Adobe debuts impressive, free Lightroom Mobile; Android users, Creative Cloud cynics need not apply


posted Tuesday, April 8, 2014 at 12:01 AM EDT


It's a great day to be an Apple user: Adobe has just debuted an impressively well-considered mobile variant of its photographer-friendly Lightroom imaging app, and for the time being, it's an iOS exclusive. Specifically, it's available only on Apple's iPad tablet series, with an iPhone variant due later this year. But man, what an app -- as you'll see in a moment!

Android users can take some heart from the fact that there are plans for an equivalent on their platform eventually. No timeframe is yet available as to when that promise might become a reality, though, and that's likely to lead to a little disquiet when Android users see what they're missing out on. It's a situation not dissimilar to that when Lightroom first launched on the desktop as a Mac-only app, leaving the dominant Windows platform cold for quite some time, a fact of which Adobe is clearly cognizant.

And there will likely be some rumblings from Creative Cloud cynics, too, as the new app -- while a free download -- is an exclusive to Creative Cloud users. For the first time, that means there's a fork between Lightroom as bought at retail, and the cloud offering: If you don't have a Creative Cloud membership, you needn't apply for Lightroom Mobile. And even if you already own Lightroom, you'll have to pay for it all over again -- or at least, for an ongoing Creative Cloud subscription, which is effectively the same thing unless you needed other Creative Cloud apps.

Browsing through images in the iPad's Camera Roll on Lightroom Mobile.

That's the bad news. The good news is that this really does look to be one seriously handy tool.

At its heart, Lightroom Mobile is based around the same Smart Preview functionality that debuted in Lightroom 5. You don't process raws or even full-res JPEGs on your tablet -- instead, the heavy lifting (and voluminous storage) is catered for on the desktop, while the tablet provides a subset of the most important Lightroom organizing, developing and sharing features in a more lightweight, touch-based application.

You'll need to sign in with your Adobe ID in both desktop and Mobile editions of Lightroom to get started. (A newly-added Adobe sign-in at top-left of Lightroom desktop has appeared for this purpose.) Once signed in, collections of images sync back and forth between iPad (version 2 or higher, running iOS 7) and desktop automatically with a click of a button, although you can opt to work in offline mode on the tablet if you'll be away from a reasonable Internet connection. (Say, you want to take the downtime of a plane flight home to filter through the images from an out-of-town shoot.) The syncing process is accomplished thru Adobe's servers, and this also allows you to view your images online when you're away from your tablet. (Or invite friends and colleagues to view them.)

And it's not just a one-way street: You can also send images from your iPad's camera roll to the desktop, where they show up as a new volume in Lightroom.

Editing an image in Lightroom Mobile, with similar tools as in the desktop version's basic panel.

From the iPad, there's a surprising amount you can do with your images. You can cull photos intuitively with a swipe of the finger -- up to keep; down to discard. (Star rating isn't yet possible, but is planned in a later version.) You can view more detailed information for collections and images -- and histograms for the latter -- with a two-finger tap. And you can perform basic editing tasks, switching back and forth between the original image and the edited version with a three-finger tap.

Then when you're done, you can share right from the iPad, just as you'd expect -- or simply let the tweaked images sync back to the desktop, where your tagging and changes will await you for sharing, further refinement, or can be rethought altogether if you prefer. You can even play slideshows, although as yet, they don't include sound like their desktop equivalents do.

As for what editing is possible, the answer is quite a lot. More advanced features like local editing not surprisingly don't make the jump to the iPad, but all basic-panel controls from Lightroom made the grade, and function just as they would on the desktop. You can tweak exposure, contrast, brightness, vibrance and a whole lot more, and you can even apply the same image presets that you're used to using on the desktop.

Lightroom Mobile supports sharing to other iPad apps and social media, and a slideshow tool.

The interface does differ significantly, accounting for the difference in form factor, and the fact that you'll regularly be switching between portrait and landscape orientation as makes sense for any given photo, but it seems straightforward and intuitive nonetheless. You swipe across the screen to find the control you want to adjust, then swipe from side to side on a slider bar to adjust that control appropriately. Above, your image takes up most of the screen, as well it should. And images aren't just grouped in collections -- they can also be sorted and filtered, just as they can on your desktop.

Which is good news, because according to Adobe, the use of smart previews means you could conceivably fit 60,000 images onto your 128GB iPad, providing more than enough content to while away hours stuck waiting to get to your desktop for the full Lightroom experience, or to arrive at your next photo shoot.

And that, at its heart, is what makes this one very promising app: It might not include every feature of its desktop equivalent, but it looks to contain more than enough to really radically improve your productivity. Even the ability to just use some downtime to cull your images so that you know where you stand when you get back to your digital darkroom is huge news, and the fact you could've already ballparked those images with some early editing doubly so.

Editing and image culling done on the iPad will sync to the desktop or notebook automatically.

It's just a shame that, for now, Android users don't get to come to the party. But we have a feeling Adobe's going to make more than a few new converts to Creative Cloud with this launch -- and perhaps a little less grumbling about subscription costs, given that this brand-new app is free with a $10/month Photoshop Photography Program membership.

Available immediately from the iTunes store, the Lightroom Mobile app for iPad requires Lightroom 5.4 on your desktop or notebook computer, and iOS 7 on your iPad 2 or higher. This new Lightroom version is available only through the Creative Cloud service.