Adobe Lightroom Review 2017: A Powerful RAW Workflow System
Review of: Adobe Lightroom CC
Use: RAW Photo Editing & Library Management
Great organizational capabilities & powerful editing features
Starting from just $9.99 USD per month (for annual plan)
Ease of Use
Very easy to use (UI of some features could improve)
Arguably the best you can get for a RAW editor
What I like:
- Complete RAW Workflow
- Streamlines Common Editing Processes
- Excellent Library Management
- Mobile Companion App
- Output Service Integrations
What I dislike:
- Complex Editing Features Need Work
- Outdated GPU Acceleration Support
- Lens Profile Correction Issues
Summary: Adobe Lightroom is an excellent RAW image editor backed up by solid library management and organizational tools. As part of the Adobe Creative Cloud software series, it has a wide range of integrations with other related image software, including the industry standard image editor, Photoshop. It also can output your retouched images in a range of formats from a Blurb photo book to an HTML-based slideshow.
For such a high-profile program from a well-known developer, there are a few bugs that are really beyond excuse - but even these issues are relatively minor. My modern graphics card (an AMD RX 480) isn't supported by Lightroom for GPU acceleration features under Windows 10, despite having all the latest drivers, and there are some issues with the automatic application of lens correction profiles. Of course, as part of the Creative Cloud, Lightroom gets updated regularly, so there's plenty of opportunity for fixing bugs in future updates - and new features are being added constantly.
Why You Should Trust Me
Hi, my name is Thomas Boldt, and I wear many hats related to the graphic arts: graphic designer, photographer and image editor. This gives me a unique and comprehensive perspective on image editing software, which I've been working with since I first got my hands on Adobe Photoshop 5. I've followed the development of Adobe's image editors since then, through the first version of Lightroom all the way to the current Creative Cloud edition.
I've also experimented and reviewed a number of other image editors from competing developers, which helps provide a sense of context about what can be achieved with image editing software. On top of that, I spent time learning about user interface and user experience design during my training as a graphic designer, which helps me spot the differences between the good software and the bad.
Adobe provided me with no compensation for the writing of this review, and they have had no editorial control or review of the content. That being said, it should also be noted that I am a subscriber to the full Creative Cloud suite, and have used Lightroom extensively as my primary RAW image editor.
What Is Adobe Lightroom?
Adobe Lightroom is a complete RAW photo editor which covers all aspects of a photographic workflow, from capture to editing to output. It is aimed at professional photographers who want to edit large numbers of files at once without sacrificing quality or attention to individual photos. Despite being aimed at the professional market, it's easy enough to learn that amatuer and semi-professional photographers will also receive a lot of benefit from it.
Lightroom CC vs Lightroom 6
Lightroom CC is part of the Creative Cloud software suite (hence the 'CC'), while Lightroom 6 is the standalone version that was released before Adobe embraced the CC designation for all its software. Lightroom CC is only available through a monthly subscription, while Lightroom 6 can be purchased for a one-time fee on its own. The benefit of opting for the CC version is that because it's a subscription, Adobe is constantly updating the software and providing new versions. If you choose to buy Lightroom 6, you won't receive any product updates or new features as they are released.
Is Adobe Lightroom Free?
Adobe Lightroom is not free, although there is a 7-day free trial version available. Lightroom CC is available as part of a special Creative Cloud subscription for photographers that includes Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC for $9.99 USD per month, or as part of the complete Creative Cloud subscription which includes all available Adobe apps for $49.99 USD per month.
Lightroom 6, the previous version of the software, can be purchased as a standalone product for a one-time fee of $149 USD, but this will not include any future updates or new features that Adobe incorporates into Lightroom CC.
How Can I Learn to Use Lightroom?
Because Lightroom CC is a popular Adobe product, there are huge numbers of tutorials available across the web in almost any format you could want, including books available on Amazon. Here are some of the most comprehensive ones:
- Adobe's Lightroom CC Tutorials
- Lynda's Lightroom CC 2015 Essential Training
- Photoshop Cafe's Lightroom Tutorials
- The Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC Book for Digital Photographers by Scott Kelby
- Adobe Lightroom CC and Photoshop CC for Photographers Classroom in a Book by Lesa Snider
A Closer Look at Lightroom CC
Note: Lightroom is a huge program, and Adobe is constantly adding new features. We don't have time or space to go over everything that Lightroom can do, so I'll stick to the most commonly used aspects. Also, the screenshots below are taken from the Windows version. Lightroom for Mac may look slightly different.
Lightroom is one of the first image editors (maybe even the first app of any type) that I can remember using a dark grey interface. It's a great setup for any kind of image work, and it really helps your images pop by eliminating the contrast glare from a white or light grey interface. It was so popular that Adobe began using it in all of its Creative Cloud apps, and many other developers began to follow the same style.
Lightroom is divided up into 'Modules', which can be accessed at the top right: Library, Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, and Web. Library and Develop are the two most heavily-used modules, so we'll be focusing there. As you can see, my library is currently empty because I recently updated my folder sorting scheme - but this gives me a chance to show you how the import process works, and many of the Library module's organizational functions.
