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Photos Everywhere with Lightroom CC and Photos for OS X

It’s not enough these days to store and manage photos on a single computer; we want those photos on our other devices, too. But we also want the photos we capture on the iPhone (and iPad) to go the other direction and be added to the photo libraries on our Macs. And all editing and organization efforts should sync as well.

In April 2015, Apple released Photos for OS X, which replaces iPhoto and Aperture and supports iCloud Photo Library for sharing images on multiple Apple devices. Later that month, Adobe announced Photoshop Lightroom CC with a focus not just on new features, but also on how the photo management software is part of a broader mobile workflow that includes photos on tablets and phones.

What may seem a minor convenience — look, you can take a picture with your iPhone and it appears on your Mac! — is the start of a notable shift in how we treat digital photos. Let’s take a look at how both applications — both ecosystems, really — achieve this goal.

iCloud Cover — Apple actually did the thing that customers have been asking for since the introduction of My Photo Stream: sync everything everywhere. If the image is in your Photos library in OS X, it will appear in the Photos app of every Apple device you own, from the iPad and iPhone to the Apple Watch. (The watch is initially set to include only photos you’ve marked as favorites, but it can sync any album of your choice, including All Photos; the number of images that appear depends on how much space you’ve allotted for photo storage, up to 500 photos occupying 75 MB.) The lone straggler is the Apple TV, which supports My Photo Stream and iCloud Photo Sharing,
but not yet iCloud Photo Library.

If you enable iCloud Photo Library, the Photos app on your Mac uploads the photos in your library to iCloud. Depending on the size of your library and the speed of your Internet connection, this process will likely take a while — possibly days.

(A quick reminder: iCloud Photo Library is not required to use the new Photos application. Those upgrading from iPhoto and Aperture can continue to use Photos without the iCloud component. If you choose that route, you can still move photos to an iPhone or iPad via iTunes, and copy photos taken on an iOS device into Photos. But there won’t be any synchronization of edits or other organization work.)

Of course, an average Photos library won’t fit on an iOS device. To include everything, iCloud sends compressed, low-resolution thumbnails that take up far less storage. When you want to view an image, a higher resolution version is downloaded as needed — a small progress wheel appears in the lower-right corner as the image is transferred. If you have a small library, you can opt to download originals instead of compressed versions on an iOS device: go to Settings > Photos & Camera and choose Download and Keep Originals.

You can also synchronize a Photos library among multiple Macs signed in to the same Apple ID. In that situation, Photos offers the option to download and store full-resolution originals or optimized versions; the latter is great for accessing your library on a MacBook Air with limited storage that you use when traveling, for example. It also comes into play if you want to free up space on your main Mac. The originals remain stored in iCloud, but I don’t consider that a replacement for a good backup system. In my case,
my library is stored on my MacBook Pro in optimized form, but I also set up Photos on a Mac mini in my office to keep the originals. That’s in addition to local backups made to external hard drives. Don’t skimp when it comes to backing up your photos!

Creative Cloud Cover — Lightroom CC (and the previous version, Lightroom 5, if it’s part of a Creative Cloud subscription) takes a similar approach to Apple’s, but it doesn’t try to be comprehensive. The conduit for transferring photos between the desktop version of Lightroom (in OS X and Windows) and the Lightroom mobile app in iOS is Creative Cloud, Adobe’s own data nimbus.

Many photographers, myself included, prefer to use Lightroom to manage libraries and edit photos (you can read more about that in my book “Take Control of Your Digital Photos on a Mac”). Until recently, though, accessing photos from an iOS device wasn’t easy. The most direct route was to connect the iPhone or iPad to the Mac via USB, and import the photos into Lightroom just as you would from a regular camera. It’s not an onerous step, but I’m sure I’m not alone in admitting that my iPhone rarely makes a physical connection to my Mac anymore. Since all the other data I need is transferred via iCloud, I simply forget to plug it in. And, of course, the connection wasn’t
bi-directional, so there was no way to get photos from the Mac back to the iOS device within the Lightroom ecosystem.

The Lightroom mobile app, via Creative Cloud, makes that connection for me. The main difference between Apple’s iCloud model is that Lightroom syncs only particular folders you specify on the Mac or within Lightroom mobile, so you can’t access your entire photo library on the iOS device. In the Collections list in Lightroom CC, you click the sync button to the left of a folder’s name to upload its contents to Creative Cloud.


In Lightroom mobile, the folder appears as a new synced collection. Once a synced collection is created, anything you add to it — on the Mac or the iOS device — appears in both places. What isn’t initially apparent is the capability to automatically send new images captured with an iPhone or iPad to Lightroom on the Mac.

It is possible, though. In Lightroom mobile, create a new collection (tap the + button) and then tap the ellipsis (…) at the lower-right corner of a collection’s cover to view more options. Tap Enable Auto Add and confirm your action in the dialog that appears. Any new photo you capture using the device appears in that collection and is synced to Lightroom on the desktop via Creative Cloud.

To minimize the amount of storage the synchronized photos occupy on mobile devices, Lightroom first converts the images to Adobe’s lossless DNG (Digital Negative) format, which compresses well without sacrificing detail.

Synchronized Editing in Photos — Making copies of photos so they appear in multiple locations is one thing, but how do the apps deal with images that you edit? On this front, the situation is much better than it was just a few months ago.

