Adobe's Photoshop Lightroom is the category-defining photo workflow application, offering pro digital photographers a slick way to import, organize, and correct everything they shoot. The software now goes by the name Lightroom CC if you get it through a Creative Cloud Photography subscription, and Lightroom 6 if you get it as a one-time purchase. Adobe really wants you to get the subscription, though: The mobile apps, Adobe Stock integration, and online features only work for Creative Cloud members. (This review is based on the Creative Cloud version.) The latest update is fairly minor, with a new Panorama mode, geometry correction tools and built-in Adobe Stock support.
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Though there are excellent competing products like ACDSee Pro, CyberLink's PhotoDirector, DxO's Optics Pro, and Phase One's Capture One, none equals Lightroom's combination of smooth interface, organizers, and adjustment tools. HDR tools, faster performance, and more mobile app and cloud integration are also at your disposal, along with top-notch lighting, color, and lens-profile based corrections. Last year's update added the one major feature that had been missing: face recognition, for another way to organize your images.
Setup and Pricing Options
A Creative Cloud Photography subscription (which costs $9.99 per month) gets you not only Lightroom CC, but also the full version of Adobe Photoshop, which alone used to cost $999. Some users would rather just plunk down $149 once for the current version of Lightroom than pay $120 every year. Adobe has listened to them: Despite rumors and fears to the contrary, Lightroom 6 is available as a perpetual-license purchase for $149, though that option is hard to find on Adobe's Lightroom webpage.
To install Lightroom, you need a recent OS, as it only runs on Windows 7 SP1 through Windows 10, or on Mac OS X 10.10, 10.11, and macOS 10.12. The Windows version now only runs on 64-bit operating systems, so get yourself up to date. You need a fast Internet connection or lots of time for setup, as it's a download of more than 700MB. You also have the option to download a full-featured 30-day trial. If you go the CC route, the Creative Cloud application actually makes Lightroom and Photoshop easier to install and update.
When I first ran Lightroom, a ball icon bounced over to the software nameplate, showing that clicking on it opened a three-choice dropdown menu. This is where you turn on and off photo syncing with Lightroom mobile, address lookup for GPS coordinates, and Face Detection.
Interface, Import, and Organize
Unlike Corel AfterShot Pro and some other workflow applications, Lightroom uses separate modes for organizing (Library), adjusting (Develop), and other program functions. But you can turn the mode entries on and off at top left (and now even change their font). By default, these now include, in addition to Library and Develop, Map, Book, Slideshow, and Print. A "nameplate" appears at top left when you sign in for syncing your photos with Lightroom Mobile and Lightroom.com.
Lightroom has a big, ever-present Import button and media auto-detect that launches the nondestructive importer. This lets you see thumbnails and full-size images on memory cards even before you import them. Lightroom lets you start work on any photo in the set before all the import processing is done. Usually, you'll want to import photos as camera raw files, which offer more control over the final images. Lightroom supports camera raw file conversion for every major DSLR and high-end digital camera. I still prefer Capture One's initial raw image conversion, which has more detail and richness, though you get more adjustment tools in Lightroom to get your photo looking as perfect as possible in post-production.
Initial camera raw file conversion from Canon EOS 5D.
Lightroom imports pictures into its own database, which it calls a catalog, where other programs and the files system can't access them. The database approach makes sense for photographers with huge collections of large images, and you can store the database file separately from the actual photos, which you might prefer to store on external media or a NAS. At import, you can either Copy, Copy as DNG (Adobe's universal raw camera file format), Move, or Add. During import, you can have the program build Smart Previews for faster editing, ignore duplicates, add to a Collection, or apply a preset such as Auto Tone.
Another way to get photos onto your computer is to tether. Mostly of use to pro photographers, tethering lets you connect your camera with a USB or FireWire cable and actually control the shutter release from the computer. ACDSee and CyberLink PhotoDirector, by comparison, offer no tethering capability, though Capture One does.
In Library mode, double-clicking takes you between thumbnail and screen-fit view, and another click zooms in to 100 percent. Zooming, unfortunately, is limited to Fit, Fill, and ratios like 1:3, and 1:2, and it doesn't make good use of the mouse wheel, as many other photo editors do. But, in the latest version, you can use a touch screen to pinch-zoom to any level you like—something I was thrilled to see in testing on my Acer T232HL touch-screen display. There's even a touch interface with large controls, which you can enable by tapping a finger icon.
Lightroom's Library mode offers unmatched organizational abilities, including the ability to group pictures into Quick Collections of thumbnails you select, and Smart Collections of photos that meet rating or other criteria. Star rating, flagging, and rotating can also be done from within the thumbnails. You can use Quick Develop tools in Library for lighting fixes or preset effects (B&W, Cross Process, and the usual Instagram-like suspects). One basic fix you can't do unless you move to Develop, however, is cropping, but you can hit the R keyboard shortcut to get right to the cropper, which offers aspect ratio presets and leveling, as well.
