Lightroom for iPad is here, but it's subscription-only

Adobe still sells perpetual licenses for Lightroom for Mac and Windows. The new iPad adjunct, though, comes only with subscriptions costing at least $10 per month.

Stephen Shankland principal writer
Stephen Shankland has been a reporter at CNET since 1998 and writes about processors, digital photography, AI, quantum computing, computer science, materials science, supercomputers, drones, browsers, 3D printing, USB, and new computing technology in general. He has a soft spot in his heart for standards groups and I/O interfaces. His first big scoop was about radioactive cat poop.
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Stephen Shankland
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Lightroom Mobile lets photographers edit photos, fiddling with parameters including white balance, shadow and highlight recovery, and exposure.
Lightroom Mobile lets photographers edit photos, fiddling with parameters including white balance, shadow and highlight recovery, and exposure. screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Here's the good news for Adobe Systems' new iPad version of Lightroom: If you're paying for either the full Creative Cloud or the more limited Photoshop Photography Program subscriptions, you get Lightroom Mobile for no extra cost.

But the bad news: If you don't like subscriptions, there's no other way to get Lightroom Mobile.

Adobe has moved its professional software to subscriptions, but so far more mainstream products -- Lightroom, Premiere Elements, and Photoshop Elements -- continue to be sold through perpetual licensing that lets people use the version of the software they bought forever. With subscriptions, in contrast, the software stops working when the customer stops paying.

Lightroom Mobile brings much of Adobe Systems' photo editing and cataloging software to iPads, with iPhone support coming later this year and Android support after that. Check my colleague Lori Grunin's Lightroom Mobile review for a detailed look at the mobile app, which requires the freshly released Lightroom 5.4.

There are advantages to the subscription approach -- for example, Adobe can deliver a continuous stream of improvements as soon as they're ready instead of holding them back so the company can better sell a major update. And it allows Adobe to shift toward online services for publishing, sharing, and promotion that customers might appreciate. But even as Adobe subscription numbers continue to climb, now surpassing 1.8 million, many customers are steaming mad over Adobe's change.

The full Creative Cloud subscription, which grants access to Adobe's full suite of software and several online services, costs $50 per month with a full-year commitment. The Photoshop Photography Program, which grants access to Photoshop, Lightroom, the Behance site for social networking and promotion, and 20GB of cloud storage space, costs $10 per month.

Subscriptions worth the price?

Adobe, naturally, thinks it's made the right decision going subscription-only and doesn't think the move will be a problem.

"We think the Photoshop Photography Program is at a very good price point, " Sharad Mangalick, Adobe's digital imaging product manager, said in an interview. "We're going to be cognizant that we might get pushback from customers. We're going to monitor the feedback."

Adobe declined to say whether it plans to continue to offer Lightroom through perpetual licensing or switch it to a subscription-only product. With Lightroom Mobile, a new product, it had a bit more flexibility since it was never available as a perpetually licensed product.

"Lightroom mobile is a service designed to complement and work in conjunction with Lightroom desktop," Adobe said in a statement.

Lightroom Mobile pulls smaller versions of photos in Adobe's lossy-DNG format and offers several editing tools. Photographers can't perform local adjustments to just parts of the image, though, or edit metadata such as captions and keywords. Screenshot by Stephen Shankland/CNET

Adobe announced the Photoshop Photography Program subscription as a limited-term promotion that initially was set to expire in 2013, but it's extended it several times, most recently through the end of May.

One of the ways Adobe could help mollify subscription skeptics is by adding new abilities to the Creative Cloud options without raising prices -- and that's exactly what it's done with Lightroom Mobile. On the other hand, paying a one-time fee for mobile photo-editing software doesn't exactly break the bank. Another Lightroom companion app, Photosmith, costs $20, Google's Snapseed is free, VSCO Cam and FX Photo Studio are free before in-app purchases, and there are dozens of other photo programs. Lightroom, though, is a popular tool among serious photographers, and iPad software that dovetails with it tightly brings something most other software lacks.

Moving photo catalogs to the cloud

Moving from licensed software also brings with it a natural transition from software linked to a particular PC to software linked to a subscriber's account, running wherever that subscriber happens to log in. And that transition, as illustrated by cloud-computing services such as Google Apps, naturally moves the state of a person's computing operations off a particular device and onto the Internet -- email that can be accessed with any sort of device.

Lightroom hasn't lost its tether to a particular PC yet, though. The Lightroom Mobile version relies on a master catalog stored on a PC. Adobe's servers fetch a compressed version of the images stored in the PC's Lightroom catalog then synchronize changes back and forth.

Eventually, Adobe could move that catalog to the cloud.

"We're not there yet. It's something we're working toward," Mangalick said. Challenges include the expense of storing massive photo libraries in the cloud, bandwidth constraints, and workflow challenges for migrating data to the cloud.

"It's going to take time to get there," he said.