Adobe’s Lightroom photo software has long been a favorite among professional photographers. There’s now a choice between two flavors: Lightroom and Lightroom Classic. The first (the subject of this review) is designed for consumers who want to access their photos online and use some powerful editing and organizing tools. Lightroom Classic retains the program’s traditional interface and toolset. Adobe has been gradually adding features to bring the newer sibling up towards parity with Classic; unfortunately, the new program still lacks local printing and plug-in support—among other features. Veteran users will likely want to stick with Lightroom Classic, a PCMag Editors’ Choice.
Adobe recently updated Lightroom with the ability to export to the DNG raw file format, drag and drop support for Albums, keywords for shared albums, and keyword auto-completion. As usual, the update also brings support for new camera and lens models.
Both Lightroom applications previously got a Texture slider, and before that, an AI-powered Enhance Details tool. The nifty Profiles feature offers treatment options for converting raw camera files into viewable images; those determine the starting point of your editing journey. Some creative Profiles that are very similar to Instagram filters join the Raw Profiles, and those can be used on JPGs as well as raw images. The February 2019 Lightroom update, (version 2.2), added panorama and HDR-merging capabilities. At this point, the simpler Lightroom offers nearly all the actual image-editing tools found in Lightroom Classic, save Post-Crop Vignetting, Profile calibration, and Flat-Field correction—all quite advanced options. More notable missing-in-action features concern organization, workflow, and output.
Pricing and Setup
You have at least three options when buying Lightroom. The Lightroom plan runs $9.99 per month and includes 1TB of online storage, but with that plan you don’t get Photoshop. The Photography plan, also $9.99 per month, gets you Lightroom, Photoshop, and Lightroom Classic, but it only includes 20GB of cloud storage. Getting the full package with 1TB online storage costs an additional $10 per month. Of course, you get all three programs with a full, $52.99-per-month Creative Cloud subscription, though that only comes with 100GB of cloud storage (upgradeable to 1TB for an additional $9.99 per month).
At about $120 per year, Lightroom is more expensive in the long run than competing photo software such as ACDSee Ultimate ($99), DxO PhotoLab ($129-$199), Capture One ($299), CyberLink PhotoDirector ($50), PaintShop Pro ($79), and AfterShot Pro ($65). Keep in mind, too, that those are one-shot prices: Pay once and you own the software forever, unless a major upgrade that you want comes along.
In terms of cloud storage, Lightroom is also pricey compared with other services. A terabyte of OneDrive storage costs about half a Lightroom subscription, at $69.99 per year, and that includes photo syncing, along with all the Office apps. For the same $9.99 per month as Lightroom, Apple’s iCloud gives you 2TB—twice as much as Adobe. Google also charges $9.99 for 2TB, but if you don’t mind saving compressed versions of your photos, you can upload everything for free. If you just want photo software without the cloud storage and syncing, you can get Adobe Photoshop Elements for $99, or Corel PaintShop Pro for $79.99—both as one-time purchases.
Creative Cloud subscribers with the eponymous utility installed now see two Lightroom choices: Lightroom and Lightroom Classic. Installing is a simple matter of tapping Install in the Creative Cloud utility. Another option for Mac users is to get Lightroom from the Mac App Store. An auto-app-update setting saves you from worrying about whether you’re running the latest version. The Lightroom app takes up 1.3GB on my hard drive, half a gigabyte less than Lightroom Classic.
The Lightroom Interface
Lightroom sports a refreshing, clean interface. It features what Adobe product director Tom Hogarty calls “progressive disclosure,” meaning it starts out simple and then reveals increasingly complex tools as you need them. On first run, you see the Lightroom splash screen, and then the window starts filling with a tile view of all the photos on your system. You can switch that to a contact-sheet view and sort by import date, capture date, or modified date.
With this radical rethinking of Lightroom, Adobe ditches the Modes of its predecessor: Library, Develop, and the rest. Aside from the rows of your synced photos, the interface is notably sparse. Organization and adjustment tools are hidden behind box and control slider icons, at the left and right edges, respectively. I find it a little annoying, however, that the organization panel and adjustment panel don’t show at the same time: By default, when you open one, the other closes. Thankfully, you can change this behavior in Preferences by switching the panels from Automatic to Manual.
