App Review: Adobe Lightroom Mobile

July 1, 2014

By Dan Havlik

The Lightroom mobile app is free to download but you need to have one of Adobe’s controversial Creative Cloud subscription plans in order to use it.

Photographers have been asking for a mobile version of Adobe Lightroom pretty much since the first iPad launched four years ago. They finally got their wish recently, as Adobe launched the Lightroom mobile app, which lets you edit and organize your images on your iPad. (The company says iPhone and Android versions of the app are also in the works.)

While the Lightroom mobile app is free to download, you need to have one of Adobe’s controversial Creative Cloud subscription plans in order to use it. (Ah, there’s the rub!) The best current Adobe subscription deal for photographers is the Photoshop Photography Program, which costs $9.99 a month and gives you Photoshop CC and Lightroom 5, along with some other features including 20 GB of cloud storage. You’ll also need the latest iteration of Lightroom, which is at Version 5.4, to run the app, but that’s a free update and available now.

In Use

I had a chance to test drive the Lightroom mobile app before its launch in April and found it to be a handy, if slightly underwhelming program. (Maybe if it had come out in 2010 with the first iPad, I would’ve been more impressed.)

That’s not to say that the Lightroom mobile is a bad app at all. It’s well designed and does a fine job of giving you cloud-based, wireless access to the main catalogue of Lightroom images on your desktop computer, so you can tweak and showcase them on the iPad’s display. To be honest, when I first heard that a mobile version of Lightroom was coming, I was worried it was just going to be a dumbed-down version of the software with limited capabilities, much like the consumer-oriented Adobe Photoshop Express app.

Instead, Lightroom mobile is a fairly robust little program, letting you use your iPad while editing and organizing images, including RAW shots thanks to Adobe’s Smart Previews, a smaller representative file format based on lossy DNGs. Smart Previews of RAW images are, generally speaking, about 1 to 2 MB apiece so they won’t clog up your iPad.

As mentioned, to take full advantage of Lightroom mobile, you’ll need to be running Lightroom 5.4, which you will set up to sync with the app via Adobe’s Creative Cloud. To sync your Lightroom images files to the iPad app, you need to create a specific mobile photo collection in the Library module of Lightroom on your desktop. Once that’s in place, click the sync icon next to the collection and the photos from that group in Lightroom 5.4 will start appearing in the mobile app on your iPad.

Aside from the familiar “Lr” icon on the app, the mobile version of Lightroom has a fairly no-frills look, especially when compared to the feature- laden desktop version. This seems partially by design, since the app is not really meant for road-warrior-type photographers who might want to make major changes to photos when they’re in the field. (For that, Adobe seems to be saying: Use the regular Lightroom program on your laptop.)

Editing Tools

When you open an image in Lightroom mobile, icons below the photo offer several key, if somewhat basic, tools. The Filmstrip icon gives you a visual way to scroll through thumbnails of images in a collection; the Adjustments icon lets you tweak white balance, color temperature, exposure, contrast, highlights and shadows, and other essentials using touch and swipe gestures.

The Presets icon is probably the most fun feature, giving you a range of pre-cooked photo filters, similar to what’s available via Instagram or Google’s Snapseed app. There’s a range of black-and-white and color styles and filters you can apply to your photos, with a fly-up tab of small thumbnails giving you a preview of what the effect will do to a shot. Tapping the Crop icon will call up a set of tiles with different aspect ratios to change the crop.

To compare before and after adjustments, hold three fingers down on the iPad’s screen to see the before look. There are also undo and redo arrows at the bottom of the screen, letting you step backward and forward through adjustments.

You can also flag photos you like by swiping up; unflag them by swiping down; or flag them as rejects by swiping down twice. And because of the live sync between your iPad and Lightroom 5.4, all mobile adjustments are automatically duplicated in the Lightroom collection—even RAW images—on your desktop, as long as there’s an Internet connection. So, in effect, you can edit RAW images with your iPad via the Smart Preview proxy files. (If there’s no Internet connection, you can still work on your images in the Lightroom mobile app but edits and metadata will not be synced to the Lightroom catalogue on your desktop computer until later.)

You can also import images from the built-in Photos app on your iPad into Lightroom mobile, and tweak them and sync to Lightroom 5.4 on your desktop. While syncing all these images back and forth between your iPad and computer is a largely seamless process, it sometimes took a second or two for my photos to sharpen to full resolution on the screen when a sync was going on. So the Lightroom mobile app can feel a bit slow at times.

Limited Display of Options

I was also disappointed in the limited number of display options in Lightroom mobile. The app’s slide show functionality is very basic and if you were hoping that a mobile version of Lightroom would take advantage of the iPad’s power of display to make it a solid digital portfolio (I know I was), you’ll probably be disappointed.

There are three different transition options when running a slide show— crossfade, wipe and (cheesy) image flip—and no way to integrate video clips. And, aside from manually watermarking each individual photo before syncing them, there’s no easy way for a photographer to add his or her particular branding to a slide show or gallery.

There are ways to socially share images from the app to Twitter or to e-mail them, but, as with the slide show, options are limited. For instance, in the version of the app I tried out, there was no way to upload shots directly to Facebook, which was odd. (It could be because it was just an early build of the app.)

The Bottom Line

It’s taken a while, but Adobe has finally created a mobile version of its popular Lightroom edit- ing and organizing app for the iPad. This nicely designed free app does, however, come with some caveats. For one, you need to be enrolled in one of Adobe’s cloud-based subscription plans in order to use the app, and you needto be running the latest version of Lightroom on your main computer to take advantage of its features. Second, if you were expecting a robust and sophisticated program to do major edits on your images out in the field, you’ll be disappointed. You might also be disappointed by the limited number of display options with this app: The slide show features are fairly rudimentary and it presents itself as a rather mediocre photo portfolio. On the other hand, Adobe’s done an excellent job of creating an easy-to-use iPad app that lets you tweak and organize your images via touch-based gestures. And because the app’s Smart Preview files are automatically synced wirelessly to Lightroom 5.4 running on your desktop computer, you’re in effect editing RAW images on your iPad. That’s pretty neat stuff.

Pros: Well designed and easy-to-use app; easily syncs wirelessly to Lightroom on your desktop so you can edit RAW images via smartphone preview proxies; good editing tools

Cons: Requires you to have an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription; only available for iPad (at press time); limited slide show and display options; runs slow when synching

Price: Free to download but requires Adobe Creative Cloud subscription to use


Related: Camera Review: Sony’s Full-Frame Alpha A7R
10 Mobile Apps Every Photographer Needs