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Why Adobe Lightroom Mobile for iPhone is a Killer App

By Norman Chan

This is something that could get me to switch back from Android to iPhone.

My favorite program to use on my desktop PC at home and MacBook Air is Adobe Lightroom. Other than the Chrome browser, it's the most essential app I rely on for day-to-day computing. I could even argue that it's one of the few reasons I still need an x86 PC--to process and develop my RAW digital photos. That's something that smartphones and tablets just aren't good at yet, even with the numerous photo tweaking apps available and the great displays on devices like the iPad Air. Adobe's goal for Lightroom is to convince photographers of all skill levels that the post-processing of digital photos--the bits-and-bytes equivalent of analog film development--is just as important to photography as the act of setting up and snapping the shutter button. It's a sentiment I agree with.

That's why I was a little disappointed by the release of Lightroom Mobile for iPad earlier this year. The way the app was designed--and the constraints limited by the iPad and iOS--made it difficult to incorporate the app into my photo developing workflow. The iPad app was a way to load synced Smart Previews of photos from your desktop to the tablet and do light tweaking or flagging. You could send JPEGs from your iPad's camera roll back to Lightroom, but not RAW files. There was no way to use the iPad as a funnel to ingest RAW photos from your DSLR on the go and have them pop up back on the desktop.

Today's release of Lightroom Mobile for iPhone doesn't change much, but the shift from tablet to smartphone is quite a big deal (I'll get to why in a moment). Adobe did address some feedback from users of Lightroom for iPad, adding the ability to give star ratings to photos in synced library collections and custom sort order. Functionally, the iPhone version has feature parity with the iPad version, just rescaled for the iPhone's aspect ratio and screen. The app is still free and connects to the updated Lightroom 5.5 through a Creative Cloud subscription.

Convention thinking would make it seem like Lightroom Mobile is a better fit for iPad than iPhone, given the tablet's better screen. But I think smartphones are actually the more natural fit for this application, because they're the devices with the better cameras. The iPhone is the most popular single camera platform in the world, and the photos taken with it are rarely processed the same way you would a RAW photo from a DSLR. With Lightroom Mobile and Cloud syncing, all the JPEG photos taken on the iPhone can be piped (at full resolution) back to Lightroom on desktop for post-processing. That makes it much more useful than Apple's own PhotoStream for organizing and making use of your smartphone photos and not letting them sit idle on the phone. That makes the smartphone much more useful as a complementary camera to my DSLR.

Adobe's other major new mobile app, Photoshop Mix, is more a complementary app for desktop Photoshop users. It's also free to use without a Creative Cloud subscription, but CC users can render layered images a PSDs and send it back to Photoshop. The touch-optimized app isn't a replacement for the original Photoshop Touch app that still lives in the App and Play stores, but does introduce some interesting new features. The most exciting thing is the ability to tap into cloud processing for Photoshop CC tricks like Shake Reduction, Upright Perspective Correction (originally in Lightroom), and Content-Aware Fill. The app sends a low res version to Adobe's servers, and passes back three options for image correction. The three sample variations are based on the most common user settings for those features, but you can also drag the intensity of the effect. The use of cloud processing to tap into these popular advanced features is smart, and the best part is that Adobe is planning on releasing an SDK for third party developers to tap into its Creative Cloud technologies in the future.

These apps, along with updates to both Lightroom and Photoshop on desktop, make the Creative Cloud Photography plan pretty attractive. While Lightroom 5 will continue to be sold as a stand-alone product requiring no subscription, the $10/month Photography plan that includes Lightroom and Photoshop CC is now available to everyone, even if you didn't have a previous CS version. Existing Photography plan subscribers are grandfathered into their 20GB cloud storage, while new subscribers only get 2GB for Smart Preview syncing.

Unfortunately, these new apps are iOS-only, and while Adobe told me they're exploring other platforms, whether or not Lightroom and Adobe's other new mobile apps make it to Android may be based on user demand. Adobe has put out image-editing apps on Android before, so it's not out of the question.

We'll be testing Photoshop Mix, Lightroom Mobile, and the new CC 2014 apps as they get updated, so stay tuned.