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Adobe Lightroom CC faces an uphill climb

Adobe's revamped photography strategy includes a new Lightroom CC cloud-based service and the final goodbye to no-subscription Lightroom.

Lori Grunin/CNET

For years I've been urging Adobe to rebuild its Lightroom image editing software on top of a more robust database than its years'-old problem child that randomly corrupts itself and doesn't speak network, among other things.

From now on, I'll be careful what I wish for. 

At this year's Adobe Max conference, along with feature and performance updates to the usual suspects, the company rolled out its revamped photography subscription plans -- including the final buh-bye to the you-can-use-it-without-paying-annually version of Lightroom. Before diving into my Opinions, here's the geography of the new terrain. 

In a nutshell, Adobe:

  • Created a completely new service architected to shelve all of your photos in the cloud, and pull them down on demand for editing with a lightweight desktop application. It's called Lightroom CC. (Formerly Project Nimbus.)
  • Rebranded and updated the full-power Lightroom CC as Lightroom Classic CC.
  • Turned its previously minimalist Lightroom site into a full edit-and-organize online service.
  • Updated its Lightroom iOS and Android apps to work within the new Lightroom CC cloud and share the application's look and feel.
  • Updated Photoshop and integrated it better with the Lightroom CC cloud.
  • Changed and expanded its photography-related subscription plans to accommodate more storage (which you'll need!).

That makes the new subscription options:

  • The existing Creative Cloud Photography plan expands to include all the Lightrooms, Photoshop CC and 20GB for $10 per month. With 1TB it will be $20 per month ($15 per month the first year for current subscribers upgrading to 1TB.)
  • A Lightroom CC plan with 1TB for $10 per month.
  • A Lightroom mobile plan for just the iOS and Android apps plus 100GB for $5 per month.

All the plans include the paid version of Adobe Spark which lets you replace Adobe's branding with your own and create custom templates.

Who is Lightroom CC for?

Because it's not for Lightroom CC users. Rather than bringing the power of the desktop to mobile and the cloud, Adobe has brought the limitations of mobile to the desktop.

lightroom-cc-ui

Lightroom CC's editing interface.

Lori Grunin/CNET
lightroom-ipad

Here's the new version of Lightroom on the iPad. Notice the resemblance? But the iPad version has curve editing, while the desktop version doesn't. iPad and iPhones running iOS 11 do get support for Files as well.

Lori Grunin/CNET

Adobe considers it the solution to the "doesn't speak network" problem I mentioned earlier, and it syncs all your originals without a problem. It's fast enough that you don't really feel like it's pulling from the cloud, but I also tested it on a fast system with a good network connection. You can even set it to store photos locally, a big concern for a lot of people. Unlike its big brother, it uses a simple single-screen interface for its editing and organization.

It's not bad. But it's Apple Photos, just with sync that works. It's Google Photos, with a few more tools, like radial and linear gradient masks, but without the automation intelligence. It doesn't (yet) have face recognition, book creation or other ancillary capabilities of its competitors, or a plugin architecture to support more. It has to catch up with the competition before it can catch up with its own big brother.

It treats raw+JPEG as separate files and doesn't even have an icon to indicate which is the raw and which is the JPEG or a way to filter out one or the other. Even the iPad app can do that. Like Apple, Adobe thinks it should hide pesky file names, making it impossible to quickly scan through a sea of images. No color labels, because you can always use the keyword "red," right? You can't search or filter on metadata -- but its Sensei machine learning can find all the photos of cats you want.  

lightroom-cc-cat-search

To be fair, I'm pleasantly surprised it accurately recognized a lot of these as cats. Except the Marimekko bear.

Lori Grunin/CNET

You have no granular control over what lives locally or selectively sync, which means some people are going to hit that 1TB limit fast. (The Creative Cloud app still doesn't let you selectively sync directories or files after several years, so every time I install on a new system, which I do a lot, it starts syncing the 22,000 files I have in that CC account.) Adobe's ready to serve up more storage in exchange for your money, though.

There's always Lightroom Classic, right?

Yup. And it does sync files with the other versions. But it feels like Adobe doesn't really plan to fix the architectural problems with it, such as only being able to sync a single catalog. Lightroom CC is The Future, and labeling this one "Classic" feels like the beginning of the end. At the very least, CC will suck up development resources that might otherwise have gone to Classic.

Adobe has sort of addressed the biggest performance pains. For instance, importing has always been notably slow. So Adobe split the file ingestion aspect of importing from the preview generation to make it seem faster; the thumbnails come in zippily, and you can see the preview generation slogging behind. For a lot of people, that's fine. But I want to start viewing the full-res images while it's still importing, so I need a real speedup. And I was kind of disheartened to read that it's "working to optimize the performance of higher powered processing systems and higher resolution monitors." That's probably why the 16-core system with an 8K monitor I tried it on didn't feel as fast as I expected and why using it on a 4K monitor still results in unusably small menu text.

lightroom-classic-range-mask-2

The Range Mask lets you more precisely define the areas which a gradient mask will apply. those aren't devil eyes, those are the masked areas.

Lori Grunin/CNET

There are more tweaks, but one of the highlights, which is in the updated version of Adobe Camera Raw as well as Lightroom Classic CC, is the new Range Mask. It lets you create a color- or luminance-based mask to limit the area a gradient filter applies to. The implementation is a bit clunky, but it's very effective.

And speaking of "always"

With that  upgrade to Camera Raw 10, Lightroom 6 users (based on ACR 9) get one last new camera codec, for the Nikon D850, before they're cut off from new camera support forever. Two-year-old Lightroom 6 is the last perpetual-license version.

What about Photoshop's cloud integration?

It's...interesting. On Photoshop's opening screen, you can access your cloud-based Lightroom photos. But in this case you can tell they're being pulled down over the network, with a noticeable delay before they open. And like Lightroom CC, there are no indications as to what file format an image is or their file names.

Photoshop does have some useful and whizzy new features

photoshop-symmetry-2

One of the new Technical Previews is the Symmetry Painting tool, which is really cool. You choose from a handful of templates which define the characteristics of the reflections of the strokes.

Lori Grunin/CNET

But I'm not exactly sure how the symmetry painting tool is supposed to work. Here you can see me painting a straight line from left to right in an attempt to figure out what the spiral does. I'm still baffled. Maybe it's a bug.

Lori Grunin/CNET

The new Curvature Pen is a lot more straightforward and seriously useful.

Lori Grunin/CNET

There are also a ton of small and large updates. In addition to some random performance enhancements -- launching and opening local files really does feel faster -- you can change the color and width of paths to improve their visibility, it can open Apple HEIF-compressed files, it adds Microsoft Dial support as a Tech Preview feature (though I couldn't get it to work), improved type support and font management and lots more.