Adobe Lightroom gets skin-smoothing texture tool -- and built-in tutorials

The texture slider is Adobe's first new editing control since 2015, while tutorials are designed to show exactly how others edited their photos.

The texture tool now in Adobe Lightroom lets you bring out textural details like in these mandarin duck feathers (click to zoom in).
Stephen Shankland/CNET

Adobe's Lightroom has a new texture-editing tool for photographers trying to get people's skin to look just right, a rare change to the software's core tools for fiddling with photos.

The texture slider either smooths or amplifies medium-scale details. Moving the slider one way lets you smooth skin without making it look unnaturally plasticky, Adobe said. In my tests, I preferred increasing the texture setting to emphasize the structure of flowers, leaves, feathers and the brush strokes of oil paintings.

It's one of a slew of changes Adobe announced Tuesday to Lightroom, its tool for editing and cataloging photos. Another big change is a new interactive tutorial ability to show step by step how experienced photographers got from an original shot to the finished product.

Read more: Save 40% on Adobe Creative Cloud through May 17

"You can watch a bunch of these in a few minutes and get inspired," said Josh Haftel, an Adobe principal product manager. "We believe we can make people become better photographers."

You can think of Lightroom as somewhat like Google Photos or Apple Photos on steroids, offering a lot more options for organizing and editing shots. It's available for free on iOS and Android devices, but upgrading with a $10 per month subscription lets you sync photos with your laptop and unlocks premium features. If you need more cloud storage space, prices go up.

Lightroom texture tool a rare change

Lightroom's texture tool is a big deal, especially for portrait and wedding photographers who want to avoid time-consuming trips to Photoshop. Building it straight into Lightroom means it works nondestructively so you can fiddle with settings without permanently altering the photo.

The texture tool isn't designed to give people impossible levels of beauty -- a criticism often leveled at photo-editing software when it's easy to feel inferior to models and movie stars on social media.

"Because it maintains pore characteristics and blemishes, this is not like a caked-on layer of concealer. It's like really nice lighting," Haftel said. "We believe by maintaining the natural characteristics of the person, we can avoid the feeling of 'I never would look like this.'"

Lightroom's texture tool lets you smooth out or emphasize skin features. From left to right are an original photo and variations with texture increased and decreased.

Lightroom's texture tool lets you smooth out or emphasize skin features. From left to right are an original photo and variations with texture increased and decreased. 

Stephen Shankland/CNET

It's rare for Adobe to add new editing controls to its Lightroom software; the last time was with the addition of Lightroom's dehaze control in 2015. Adobe only added the texture tool once it was sure it wouldn't slow Lightroom down.

Unfortunately for photographers -- especially those who enjoy the greater flexibility of the raw photo formats Lightroom is designed to use -- there won't be much in the way of performance improvements this time around. Adobe is acutely aware of photographers' desires here, though.

"This is going to be one of the No. 1 goals if not the No. 1 goal," Haftel said. "The problem is how do we do these improvements while still making sure stability is rock solid?"

Lightroom tutorials will feature your own photos

In Lightroom for Android and iOS -- phones and tablets -- Adobe has add a new tutorial feature so you can learn from a selection of pros like Nicole Young, Kristina Sherk and Matt Kloskowski. The feature will come to Lightroom CC for personal computers later this year, too -- but there aren't any plans to bring it to its older-lineage sibling, Lightroom Classic CC.

Adobe offers a smaller number of in-depth tutorials, complete with commentary from the photographers, and a larger number of lighter weight tutorials. But the longer-term plan is to let anybody contribute tutorials for photos. With the lightweight tutorials, Lightroom will generate the tutorials directly from the image data and editing history.

"You can see exactly how the image came to be," Haftel said. "It's a first step in trying to prove we can make people better photographers."

Later, Adobe plans to make it possible to convert a tutorial into an editing preset that can be easily applied later, he added.

On photo-sharing sites like Flickr, digital photographers for years have been able to pore through each photo's EXIF data -- parameters like shutter speed, focal length, and camera and lens model. Adobe's feature is a bit like the photo editing equivalent. But the company hopes to expand, too.

"We see an opportunity to also share camera settings, posing opportunities, lighting, composition, even art history," Haftel said. 

Also new to Lightroom

A few other changes are arriving, too:

  • On Lightroom for Android, you can now apply an edit made to one photo to a group of photos. The feature will come to Lightroom for iOS later.
  • On Lightroom CC for PCs, clicking the question mark icon will open a more detailed contextual help system complete with interactive guides to using editing controls and animations to show what they do. The feature will come to iOS and Android "soon," Adobe said, and the company is exploring a version for Lightroom Classic.
  • If you're that one person who collects photos from group events, you can now invite people to contribute photos you can import into your Lightroom CC catalog. They'll need an Adobe user ID to do so, but no software other than a web browser that uses the online version of Lightroom.

"Lightroom has been since its conception about me, myself and I," said Tom Hogarty, senior director of product management for photography at Adobe. "This is a pretty tectonic shift to become about me and you, me and us."

Lightroom Classic vs. Lightroom CC

One difficult drawback of Adobe's early philosophy is that the company is dividing its development efforts between Lightroom Classic CC and Lightroom CC. The older Classic version is designed to use a catalog of photos stored on your computer or an attached external drive; the newer alternative is built around the idea that the cloud stores the primary versions of photos.

"We got to a fork in the road," Hogarty said. The company concluded, "we're going to get to market faster with an entirely cloud-native solution if we have a second desktop app."

Lightroom CC still doesn't have some features in Lightroom Classic CC, including color categories for photos, a detailed photo-import process and the ability to attach location data to photos. It is catching up, though, for example with the ability to merge individual photos into panoramas and high dynamic range (HDR) shots.

Even though new features like tutorials and group photo albums are only in Lightroom CC, Adobe insists Lightroom Classic CC remains a priority. Those words could be comforting, particularly to customers who were alarmed to see Adobe experiment with a minimum Lightroom Classic price of $20 per month instead of today's $10.

That experiment is over now, but Adobe didn't comment on whether it might eventually raise the Lightroom Classic price. The company will keep the version around, though.

"We try everything we can do to ensure we're broadcasting that we believe in and love Lightroom Classic," Hogarty said.

First published May 14 at 6 a.m. PT.
Update 9:59 a.m. PT: Adds further comment from Adobe.