- Excellent photo management and organization
- Camera and lens-based corrections
- Brush and gradient adjustments with color and luminance masking
- Face detection and tagging
- Plug-in support
- Connected mobile apps
Adobe’s Lightroom is unquestionably the leading professional photo-workflow software. The one question is, which Lightroom should you use? The photo software is now available as two separate applications: the consumer-targeted Lightroom and Lightroom Classic, reviewed here. Lightroom Classic offers professional photographers a powerful way to import, organize, and correct everything they shoot. The June 2021 update adds a lot of pro presets, Super Resolution upscaling, Apple Silicon M1 support, and live view for Nikon tethering. Other recent updates include local hue adjustments, a Texture slider, and the Enhance Details tool, along with interface tweaks and performance speedups. The program earns a rare five-star rating and a PCMag Editors’ Choice award.
Though there are excellent competing products such as ACDSee Pro, CyberLink’s PhotoDirector, DxO’s PhotoLab, and Phase One’s Capture One, none equal Lightroom Classic’s combination of smooth workflow interface, organizers, and adjustment tools. HDR tools and panorama-stitching tools, improved performance, face recognition, a mobile app, and cloud integrations are also at your disposal, along with top-notch lighting, color, geometry, and lens-profile based corrections.
A Tale of Two Lightrooms
With the release of the rethought Lightroom, the program photo pros have come to know and love got a younger, and frankly, still fairly immature sibling. Lightroom does offer simpler, cleaner interface, but it lacks some expected tools—including the ability to print and plug-in support. Pros will want to stick with the subject of this review, Lightroom Classic, the true heir to the Lightroom throne that offers every bit of the franchise’s functionality. Lightroom, on the other hand, is more suited to consumers and enthusiasts who want everything available from the cloud—since the newer program requires you to upload all images to its cloud storage before you can edit.
Setup and Pricing Options
A Creative Cloud Photography subscription (which costs $9.99 per month) gets you not only Lightroom Classic, but also the full version of Adobe Photoshop (which alone used to cost up to $999), along with 20GB of online storage. Adobe no longer offers Lightroom as a one-time purchase, and no longer updates pre-Creative Cloud versions—if you see one for sale (the last perpetual license was for version 6), run the other way, since you’ll be paying for obsolete software that won’t support recent camera models.
To install Lightroom, you need an up-to-date OS, as it only runs on Windows 10 (Version 1903 or later), or on macOS 10.14 or later. It now runs on Apple Silicon M1-based Macs, but not on Windows 10 on ARM, though Lightroom (non-Classic) does. The Windows version requires 64-bit operating system versions.
Lightroom has a big, ever-present Import button and media auto-detect that launches the nondestructive importer. This lets you see thumbnails and full-size images on memory cards even before you import them. External media is by default selected in the Files section, rather than in the Devices section, which Adobe claims is faster. Lightroom lets you start work on any photo in the set before all the import processing is done. Usually, you’ll want to import photos as camera raw files, which offer more control over the final images. Lightroom supports camera raw file conversion for every major DSLR and high-end digital camera.
Lightroom imports pictures using a database, which Adobe calls a catalog. The database approach makes sense for photographers with huge collections of large images, and you can store the database file separately from the actual image files. This is helpful if you want to store them on external media or a NAS. At import, you can either Copy, Copy as DNG (Adobe’s universal raw camera file format), Move, or Add. During import, you can have the program build Smart Previews for faster editing, ignore duplicates, add to a Collection, or apply a preset such as Auto Tone.
Lightroom Classic can now import Photoshop Elements catalogs and .PSB files. It’s nice to see Elements getting some love from the Creative Cloud club, as it has long seemed a very separate entity. PSB files are like PSDs (Photoshop Document), but the B stands for big, since these files can be up to 512 megapixels and 65,000 pixels wide. Note that you need to check the Maximum Compatibility box when saving in Photoshop for the Lightroom import to work. You can now choose which monitor is used for preview and which for controls, if you have a multiple-monitor setup.
Another way to get photos onto your computer is to tether it. Mostly of use to pro photographers, tethering lets you connect your camera with a USB or FireWire cable and actually control the shutter release from the computer. ACDSee and CyberLink PhotoDirector, by comparison, offer no tethering capability, though Capture One does. In its February 2019 update, Lightroom Classic got faster tether transfers for Nikon SLRs to catch them up with the improvements made for Canon updates, and the June 2021 update adds live view for Nikon tethering. You can control ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and white balance in the software.
To test this, I chose the first option, and the program began detecting faces right away. It built a grid of unnamed people, stacking those that it detected as being close enough to be considered one and the same person. It’s interesting how a person in the same session but with a different expression sometimes isn’t included in his or her stack.
Once it’s done detecting, you type a name into the box with a question mark below the photo or stack, and it pops right up into the Named People section. Once you name a few, Lightroom proposes names for unnamed face shots. You just hit the check mark if it’s correct. It’s one of the smoothest and simplest implementations of people tagging I’ve seen. Adobe has clearly studied how other apps do this and come upon a great interface and process. This time I tested it, it claimed several nonhuman images—patterns in shrubbery—had faces. If you only have a couple named faces, it can match some wildly off other faces for the name, so a bit of training is required. It also has trouble with profiles and faces partially hidden by hats and other clothing, and as you’d expect, paintings, statues, and Memoji are also detected as faces.
Once faces are tagged, you can always get to them by tapping the same face icon in Library mode, but I wish you could also easily create smart albums based on peoples’ names or even use a People mode as you can use Map mode. Face detection might seem like a consumer feature, but pros who shoot events with lots of faces could certainly make good use of it.
Not only does Lightroom continue to support many output options for which plug-ins are available, but built-in support for Flickr and Facebook also makes uploading to those popular sources easy. Facebook and Flickr comments and likes and are visible right inside Lightroom. Very cool. You can also upload video directly to these services or share a photo via email with a right click.
One export option is to submit your images for sale on Adobe Stock. The export plug-in for this is installed by default. To start submitting your work, you need not only a Creative Cloud account, but also a Stock contributor account, which is pretty easy to set up and just requires ticking a few checkboxes.
After that, submission is a simple matter of dragging photo thumbnails to the Adobe Stock Publishing Service area in Library mode, and then describing them on the website. Adobe automatically tags recognized objects like buildings, which makes it even easier. The hardest part came right when I went to submit my first batch of photos. You have to scan an ID that proves your age. A few of my upload attempts for this were rejected. But who knows? You may finally make some money from your hobby.
Lightroom doesn’t support the desktop operating systems’ built-in share features, since it’s not a UWP app.
For Creative Cloud subscribers, Adobe offers mobile apps for iOS and Android, and they keep improving and taking more advantage of the platforms’ new capabilities. Lightroom for iPad now supports split-screen mode, and in the Lightroom for iPhone app, 3D Touch is supported, and you can shoot with live filters enabled. Its Pro mode lets you manually set focus, white, balance, and shutter speed, and ISO—pretty nifty. The key reason for the apps, though, is to be able to edit photos in sync with the desktop program. They do this admirably. For more details, see the linked reviews above.
Lightroom uses your graphics processor for photo adjustments such as exposure, distortions, radial filters, crop, and panning. The February 2020 update added acceleration for Lens Correction and Transform adjustments, and subsequent updates have added even more performance improvements, with the June 2021 update focusing on speeding up the process of selecting and updating metadata for multiple images. If you have a decently powered PC, you shouldn’t be detained too long with any Lightroom operations, which isn’t the case for the slower Corel PaintShop Pro (though that has improved recently), Skylum Luminar, and Zoner Photos Studio.