Living with Photography: Adobe Lightroom 6 Review

By Norman Chan

The biggest changes since 2013's Lightroom 5, with an emphasis on mobile and subscription-only features.

The image management and editing options for enthusiast and professional photographers is fairly limited. There are a few really good open-source applications for processing RAW photos, but with the demise of Apples Aperture, Adobe's Lightroom is the most popular choice. It's become the go-to program for photographers to need process the hundreds or even thousands of photos from day and event shoots, and it's what I've been using for all of my photo work since I got my DSLR. I've said it before: post-processing is an essential half of the photography equation that completes the picture. And for new photographers, it shouldn't be a daunting process--smartphones and apps like Instragram have trained a generation of young shooters the basic language of post-processing.

Photoshop may have better name recognition and be more powerful as an image-editor, but Lightroom is my preferred app because it puts the editing tools in the context of a photography workflow. It streamlines the digital photo development process to quickly turn the photos you take into the images you want to keep or publish. And with the latest release of Lightroom, Adobe is putting more of those tools you'd typically have to run in Photoshop and incorporating them into the Lightroom workflow.

The last major release of Lightroom was version 5 back in 2013. That release brought two features that have been essential to the way I use the program: Smart Previews and radial gradients. I've written about how the former allowed me to use Lightroom across multiple computers, and the latter for compensating for fill lighting on location shoots without the use of a flash. Last year's Lightroom update was less impressive, emphasizing camera compatibility, the launch of mobile apps, and the Lightroom website. It honestly felt more of a push for the Creative Cloud subscription services than traditional "box" features.

This latest release doesn't feel as significant as 2013, and is a mix of new photo editing tools and mobile/service enhancements. The biggest difference for my workflow so far are the performance boosts in editing and exporting--it's genuinely speedy. I've been running Lightroom 6 (or CC 2015, if you're a Creative Cloud subscriber) for the past week on both my MacBook Air and desktop PC--here's what I think of its new features.

First, a quick note about upgrading to Lightroom 6. Adobe CC subscribers get the update for free, but may want to hold off if they have their Smart Preview library saved in a cloud syncing service like Dropbox. Lightroom 6 migrates your preview files into a new file structure when it updates your Catalog file. It's not a hassle, but made me re-sync 85GB of Smart Previews across all of my machines.

Performance Improvements

As I mentioned, the biggest improvement I noticed to Lightroom was editing performance. Lightroom is actually speedier in three distinct places: the Grid view of your library, which helps when you're scrolling through tens of thousands of photos at once, the Develop module, which is the heart of the program, and image exporting. Library and Develop module enhancements are credited to GPU acceleration, if your computer supports it. You'll need at least 1GB of VRAM and OpenGL 3.3 compatibility, which Adobe says the majority of computers built in the last 2-3 years can support--there's no definitive compatibility list of working GPUs. But it's easy to see in the preferences menu whether GPU is activated and running without error for your machine. And if it is, here's Adobe's claims of rendering speed improvements:

Library Grid enhancements are perhaps the least noticeable, and affect the fewest photographers. I rarely browse through the "All Photographs" view in the Library, and scrolling through a few hundred photos in any particular Collection was never sluggish.

In the Develop module, the speed improvements are immediately noticeable in full-size image panning. I was shocked by how smoothly I was able to drag radial filter gradients--one of my go-to tools--across a photo. This is something I use very frequently in Lightroom, and it's really a night and day difference in speed. Adjusting exposure also also got a boost, but wasn't very noticeable (it was never very taxing before). I did notice that image cropping and straightening was faster, but with the tradeoff of the tool taking a fraction of a second longer to load. In Lightroom 5, clicking the crop and align tool immediately brought up the cropping grid overlay--now there's a slight lag. This could be tied to how Lightroom takes advantage of the GPU and loads the image into video memory.

The final speed improvement came in image exporting. As someone who has to semi-regularly export hundreds of photos at a time (eg. cosplay at conventions), I was very excited to see a significant reduction in export rendering time. In one test, exporting a hundred high-resolution photos (each heavily-processed) took 11% less time in Lightroom 6 than 5.7. Exports are a CPU-bound task, and Windows Task Manager showed that Lightroom 6 utilized all 16 of my CPU threads to their fullest, as you can see in this comparison:

Performance improvements of course will scale based on your system, and it looks like Lightroom 6 is also more of a memory hog than the previous version. On my PC, it was consuming a full GB more of RAM (2.5GB vs 3.5GB) just when idling and image-browsing. At load, Lightroom made use of another 2GB of RAM.