Double-clicking on a thumbnail in the tile view opens a photo in full view, and double-tapping again takes you back to the gallery view. Tapping the full photo view (the cursor appears as a plus sign) enlarges the image to 100 percent. After this, the cursor changes to a hand, letting you drag the image around. At bottom right, there are also Fit, Fill, and 1:1 choices. There’s a Show Original button, but no side-by-side before-and-after view such as you get in Lightroom Classic. You can use the mouse wheel while holding down Ctrl to zoom in and out, but this only stops at major points like fit, fill, and 1:1; you don’t get a zoom slider showing you the percent, as you do in CyberLink PhotoDirector.
As for touch input, Lightroom is adequate: You can easily use its buttons and controls via touch, and you can tap or unpinch a photo to zoom it to the last level. Lightroom Classic features a full touch mode for tablets and touch-screen PCs such as the Surface Book.
Lots of Help
At a June 2019 event, Adobe announced a boatload of help and tutorial content. Click the question mark at top right to get started. There’s animated visual help on all the individual adjustments, along with wizards that use sample images from noted photographers to show exactly how they edit an image; it even shows their adjustment slider settings. The help is context-sensitive: For an outdoor portrait, it aptly proposes the tutorial entitled “Enhance Natural Light Portraits by Improving Contrast and Color.” I welcome having this stuff in the app; by contrast, all of Lightroom Classic’s help is web-based.
Neither Lightroom nor Classic pops up as an Auto-Play option when you insert an SD memory card. I like to have a big Import button always handy, but with the new Lightroom, you have to press the + button and then choose the source folder or card. When you import pictures from a camera card, you see a grid of all the card’s images; unlike previous versions of Lightroom, this iteration doesn’t let you view a photo at full size before importing it.
When you import, all the images are automatically and immediately backed up to Adobe’s servers. Hands-off people will probably appreciate this, but I’d prefer more control over what’s uploaded. You can pause uploading, but you can’t specify folders and files you don’t want uploaded. For the ability to exclude images from uploading to the cloud, look to Lightroom Classic. Also look there (or even to the Windows Photos app) for automatic importing from folders you specify.
The import process has long been one of the pain points of Lightroom: Many have complained about how slow it is on photo forums and blogs. I personally also hate wasting upload time and storage space with images I may not want to save. Professionals with loads of RAID storage probably want everything imported, but they also want it to happen fast. To be fair, importing is now faster in Lightroom (and even in the recently updated Classic).
I tested import performance with 235 7MB images from a FujiFilm X-A3 camera. Lightroom took 2:52 (minutes:seconds) for the import, and Lightroom Classic took 4:12, though that included converting some images to DNG. Building previews took Classic yet another 46 seconds, though I could start editing before that step completed. In any case, Lightroom is faster at importing.
If you really want to get the most editing potential out of your digital camera, you’ll import raw camera files. When you import raw files, the software translates raw data from the camera sensor into a viewable image, using a rendering Profile.
The Profile option already existed in Lightroom and Camera Raw, but it was way down in the Camera Calibration section and only offered a few basic choices, most of which were based on your camera manufacturer’s software. Now they’re at the top of the Edit adjustment panel, and they reflect more Adobe color technology than that of the camera maker. It’s important because it’s the starting point for any other editing you do, so it makes sense to put the option at the top.
In my recent pro photo software reviews, I’ve mentioned that Capture One has done a superior job of initial raw conversion—that pictures look better right after you import them and before you make adjustments. Phase One’s software brought out more detail and color than Adobe’s blander Standard Profile. The Profiles in Lightroom go a long way towards rectifying this.
The Profiles come in two main groups: raw and creative. Choices in the first group are Adobe Raw and Camera Matching, while Creative options include Legacy, Artistic, B&W, Modern, and Vintage. The raw Profiles only work with raw images, while the last four are special effects that also work with JPG images. The Browse option shows square thumbnails of each profile, which you can hover over with the mouse to preview them on the main image window. You can also choose Favorite Profiles to appear in the top group of thumbnails.
Included in the Adobe Raw group are Adobe Color, Monochrome, Landscape, Neutral, Portrait, Standard, and Vivid. I expect Adobe Color to be the most popular, and it’s the default for newly imported photos. It gets a bit more contrast, warmth, and vividness out of the photo than Adobe Standard, which is the same as the previous version of Lightroom. For some test shots, particularly in color portraits I now actually prefer Lightroom’s initial rendering to Capture One’s, especially when using the Portrait and Landscape Profiles appropriately. Note that any photos you’ve already imported will retain the legacy Adobe Standard Profile, which usually yields a less pleasing result than the newer Profiles.
