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Why Lightroom CC Is a Big Step Up from Apple’s Photos

Whenever new photo software appears, it triggers a round of evaluation for photographers. Should you investigate the new app, or is what you’re using now working well enough for your needs? I suspect many Mac users are using the Photos app in macOS and iOS, along with iCloud Photo Library for syncing among multiple devices. (I’m sure there are plenty of people still using Aperture and iPhoto too, but if that’s you, think seriously about switching to something that’s supported before it gets too hard.)

Adobe recently made a significant shift in its Lightroom ecosystem that’s worth considering. “Lightroom” now exists as two separate applications: Lightroom CC is an entirely new app that Adobe built around cloud synchronization, whereas Lightroom Classic CC is the new name of the photo editor and organizer that recently marked its 10th year on the market. (If you’re confused, it’s not you: Lightroom Classic was previously named Lightroom CC.) This move has implications for both existing Lightroom users and those looking to step up their photography without jumping into the pro end of editing and organizing images.

Especially for the latter group, Lightroom CC deserves a look. In fact, I believe Adobe’s change is so significant that I just wrote an entire book about the new app. The 133-page “Take Control of Lightroom CC” goes into detail about how to import, edit, and synchronize your photo library in Lightroom CC. It also includes a chapter devoted to making Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic work together, for folks who currently use Lightroom Classic and want to give Lightroom CC a try.

A Modern Approach — We’ve seen this before. Apple developed Photos for Mac because it needed an application that put iCloud Photo Library at its center and made it possible to access one’s entire photo library on any Apple device. iPhoto wasn’t designed for that, so the company chose to start over rather than bolt on its iCloud vision.

The difference in Adobe’s approach is that Lightroom users aren’t faced with an all-or-nothing choice going forward. Apple not only stopped work on iPhoto, it also abandoned its pro-level tool, Aperture. Since many Aperture users switched over to Lightroom, Adobe learned from Apple’s unpopular move. Lightroom Classic remains the full-featured, pro version of Lightroom, and Adobe is still actively developing it. Lightroom CC includes most of Lightroom Classic’s core features and is designed to be able to access your entire library from any device.

I’ve used Lightroom Classic for years, but I have to admit that Lightroom CC is less intimidating. For example, one of the features I love about Lightroom Classic is its capability to apply metadata during import, because it can save a lot of time later. You can also rename files, make backup copies, and apply edits (and save all of those options in dedicated presets) during the same operation. But cramming all of that into the Import window makes some photographers wonder what they’ve gotten themselves into. Lightroom CC focuses just on selecting which photos to import, with the option to put them into an album at import. It’s less capable than Lightroom Classic but much more friendly to people who aren’t looking for power features.

Or consider some of the modules in Lightroom Classic, which enable you to create sophisticated slideshows, Web sites, and book layouts. Those are great features, but how many people really take advantage of them?

Lightroom CC is a streamlined appeal to the sort of people who use Apple’s Photos (and Google Photos): those who want to store and edit their photos with a minimum amount of friction.

Of course, the term “streamlined” is often used to mask shortcomings. “This car isn’t missing wheels; it’s just streamlined!” And Lightroom CC is starting out at version 1.0 with some holes to fill. It cannot print. It can currently share only to Facebook or by exporting images. The search feature, which is powered by Adobe Sensei technology, employs machine learning to identify objects and scenes in photos; however, it’s entirely server-based, so you need an Internet connection to perform a search of your photo library. Adobe has said it’s working on incorporating features such as the HDR and panorama merge tools found in Lightroom Classic, so I suspect others will also appear as the application moves beyond its initial release.

Adobe is already starting to fill those holes. Lightroom CC 1.1 added a Tone Curve editing control, a Split Toning tool, and improved the Auto feature by basing it on Adobe Sensei neural network technology.

So what does Lightroom CC bring to the game for someone taking stock of their photo system? I see two main areas that are appealing: the capability to perform local adjustments within an image and the way Adobe has built the cloud synchronization.

