Since the release of the iPad nearly a decade ago, photographers have wondered if a tablet could replace a portable PC. Even today's thin and light laptops are too much for some people who already deal with bags stuffed with gear. The answer has always been, "Yes, but...," accompanied by a list of limitations and workarounds, namely in software. Not only do you need apps that can edit photos -- of which there are many capable ones -- you need a workflow that doesn't involve a lot more effort on your part.
If you're invested in the Adobe ecosystem, you probably use Lightroom CC or Lightroom Classic CC on the desktop. The mobile component is Lightroom CC (download for iOS and Android), which ties into Adobe's Creative Cloud service to synchronize your photos and the edits you make to them. Lightroom CC, which runs on both tablets and phones, boasts nearly all of the editing features found in the Lightroom CC desktop app, and a healthy collection of features found in Lightroom Classic. For this review, I'm focusing on Lightroom CC for iOS 4.1.1 as part of a Creative Cloud subscription, though the Android version offers the same features.
Lightroom CC for mobile devices is still useful even without a subscription, offering camera and editing features for free. A paid plan unlocks additional capabilities, such as editing raw files and syncing photos among devices through Creative Cloud. Plans start at $9.99 per month, which includes Lightroom CC, Lightroom Classic CC, Photoshop CC and 20GB of Creative Cloud storage. An option with 1TB of online storage costs $19.99 per month. Or, you can sign up for a plan that includes only Lightroom CC and 1TB of storage for $9.99 per month. Each plan activates all the features in the Lightroom CC mobile apps.
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Photo sync and import
There are three paths to getting photos into Lightroom CC: syncing from the desktop versions of Lightroom through Creative Cloud, importing to the device directly or capturing photos using the device's camera. The app supports raw and JPEG formats, as well as the HEIC format Apple uses to save when you take a photo with the built-in iPhone and iPad Camera app.
Adobe has done a good job of making synchronization appear seamless, although it can be a complicated affair behind the scenes. If you use Lightroom CC on the desktop (the newer version Adobe introduced in 2017), syncing is straightforward: all original photos on the desktop are uploaded to Creative Cloud, which acts as the master version of your library; the images are then downloaded to the device.
To save local storage space, photos are converted in the cloud to Smart Previews, smaller-size versions that are still fully editable. As you make adjustments, Lightroom for iOS notes only which settings have changed and syncs that data to Creative Cloud and your other devices, instead of transferring large edited image files back and forth. It's efficient and effective: in nearly all cases, edits in a photo on the iPhone or iPad appear within moments or minutes on the desktop, and vice-versa. You also have the option of downloading originals to the device, either as a global option or on an image-by-image basis.
Syncing from Lightroom Classic CC (the original, desktop-focused version of Lightroom), however, introduces a complication: you must choose which collections (for example, albums) should sync to the cloud, and the images within them are uploaded only as Smart Previews. In most cases this isn't an issue, but if you intend to share photos from the mobile version of Lightroom CC, you're limited to the smaller-resolution version (2,048 pixels on the long edge).
Importing images directly, which enables photographers to leave their laptops at home, is a two-step process under iOS. Apple's architecture requires that all images are first imported to the Apple Photos app using an SD card or USB adapter. After they're on the device, you can import them into Lightroom; an optional setting automatically imports photos from the camera roll, which is especially helpful for grabbing shots taken using the Apple Camera app. The Lightroom app then uploads the originals to Creative Cloud to sync with your other devices. What's nice is that when you return to the desktop, the images are already in your library.
However, this structure leaves you with duplicates on the device: one version in Photos and one version in Lightroom CC. Fortunately, a recent update to the Lightroom CC app added the ability to create an iOS Shortcut that adds the most recent Photos import into Lightroom and then automatically deletes the images in the camera roll.
Having your entire photo library, or even a sizable subset of it, available in Lightroom CC mobile is advantageous. An unheralded but core feature is the ability to sort and rate images on iOS devices. On the iPad especially, Lightroom's interface for rating shots lets me speed through my library and mark which photos are worth editing and which should be chucked outright. In the Rating interface, for example, you can tap a line of five stars at the bottom of the screen to set a rating, or choose to flag or reject an image. However, it's quicker to swipe up on the left side of the screen to set a rating and swipe on the right side to mark a flag or rejection.