The Camera Matching Profiles simply mimic the camera manufacturer’s image rendering. They’re designed to match what you see on your camera LCD or the JPG the camera produces. I found the latter less pleasing than the Adobe Profiles. They were either too cool or oversaturated for a Canon 1Ds portrait.
The Monochrome Profile, because it starts from the raw camera image, is a better option than starting with a color Profile and then converting to black-and-white. Portrait is designed to reproduce all skin tones accurately, while Landscape adds more vibrancy since there are no face tones to worry about distorting. Neutral has the least contrast, useful for difficult lighting situations, and Vivid punches up saturation and contrast.
The Creative Profiles will conjure the notion of Instagram filters for many. Disappointingly, they have names like Artistic 01, Modern 04, and so on. I’d prefer names that give a clue about what the effect does rather than numbers. By contrast, Alien Skin Exposure offers many, many presets, every one of which has a descriptive name. Despite that quibble, the Creative Profiles really do add interest and feels, usually without being too obvious. In some cases, they’re a one-step improvement. It’s also impressive how different the 17 B&W choices are.
The search bar in Lightroom uses AI to let you find particular objects—dogs, mountains, buildings, and more. As of Version 2, it suggests searches based on what you start typing. I do like the filter option that lets you select camera models, keywords, and locations, but Lightroom Classic and DxO PhotoLab go beyond that, letting you filter by lens, F-stop, focal length, or even ISO.
As for the AI object search, that’s already available in Flickr, Microsoft Photos, Google Photos, Apple Photos, and Adobe Photoshop Elements. At this point, it’s not a differentiator. My favorite implementation of this is that of Flickr, since it actually shows you the automatically generated object keyword tags—which all its competitors hide—and even lets you edit them.
You can organize your Lightroom collection with albums, star ratings, and Pick and Reject flags. You don’t get color labels, as you do with ACDSee Pro and CyberLink PhotoDirector. Nor do you get Smart Collections like those that Lightroom Classic can create, based on dates and tags. You can, however, add keywords, though the entry system doesn’t have Lightroom Classic’s hierarchical keyword suggestions.
The People view uses AI in the cloud (dubbed Sensei) to automatically detect faces in your photos. These show up as circles in My Photos view. All shots of what the AI considers the same person are grouped together. You add a name to groups you’re interested in. You can merge circles that show the same person, since, as with all people-recognition software, some duplicates show up, thanks to differing camera angles, eyewear, and lighting.
Lightroom does a good job at identifying and grouping people; I was impressed with how it asked, correctly, if it should merge a person with dark glasses and in profile view. One issue that longtime Lightroom users will run into is that the feature is completely separate from the People feature in pre-CC versions of Lightroom. So people tagged in those won’t appear in CC’s People feature, even if the photos are synced to Adobe’s cloud.
Nobody likes to admit that they use the Auto button to see if the program can improve their photos automatically, but everyone uses it—if only to see what the program recommends. I like that the button in Lightroom is easier to find, and that it shows you exactly which sliders it’s adjusted (Lightroom Classic does that, too). In my testing, it was good at fixing underexposed photos, but often applied too much of an HDR look or overly brightened a photo that was already bright—even when I searched using the term “bright” it would further brighten the photo that another part of the app had deemed bright. To be fair, a snowfield test shot with hazy mountains was nicely dehazed and not brightened.
You get all the expected lighting adjustment sliders: Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites, Blacks. Lifesavers Clarity and Vibrance are also present in Lightroom. Dehaze is also available, and mostly works well, though DxO PhotoLab’s ClearView does a better job without adding color casts in some test photos. The Point Curve adjustment is a nice twist on the standard Curves control (which the program includes). You can adjust the curve targeted to a point in your image by dragging the mouse up and down.
The Texture slider—the program’s newest slider— lets you add or removed medium detail, as opposed to the fine detail that the Sharpen adjuster affects. You can use Texture as either a global or local adjustment. You can also use it to smooth faces without giving them an artificial, doll-like look. In the image below, increasing the Texture slider adds detail but doesn’t affect noise in the sky the way Sharpen does.
