Photographer, photo-technical writer, musician/composer, software developer, birder.
Okay. Perhaps I should take a step or two back before locking the front door and devoting myself to life as a hermit. (Although the idea of eating pizza round-the-clock does have some appeal.) A few questions first need to be answered…
Wherefore Art Thou, Lightroom?
Many of us entered the world of image editing via Photoshop, so why venture into a parallel universe? What do we need Lightroom for? Why should we use it? More to the point, what is it exactly?
Sadly, many of us are intimidated by Lightroom. We simply eschew it and go straight to Photoshop. Why? Either we don’t understand Lightroom, or don’t understand it fully, or we don’t appreciate what it can do for us. Well, if you count yourself in that number, I’m here to set the record straight and show you what can be done in Lightroom – and often without even venturing further. But first, allow me to explain what took so long for me to get here…
Having indulged myself in a special project that has consumed my time and what few faculties I have remaining at my age, I found myself holding off on upgrading my iMac and Adobe software. But I had reached a juncture – a do-or-die moment, if you will. I finally felt it was time to take the plunge and bring this machine forward in time with the long overdue OS upgrade, leapfrogging to Sonoma. And that meant that I’d finally be able to upgrade my Adobe photo suite (via the Creative Cloud Photography plan), which includes Lightroom Classic (for desktop), Photoshop, Bridge and the cloud-based Lightroom (with perhaps a more inviting interface for initiates). For starters, we’ll focus here on Lightroom Classic, since it is the first stop (and often my only stop) in image editing.
We should point out that the formal title for this application is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom Classic (formerly known as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, before the advent of the cloud-centric iteration). Henceforth, and with few exceptions, we’ll stick with the more familiar moniker, Lightroom. I’m working with a late 2023 build, specifically, Release 13.1, joined by Camera Raw 16.1.
Much of what is discussed here about Lightroom Classic applies also to Adobe Lightroom. The key difference, as I see it, aside from storage options (local desktop storage for Classic, cloud for Adobe Lightroom), is that Adobe Lightroom sports a more user-friendly, social-media savvy interface than Lightroom Classic. If you have yet to get your feet wet in either application, you may find Adobe Lightroom a better fit. And if you never plan to venture beyond, namely into Photoshop, then it’s also the more affordable option. With that in mind, and as someone with a working familiarity with Lightroom Classic, I find myself, funnily enough, intimidated by Adobe Lightroom. I guess I’ll get past that once I take a deep dive into that other application. I should add that, whichever Adobe route you take, it’s strictly on a subscription basis.
To begin, Photoshop offers pixel-level editing, which goes much deeper than anything you’d find in Lightroom. Photoshop gets into the DNA of the image, permanently altering its structure and development, allowing you to introduce anything from subtle to mind-bending modifications. It enables you to add layers and create complex composite images, add text, and make alterations to the image practically without bound. If you can imagine it, with a little (and sometimes painstaking) effort, you can achieve it. Once the image being edited is saved, there’s no going back.
Photoshop is, of course, also a very capable RAW image processor, preparing files in its Camera RAW module to be more fully edited once exported to the host application. And we haven’t even addressed where Adobe Bridge fits in (we’ll leave that for another time), except to say that it’s a gateway to Photoshop.
Lightroom is, at its heart, the Camera RAW module. And then some, taking the image beyond Camera RAW, while staying true to its purpose – and housing this entire workflow, or at least its formative stages, under one roof. Lightroom is also a gateway to Photoshop and other image editors, exporting the image file with or without Lightroom modifications, as the case may be. But going beyond Lightroom is strictly your choice. Lock the door, throw away the key and enjoy that pizza, knowing you need go no further.
Nondestructive Image Editing
More to the point, Lightroom is “nondestructive.” What exactly do we mean by that? Lightroom does not alter the pixels, only the instructions telling those pixels how to behave. Those pixels never leave the picture – they just remain couched in obscurity, only to pop out again should you need them, if, for example, you decide to undo what you did, or even if you decide to begin anew. That means that you can leave an edited image today and continue where you left off or even start fresh on the unedited image tomorrow, if you choose, or just backtrack a few steps the next time you get to work (all of which I’ve done on numerous occasions). Those pixels remain in stasis – dormant, if you will, to be reanimated at any time. However, once committed, as when you export to TIFF or JPEG, those changes become permanently embedded in the fabric of the image, and those original pixels are lost in time and space. (Apologies, I’ve been watching too much classic Doctor Who.)
Except that you still have the original RAW image to fall back on, should you need to make more changes. That never goes away.
For a more detailed comparison between Photoshop and Lightroom, please visit:
www.adobe.com/creativecloud/photography/lightroom-vs-photoshop.html. (While the emphasis is on the cloud-based application, the discussion largely applies to Lightroom Classic as well.) And for differences between the two versions of Lightroom, try this link:
©Jack Neubart. All rights reserved
But there’s more to Lightroom. To many photographers, Lightroom is a staging area, much as birds use staging areas during their annual migration, to fuel the next step in their journey.
Lightroom took form as a workflow manager, for you to organize and catalog your image library and prepare images for what comes next. In fact, the Lightroom Catalog lies at the heart of the matter. When Lightroom senses that a memory card or camera has been plugged into your computer, it initiates an import process, detecting duplicate images so as to avoid adding them (providing you’ve ticked “Don’t Import Suspected Duplicates” before engaging the Import button). You can also manually select the image files to be added. Files are then added to the Catalog under a dated folder.
