two different programs and Lightroom CC won’t be for everyone. This review covers the standard desktop-based Lightroom Classic CC version.
• Read more: Lightroom CC vs Lightroom Classic CC
How does it 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 CC 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.
The one thing that feels awkward is the way it completely splits folder organisation from Collection organisation. This is what other software publishers are now doing too, but compared to the system introduced by Apple for its now abandoned Aperture software, where albums and projects (image ‘containers’) worked alongside each other, this feels like a lazy and unhelpful system.
Lightroom editing tools
Most of the recent work on Lightroom has gone into its editing tools, however. These 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’ and 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 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 now supports ‘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 gradient filter effects to darken bright skies, for example, a radial gradient filter tool for ‘relighting’ your subjects and a manual adjustment brush. And if you’d like to try out different variations for a single photo, you can do this with Virtual Copies that don’t take up any extra space on your computer and all work from the same original image file.
Lightroom Classic integrations
Lightroom Classic CC integrates with Adobe Photoshop, also part of the Adobe Photography Plan, so that you can send them 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 Alien Skin Exposure X4.5 from within Lightroom 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 CC and Lightroom CC, though. Lightroom Classic CC 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.
Adobe releases updates to Lightroom CC every few months, and you’ll be notified of these automatically via the Adobe Creative Cloud app that manages all your Adobe software. The updates are not always huge, but because this is subscription software, they are free, even for full version updates.
The April 2019 update simply added support for RAW files from some new cameras, but the February 2019 release before that brought a new Enhance Details option for re-processing images to improve fine detail, the ability to merge HDR exposures and stitch them as panoramic images simultaneously, a Targeted Adjustment Tool for making more precise tone and colour adjustments and Histogram Clipping Indicators to show any areas of solid black or white in the picture.
Is it any good?
Lightroom Classic CC 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 as good at optimising fine detail and noise as some other programs. DxO PhotoLab produces usually produces cleaner and sharper images (though doesn’t support Fujifilm RAW files), followed closely by Capture One Pro 12 (which does support Fujifilm cameras), which has better colour and tone controls than Lightroom and a more advanced layers-based system of local adjustments.
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 it, 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 CC, but you will if you decide to go with Lightroom CC instead (and you will probably have to get more storage in future as your library grows).
Periodically Adobe runs special offers and discounts on its Creative Cloud subscription plans. You can find out about any current offers and how to get the Adobe Creative Cloud apps and plans here.