And in the next example, the left is the original, and the right has Texture set to -30.
For some reason, you can’t use the mouse wheel to increase and decrease the adjustment slider positions as you can in Classic, which is something I liked to do, and there’s no history panel showing all your changes. I do like that double-clicking a slider returns it to its original position. The Revert to original button is hidden under the … menu; I’d rather have it always accessible.
As with nearly all photo apps these days, Lightroom lets you apply filter effects, via the Presets link at the bottom of the window. You get a good selection of color, black and white, grain, and vignette preset adjustments, and you can see the effects applied to your image as you hover the mouse cursor over them. But Photoshop Elements offers more options and control with its filters.
Cropping is well implemented, with a good choice of preset aspect ratios, and there’s even an Auto-leveling option.
A Healing Brush, an Adjustment Brush, and Linear and Radial Gradients tools are happily available, in pretty much the same form as those in Lightroom Classic.
Thankfully, you do still get noise reduction, and it works well, as does the automatic chromatic aberration correction. For even worse fringing, Defringe lets you finish fixing purple and green discolored edges that the basic chromatic aberration fix misses. You can either use a dropper or choose a color shade (purple or green) from a slider control. In testing, the tool also did an excellent job. Those are a couple of tools you don’t get with the free consumer apps. If you want superpowered noise reduction, check out DxO PhotoLab. Another more advanced tool that you get in CC but not in free photo apps is its Geometry distortion correction based on lens profiles.
Panorama and HDR Merge
New for the February 2019 update of Lightroom are photo merging capabilities. These include Panorama, HDR, and HDR Panorama. The HDR Merge tool offers just three options: checkboxes for Auto Align and Auto Settings (auto-enhance), and a slider for de-ghosting. The latter is to remove moving objects from the merge. You don’t get all the options after the merge that you do with Alien Skin Exposure, such as B&W and Artistic, but that will be fine for those who just want a light-balanced image. The panorama-merging tool is similar to that in Lightroom Classic, and produces a good, seamless result. As in Classic, you get options for spherical, cylindrical, and perspective projection modes. You also have the option to Auto crop to remove nonrectangular edges. The Boundary Warp slides stretches the image edges so you don’t have to crop as much.
Enhance Details, which arrived in the February 2019 update, uses machine-learning support in Windows and macOS to clarify complex parts of an image. It’s a subtle effect, and, for many photos, it doesn’t do a whole lot, especially for parts of the photo that have a consistent texture. You access Enhance Details from the Photo menu (or from a right-click menu), and then you see a dialog with a detail view of your shot. Running it creates a new DNG file. There’s an estimate of how long the process will take, but the tool took quite a bit longer to complete than the estimated 10 seconds—more like a full minute.
On some early tries it also caused the program to quit unexpectedly, and on a 50MB NEF file from a Nikon D850, I got an error message saying that the image couldn’t be loaded. As noted, the effect is subtle: if you zoom in a lot, you see some pixel differences. I thought that when looking at the whole image at 1:1 magnification, there was an impression of greater sharpness, but several colleagues couldn’t see any difference. On some shots, the difference wasn’t noticeable at all, and on some, it was only noticeable at 2:1 magnification. It might make a meaningful difference in a large print, however.
The shot below has Detail Enhance enabled on the right. Still, I’m not convinced that it has 30 percent more detail. PCMag’s camera guru, Jim Fisher tried the feature in the macOS version on his 5K iMac and found similarly minimal results.
Left: Without Enhance Details; Right: Enhance Details used.
Sharing and Output
Sharing and output remain weaknesses for Lightroom. Most consumers who use Lightroom will likely want to share their photos to a few common places: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Flickr. They also may like to print their photos. Lightroom offers none of those options. The lack of printing capability is particularly flabbergasting, in that the app has been updated several times since its release.
A recent update did throw a bone to those wanting to print: You can now send photos to Blurb for book printing and to White House Custom Colour for wall art. There’s still no way to get handheld photos printed, aside from exporting image and uploading them to a photo printing service or printing them yourself using your operating system’s printing features. Both of the built-in options throw you out to your web browser, and I ran into a couple of glitches that program restarts fixed.
