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Adobe’s new version of Lightroom lets you resume editing anywhere

Say hello to Lightroom CC

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Adobe’s best photography management and editing app is evolving in a big way today. The company announced an all-new cloud-connected version of Lightroom with a more approachable look and feel, and a deep connection to the mobile app that will let you progressively edit a photo in near real time across multiple devices. It’s called Lightroom CC, a reference to the company’s Creative Cloud subscription service launched in 2012.

Lightroom CC is going to be available a few ways, all starting today. It can be purchased on a standalone $10 per month subscription, which comes with 1 terabyte of cloud storage. This is the option Adobe expects most new users, or ones who don’t need access to Adobe’s other programs (like Photoshop or Bridge), to select.

Adobe is also adding it to the current Creative Cloud photography subscription plan (which does include Photoshop, Bridge, and the current version of Lightroom) with 20GB of storage. And if those users want to upgrade to the full terabyte cloud backup option, they’ll only have to pay $5 more a month. There are a few more plans available on Adobe’s website.

Even Adobe admits the new naming structure is confusing

Photographers who love (or love to hate) the existing version of Lightroom won’t lose that app. Instead, it’s being rebranded to Lightroom Classic CC. It’s also getting some updates today, like faster boot speed, file imports, and image previews, and some better masking tools. Adobe understands that many photographers are too deeply tied to the workflow, file system, and look and feel of the “old” Lightroom, so it isn’t going to just pull the rug out from underneath them.

Lastly, Photoshop CC is getting an update as well, with better connection to the cloud backend, added support for HEIF format images, 360 panorama workflows, and more. Lightroom Classic CC will keep the square logo, while the new Lightroom CC’s has rounded corners and is slightly bluer.

A quick recap, because those naming choices are quite confusing: there’s a new, cloud-connected version of Lightroom that’s cleaner, easier to use, and syncs edits across devices called Lightroom CC. The old version of Lightroom stays mostly the same and will be called Lightroom Classic CC. But Photoshop CC, while remaining mostly the same like Lightroom Classic CC, won’t get the “Classic” designation, since Adobe’s not creating a new, second version of the app.

Got it?

Whether or not you do (and it’s fine if you don’t; even Adobe admits “there will be some confusion”), we should talk more about the actual new version of Lightroom, Lightroom CC.

Tom Hogarty, the director of product management for Adobe’s digital imaging team, told me that he believes Lightroom CC “is even a bigger deal than when we created Lightroom in the first place.” That’s a bold statement. Especially since Apple discontinued Aperture, and arguably before that depending on your allegiances, Lightroom has been the best go-to, all-in-one suite for editing and managing digital photos.

The crazy thing, though, is Hogarty could be right. And that’s because Lightroom CC is basically the thing that everyone’s expected Adobe would do since it moved to a subscription model and added cloud support a few years ago. It lets you load in a bunch of photos (RAW, JPEG, or whatever), start editing, and then — once they’re synced to the cloud — pick up those edits anywhere else.

Lightroom CC “is even a bigger deal than when we created Lightroom in the first place”

Say you edit some RAW photos at home, and then you head out for the afternoon. But not long after you leave, you realize you’re unhappy with the way you left those edits. With Lightroom CC, you can now just open up the mobile app and continue to tweak those same RAW files to your heart’s content. The adjustments you made should already be showing when you pull up the photo, down to the position of the sliders for each individual tool.

A closeup of the new left rail, which cleans up the folder / file tree system and makes it easier to sort and view all your images.
A closeup of the new left rail, which cleans up the folder / file tree system and makes it easier to sort and view all your images.

Or maybe you’re more time crunched than fussy. You want to keep editing at your office, but don’t want to lug a bunch of hard drives around. Now you can just pick up where you left off on the desktop (or web app) client at your work computer.

Adobe offered the ability to sync libraries of images across different devices using the cloud before, but it was a much fussier process that forced users to actively section off and sync “collections.” Lightroom CC is much more passive. It does all the work in the background of backing up and syncing images so that you have the same access to them wherever you go.

The real power comes from the ability to sync edits across those devices, because it happens in almost real time, at least on the beta version I’ve been testing for the last few days. After all, Hogarty says, “it's just text instructions going back and forth” to these editing clients. Once the files are backed up in the cloud, syncing the edits should be easy and shouldn’t require heavy bandwidth.

