Talk about timing. Almost as soon as I convinced myself I could use an iPad Air in my life, Microsoft and Adobe made my day with mobile versions of two of my most-used PC/Mac programs -- Office and Lightroom. Not long after Microsoft revealed an iPad version of Office, Adobe followed up with a tablet-friendly version of its popular Lightroom photo editor. Like Office for iPad, Lightroom mobile (its official name) is more workflow companion than PC replacement, letting photographers experiment with images from anywhere there's an internet connection before finalizing projects back at home base.

With a number of solid photo editors already available for the iPad, though, the free-to-download Lightroom mobile needs to offer some unique advantages if Adobe hopes to lure folks into its subscription-based Creative Cloud service. Is the new app up to the task? I added it to my regular photo-editing workflow to find out.

Lightroom mobile review

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Lightroom mobile

Pros

  • Intuitive, minimalistic interface
  • RAW-image editing on the go
  • Photos don't count against allotted cloud storage

Cons

  • No user presets
  • Lacks several key desktop options like curves and local adjustments
  • Limited export options
  • Free to download, but requires cloud subscription for full use
Summary

Lightroom mobile is a surprisingly capable companion to Adobe's popular photo editor, offering many of the tools of its big brother, while neatly sidestepping the issue of handling large RAW files. Those hoping for a standalone image editor will be disappointed, but folks already tied to Adobe's cloud services shouldn't hesitate.

Getting started

Adobe's emphasis on Lightroom mobile as a companion rather than a standalone app is evident from the get-go. Before I could do anything else, the app asked me to update my desktop edition of Lightroom to version 5.4 and sync a collection. The 5.4 update adds a new checkbox option in the Collections menu, allowing users to choose which photos to sync with Lightroom mobile.

One of the biggest obstacles when it comes to serious photo editing on a tablet is the lack of storage space -- especially on non-expandable slates like the iPad. The RAW image format preferred by many photographers produces files that are generally many times larger than a compressed JPEG version of the same image, and those larger files add up quickly. My Fujifilm X-E2, for example, churns out RAW images that average around 31MB each. A single photo shoot resulting in 100 shots would take up about three gigs of space -- a significant bit of real estate on, say, a 16GB iPad.

Thankfully, Adobe leverages its cloud services to provide a workaround it calls Smart Previews -- stand-ins for the original RAW images that are much smaller in size, but still allow for the non-destructive tinkering that makes RAW-image editing so appealing in the first place.

When you sync a Collection on your desktop, a Smart Preview is created from the original RAW file and uploaded to the cloud. Adobe points out that these uploads do not count against the 20GB of Creative Cloud storage it offers. Once those smaller files are in the cloud, Lightroom mobile downloads them and you're free to do some finger-based photo editing.

I synced a recent photo excursion through downtown Tacoma, Washington, and waited for the 50-shot Collection to appear on my 64GB iPad Air. It took roughly seven minutes for the photos to upload and then for Lightroom mobile to download the smaller Smart Preview files. Adobe says the size of Smart Preview photos varies depending on the camera used, but most should fall within 1MB to 2MB. Its internal testing with an X-E2 resulted in roughly 1MB files. With the images loaded on my iPad, it took anywhere from 10 to 30 seconds for changes I made on the iPad to reflect on the desktop side, and vice versa.

UI

Once you have a Collection of photos to edit, it's time to get to work. Lightroom mobile's UI apes the desktop version by putting most of the emphasis on the images themselves. The main screen features large tiles representing any Collections you have synced with the app. Once you pick a Collection, you head to a thumbnail gallery of photos contained within. Pick a single photo and you arrive at a minimalistic editing panel.

In this editing section, four small icons sit below the selected image. When you choose one of them, the photo scales back slightly to make room for a ribbon of options depending on the icon you picked. From left to right, you can: call up a strip of thumbnails for other photos in the Collection; open the adjustments panel to tweak white balance and other options; apply built-in presets; and crop and rotate images.

Managing and editing photos are done using a mixture of gestures and toggling pop-up sliders. In general, simple, binary actions like flagging/unflagging an image or doing a quick before/after comparison are handled with swiping gestures. Finer edits like adjusting color temperature or exposure levels are controlled with pop-up rulers that span the width of the screen. These full-length sliders offer a solid level of precision for a finger-friendly device, allowing me to, say, change the Exposure Value from 1.00 to 1.01 without much fuss.

I like the overall design of the app, especially the uncluttered UI that keeps the photos front and center as much as possible. Unfortunately, there are a few key options missing from this mobile version -- omissions that reinforce its companion-app status.

Of these shortcomings, the most serious might be a lack of synced user presets. Lightroom mobile ships with the same built-in presets as its big brother, but many professional photogs have developed their own, fine-tuned presets to get just the right look. On the bright side, changes made via user presets on the desktop version do show up in Lightroom mobile, but those looking to quickly apply their signature styles on the go are out of luck. Their absence on the mobile version likely means most will use the iPad app for general experimentation and leave the fine-tuning for when they get back to their workstations.

That "rough draft now, final draft later" approach is echoed elsewhere in the app, including its minimal export options. You can share images via AirDrop or apps like Messages and Twitter. Photos can also be saved to the Camera Roll or sent to a printer. When I exported a few images to the Camera Roll, I was left with roughly 2.8MP JPEGs at just over 300KB in size. Compare that to the 16-megapixel JPEGs my Fuji X-E2 natively writes and it's clear that Lightroom mobile isn't meant for exporting final images to your paying clients -- especially those with specific demands for PPI and dimensions.

Lightroom mobile also lacks more advanced curve adjustments and local editing (for making spot corrections rather than image-wide changes). To tweak those aspects, you're just going to have to wait until you're back at your computer.

In actual use, my 64GB iPad Air has little trouble handling every edit I can throw at it. Adjustments and presets generally appear a second or two after I select them, sometimes with a low-res, placeholder version of the photo standing in until the changes are fully applied. Moving from one adjustment menu to another is also brisk, and the app responds to gestures consistently. Stability -- much appreciated on a casual tablet game, but absolutely crucial on a productivity app -- is generally solid. In the two-plus weeks I've been using Lightroom mobile, I've had three crashes (all occurring when switching from one editing menu to another), but I don't work in fear of it failing at any moment.

The competition

There's clearly no shortage of photo editors for the iPad, including Snapseed (a personal favorite) and Adobe's own Photoshop Express. Most of these, however, treat the tablet as the focal point for image editing and sharing, whether it's on Facebook, Instagram or countless other avenues of expression.

Lightroom mobile, on the other hand, is very much an add-on -- a sidekick to a much more powerful program. It's based on the premise that users will want to finish tweaking images on their workstations with their color-calibrated displays and gobs of external storage. As a standalone photo editor, then, a free app like Snapseed seems to make much more sense than Lightroom mobile. But, again, that doesn't seem to be the goal Adobe had in mind here.

Wrap-up

Those looking to fully rid themselves of a PC/Mac environment won't find a complete solution in Lightroom mobile. Like the iPad version of Microsoft's Office suite, Adobe's photo editor is both designed and priced to be a companion to more fully featured desktop apps. Also like Office, Lightroom mobile's appeal strongly depends on how much you're tied into its desktop companion and the cloud. If you're a frequent Lightroom user and already signed up with Adobe's Creative Cloud services (which currently start at $10 a month), downloading the free mobile app is a no-brainer. It may not be a vital part of your photography workflow, but it could come in handy if inspiration strikes when you're nowhere near your computer.

For anyone on the fence about Adobe's subscription plans, Lightroom mobile's 30-day trial should give you plenty of time to see if it's worth incorporating into your workflow. More casual photographers may find better value in standalone apps that aren't dependent on the cloud or tethered to more fully featured desktop versions. Lightroom lifers, however, now have a surprisingly capable companion at their disposal.

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Lightroom mobile review: Adobe brings (most of) its digital darkroom to the iPad