Output choices have increased, however. You can now save to DNG and TIFF formats as well as saving JPGs and original raw file with a sidecar XMP settings file. There are differing views on DNG, but it uses less storage includes metadata and edits without requiring a sidecar file. Since Lightroom syncs everything to cloud storage, the only reason I can think of for exporting to DNG is for backup and archiving.
You can also upload to Adobe Portfolio web galleries. Lightroom’s online galleries present the images well and allow sharing via a link. They also allow multiple contributors, who can add their own photos to your albums. The online galleries let you permit or disallow downloading, EXIF viewing, and location viewing.
Unlike in Lightroom Classic, there’s no right-click option here to email the current photo, and no output plugins that support the likes of Flickr and SmugMug online gallery syncing. If Adobe had decided to make a modern UWP Windows Store app, you’d be able to share to mail contacts, Dropbox, Facebook, Instagram, Skype, Twitter, Messenger, OneDrive, and any other photo-accepting app installed on your PC. In fact, the free Photos app that comes with Windows lets you share to any of those.
You can’t convert your pictures to many different file types, as you can in Corel PaintShop Pro. So, if you need a PNG or GIF, look elsewhere. Ditto for watermarking and soft proofing. At least you can now rename the file at export. You can, however, specify a pixel measurement for the longer side of the image.
Mobile App and Website
As a mobile app, Lightroom is actually more impressive than its desktop counterpart. In fact, it even boasts the People and Profiles features, along with a slider control for the Upright, Guided Upright, and Geometry tools.
All the same photos you see synced in the desktop app also appear in the mobile app, and you even get the gradient and brush selective editing. The latest version lets you pick a specific color to use with the brush and gradient tools—particularly useful for skies. It also includes chromatic aberration correction and effective noise reduction.
You can set the app to automatically upload anything shot on the phone to your Lightroom cloud storage, and you can search, filter, and tag your photos. In addition to all those post-shot options, you can use the in-app camera, which boasts exposure compensation with a simple swipe and a White Balance tool. It also has an HDR feature, and best of all, saves the result as a raw file. In all, it’s a great mobile photo app. It’s available for both Android and iOS, which both work identically. I tested on an Apple iPhone X. iPhone users, in particular, will find the app’s raw file saving important, since recent Android OSes can save raw camera files without third-party apps.
Lightroom’s web galleries bear a strong resemblance to the newer Lightroom application. In fact, the left organization panel shows the same list of albums, but its Add Photos option is in a different place, above the photo collection. You can also create new albums in the web interface. If you share a photo, you can choose a layout and get a single URL to share an album publicly. A dashboard shows you your recent albums, imports by month, and stats like how many photos, albums, and videos you’ve added.
You also get online editing, including the Light, Color, and Effects tools. You don’t, however, get the Detail, Optics, or Geometry corrections. There are a couple of Technology Previews you can opt into, such as Auto Tone and Best Photos, which uses AI to detect your photos with the best lighting and composition. Other differences between the installed and web versions include controls on the latter not working well with touch, the very slow loading of editing tools, and a lack of before-and-after viewing.
What’s Missing From Lightroom?
Though its capabilties have been growing with updates, Lightroom is still missing some key functionality. I’ve already mentioned the inability to control what’s synced, the lack of local printing, robust file conversion, color label organization, and sharing options. But there’s more: There’s no plug-in support and no tethered shooting capability. You can’t view EXIF or IPTC data, and there are no slideshow creation, photobook layout, or geo-tagged map view.
There are some things missing that you even find in the consumer competition from Apple and Microsoft as well as in Lightroom Classic, including basic video editing (though it lets you import and play video) and automatic gallery creation. Not to mention, even those products have printing capability.
With Lightroom, Adobe is going after the Apple Photos/Google Photos/Microsoft Photos audience. Sure, some serious amateur photographers may dig the slick modeless workflow, and enthusiasts will want to kick its tires. Adobe is also gradually adding features, and to be fair, it’s far more powerful than the free platform-included photo editors. We suspect many will miss the deeper Lightroom capabilities, and it seems unlikely that consumers will want to pay $120 per year for what they can get much of free or inexpensively from Apple, Google, and Microsoft. Pro photographers should stick with Lightroom Classic, our Editors’ Choice for photo workflow software. Enthusiasts are better served by Adobe Photoshop Elements, also an Editors’ Choice, or CyberLink PhotoDirector.