I have to say, as a former Lightroom power user who’s fallen out of love with the effort it often requires, this is absolutely the kind of thing that could pull me back in. The ability to always have access to the most current edits I’ve made to a set of RAW files, no matter where I go, is aggressively compelling. And it helps solve a problem I’ve had lately, which is an inability to choose between (or, frankly, care about) mobile editing apps.

The Lightroom mobile app has come a long way from the rough first attempt Adobe rolled out a few years ago, and it offers plenty of control for the kind of editing experience I want out of a smartphone or tablet. Hogarty says the idea with Lightroom CC is to have “identical image adjustment tools available on all platforms,” which sounds like music to my ears, as long as the execution’s there — and it seems like it is.

As for the desktop experience of Lightroom CC, there’s a much higher emphasis on putting the photos front and center. The file tree on the left side has shrunk and been simplified, and Adobe (drumroll) has made it so that you can move folders around without totally breaking that system in the app. That alone could be worth the upgrade.

The tools on the right rail have been streamlined, too. Most of them are still here, some are just tucked away behind dropdown menus.
The tools on the right rail have been streamlined, too. Most of them are still here, some are just tucked away behind dropdown menus.

I am certain many folks won’t initially like the glossier, and frankly more “mobile” look that dominates Lightroom CC, but most all the same controls are still here. Some, like the “radius” and “detail” sliders under the Sharpening tool, have been hidden behind little triangle drop downs, so it will take a while to reorient yourself. “All the controls are there, it’s just that by default we're not overwhelming you,” Hogarty says.

A few are missing, like split toning and tone curve. “We think it's a pretty good first start, and we want to do some innovations around the user experience of” options like tone curve, he adds.

Many of the default shortcuts are different, too, including basics like the one for the Crop tool (which is now “C,” not “R,” which I totally understand but will take me weeks to train my brain around), as well as more granular ones like how you copy the style of one photo to others. (It’s now simply a mix of Command + C and Command + V, which again, makes sense, but will take some time.)

Building the power of Adobe’s cloud services into the new version of Lightroom opens up opportunities for new ideas, too. One of those is that Lightroom CC is getting AI-generated auto-tagging, and therefore will offer a Google Photos-like keyword search at launch. This way, if you download a menagerie of photos from your SD card that were shot across multiple times and spaces, you should be able to just instantly search for “concert” or “dogs” or “sunset” (or “dogs” and “sunset”) and find the photos you want.

It’s a little slow in the beta I’ve had, but it’s a good idea that will hopefully get even faster and smarter over time. And it’s a hint of the types of new ideas Adobe wants to slowly introduce to the mix from its bag of cloud and AI tricks, a suite of technologies the company broadly refers to as “Sensei.”

(One other thing coming: the ability for Lightroom CC to automatically show you the “best” photos you took based on sharpness, color, and other factors, and it will show you fewer duplicates. Best of all, there’s a slider in this view, so that if you feel the AI is showing you too much or too little, you can simply adjust until you’re comfortable that it’s not hiding a gem or two.)

The new version of Lightroom uses AI to let you search your photos even if they haven’t been tagged.
The new version of Lightroom uses AI to let you search your photos even if they haven’t been tagged.

Overall, as loopy as some of the name changes sound, I think this evolution is genuinely for the better. Lightroom CC is what the Lightroom experience should have been for the last few years. As long as Adobe took that time to make sure it got this right, it will have been worth it to have a full library of your images accessible and editable anywhere.

If you don’t want to mess with Adobe’s insistence on cloud storage and syncing, you can stick with regular old Lightroom. You just have to live with a new name — but you at least get a few well-needed upgrades, and Hogarty says his team has “a pretty healthy backlog” of other ones waiting in the wings for 2018.

Of course, in the time it took Adobe to get this “Lightroom everywhere” idea out the door, companies like Google and Apple have built their own versions of cloud-connected photo services. There will always be photographers who are so married to Lightroom that the option of switching to, say, Apple’s combination of Photos and iCloud isn’t even on the table. It will be up to Lightroom CC to convince the rest of the world’s photographers that Adobe’s way is best.

As for Lightroom 6 — the last remaining standalone version of Lightroom to be released completely outside of the Creative Cloud ecosystem — here’s what Adobe has to say:

Lightroom 6 is the last stand-alone version of Lightroom that can be purchased outside of a Creative Cloud membership. There will not be a Lightroom 7 perpetual offering. Lightroom 6 will remain for sale for an undetermined amount of time, but will no longer be updated with camera support or bug fixes after the end of 2017. Lightroom 6.13 with support for the Nikon D850 will be released on October 26th, 2017. 

Try as it might, Adobe will never be able please everyone.