Photo Editing Advantages — When you edit an image in Apple’s Photos, the adjustments you make apply to the entire photo. Increasing the exposure, for instance, makes everything in the image brighter, not just objects in the foreground. Sometimes that’s what you want, but it can also mean the sky becomes entirely white and loses definition as a consequence.

Lightroom CC includes a trio of tools that let you apply settings to specific areas. The Linear Gradient tool defines a broad area where you can apply adjustments. Do you wish the colors in a sunset photo looked more like the moody hues you remember? Creating a linear gradient over the sky gives you a canvas on which to boost saturation, clarity, contrast and the other editing tools; since it’s a graduated selection, the effect fades gently into the rest of the image.

The Radial Gradient tool does the same thing but within an oval shape. If a person’s face is dark in an image, you can add a radial gradient that increases the exposure and shadows values to brighten it, with the effect blended into the surrounding pixels so it doesn’t pop unnaturally from the overall photo. I often add radial gradients to subjects’ eyes to subtly brighten them and enhance the saturation.

If you need more precision, the Brush tool lets you paint adjustments to individual areas.

The Brush also paints or erases areas of gradients, such as when you want to add contrast to a sky, but want to exclude foreground elements like boat masts or distant hills that stick up into the linear gradient area.

For still other adjustments, you can send any Lightroom CC photo to Adobe Photoshop, which excels at more complicated edits. The Healing Brush in Lightroom is pretty good, for instance, but Photoshop’s healing tools are much better.

If you use Photos, these types of local adjustments aren’t built in, but they also aren’t entirely out of reach. The editing extensions framework in Photos allows you to open images in third-party apps. And in macOS 10.13 High Sierra, Photos now includes an Edit With command that doesn’t depend on the extensions. That means you can hand off a photo to be edited in Photoshop, Affinity Photo, Pixelmator, RAW Power, or other apps. When you’re done there, the edited version appears in the Photos library.

Photos Everywhere — In 2015, shortly after Apple released Photos and Adobe released Lightroom CC 2015, I noted, “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” (see “Photos Everywhere with Lightroom CC and Photos for OS X,” 11 May 2015). Lightroom CC’s very existence is the result of that realignment.

When you import photos into Lightroom CC, it uploads your originals to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, where they become available to your devices running Lightroom Mobile or Lightroom CC on one other computer (you can use Lightroom CC on two computers at once). That multi-device support also includes Android phones and tablets, and Windows computers, platforms that Photos ignores.

Lightroom Classic can also sync with Creative Cloud, but it’s limited to just those collections that you mark for syncing, leaving you to deal with the particulars of creating or choosing collections and enabling them for Lightroom Mobile.

What about photos you capture using your iPhone or iPad? Apple’s advantage in owning the default Photos app removes the friction of importing photos as a separate step. Lightroom can do that, too. Lightroom Mobile offers an option to auto-import images from the Camera Roll. Lightroom Mobile even has an advantage here, because its built-in camera feature can capture raw images, something that iOS allows for third-party apps but Apple hasn’t implemented in the Camera app.

I also want to spotlight the way Lightroom CC handles the image files in a library. Like Photos, the default approach on the Mac is to create a package file, which is actually a folder, and store everything there. Our disks are filling up quickly, however, especially with large photo files. A decent-sized photo library quickly gets too big for 256 GB or 512 GB of laptop storage, for instance.

Apple’s solution is to use iCloud Photo Library and give you the Optimize Mac Storage option in Photos, which replaces large original files with small thumbnails to conserve space. Photos then downloads full-sized images from iCloud as needed. If you have a large internal hard disk, that’s usually not an issue.

However, if you have a smaller drive, such as found in a MacBook or MacBook Pro, or if your photo library is particularly large, this option becomes a limitation: you have no local copy of your originals. You could choose to store your Photos library on an external disk, but when that disk isn’t connected — such as when you’re traveling — you lose access to those photos. Plus, relying on just iCloud itself isn’t a solid backup plan. My workaround is to run Photos on an old Mac mini with a large external disk attached, and with the option to Download Originals to This Mac turned on. But that’s not feasible for a lot of people.