Lightroom also reveals a limited set of editable metadata (title, caption and copyright), and lets you apply keywords to images. Unfortunately, these are on a per-image basis; you can't add keywords to an entire set of photos, something possible on the desktop versions of Lightroom. Missing is geolocation data; even if a photo contains location information in the desktop version, the mobile app includes no interface for viewing or editing it.
The People feature performs facial recognition using Adobe's Sensei technology, making it easy to find photos containing people you know. Sensei operates on the Creative Cloud servers, so the people you identify are synced to Lightroom CC on the desktop (but not Lightroom Classic CC, which has its own people-recognition feature that operates solely within the application).
These organizing criteria let you quickly filter the library. Without much advance work, it's easy to view only the photos, for example, that you've marked as three stars or higher, containing a specific person, and have been edited.
Sensei also powers Lightroom's search feature, which can display results based on the metadata you've entered, and also using AI-based object recognition. You may not need to even tag photos with keywords, since searching usually brings up results that are exact or in the ballpark of the search term.
That said, search is still basic in the mobile app. There's no way to sort the results, so a search for "flowers," for example, brings up a scattershot collection of photos; images with the term in the editable metadata fields, such as title and keywords, are displayed first, but after that it's random. Worse, though, is that search works only when the device is connected to the Internet, which means the feature is entirely dependent upon Sensei. Even if you diligently apply keywords, there's no on-device search capability aside from filtering. That may not be an issue when you're reviewing your most recent photo shoot, but Lightroom CC is designed to make your entire photo library available on all devices. Not being able to perform a search while offline is immensely frustrating; if you're in a remote location or a hotel with limited or useless Wi-Fi, you're reduced to scrolling through all your shots.
Although Lightroom CC can import photos stored in the device's camera roll, it can't access all the pre-processing and mid-capture features that Apple uses to enhance photos captured with the Camera app. Instead, Adobe turned to a feature that Apple doesn't offer: raw capture. Images are saved as DNG format files, which retain more image and color data than JPEG images (which is also an option if you prefer).
The camera feature also has a Professional mode that gives you control over white balance, ISO, shutter speed, manual focus and exposure compensation. Settings reveal information while shooting such as clipping indicators (excessively bright or dark areas), guides and a level.
It also includes an HDR (high dynamic range) feature that captures multiple exposure levels and blends them together to achieve a range higher than even a single raw DNG image would produce. It does a good job even handheld. You end up with a single HDR-processed image, though you can also opt to save the original.
Organizing, sorting and capturing have their place, but someone using Lightroom CC on a mobile device is probably there to edit photos, and in this regard, the iOS app excels.
Nearly all of the editing controls found in the Edit panel in Lightroom CC on the desktop or the Develop module of Lightroom Classic CC are represented in the mobile version. That ranges from tonal adjustments that deal with highlights and shadows, to effects such as Dehaze and Vignette. It also includes lens corrections and geometry features for correcting chromatic aberration and distortion, noise reduction controls and the ability to manipulate individual color channels.
If you want a quick edit, the Auto button applies fixes rooted in Sensei technology; Adobe uses machine learning to scan all the photos uploaded to Creative Cloud (anonymously) to build adjustments based on content. If your image is a brilliant sunset, Sensei has seen hundreds of thousands of them and knows which settings to apply. In general, it does a good job (better than the old Auto feature in Lightroom Classic), but, oddly, I think the feature has degraded since it was first introduced -- it may just be my perception, but auto-corrected photos tend to reduce the Contrast control, making them slightly washed out. Perhaps it's because that faded look is popular right now, and so those images are throwing off the algorithms. Or maybe the AI is too aggressive about bringing up shadow areas. I don't know, but a quick reset of the Contrast slider does the trick almost every time.