Photo Merge: HDR and Panoramas

Another marquee feature of Lightroom 6 is the ability to combine multiple photos at once to generate HDR photos of panoramas. This is something I would previously have taken into Photoshop or used a specialty application to do.

With both of these tools, the process of merging photos is simple--you just select as many as you want in the Develop module's image strip, right-click, and choose Merge. I tested with groups of three and five images shot on my DSLR, each one-stop apart. In HDR, Lightroom auto-aligns and blends the images, as well as gives you the option to add "deghosting" to better blend inconsistencies between your photos, like moving people. The result is a single HDR image that doesn't replace the source photos, and is still in a RAW DNG format that you can develop and tune. It's a very straightforward tool, and relies more on your ability to source good photos of the right scene to make the most out of it.

To be honest, shooting in RAW goes a long way to bring out the shadows and reduce the highlights that an HDR composite produces. But anyone who's reduced highlights of a glare-filled photo knows the telltale signs of that process--an almost ghostly rendition of what was hiding in the light. HDR fills out those places, but it's not a magical tool. You get what you put into it. What I like is that now I can take bracketed RAW photos in sequence for HDR time-lapses and generate them right in Lightroom.

Panoramas are merged the same way that HDR composites are created, but I didn't have an opportunity to thoroughly test it yet to gauge its effectiveness. What's promising is that the panorama tool allows you tell Lightroom whether your took your sequence of images in a spherical, cylindrical, or flat panning perspective. That way, the stitched images look different depending on whether you spun your camera around a tripod head or panned across a scene as if on a dolly.

Facial Recognition

Probably the feature I'm least excited about, since I do a good job of sorting my photos by collection and meta-data after every import. But face recognition is something that competing products (ie. Apple's Photos app) have had for a while, so it makes sense that Adobe would give us the option to automatically tag faces. Indexing your library with face detection takes a long time (best done overnight), and you still have to go through the fairly laborious process of labelling faces and approving or denying questionable matches. In my experience so far, it's far from 100% accurate:

Filter Brushes

I didn't give enough credit to the Radial filter tool when it debuted in Lightroom 5, but it's now my favorite Develop tool. That gets me excited for the new gradient filter brushes, which allow you to tweak the gradient masks in both the Radial and linear Graduated filter tools. After creating a Radial or Graduated mask, you can paint part of it away or more of it into your scene. It's not something I immediately know exactly how to take advantage of, so I'm excited to learn how to incorporate it into photos where it may be appropriate. And that's part of the fun (and maybe scary part) of post-processing. You have to tinker with these image editing tools to figure out your own style and what makes a photo work for you.

Mobile Lightroom

Finally, Adobe has released mobile versions of Lightroom for smartphones and tablets on both the iOS and Android platforms (Android tablets was the last to come). I still don't feel comfortable editing RAW Smart Previews on mobile, because it's a workflow that requires uploading to Lightroom on desktop first and then syncing to their cloud server. It's not how I import and ingest images. But for users who carry tablets instead of laptops on flights and want to make tweaks or at least sort and rate their photos, Lightroom for mobile is a really useful collection management tool.

Unfortunately, there's still not real parity between features on iOS and Android, for some reason. For example, the iOS version of Lightroom mobile can now copy and paste image editing settings between photos--the most-requested feature--but that's not available on Android. iOS also gets better crop and straightening tools. On Android, Lightroom mobile has a features where exclusivity make more sense, like the ability to access photos from microSD storage and edit RAW photos taken from a Lollipop device (depending if the phone manufacturer has enabled DNG photo capture).

Those are the standout features of Lightroom 6, but there are actually plenty of minor changes too, like the ability to import photos directly into collections, and scale UI text in Windows for touch PCs and high-resolution displays. I love that I can finally scale the UI to 150% for my 4K monitor and have to rely on Windows' native resolution scaling. Adobe outlines these other features in a nice Youtube video.

The upshot is that Lightroom 6 is primarily a performance release with a few neat features here and there that photographers will appreciate. There's still room for improvement, and not everyone will be completely satisfied (I would love the omitted changes pitched here). Creative Cloud subscribers get the update for free, so the question is really for people who either aren't on board with Lightroom already or are running a previous stand-alone version of the software. If you're not into all the cloud services or mobile benefits, Adobe is still selling Lightroom by itself for $150. And give the cadence of these updates, that should last you two years before needing to upgrade. But I think that new users should seriously consider subscribing to the Photographer plan at $10 a month. That's a very fair price for both Photoshop and Lightroom (which you can register on two computers), and being able to sync and utilize the mobile app is just gravy. If you bought a standalone version of Lightroom 5 last year, it's worth upgrading if you work in the quantity of photos so that the speed improvements will be measurably meaningful.