Library & File Organization
Importing files is a snap, and there are several ways to get it done. Simplest is the Import button in the bottom left, but you can also simply add a new folder on the left or go to File -> Import Photos and Video. With over 14,000 photos to import some programs might choke, but Lightroom handled it quite quickly, processing the lot in just a few minutes. Because this is a mass import, I don't want to apply any presets, but it is possible to automatically apply predetermined edit settings during the import process.
This can be a great help if you know you want to turn a specific set of imports into black and white, auto-correct their contrast, or apply any other preset which you've created (which we'll discuss later on). You can also apply metadata during import, allowing you to tag certain photoshoots, vacations, or anything else you like. I generally don't like applying sweeping changes to huge sets of images, but it can be a real time-saver in some workflows.
Once the library is populated with your imports, the layout of the Library screen looks a bit more understandable. The panels at the left and right give you information and quick options while the main window shows your grid, which is also shown in the filmstrip along the bottom. The reason for this duplication is that once you switch to the Develop module to start your editing, the filmstrip showing your photos will stay visible along the bottom. While you're in the Library mode, Lightroom assumes you're doing more organizational work and so tries to show you as many images as possible on screen at the same time.
Many aspects of the interface can be customized to match your working style, whether you want to see a grid, as above, or show a single image zoomed in, a comparison of two versions of similar images, or even sorting by people visible in the image. I almost never photograph people, so that option won't be of much use to me, but it would be a great help for everything from wedding photos to portrait photography.
The most useful aspect of the Library module is the ability to tag your images with keywords, which helps to make the sorting process much easier when working with a large catalog of images. Adding the keyword 'ice storm' to the above images will help me sort through what's available in the 2016 folder, and since Toronto's been seeing a few of these types of storms during recent winters, I'll also be able to easily compare all my photos tagged 'ice storm' no matter what year-based folder they're located in.
Of course, getting in the habit of actually using these kinds of tags is another matter, but sometimes we have to impose discipline on ourselves. Note: I have never imposed such discipline on myself, even though I can see how useful it would be 😉
My favorite method of tagging works in both the Library and Develop modules, because I wind up doing most of my organization using Flags, Colors and Ratings. These are all different ways of segmenting your catalog, allowing you to quickly go through your latest import, tag the best files, and then filter your filmstrip to only show Picks or 5-star rated images or images color-tagged 'Blue'.
Image Editing with the Develop Module
Once you've chosen the images you want to work on, it's time to dig into the Develop module. The range of settings will be very familiar to anyone who's currently using a different RAW workflow management program, so I won't go too deeply into detail about the more standard editing abilities. There are all the standard non-destructive RAW adjustments: white balance, contrast, highlights, shadows, a tone curve, color adjustments, and so on.
One handy feature that is harder to access in other RAW editors I've tested is a quick method of displaying histogram clipping. In this photo, some of the ice highlights are blown out, but it's not always easy to tell exactly how much of the image is affected with the naked eye. A look at the histogram shows me that some highlights are being clipped, represented by the small arrow at the right side of the histogram. Clicking the arrow shows me all the affected pixels in bright red overlay that updates as I adjust the highlights slider, which can be a real help for balancing exposures, especially in high-key images.
It's not all perfect, though. One aspect of Lightroom that baffles me is its inability to automatically correct the distortion caused by the lens I used. It has a huge database of automatic lens distortion correction profiles, and it even knows which lens I used from the metadata. But when it comes time to apply the adjustments automatically, it can't seem to determine what make of camera I use - even though the lens is a Nikon-only lens. However, simply choosing 'Nikon' from the 'Make' list suddenly enables it to fill in the gaps and apply all the right settings. This is a sharp contrast with DxO OpticsPro, which handles all this automatically with no trouble at all. (Read the full DxO OpticsPro 11 review here).
Lightroom is a great workflow management tool, especially for photographers who take multiple similar shots of each subject in order to select the final image during post-processing. In the photo above, I've adjusted the sample photo to the desired white balance and exposure, but I'm no longer sure if I like the angle. Fortunately, Lightroom makes it extremely easy to copy the Develop settings from one image to another, saving you the hassle of replicating the same settings on a series of images.
A simple right-click on the image and choosing 'Settings' gives you the option of copying any or all of the adjustments made on one image and pasting them onto as many others as you want.
Holding CTRL to select multiple photos in the filmstrip, I can then paste my Develop settings onto as many photos as I wish, saving me a huge amount of time. This same method is also used to create Develop presets, which can then be applied to images you as you import them. Workflow management and time-saving processes like these are what makes Lightroom really stand out from the rest of the RAW image editors available on the market.
