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Testing: Adobe Lightroom Mobile for iPad

By Norman Chan

Adobe just released a mobile version of their great photo management program, Lightroom. I spend some time with it to evaluate its capabilities and see if it can be incorporated into my RAW photo-editing workflow.

You could hear my cheers resonate throughout my house last night when I read that Adobe had finally released a mobile version of its Lightroom photo processing application for iOS. This wasn't an unexpected move--there were leaked mentions and details of this program back in January--but it's still exciting to finally see and use it in person. Lightroom mobile is currently an iPad-only app (iPhone version coming soon, but no word on Android) that's available to download right now from the app store. I've been testing it since it became available last night and all this morning, and wanted to run through its features and share my initial thoughts.

Before last night's release, I had been looking for a good way to incorporate my iPad into my RAW photo workflow. Back when I was shooting JPEGs, the iPad was a great device to import photos, using the SD card accessory to transfer full-res JPEGS onto the tablet and Apple's Photostream to get those on my desktop PC. When I started saving hefty RAW files, the iPad became much less useful. Yes, you can import RAW photos using the camera card adapter onto the iPad, but the native Photo app isn't smart enough to differentiate between JPEG and RAW duplicates, so you end up with two copies of every photo (I still save JPEG for fast reviewing purposes). iPhoto for iOS could ingest RAW files, but editing was slow, even on the new iPad Air. Plus, there was no easy to to get those RAW files back to my desktop.

My photo processing workflow then became desktop-oriented, using Adobe's Lightroom to manage all my photos, pushing the ones I wanted to share to Flickr, and manually downloading some to my iPad to review in full-resolution. For the purposes scanning through my photo library, I had been using Moasic Archive, a paid web-service that works as a plug-in in Lightroom, uploading your library to its servers to review and make metadata edits on an iOS app. It wasn't for photo editing; it's just for photo reviewing and tagging. Mosaic has a free option that syncs previews of your latest 2000 photos to review online or through its app--I used it as a PhotoStream substitute.

But now there's Lightroom mobile, which does offer RAW photo editing capabilities. Well, sort of. Lightroom mobile uses the same Smart Preview system that I love about Lightroom 5. Basically, whenever you import a RAW photo into the desktop version of Lightroom, you have the option to automatically create a small 2.5MB DNG file--a digital negative--that's a resized version of the original photo. Its limited to 2560 pixels wide, but you can edit them just as you would the original RAW file, and Lightroom will sync those edits. Smart Previews are how I can sync up my Lightroom library between multiple computers in Dropbox, so edits made on my Macbook Air appear on my desktop library, where the originals are saved. Lightroom mobile works in a similar way, but instead of using Dropbox to sync those Smart Previews, it uses Adobe's Creative Cloud storage system.

Yes, Lightroom mobile requires that you have a Creative Cloud subscription.

That's not a bad thing if you're already paying for a full Creative Cloud plan ($50/month) or even the Photoshop Photography Program ($10/month), but it's understandable that some users are irked because Lightroom is still sold as a standalone desktop program with no monthly fees. That's not going to change (as far as I know), but I think it's fair that Lightroom mobile requires Creative Cloud, given that it uses Adobe's cloud storage.

But let's go through the iPad app. There are three primary interfaces that the app incorporates, all of which are touch optimized and support multi-finger gestures to reveal metadata or activate the Lightroom equivalent of keyboard shortcuts. On the top level is the Collections display. Lightroom mobile doesn't download your entire photo library--it only syncs collections that you've specifically created and told to send to mobile. That means that if you haven't been good about sorting your photos and organizing them into collections, you can't just tell Lightroom (upgraded to version 5.4) to send all of your photos or even all of the newest ones to the mobile app. You have to do some manual organization first.

The collections you mark to be synced to take a while to upload to the cloud, but then are immediately recognized by Lightroom mobile to download onto the app. Tapping the Collections display with two fingers reveals some metadata, like the amount of storage each collection is taking up, and when it was last synced. Tapping the Collection options shortcut lets you enable offline editing (full Smart Previews are only downloaded if you flip this on), as well as add photos from your iPad's Camera Roll into the collection. This is where I ran into the first big limitation of Lightroom mobile: it can only import JPEGs from your Camera Roll, not RAW images you've transferred from an SD or CF card. That means that Lightroom mobile can't replace the desktop as the medium to ingest your RAW photos from a trip--you still have to do that on your desktop or laptop. Imported JPEGs are sent back up to the Creative Cloud storage, so you'll see them on the desktop program.

Tapping the Collection thumbnail brings you to the photo Grid, the equivalent of the main Library tab in desktop Lightroom. Here, you'll see small previews of the photos you have in that particular collection, which actually don't download until you view them for the first time. This is an app that's clearly intended to be used while your iPad is connected to the internet. Once again, tapping the screen with two fingers will cycle between metadata displays, like showing which photos have been "developed" and the your basic aperture/shutter/ISO data. The interface is very smooth, and I liked being able to flip through hundreds of photos to glance at metadata trends. You can sort the photos by capture time, name, modified date, or flagging status. Note that even though you can flag and unflag photos in this view, you can't adjust other metadata attributes like tags or star ratings.

Finally, tapping onto a photo brings you to the last display, the Loupe view--otherwise known as the Develop view. This is where you can make Lightroom edits to the Smart Previews, which will then sync back to your desktop files. The develop view is once again very responsive, you can pinch and pan as you would expect on an iPad, and use sliders at the bottom of the screen to make your edits. There's no slight delay as you're loading the image, which I find a little annoying on the desktop program (this also makes sense because the iPad uses faster flash memory and is only loading 2.5MB DNGs).

In terms of those edits, basic functionality like cropping is expected, but I was pleased to find much more granular adjust tools. I'm talking about settings like White Balance, exposure, contrast, highlights, shadows, whites, blacks, clarity, vibrance, and saturation. All the essential developing tools in Lightroom, made easy with touch sliders. Shortcuts like pressing three fingers down on the image to reveal the original photo (the equivalent of the \ shortcut key) made the editing process familiar. Anyone who uses Lightroom regularly and has a good sense of their preferred adjustment values (eg. minus 10 highlights, plus 10 vibrance, etc) will find editing in Lightroom mobile a breeze.

What's missing, though, are more advanced adjustment tools like red eye removal, spot removal, the Adjustment Brush, noise reduction, and my most-used tool, radial filters. I used radial filters all the time to accentuate focus on subjects, as well as draw out shadows and reduce highlights in specific parts of a photo. There's also no ability to manipulate individual color luminance or saturation channels--a powerful tool for color correction. The lack of these tools is somewhat made up by the ability to apply Lightroom presets, of which a bunch of standard ones are pre-loaded. They're useful for adding vingetting or fake grain to a photo, and Adobe has said that they hope to allow users to import their own presets in a future version of the mobile app.

As has been my habit for the past year, I still spend at least 20 minutes a night working on photo edits in Lightroom before I go to bed. It's a comforting exercise that relaxes me, and helps me better understand the light and color properties of photos. In my time with Lightroom mobile, I can't say that it's an adequate substitute for Lightroom to run through that daily exercise, even if it's from the comfort of my bed and using the color-accurate display of the iPad (photos look so much better than they do on my MacBook Air). Lightroom mobile seems to be a good way to keep track of your collections when you're traveling or away from a laptop, but it's not something I can yet incorporate into my RAW processing workflow. If you are already subscribed to Creative Cloud, there's no reason not to try it.