Another useful tool in Library mode lets you click on thumbnails to apply either metadata or adjustment presets. The program also does a good job of making it easy to compare images side by side. A Survey mode lets you select several images for larger comparison views, and the loupe tool magnifies spots for close work.
Like its little sibling, Photoshop Elements, Lightroom offers face detection and recognition. You can get started with the feature either by clicking on the software nameplate at top left and choosing Face Detection from the dropdown, or you can click on the face icon in the toolbar in Library mode to enter People view. The latter gives you options to start finding faces in your entire catalog or to only find faces on an as-needed basis.
To test this, I chose the first option, and the program began detecting faces. It built a grid of unnamed people, stacking those that it detected as being close enough to be considered one and the same person. It's interesting how a person in the same session but with a different expression wouldn't be included in his or her stack.
Once it's done detecting, you type a name into the box with a question mark below the photo or stack, and it pops right up into the Named People section. Once you name a few, Lightroom will then propose names for unnamed folk. You just hit the check mark if it's correct. It's one of the smoothest and simplest implementations of people tagging I've seen. Adobe has clearly studied how other apps do this and come upon a great interface and process. And I am impressed that it only claimed one nonhuman had a face, a pattern in asphalt. It also had trouble with profiles and faces partially hidden by hats and other clothing in my testing.
Once faces are tagged, you can always get to them by tapping the same face icon in Library mode, but I wish you could also easily create smart albums based on peoples' names or even a People mode, similar to Map mode.
Panorama creation, which has been a staple of photo-editing software for years, has finally made its way into Lightroom for the first time in this version. Available from the Photo>Photo Merge menu or from a right-click option, the Panorama tool works after you select multiple juxtaposed images.
You get options of spherical, cylindrical, or perspective projection, depending on how the photos relate to each other spatially. Perspective tries to straighten curved line distortions that can result from the process, but in my tests it either didn't accept my input photos or just made an unusable bowtie-shaped image with blurred sides.
An Auto-Crop check box lets you avoid the uneven cut-out edges that are part and parcel of panorama stitching. But the new Boundary Warp function takes that a step further, actually altering the geometry of the image to move parts of the photo back into the panorama result. When you use this with its slider turned all the way up to 100 percent, every pixel is squeezed back into the resulting panorama. But I'd only suggest using this feature with the slider set all the way up if you absolutely need to include everything in the panorama, since it can tilt objects in a somewhat unsettling way. Below you can see the original panorama stitch on top, followed by the auto-cropped version, and then the Boundary Warped version at the bottom.
Upright Perspective Correction
The Upright tool, which corrects geometric distortion that comes from pointing your camera up at a subject, for example, is something Lightroom shares with Photoshop CC. In Develop mode, now under Transform, you see the Upright option, which attempts to correct perspective problems such as those you see with wide-angle lenses. In addition to Off, you have five modes of operation for this tool: Level, Auto, Vertical, Guided, and Full. The Guided option is new, and possibly the best. I tried it out on a cityscape and an indoor shot, and the result was a definite improvement compared with the original's off-kilter angles.
You get four button options with Upright—Auto, Level, Vertical, and Full. But when you have people in your shot, especially on the sides of a wide shot, it's harder to get everything looking natural. New for the Fall 2016 update to Lightroom are control guidelines that you can draw on the image to match straight lines, such as building edges or wall joints. The correction only appears after you draw two guidelines on your photos, but you can add up to four. (Unfortunately, that wasn't enough to correct the perspective of my Boundary Warped panorama from the previous section.) In my testing, this feature did a great job straightening out perspective without warping people's faces.
A product aimed at nothing but this problem, DxO ViewPoint, is another option if this type of correction is important to you. Of course, Lightroom still offers manual sliders to adjust geometric distortion, but that can be dicey, especially where people are in the photo. Upright is a valuable tool, especially if you shoot geometrical structures such as signage.
Photoshop users will be familiar with the term Healing Brush. What this tool does is to let you actually remove an object from your photo, replacing it with a texture and color from another area in the photo. You can even select a non-circular region for the correction. This is a big help, since most objects aren't perfectly circular, and you might want irregular shapes to retain the original image. The tool's Visualize Spots setting displays a negative of your picture so that you can see spots you may have missed. This actually showed me some subtle spots on a wall that I'd missed in normal view.
Smartphone cameras nearly all record location data for photos, as do some standalone cameras like my Canon EOS 6D DSLR. Lightroom's Map mode can take advantage of this data, showing photos' exact locations. Videos, however, aren't fair game for mapping. But the program sends your photos' GPS coordinates to Google for this, so you may want to consider your privacy when doing so. The map shows thumbnails of the located images. Double-clicking these opens them at full size.