Of equal importance, to my way of thinking, Lightroom lets you generate “virtual copies” of an image file to test out variations, leaving the original file intact (or do your testing on the original and keep a virtual copy as backup). What, for example, would the image look like in monochrome or with split-toning – or both? And because it’s “virtual,” it doesn’t weigh down your computer with unnecessary clutter.
- WORKFLOW TIP. To gain the full benefit of Lightroom’s nondestructive editing (and even when working in Photoshop), we have to start with the right kind of image, namely, a RAW file. (I prefer to capitalize RAW, as I do to capitalize on its potential.) I once compared a RAW image to a raw steak (or raw veggies, for the vegetarians among us) – you prepare the dish as you prefer, seasoned to perfection, to bring out the full flavor and texture. In contrast, when working with JPEG files, which are pre-processed, all you can do is add some spices and condiments. For all practical purposes, RAW and DNG (digital negative) serve the same purpose, with largely the same potential. For more on RAW vs DNG, please visit:
©Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.
Lightroom, as is true for Photoshop, has been redefined to some degree in recent years. The incorporation of AI (Artificial Intelligence) breathes new life into these applications, expanding horizons in image editing. Specifically, where Lightroom is concerned, AI has made it (arguably) easier to edit the image, if not faster, simplifying certain processes, but not always with predictable results.
New or improved tools in Lightroom Classic have included AI-powered masking (defining areas to be manipulated while protecting outside regions) and AI-enhanced denoising (removing digital noise and resulting artifacts). For more info on the new masking and denoising tools, please visit: helpx.adobe.com/lightroom-classic/help/whats-new/2023-3.html.
The latest release adds AI-fortified Lens Blur (adding bokeh and depth to scenes) and Point Color (select a specific color in the image with the eyedropper tool, then adjust hue, saturation and brightness).
Lens Blur, as of this writing, was still in its formative “Early Access” stage. It did take some trial and error to get an image to where I wanted. Still, it was doable – and that’s what counts. So I’d say Adobe is on the right track here.
Point Color is more firmly established. Here, if you want to make a blue sky more dramatic, you could do so without altering other parts of the picture as an unintentional byproduct – and all without having to isolate the affected area. By the way, it gets even more interesting when Point Color is coupled with masking.
For more info on Lens Blur, please visit:
helpx.adobe.com/lightroom-classic/help/whats-new/2024.html#lens-blur. Scroll down for Point Color.
Over the years, Lightroom has matured into Lightroom Classic, with features and capabilities borrowed from Photoshop, if, perhaps, to a lesser degree, but sufficient to meet our immediate needs to give us images that can take flight on their own.
Keep in mind that AI is only a tool and not the be-all and end-all in image editing. And, well, it does succeed much of the time – but not necessarily fully or all the time. And that is why you still have to keep a watchful eye over what Lightroom does. It sometimes thinks it knows what you want. But you’re still the chef in this kitchen.
There is one more very practical side to AI. It sometimes takes considerably longer to get anything done than in the past. My old iMacs, as well as the one currently in use, working with pre-AI versions of Lightroom, could zip through an edit in practically no time.
When all is said and done, It makes me wish that my 21.5” iMac were configured with the latest processors far beyond the Intel i5 on this machine – and considerably more RAM than the current 16 GB, along with a more powerful graphics engine than the Radeon Pro Vega 20/4 GB that this machine sports.
Over time, though, I’m sure the AI engine will improve, working faster and with greater reliability. We’re only on the ground floor with this technology and we do need to put it through its paces for it to improve. So let’s be patient and accepting of a few flaws.
I compared pictures edited in earlier versions of Lightroom with those I’m currently editing. At a passing glance, I didn’t see a marked difference, but a deep dive did reveal that more was at play here. Any way you look at it, though, I do enjoy working in the 2023 edition much more so than in previous iterations. It’s more fun. It’s also more challenging and, perhaps more importantly, more eye-opening, making me look at the tonal structure of the image in ways I hadn’t thought to do before. And that allows me to enhance the flavor and texture of the image to the point where you could almost taste it and touch it. For me, that’s reason enough to upgrade. Okay, so it's not pizza. But it still leaves a good taste in one's mouth.
If you’re hesitant to take the deep dive into Lightroom, don’t be. It will reward you in ways you couldn’t even begin to imagine. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding. But check out the images peppered throughout this review and see for yourself. All editing was completed within Lightroom Classic 2023, with no plugins or external editors involved.
In conclusion, AI may not be the last word in image editing, but Lightroom plus AI will take you where you want to go – and beyond.
©Jack Neubart. All rights reserved.
All software updates for installed applications are included for the subscription period.
Mobile apps are also part of these plans, along with 1 TB cloud storage. Also included is what Adobe calls “generative credits.” For more info, please visit:
Individual plan (other plans available):
Creative Cloud Photography (includes Lightroom Classic, Lightroom, Photoshop, Bridge & more): US $19.99/mo
Lightroom: US $9.99/mo
Reviews of Photoshop and Bridge, and a deeper dive into Adobe Lightroom, with an eye toward examining how Lightroom Classic and Lightroom differ, where one shines above the other and what features we’d like to see ported over.
Lightroom runs on both Mac and Windows.
For Lightroom Classic system requirements please visit: