Lightroom comes in two incarnations. The newer version - called Lightroom CC – is designed to look and behave the same on desktop and mobile devices, with your assets stored and accessed via the cloud. We’ll look at the newer, more streamlined version of Lightroom CC in detail in a separate review. The older Lightroom Classic is designed to let you organize, develop and share your digital photographs primarily from a desktop Mac or PC.
You typically buy Lightroom Classic as part of Adobe's Creative Cloud Photography Plan, which bundles this version of Lightroom with Photoshop CC for a combined subscription price of $9.99 per month. You can also buy it as part of the full All Apps plan - which gets you nearly every program that Adobe makes.
Lightroom Classic has traditionally been the app of choice for professional photographers. It’s been part of their workflow for so long that Adobe have wisely continued to support the original version and still add new features to it. As well as being a digital darkroom, Lightroom Classic has many tools and features that professional photographers will find useful, such as the ability to create customized contact sheets that they can share with clients. This type of professional sharing tool is not available in the new streamlined Lightroom CC. Indeed Lightroom CC has jettisoned many of the Lightroom Classic’s pro sharing options (such as the ability to create Contact sheets) to focus on photo fixing.
One of Lightroom Classic’s greatest strengths is its ability to manage your assets. If you’ve been a photographer for a long time then you may have thousands of digital photos scattered across multiple external hard drives. Lightroom Classic’s catalog file knows everything about a photograph, from the drive it is stored on to any keywords and edits that have been applied to the image. This enables you to peruse preview thumbnails of thousands of photographs without needing all of your external drives to be plugged into your computer.
If an external drive is already connected then your photographs will be instantly editable in Lightroom Classic’s catalog. If you need to edit a particular photo that’s on an unconnected hard drive then you can can click on a thumbnails ‘!’ Icon to find out its storage location, then plug-in the relevant hard drive to continue working on your image. Alternatively you can import shots as Smart Previews, enabling you to edit a photo even if its external drive is not attached to you PC (more on that later).
Lightroom Classic enables you to focus on specific tasks by splitting its workspace into seven tabbed modules.
The Library module gets you up and running as you import and organize files then the Develop module enables you to tweak color, tone and composition. The Map module lets you view geo-tagged shots on a map (which is handy for viewing files sourced on a smart phone or GPS-equipped camera but not so valuable if you shoot on an old DSLR.)
The Book module enables you to lay out and publish your images in photo books (or even magazines) via partner publishers such as Blurb.
The Slideshow module lets you to present your images as a movie complete with text and transitions. You can add properties such as borders and copyright information to your slideshow to promote your work via social media sites for example.
The Print module is packed full of layout templates to help you print Triptychs for your wall or Contact Sheets for clients. The Web module lets you add your work to templates so you can create all the images and html files that you’ll need to showcase your images in an online gallery (though you will need access to a web server).
For most people the key modules are Library and Develop. In the Library module you can import images from a source (such as a memory card) and save them to a specified location. During the import process you can batch keyword shots to make them easier to find in the future. While importing you’re given the option to build Smart Previews of each shot. Smart Previews enable you to apply edits to your images even if their external storage drive isn’t connected to your PC. You can then plug in the appropriate source drive to share the full quality version of the edited shot. Smart Previews take up more space in the catalog on your PC but they’re a very useful feature.
You can continue to add keywords to imported shots within the Library module and use keyword sets (such as Wedding Photography) to speed up this tedious but essential process. You can also use the Quick Develop panel to tweak color and tone (or try out different white balance presets) without leaving the Library module. In the Library module you can also create themed collections (or albums) of shots, or set up a Smart Collection that will automatically gather images with specific properties. Smart Collections are powerful ways of organizing your assets as they can be set up to collect images using a wide set of criteria - such as shots captured using a particular Aperture that is greater or less than a specified value for example.
The Develop module is Lightroom Classic’s digital darkroom, packed full of powerful tools that let you hone your raw files to perfection. Here you can apply lens profiles that counteract lens distortion and reduce artefacts such as color noise and chromatic aberration. Adobe continually update Lightroom via the Creative Cloud so it can work with a host of Camera Raw files from the latest range of camera models (including Adobe ProRaw files from the iPhone 12 Pro range complete with profiles for the wide, ultra-wide and telephoto lenses).
Quality of results
One of the key strengths of the Develop mobile is its ability to let you make selective adjustments to Camera Raw files. For example the Graduated filter lets you claw back more detail from over-exposed skies without altering a correctly exposed landscape. We found this tool was so effective that overcast skies that looked completely white actually featured clouds with texture and color. This processing power encourages you to re-visit Camera Raw files you shot years ago to discover new details in them. You can also use brush-based tools to dodge and burn specific areas with precision. Unlike traditional darkroom processing all of Lightroom’s edits are non-destructive, so you have much more freedom to experiment with different looks.
Lightroom Classic excels at getting your photos to look their best. You can also use it to stitch panned shots together into a seamless panorama or combine multiple exposures into a merged HDR shot. However if you need to work with multiple images on separate layers to create montages and composites you’ll need Photoshop (or an equivalent app such as Affinity Photo or Pixelmator Pro.)
Lightroom Classic suits the workflow of a DSLR photographer who needs to import and store files generated on camera memory cards. If you generate your stills on a mobile device and upload them to the cloud then the newer version of Lightroom may better suit your needs. Fortunately both versions are provided when you subscribe to the Adobe Creative Cloud’s Photography Plan. Lightroom Classic’s powerful set of selective raw adjusting tools enable you to create perfect prints and its multiple modules provide a wide range of ways to get your work seen.