GPS & the Map Module
Many modern DSLR cameras include GPS location systems for pinpointing exactly where a photo was taken, and even those that don't have one built-in usually have the ability to connect an external GPS unit. This data gets encoded into the EXIF data for each image, and Lightroom can then plot those images for you on a world map. Unfortunately, I don't have either of these options, but it's still possible to hard-code your location data if you want to use that as a method of sorting through your images. You can achieve the same thing using keyword tags, however, so I don't really bother to use the Map module. That being said, if you have a GPS unit for your camera, it would probably be quite interesting to see how your photographic journeys have spread throughout the world!
Outputting Your Images: Book, Slideshow, Print, and Web Modules
Once your images are editing to your liking, it's time to get them out into the world. Lightroom has several options for this, but the most interesting is the Book module. Part of me thinks this is a somewhat 'quick-and-dirty' method for creating a photobook, but that's probably just the picky graphic designer in me - and I can't argue with how streamlined the process is. You can set up covers and configure a range of different layouts, then automatically populate the pages with your selected images. After that, you can output it to a JPEG series, a PDF file, or send it directly to book publisher Blurb from right within Lightroom.
The other output modules are fairly self-explanatory and easy to use. Slideshow lets you organize a series of images with overlays and transitions, then output it as a PDF slideshow or a video. The Print module is really just a glorified 'Print Preview' dialog box, but the Web output is a bit more useful. Many photographers aren't overly comfortable working with HTML/CSS coding, so Lightroom can create an image gallery for you based on your image selections and configure it with a series of template presets and customized options.
You probably wouldn't want to use this for your primary portfolio site, but it would be an excellent way of generating quick preview galleries for clients who are going to be reviewing and approving a selection of images.
Thanks to there being a smartphone in almost every pocket, mobile companion apps are growing extremely popular lately and Lightroom is no exception. Lightroom Mobile is available for free on Android and iOS, although you need an accompanying Creative Cloud subscription in order to get the most benefit out of it. You can shoot RAW images using your mobile phone camera, and then sign into your Creative Cloud account to sync your images automatically from Lightroom Mobile to the desktop version. You can then work on the images the same way you would any other RAW file, which adds an interesting twist onto the value of a smartphone camera - especially the newest, high-quality cameras found in the latest smartphone models.
The Reasons Behind My Reviews & Ratings
Lightroom's primary tasks are to help you organize and edit your RAW photos, and it does the job beautifully. There is a robust featureset behind each main goal, and the thoughtful extra touches that Adobe tends to include in their software make managing a total RAW workflow extremely easy. Working with large image catalogs is smooth and fast.
While I wasn't overly happy with the idea of the Creative Cloud subscription model at first, it's grown on me. It's possible to get access to Lightroom and Photoshop together for a mere $9.99 USD per month, and 4 new versions have been released since Lightroom joined the CC family in 2015, without increasing the cost. That's much more effective than purchasing a standalone piece of software and then having to pay to upgrade it every time a new version is released.
Ease of Use: 4.5/5
Lightroom CC is very easy to use, although some of the more advanced features could use a bit of a re-think in terms of their user interface. Complex editing procedures can get a bit complicated as each localized edit is only represented by a small dot on the image indicating its placement, with no label or other identifiers, causing problems during heavy editing. Of course, if you're going to be doing that much editing, it's often better to transfer the file to Photoshop, which is included in any Creative Cloud subscription that contains Lightroom.
Because Adobe is a huge developer with a devoted and widespread following, the support available for Lightroom is arguably the best you can get for a RAW editor. In all my years of working with Lightroom, I've never had to contact Adobe directly for support, because so many other people use the software that I've always been able to find answers to my questions and issues around the web. The support community is huge, and thanks to the CC subscription model, Adobe is constantly putting out new versions with bug fixes and increased support.
Lightroom CC Alternatives
DxO OpticsPro 11 (Windows/MacOS)
OpticsPro is an excellent RAW editor, allowing you to instantly correct for a number of optical lens and camera distortions thanks to DxO's extensive collection of lab testing results. It also boasts an industry-standard noise reduction algorithm, which is essential for anyone who regularly shoots with high ISOs. Unfortunately, it doesn't really have much of an organizational side to it at all, but it's an excellent editor, and worth testing out the free trial before paying for the Elite edition or the Essential edition.
Read our review of DxO OpticsPro here.
Capture One Pro 10 (Windows/MacOS)
Capture One Pro is an incredibly powerful RAW editor, and many photographers swear that it has a better rendering engine for certain lighting conditions. However, it's primarily aimed at photographers shooting with extremely expensive high-resolution medium-format digital cameras, and its interface is definitely not aimed at the casual or semi-pro user. It also has a free trial available, so you can experiment before purchasing the full version for $299 USD or a monthly subscription for $20.
Read our review of Capture One Pro here.
For most digital photographers, Lightroom is the perfect balance of power and accessibility. It's got great organizational capabilities and powerful editing features, and it's backed up by Photoshop for more serious editing requirements. The price is absolutely affordable for both casual and professional users, and Adobe has been regularly adding new features as they are developed. There are a couple of minor issues with device compatibility, and a couple of user interface elements that could be improved, but nothing that should prevent any user from turning their photographs into finished works of art.