In the Develop mode, sliders for adjustments like Exposure, Contrast, and Blacks in the Develop mode all sit right in the middle of their tracks at zero, letting you slide them up and down. In the past, a photo's exposure slider would indicate +50, Contrast +25, and Blacks +5 right after import. This showed you what Lightroom was doing with raw data at import, but having everything set to a 0 baseline and slider motion up to 100 and down to -100 makes more sense.
Even more welcome are the program's shadow and highlight recovery tools. I am really impressed with how you can bring out a dark face without blowing out the bright sky in an image. You can also do this with an adjustment brush, but the effect is more natural when applied with Lightroom's Highlights and Shadows sliders.
The Blacks control darkens the image when you move its slider to the left, rather than to the right as in the past and in some other apps. The newer method has its logic and illustrates a basic behavior of all these sliders: Moving them to the left always darkens the image, to the right brightens. Again, pushing a slider all the way to the end didn't produce as drastic an effect as in earlier Lightroom versions, but in the end, you can still usually get a better result.
Area-specific adjustments are possible with Lightroom's Adjustment Brush tool. You can apply white balance, noise reduction, moiré removal to specific areas of an image.
Lightroom offers profile-based lens correction for geometry (see above section on Upright), vignetting, and chromatic aberration. Lightroom's automatic chromatic abberation correction is now equal to that in the excellent DxO Optics Pro. Lightroom also does an excellent job of removing image noise. And if you really want to supercharge your editing, Lightroom's plug-in capability means you can add powerful third-party tools like VSCO Film Essentials and ON1 Effects. An Adobe Exchange panel applet streamlines the process of plug-in installation.
Adobe has teamed up with self-publishing service Blurb to bring you powerful yet easy book design and printing. In the Book module, you can tinker with the page layouts, or completely automate the process with the Auto Layout option. You can choose from several preset layouts for any page, or save your previously designed layouts for future use.
The price for your book is clearly displayed (they start at $12.50), so you know what you're getting into from the start. I quickly produced a beautiful book in the app in under an hour, but you could spend a lot more time to perfect the layout. Your book designs can also be exported to PDF or JPG formats.
Not only does Lightroom continue to support any output options for which numerous plug-ins are available, but built-in support for Flickr and Facebook makes uploading to those popular sources even easier. Facebook and Flickr comments and likes and are visible right inside Lightroom. Very cool. You can also upload video directly to these services, or share a photo via email with a right click.
A new export option lets you submit your images for sale on Adobe Stock. The export plug-in for this is installed by default. To start submitting your work, you need not only a Creative Cloud account, but also a Stock contributor account, which it pretty easy and just requires ticking a few checkboxes. (Fotolia accounts can be updated for Stock.)
After that, submission is a simple matter of dragging photo thumbnails to the Adobe Stock Publishing Service area in Library mode, and then describing them on the website. Adobe automatically tags recognized objects like buildings, which makes it even easier. The hardest part came right when I went to submit my first batch of photos. You have to scan an ID that proves your age. A few of my upload attempts for this were rejected. But who knows? You may finally make some money from your hobby.
For Creative Cloud subscribers, Adobe offers mobile apps for iOS and Android, and they keep improving and taking more advantage of the platforms' new capabilities. Lightroom for iPad now supports split-screen mode, and in the Lightroom for iPhone app, 3D Touch is supported, and you can shoot with live filters enabled. The key reason for the apps, though, is to be able to edit photos in sync with the desktop program. They do this admirably. For more details, see the linked reviews above.
Adobe claims to have improved Lightroom's performance by using your graphics processor for photo adjustments such as exposure, distort, radial filters, crop, and panning. In my use, to be honest, I didn't notice a massive speed change. If you have a decently powered PC, you shouldn't be detained too long with any Lightroom operations, which isn't the case for the much slower Corel PaintShop Pro. In any case, I wish Adobe had spent more effort on improving the apps' import speed, though, as importing raw photos into Lightroom is still time-consuming compared with the competition from Phase One and CyberLink. If you're importing a ton of high-resolution images (as Lightroom users are likely to do), this can really add up. At least you can start working on photos before the import completes. And if working on large images is slow for you, you have the option to edit using the smaller-footprint Smart Previews.
Let There Be Lightroom!
Some users will be thrilled that they can still own the software forever for a one-shot cost of $149, but they'll miss out on photo syncing, updates, and other perks of the cloud. The program's top-notch organization features, lens-profile-based corrections, noise and chromatic aberration adjustments, Healing Brush, and other tools make it indispensable for the professional photographer. Lightroom earns its reputation as a well-loved program that's long been the choice of pro and prosumer photographers. Adobe Photoshop Lightroom CC (Lightroom 6) continues to merit the PCMag Editors' Choice award for photo workflow software.