Photos for OS X introduced an improved architecture for working with edits among devices; previously, edits you made in the Photos app on an iPhone or iPad would not transfer to iPhoto or Aperture. (In fact, that limitation still exists if you stick with either of those applications instead of switching to Photos for OS X.) Now, edits made in Photos for iOS transfer to the OS X version and vice-versa. The adjustments are also nondestructive, meaning they aren’t changing the underlying original pixels.

For example, let’s take a photo on the iPhone and make some easily noticeable changes to the Color controls: pushing the Saturation to 1.00, Contrast to 0.71, and Cast to 0.73.

After I tap Done, the app uploads the edited version to iCloud and updates the photo in my library in Photos for OS X. Notice in the Adjust edit mode, the Color settings match what’s on the iPhone.

There is one current limitation, which I hope Apple will iron out in a future update. Photos for OS X includes some adjustments that aren’t found in the iOS version, such as the capability to add a vignette. When I add that to the photo on the Mac, the individual color settings for Saturation, Contrast, and Cast reset to zero — the image doesn’t change, but the values are reset.

At that point the Photos app treats the image as if it were an unedited image. As long as you stick to performing edits that are found in both versions of the Photos app, you can adjust specific settings. (You can also revert to the original image file, which removes all adjustments, and start over.)

Synchronized Editing in Lightroom — Lightroom’s edits are also nondestructive on the Mac and in Lightroom mobile. Just as with Photos, specific adjustments you make on an iPhone carry over to the desktop. The edits are recorded as text commands, so updating an image on one device requires only that the text description of the changes be synchronized with another device.

One curious detail in Lightroom’s implementation is in what happens when edits not found in Lightroom mobile are applied. The iOS app replicates the Basic pane of the desktop version’s Develop module, but of course Lightroom can do much more on Mac and Windows. For example, Lightroom can apply a graduated fill
on an area of an image, such as when you want to darken just a sky or brighten the foreground at the bottom of a photo.

Even though there’s no graduated filter tool in Lightroom mobile, the effect is applied on the mobile version. In fact, it can then be applied to other photos within Lightroom mobile, too. That’s because Lightroom mobile includes a Copy Settings feature that lets you copy and paste any applied adjustment, not just the ones that have controls in the app, between photos. (Adobe’s Russell Brown explains this process in more detail, including how to create templates for applying specific lens adjustments.)

Synchronized Organization — A good photo library isn’t just a bucket where you toss your images and then shuffle through them later. Many people group photos into albums to better organize them, and also add metadata describing the images, such as titles, captions, and ratings.

Very little of that organization makes the leap between Photos for OS X and the Photos app on iOS devices. Albums are retained, including special albums the applications create to collect favorites, panoramas, videos, slo-mo and time-lapse movies, and bursts. But titles, captions, and keywords aren’t exposed on the iPhone or iPad (Photos for OS X converts star ratings from iPhoto or Aperture to keywords). The metadata is still there, but you can’t see or edit it in Photos for iOS. In place of ratings, Photos uses the binary favorites feature: a photo is either marked as a favorite or not.

Lightroom mobile takes a few steps in the right direction, but it’s still not really designed for the type of organization that Lightroom users are accustomed to. Star ratings sync between platforms, as do flags, but titles, captions, and keywords are absent. The metadata provided by the camera — shutter speed, aperture, ISO, dimensions, and capture time and date — can be viewed as well. (Albums transfer, of course, because you must specify albums to sync.)

Unfortunately, neither Lightroom nor Photos currently allows for synchronization of smart albums. I vastly prefer smart albums to traditional ones because I’m usually looking for characteristics of photos, such as the highest-rated shots from a certain time period.

A Cash Cloud — Storing and synchronizing photos in each company’s cloud bank isn’t entirely free, of course. Depending on the size of your photo library, you may elect to keep your photos terrestrial.

Apple includes 5 GB of free storage, which is also used by other services such as iCloud Drive and iOS device backups. You can pay monthly for more storage: $0.99 for 20 GB, $3.99 for 200 GB, $9.99 for 500 GB, and $19.99 for 1 TB. If your library is larger than 1 TB, iCloud automatically removes older photos from cloud storage.

Adobe’s Creative Cloud includes just 2 GB of storage with the Photography plan for $9.99 per month, but there’s a twist: that 2 GB is dedicated to storing files in Creative Cloud that are shared with other CC applications. Photos you sync via Lightroom mobile do not count against your CC storage allotment, because they’re stored as much smaller DNG files and therefore don’t take up as much space; I’m guessing the amount is negligible to Adobe. However, keep in mind that you need to pay for a Creative Cloud subscription simply to use Lightroom mobile in the first place.

Photos Everywhere, Fewer Headaches — When it comes to making all your photos available on all your devices, Apple’s new Photos for OS X combined with iCloud Photo Library mostly delivers. There are some quirks, such as being an enormous bandwidth hog, but Apple will hopefully fix those (see “iCloud Photo Library: The Missing FAQ,” 15 April 2015).

If you’re already invested in Adobe’s Lightroom, the steps to synchronization aren’t as comprehensive and require more work, but allow you to stay within the Creative Cloud system.

And both applications are doing the right thing by applying nondestructive edits that can (mostly, in the case of Photos) be tweaked on any device. Synchronization of organizational options is significantly weaker in both, although no metadata is lost in the syncing process.

In the end, if you’ve ever spent too much time trying to move photos between devices or just given up on trying to work with your photos on different devices, the good news is those irritations are a thing of the past. The solutions aren’t free or perfect, and specific irritations may crop up, but those who want multi-device access to a single set of photos now have two entirely viable options thanks to Apple’s Photos with iCloud Photo Library and Adobe’s Lightroom with Creative Cloud.

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