From classic to cloud: How I learned to love Lightroom CC

Adobe Lightroom CC iMac
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

I was there when Adobe showed off a completely redesigned version of Lightroom CC last year at Adobe MAX. Between the cheers and the applause, beneath palpable excitement of 12,000 creatives in attendance, I found myself feeling just one thing in the wake of the announcement: Relief. I didn’t care about new features or capabilities, I just stared into that simplified, minimalist, matte gray interface like I was watching the sun rise after a cold night.

As a photographer, I had never enjoyed working in the original Lightroom (now called Lightroom Classic). I found it to be a headache-inducing program that was painful as it was powerful. It ran like an antique car, but without the spit and polish that would have at least made it nice to look at. It was an artifact of the PC age, when beige was an appropriate color for consumer tech products.

The new app took the Lightroom name; the original received a tailpiece that destined it for where legacy software goes to die.

It was time to evolve, and here before me, finally, was a new Lightroom, completely rebuilt from the ground up. Here was the modern user experience photographers had long deserved. Gone was the module-based interface that tried to force users into a linear workflow — and with it, gone were five modules that I never used at all: Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, and Web. The Develop and Library modules were merged into one, and you could begin editing a photo simply by clicking (or tapping) on the editing controls button, without having to reload the image in a new module. It was glorious.

Sure, other photographers no doubt had uses for those other modules, but Lightroom Classic was foremost an image organization and editing tool — one that had grown fat and slow in its old age. Lightroom CC, by comparison, looked modern and streamlined, with a renewed focus on the simple thing that gave it reason to exist at all: Your photographs.

Adobe continues to update Lightroom Classic, but there was a general feeling that day at MAX that the company was gently trying to corral users toward Lightroom CC. After all, it was the new app that took the Lightroom name; the old version received a tailpiece that all but destined it for wherever legacy software goes to die. Why not just call it Lightroom Jurassic? Recycle its binary bones into fuel for software better adapted to the post-PC era. Even Adobe’s Bryan O’Neil Hughes proudly proclaimed in his presentation that he had made the switch a year and half earlier, and hadn’t looked back. If one of the most experienced Lightroom professionals on the planet had been living happily through buggy, pre-release versions of the new software for that long, then certainly it would work for me.

Adobe Lightroom CC phone
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Naturally, I downloaded the app as soon as I possibly could and started working in it that afternoon from my hotel room. But while I instantly loved aspects of it, I quickly found it lacked features that were indispensable. Disheartened, back to Classic I went — and that’s where I stayed for the next several months.

Fortunately, Adobe scrambled to bring new features to the app over that time, and Lightroom CC has grown into a competent photo editor. I finally decided to try making the switch again, and am pleased to report that I, too, haven’t looked back — even if, at times, I have to force myself not to. If you haven’t made the switch yet, it’s time to at least take a look.

Get your head in the cloud

The first thing to understand about Lightroom CC versus Lightroom Classic is that it presents an entirely new workflow paradigm. The interface is unified (as much as can be) across desktop and mobile platforms, and just about everything — even your RAW files — are automatically backed up to the cloud and accessible from anywhere. You can start an edit on your phone while in the field and finish it from your computer at home without skipping a beat. Adobe demonstrated this live, jumping between an Apple iPhone 8, iPad Pro, and a Microsoft Surface Book 2.

But the thing about product demonstrations is that they only show the awesome parts of something — not the unbearable parts. RAW files take up a lot of space, and if you’re any type of working professional, it’s easy to come back from a shoot with gigabytes upon gigabytes of images. Most internet service providers offer internet service built for the consumption, rather than the creation, of content, with upload speeds that are often many times slower than download speeds. In dense cities, you may have a better option — but in the rural small town where I live and work, I have to deal with an upload speed of just 4 megabits per second.

At 4Mbps, those 300 photos would take 5 hours to upload to the cloud.

On a recent camera review, I shot some 300 photos which amounted to a little under 10 gigabytes of data — not a large shoot, by any means. But at 4Mbps, those 300 photos would take 5 hours to upload to the cloud. That’s five hours before I can use them (at least, all of them) on another device, five hours before Adobe’s AI-powered Sensei search works, and five hours before I can dependably log in to a lag-free game of Destiny 2.

Now, imagine coming back from something like a wedding with not 300, but 3,000 photos? I’ll let you do the math.

Internet slow enough to stifle a fax machine certainly isn’t Adobe’s fault, but it’s something to be aware of before you go all in on a cloud-based workflow. Toting around a portable hard drive and manually syncing Lightroom Classic catalogs between your laptop and desktop — as tedious as it can be — may be the more efficient solution for some users, so long as you don’t care about having RAW files accessible on your mobile device.