Fixing tone and color are features that dozens of applications can do. Lightroom CC also includes selective edits, enabling you to create masks that have their own adjustments. For example, you might apply a linear gradient at the top of the photo to darken the tones in a sky, or apply a radial gradient on a person's face to lighten shadows just in that area instead of the entire image.
The app recognizes the Apple Pencil, which I've used with the selective brush tool to tweak specific areas of an image. In fact, I've often reached for the iPad when editing in the desktop version of Lightroom CC, because I could use the brush with more natural movements than using the mouse or trackpad. The edits sync quickly between the tablet and laptop, so it's not a big deal to jump between the two while editing.
Also immensely helpful at times is the Healing brush for fixing errant dust spots and other minor blemishes. It doesn't boast the same quality as the healing tools found in Photoshop, but for many uses, it works just fine.
It's also worth mentioning that Lightroom CC on the iPad includes a Left Handed Editing option, which moves the edit controls to the left side of the screen. It's a small but welcome feature that more apps should include.
Wishes and issues
Long time Lightroom Classic users can point to several features they'd like to see in the mobile version that would make it even more of an independent photo solution. I'm hoping for the capability to create HDR photos from separate images with varying exposures, as well as a way to stitch sections of a panorama together. The Healing brush is good for fixing spots, but it would be more effective with the content-aware technology found in Photoshop; in the meantime, I'd be happy with the Visualize Spots feature found on the desktop, which displays the image in extreme inverted contrast to make it easy to find and fix annoying dust spots.
One feature I miss when editing is visual indicators for areas that have been clipped to either all white or all black pixels. On the desktop, this feature helps you see whether the image is blown out to those extremes. There is a hidden way to view this information as you make an adjustment: start dragging a slider and then touch a second finger to the screen, giving you an interactive representation of clipped areas. But it would also be helpful to include a toggle to mark the brightest and darkest areas in an obvious way while looking at the image instead of just relying on the histogram.
In terms of stability, I've run into very few outright problems. Sometimes the thumbnail in the grid view and filmstrip isn't updated to reflect the most recent edits, although the image itself is correct. It would also be nice to have more visibility into the sync process when things get stuck, which occasionally happens. In the desktop versions of Lightroom, there are ways to see which photos are stuck; in the mobile app, you can only tap the cloud icon to view the sync status of an individual photo.
- Ecosystem. If you're already invested in Adobe's software, Lightroom CC fits right in.
- Organizing. Sync your photo library via Creative Cloud and have all your images available on a tablet or phone.
- Selective edits. Many photo editors apply adjustments to the entire image. Use a brush or gradients to edit specific areas.
- Left-handed editing. This option and the general layout on the iPad version reveal smart interface choices for editing images on the tablet.
- Location. No geographic information is shown, even when the data is in the image file.
- Clipping. Indicators for areas that are entirely white or black would be welcome.
- Offline hobbled. The search feature is available only while connected to the Internet.
- Ecosystem. A paid Creative Cloud subscription is required to get the most out of the app, for use with Adobe desktop applications. To be fair, this isn't entirely a negative, because Capture CC is an app designed to facilitate Adobe's network of products. However, if you're not in the fold, its uses are more limited.
The mobile version of Lightroom CC started off as a pretty bare satellite editor with the desktop version of Lightroom as the planetary center. It has since matured into a full complement to Lightroom CC (and to a lesser extent Lightroom Classic) as an organizer and editor -- and can stand on its own, if necessary.
- Android and iOS. Download for iOS and Android. Through a partnership between Adobe and Download.com, you can save 15 percent on a Creative Cloud subscription for the first year.
- Affinity Photo for iPad. This app is more of a competitor to Photoshop than Lightroom, as it doesn't have a library component. However, it's an extremely sophisticated image editor that can also merge images for HDR and panorama photos.
- Snapseed. One of the first popular mobile photo editors for iOS, Snapseed includes a huge array of adjustment tools.
- RAW Power. This app uses the Photos library as the backbone for its library, and includes sophisticated controls for editing raw images (and other formats).
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Disclaimer: Jeff Carlson has previously done contract work with Adobe to write about its software.