Lightroom CC’s approach is more sensible. Like Apple, Adobe considers the Creative Cloud copy of your images as a backup, so Lightroom CC will delete image files in the background to free up space; when you need to work on one, it’s re-downloaded. But, again, that’s not a reliable local backup.

To work around this issue, Lightroom CC lets you specify an external hard disk as the location to store the original photo files, while the database that Lightroom CC uses to keep track of everything remains on your computer’s internal drive. When that external drive is unavailable — such as when you’ve taken your MacBook Pro on a trip — Lightroom CC downloads any shots you need to edit, even if the original file isn’t available locally.

New images you import are stored on the internal disk. Once the Mac is reunited with the external disk containing the local originals, Lightroom CC automatically moves all the new files to the external location. With this setup, it’s easy to maintain a separate backup of the external drive and your photo library stored on it.

If you’re concerned that you’ll end up in a situation where you need to edit photos in your library and won’t have the Internet access required to download originals on the fly, Lightroom CC 1.1 added an option to store a copy of the images as Smart Previews — lower-resolution versions that are fully editable.

Cloud Costs — Price, of course, is a factor. Lightroom CC requires one of Adobe’s Creative Cloud subscription plans, which start at $10 a month. Apple includes Photos in macOS, which is free.

The next consideration is cloud storage, since in both ecosystems, you’re going to end up paying for additional storage as you add more digital photos to your library. Here’s a breakdown of Adobe’s subscription plans and associated storage:

  • $10 per month: Lightroom CC plan with 1 TB of storage
  • $10 per month: Creative Cloud Photography plan (which includes Lightroom CC, Lightroom Classic CC, and Photoshop) with 20 GB of storage
  • $20 per month: Creative Cloud Photography plan with 1 TB of storage (existing subscribers can jump to the 1 TB storage tier for $15 per month for a limited time)
  • $50 per month: Creative Cloud All Apps plan with 100 GB of storage
  • Add $20 per month to increase storage to 2 TB.
  • Add $50 per month to increase storage to 5 TB.
  • Add $100 per month to increase storage to 10 TB.

Surprisingly, Apple’s storage upgrades are a better deal, though you don’t get Adobe’s applications as part of the mix (note that these are U.S. prices; Apple gives worldwide pricing on its Web site):

  • Free: iCloud includes 5 GB of free storage, which is also used by other iCloud services, such as iCloud Drive and iOS device backups
  • $1 per month: 50 GB of iCloud Storage
  • $3 per month: 200 GB of iCloud Storage
  • $10 per month: 2 TB of iCloud Storage

I’d like to see Adobe reduce their prices to be more competitive.

Unfortunately, these are separate clouds floating on their own wind currents. I would love to see an option where I could store Lightroom’s library at iCloud (or Dropbox, or elsewhere) and not have to pay more for Creative Cloud storage tiers. However, with a lot of the machine learning and services being hosted on Adobe’s cloud infrastructure, I don’t see that happening.

Looking at Now to Prepare for the Future — Regardless of how serious of a photographer you are, it’s good to reevaluate how you manage our photo libraries every so often because we’re dealing with memories, not just files. What you don’t want to do is hang on to something too long and then discover an abrupt shift is needed. Aperture and iPhoto users, for example, are living on borrowed time. If you find Photos to be sufficient for your needs, carry on, and we’ll likely chat about this again next year.

But if you wish you had more editing control over your photos, or if you’re already in the Creative Cloud ecosystem because you use another Adobe product, I suggest you give Lightroom CC a try. Although I still use Lightroom Classic, I now open it far less often than I used to, because I’ve been using Lightroom CC instead. It’s fast, uncluttered, and is working well for the types of photography I’ve been doing lately, which includes nearly 3000 images shot during a workshop and two family photo shoots.

And if you do take Lightroom CC for a spin, I hope you’ll consider doing so with my book at your side. “Take Control of Lightroom CC” is available now for just $15. And if, despite everything I’ve just said, you plan to stick with Photos, I’d encourage you to pick up Jason Snell’s just-updated “Photos: A Take Control Crash Course.”

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