Unfortunately, even if you wanted to, you can’t really use Lightroom CC this way. When it comes to file management, you’re more or less stuck in the cloud. Makes sense: Adobe wants to sign you up for paid cloud storage plans, after all. The entire concept of a photo “catalog” has vanished. You can still create albums to separate projects, but Lightroom CC now keeps all of your photos under one umbrella. This isn’t inherently bad — and may be the way most people used Lightroom Classic in the first place — but I prefer to create new catalogs for different projects, or at least project categories, to keep things nimble and organized. I have no need to see product photos from a review shoot alongside portraits from a wedding job.

Adobe Lightroom CC surface
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends
Daven Mathies/Digital Trends

Lightroom CC’s import and export options are also woefully limited (there aren’t even keyboard shortcuts to bring up the import and export windows). You can’t add any metadata on import, and the only filetypes available on export are original or JPEG. And for the latter, the only control you have is setting the long dimension; there is no ability to set the amount of JPEG compression. You can’t even choose to name and sequence the files on export.

Moreover, not that this exactly matters given the lack of options, but export presets are completely gone. This is bad news for me, as I used various presets in Lightroom Classic for different purposes, from outputting photos sized to Digital Trends’ standards, to highly compressed files for social, to full resolution images for archiving.

But that’s the thing: Lightroom CC wants you to keep all of your photos in the cloud, and use its built-in sharing options to share images and albums with other people. If you continuously archive your work to an external drive and clear it from your catalog, you’re not going to buy upgraded cloud storage plans from Adobe. But I have no need to keep all of my images accessible in the cloud past their due dates. Once I deliver on a job, I’m out — archive, backup, delete. Lather, rinse, repeat.

You could buy several 2TB hard drives for the cost of a single year of the 2TB cloud plan.

To be sure, it’s not impossible to export and delete images from Lightroom CC. The program is just set up in a way as to make doing so less convenient than leaving them where they are. Aside from the annoyance of scrolling through old photos and albums I no longer actively need, this might not be a huge problem — except that cloud storage is also expensive.

Adobe offers several different pricing options, but the standard $10-per-month Photography Plan is arguably the best deal. With it, you get Photoshop, both versions of Lightroom, access to the (really quite cool) Spark mobile apps, and 20GB of cloud storage. It appears that new users can buy into a 1TB plan for $20 per month, but for whatever reason, I was able to upgrade to it for just $15 per month. This is a pretty good deal. A 1TB Dropbox Plus plan, for comparison, is $8.25 per month — and doesn’t come with, like, seven programs.

However, if I wanted to jump up to 2TB — which I would need to, if I wanted to keep even a majority of my photos in the cloud — the price leaps to $30 per month, which makes no sense whatsoever. I could buy several 2TB hard drives for the cost of a single year of the 2TB cloud plan. Call me old school, but given that I don’t have a need to access all of my photos all the time from any device — and that paying for that ability would be considerably more expensive than backing up files locally — there just doesn’t seem to be incentive to do it.

So why not stick with Lightroom Classic?

Here’s the thing: As much as I complain, the truth is I really like Lightroom CC. It is the modern Lightroom I’ve been waiting for Adobe to build for years. The user interface is beautiful and responsive, the editing and organization are more streamlined, and it’s not full of things I don’t need. It offers a much more enjoyable experience than Classic, and while I certainly don’t require cloud access to all of my photos, it is nice to not have to bring an external hard drive with me when I’m on the road.

What’s more, if a client makes a request for an image while I’m out with just my phone, I don’t have to wait until I’m home to deliver. I can pull it up in the iOS app, make any quick edits, and send it off right there before my latte even gets cold. You can even access your Lightroom CC library from any computer via the web app. Editing Nikon RAW files inside of Google Chrome feels a bit like magic.

Sure, Lightroom CC still puts annoying limitations on users — the lack of export options is particularly irksome — but none of those are enough to make me miss Lightroom Classic; not enough to go back, anyway.

My only other complaint is that I simply can’t afford to use Lightroom CC the way it was meant to be used, by storing all of my images in the cloud. Sure, I don’t have a real need for this, but for some people it would really be a simpler solution, and it’s just a shame that the cost of cloud storage will prevent people from using Lightroom to the best of its abilities. For now, the 1TB plan I can afford is sufficient to hold my current working projects, and gives me time to back up files locally before removing them from Lightroom.

It’s not a perfect solution, but what program is perfect? For me, Lightroom CC has reached the point where its imperfections are lesser than Lightroom Classic’s. But this isn’t about picking the less bad option; Lightroom CC looks and feels like the future, and I am hopeful that most of my lingering concerns will be addressed in updates down the road.

Of course, that still won’t help with the pitiful upload speeds that pass for broadband at American ISPs. But as more and more consumers begin relying on cloud services, perhaps the increased demand for faster uploads will push those ISPs in the right direction. At least, we can hope?

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