Review : Lightroom Mobile

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Review: Lightroom Mobile

Pros: Automatic synchronization of edits between Lightroom Mobile and desktop Lightroom, high-quality raw editing controls, uses multi-touch gestures well.

Cons: Can’t import raw files directly from attached cameras or cards, iPad only, sync requires Creative Cloud subscription, very limited metadata support, no custom presets.

Rating: 6/10

While the Apple iPad and other tablets have found a role in mobile photography, they lack a robust workflow for the raw photo files produced by advanced digital cameras. Lightroom Mobile isn’t the first iPad app that can edit raw files, but it's already the most interesting option simply by its association with Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, the popular raw workflow application for desktop computers. But that association also creates high expectations for Lightroom Mobile to fulfill.

Using Lightroom Mobile

You can download and install Lightroom Mobile from the iOS App Store to an iPad at no charge. You need an Adobe ID to sign into the app, and if you want to synchronize changes between Lightroom Mobile and desktop Lightroom, you also need an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription (the $9.99/month Photoshop Photography Program qualifies).

To edit raw photos using Lightroom Mobile, you must sign into both Lightroom mobile and Lightroom on the desktop (version 5.4 or later) with your Adobe ID so that Adobe can identify which two instances of Lightroom will be synchronized.

Signing in to Lightroom 5.4 on the desktop and Lightroom Mobile on iPad

Signing in with your Adobe ID connects Lightroom 5.4 on the desktop (top) to Lightroom Mobile on the iPad (bottom).

Next, in Lightroom on the desktop set up a collection containing the photos you want to edit on the iPad, then turn on the sync box to the left of the collection name. Lightroom will upload the collection to Adobe servers, and Lightroom Mobile will download the collection to your iPad.

In Lightroom on the desktop, turning on sync for a catalog (top) and individual collections (bottom) syncs the collections to Lightroom Mobile.

You might think of Lightroom Mobile as a basic version of the Library (organizing), Develop (image editing), and Slideshow modules in desktop Lightroom. First you see your synced Collections; tap a collection to open a Grid view where you can see a collection's photos as thumbnail images. Tap a thumbnail to see a photo in Loupe view where you can zoom and pan using standard pinch and swipe touch gestures. You can assign Pick/Reject flags by swiping up or down, respectively, and you can move photos between collections or delete them from a collection. But adding photos or deleting the actual photo file can be done only in desktop Lightroom.

Collections view shows all collections synced with desktop Lightroom.

Tapping a collection opens it in Grid view.

Tapping an image opens it in Loupe view.

Four icons at the bottom of the screen represent the Filmstrip, Adjustments, Presets, and Cropping views. Adjustment view is a subset of the Develop module in desktop Lightroom. The Presets view gives you quick access to specific looks, but you can use only the built-in presets. The Slideshow gives you an easy way to show off a collection you’re storing on your iPad.

The options in the Adjustments view correspond to the Basic panel in the Develop module in desktop Lightroom. You can precisely adjust each option by dragging along a slider that is as wide as the screen. Visual feedback is limited by the lack of support for display calibration or profiling in iOS, and there isn’t a way to check RGB color values. But Lightroom Mobile does provide a histogram and a custom white balance sampler.

To adjust the image, tap an option and then drag the dot along the slider.

For the options that affect the ends of the tonal range, you can display a clipped highlights/shadows indicator by dragging the slider with two fingers. For a Before/After comparison, hold down three fingers to see the Before view, and release them for the After view.

Dragging the slider with two fingers displays clipped highlights and shadows.

Synchronizing Changes Between Lightroom Mobile and Desktop

Making changes to a photo in either the mobile or desktop version of Lightroom automatically sends those changes to the other instance of Lightroom. Synchronization is designed to be seamless and hands-free, like Dropbox. Although synchronizing raw files is technically possible, today’s full-frame raw files can be 20-50MB each so even moderate-sized shoots would impose a serious burden on tablet processors, tablet storage, and Internet connections. Instead, Lightroom Mobile uses the Smart Preview format to dramatically compress a raw photo while still letting you edit it as raw data on a mobile device; a large raw file can become a roughly 1MB Smart Preview. A Smart Preview is restricted to 2560 pixels on the long side, so Lightroom Mobile may not display the full resolution of larger images. But it’s enough resolution and quality to share images directly from Lightroom Mobile to your business’s social media accounts, for example.

