Photographers can be creatures of habit. We will find ourselves attached to a lens or a camera body. Or, in the case of Adobe Classic Lightroom, photo editing software. Lightroom Classic has been around in one form or another for 15 years now. It currently shares the Creative Cloud line with the simply titled Lightroom, which Adobe has released to offer users tighter integration with the mobile version of the program.
Like a real photographer, however, Lightroom users weren’t ready to give up the hardcore desktop version of their favorite photographic workflow tool. As a result, Lightroom Classic endures.
Despite its age and position outside of the spotlight in Adobe’s lineup, Lightroom Classic still feels so relevant. Of course, some features have gotten clunky over time, and its resource management can still tax even the most powerful editing computers. But Adobe is still bringing new features to Lightroom Classic, and this summer it received a few notable upgrades. Here’s a look at the status of one of the best image editing programs of all time.
What is Adobe Lightroom Classic
It can be a bit difficult to imagine exactly what Adobe Lightroom Classic is if you’ve never used it before. It is basically a photographic workflow tool designed to help import, organize, sort, edit, and export images.
It also facilitates tethered shooting, where you can connect your camera directly to the computer running Adobe Lightroom Classic and take photos directly within the program. This is especially handy in a studio situation where you want to quickly see large previews of your photos so that a Creative Director can look over your shoulder and tell you what’s wrong with them in real time.
The powerful organizer
The library module allows basic edits and navigation in your photo collection. Stan horaczek
If you’re working with high volume photos, Lightroom’s import interface comes in handy once you get the hang of it. The software creates catalogs into which you can import photos (hopefully those of the raw variety). Some users create many different catalogs. Others simply create a large catalog and then organize their folders and files in it. I prefer the latter solution simply because I don’t trust myself not to lose my catalog files or forget which images belong to which catalog. When everything is in one place, I can certainly find it, even if it takes time.
Importing photos can extract them from a memory card and transfer them to the computer. If they are already on your computer, you can simply point the software to their location and edit them where they are. Lightroom is a non-destructive editor. This means that the program makes adjustments by keeping track of the changes in a separate file from the original photo. So if you light up an image, you’re just telling Lightroom, “When you show me this photo, make it brighter,” rather than making a permanent change to the original file. You won’t see the finished file until you export a jpeg or tiff file.
In catalogs you can create collections and photographers like to use them in different ways. My workflow usually involves doing an initial sort where I pick the selected images by pressing “B” to add them to a quick collection. Then I add the selections to a smart collection so that I can work on the selected images without throwing the rest away. Ask another photographer and they’ll likely tell you they work differently. That’s part of the beauty of software that’s been around for so long.
Adobe Lightroom Classic editing tools
Once you’ve selected your images, it’s time to tweak them. Adobe Lightroom Classic has a set of familiar tools that you might have seen if you’ve used Photoshop’s Camera Raw feature before. You can adjust the exposure, contrast, sharpness, cropping and all the rest of the usual suspects.
Lightroom will allow you to make the editing process as easy or as complicated as you want. If you’re just learning, you can stick with the Library module and use the quick edit buttons. Switch to the Develop module and sliders replace buttons for more granular control. This is also where you will find more advanced editing tools. You can play with the tone curve or modify specific variables of individual colors. If you can look at an image and say, “There is too much saturation in the blues in the dark areas of that image,” then Lightroom Classic has the tools to help you fix that.
The Develop module is also home to a few other useful features of Lightroom Classic. The Upright tool automatically tries to straighten your images. So if your idyllic beach scene has a distracting and twisted horizon, Upright can fix it automatically. The lens correction tool also allows you to apply lens profiles that remove the quirks from your favorite lenses. This feature usually flattens the field of vision a bit. It also often brightens the corners of the image to counteract the lens’s natural vignette. It makes a big difference in many cases.
If you want to do deep retouching, then Photoshop is the tool for you. It’s not even a competition. Adobe Lightroom Classic does, however, offer a few tools for making local adjustments. The smudge removal tool is relatively useful, but it doesn’t give you a lot of brush options like you would in Photoshop. It will quickly remove a small mark on a wall, or dust spots on a photo negative, but you wouldn’t want to do a full portrait retouch with it. It’s just too embarrassing.
Gradient and radial filters are useful if you want to correct some quirks that occur around the frame. The gradient file, for example, can be useful if the sky at the top of your photo is much brighter than the landscape at the bottom of your photo. The radial filter is also useful in helping to heal vignettes. You can also add a thumbnail if you really want to, but in my experience it makes your photo worse 100% of the time.
Finally, the Adjustment Brush tool lets you select edits and then paint them on specific areas. So if part of an image is too dark, but the rest looks okay, you can try to distinguish that peripheral area with the brush. It’s like Photoshop’s dodge and burn tools, except it can also apply adjustments to variables like contrast in addition to the typical exposure.
Cards and books
I group these features together because I rarely use them. Even though my photos are associated with geotags, I prefer to track them using software like Google Photos. The Books feature is also handy if you want to rough a layout, but many book services now have their own workflow software.
Adobe Lightroom Classic has made real progress in terms of speed in recent years. The program didn’t start implementing GPU acceleration until 2019, which was a step in the right direction.
The current edition of Lightroom Classic runs pretty fast most of the time for me. Even on my several year old laptop, I can still work at a reasonable (but not very fast) pace. I usually let the program generate previews as I import the images, which lengthens the process, but also saves me time during the editing process.
As you switch between photos, there is an inevitable lag while you wait for the high-res preview to load. Even on a fast computer, it can get bogged down, especially if you’ve been editing for a long time. My main computer has 64GB of RAM and an AMD Ryzen 9 processor, and it always sounds like an airplane about to take off when I’m moving fast through photos.
Interestingly, I have found Lightroom Classic to work very well on Apple’s new M1 powered computers. Even the tiny MacBook Air M1 handled the program surprisingly well. Hopefully Adobe will keep trying to speed up Lightroom Classic with future updates.
Who should buy Adobe Lightroom Classic?
Other photo workflow programs have appeared that have shown some advantages over Lightroom Classic. Capture One Pro, for example, offers slightly better overall image quality and a more refined interface when it comes to making edits. Luminar has some very smart AI-based editing features that automate otherwise tedious tasks.
Yet at the end of the day, many photographers return to Lightroom Classic. It has a learning curve, but once you’ve hiked it it’s hard to leave. After intensive use, shortcuts become second nature and you let yourself be carried away.
Ultimately, it seems inevitable that Adobe will try to get Lightroom Classic users into the more modern Lightroom software. Frankly, I’m surprised it hasn’t already done more to encourage this transition.
If you want to access Adobe Lightroom Classic, you’ll need a Creative Cloud subscription. Adobe still offers the Creative Cloud Photography plan, which includes both versions of Lightroom, the full version of Photoshop, and several Photoshop mobile apps for $ 10 per month. I hate having to subscribe to my software (a common prospect in the photography community), but I can appreciate the low cost of this plan. And with Creative Cloud speeding up the frequency of software updates, subscription lifespan has its benefits.
For now, Lightroom Classic is still the champion in the world of the complete photographic workflow. However, the competition is getting closer every day.