Animated dots indicate sync activity; tap to reveal a sync status menu.

Images you sync between Lightroom Mobile and desktop Lightroom are stored on Adobe servers on the way over. This makes it possible to sync when one of the devices is offline, again like Dropbox. Adobe uses this to give you one more way to view your synced images: You can see them in a web browser. Go to lightroom.adobe.com, click Try Lightroom on the Web, and enter your Adobe ID, and you’ll see the same collections that are synced to your iPad. You can’t edit images or collections in the web browser, although you can see which images have Pick flags. You can make a collection public so that your client or family can view a URL to the collection without an Adobe ID.

You can view your synced collections in a web browser.

You must have an Internet connection to sync, which means syncing may be slow on connections with a low data rate for uploads or downloads. This limits the utility of Lightroom Mobile when traveling; for example, at hotels where Internet access is sketchy.

Getting Images Out of Lightroom Mobile

Lightroom Mobile hooks into the standard sharing tools provided by iOS, like AirDrop, Messages, Mail and social media. You can select one or more photos to share or to save to the iOS Camera Roll, and you can print a photo to a printer recognized by iOS.

Tapping the sharing icon opens the standard iOS menu for exporting, saving, and printing.

Of course, you can also pick up the synced edits on the desktop and use any of the output options in Lightroom 5.4.

But What About…

You might be wondering about everything I didn't mention earlier, and there’s quite a bit of that. Let’s get the most obvious one out of the way: Lightroom Mobile can’t import raw photos directly from an attached camera or card reader (only through the iOS Camera Roll), nor is there support for tethered shooting into Lightroom. There are many good reasons for this, including the lack of support for a raw workflow in iOS and the significantly higher resource requirements for working directly with large raw files on a tablet. But it does constrain the role of Lightroom Mobile in a raw photography workflow. You might also miss features from the rest of the Develop module, such as noise reduction.

When organizing images, Lightroom Mobile lets you flag images and move them among collections, but not much more. There’s no support for star ratings, color labeling, or entering metadata like keywords or captions. Also, Smart Collections, collection sets, and video files can't be synced. The more organizational tools you use in desktop Lightroom, the more you'll notice the gaps in Lightroom Mobile.

Is Lightroom Mobile For You?

How happy you’ll be with Lightroom Mobile depends on how well your needs fit this initial release. Currently, the primary strength of Lightroom Mobile is as a portable tool for flagging picks and making a first round of edits when you’re away from your desktop, in collections of raw images you’ve already imported to your desktop. It also works well as a mobile portfolio and presentation tool for collections of your best work, or for reviewing collections with clients with the help of the pick flags.

But if you’re expecting a seamless camera-to-iPad-to-desktop workflow, Lightroom Mobile isn’t there yet. For example, I’d like to import raw files from a camera, apply a metadata preset created on the desktop, make basic edits, and share images to social media with embedded copyright metadata and a visible watermark. Right now too many of those steps are missing. Users have devised workarounds for tasks like importing from cameras and using star ratings, but the workarounds impede the workflow and may not be practical on large shoots on short deadlines.

Even if Lightroom Mobile is not immediately useful to you, it’s obvious that Lightroom is worth watching. Empty areas in the user interface seem to suggest areas where new features could appear as time and tablet processing power advances. Availability will expand beyond the iPad, to the iPhone next and then to Android. The high-quality raw editing tools and the seamless syncing of those edits back to the desktop significantly differentiates Lightroom Mobile from other tablet apps that merely open and edit raw photo files, and having access to your synced collections in a Web browser suggests intriguing future possibilities for working with photos.

The current workflow restrictions and limited platform availability may exclude Lightroom Mobile from consideration by some photographers. But for desktop Lightroom users who have an iPad and subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud, Lightroom Mobile is a powerful raw editor and can be a fun way to edit and view photo collections on the go.

System Requirements and Availability

Lightroom Mobile runs on any Apple iPad that runs iOS 7, and can be downloaded from the App Store at no charge. You need an Adobe ID to sign into the app. Syncing with your desktop requires an Internet connection, Adobe Photoshop Lightroom 5.4, and an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription including the Photoshop Photography Program, Student and Teacher edition, or Creative Cloud for Teams (but not single-app subscriptions).

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