Lightroom Mobile: First Thoughts

Adobe announced Lightroom Mobile this week. Is it what everyone wanted? Yes and no. Plenty of people wanted Lightroom on an iPad, but I’m not convinced they know why they want it.

Lightroom And The iPad

The desire to connect Lightroom and the iPad has been around for a few years. Both products are cool technology and it seems like there should be a nice fit between them. I’ve heard some version of that desire expressed many times.

When I ask for more information about why they want Lightroom on the iPad, the answers usually sound like these responses:

  • I don’t want to travel with my laptop. Now I can load my photos on my iPad and sync them when I get home.
  • I want to edit my photos on my iPad.
  • It’s mobile!

I get it. People want to break free from their desktop, travel light, yet still work on their images. Boy, are those folks in for a surprise.

Lightroom Mobile In Action

Sometimes fantasy doesn’t translate well into reality. Many of my friends who were excited about Lightroom Mobile were posting on Facebook and Google+ about their experiences.  You could see their emotions go from elated to disappointed as they worked through the process.

That doesn’t mean Lightroom Mobile is a bad app. It just tells me that there is a gap between expectations and delivery of the app. Here are a few examples.

Edit RAW Files On The iPad

This has been high on the wish list for a long time. I don’t think it’s a good idea. First, let’s look at the resources of an iPad and the reality of RAW files.  One RAW file from my D800 can be about 75 MB. That’s taking up a lot of space on the flash drive, and also a lot of space in RAM for a mobile device. Granted, the D800 has larger files than many other DSLRs, but the trend is moving up to larger files.

Lightroom Mobile doesn’t really edit RAW files. You can’t even import files directly into Lightroom Mobile. Instead, Lightroom Mobile can only import from the Camera Roll on the iPad. Assuming it could operate on RAW files, that would give you a two-step import process.  First into the iPad Camera Roll, and then into Lightroom Mobile. Don’t bother, though. It doesn’t work on RAW files. Not really.

Smart Previews From Syncing With Lightroom

Instead of working on RAW files, you will really end up working on Smart Previews synced from Lightroom.  These files derive from DNG, so you have more flexibility than a JPEG file. You can make your edits and sync them back to Lightroom, which will in turn apply them to edits for your RAW files.

So much for the idea of leaving your laptop at home and working on your photos shot in the field. Lightroom Mobile is an extension of Lightroom, not a replacement. It’s a way to offload, do some basic work, and return the results to Lightroom.

iPad Displays Are Not Calibrated

If you want your photos to look their best, you need to calibrate your monitor. As of right now, you cannot calibrate an iPad. Maybe something will change in the future, but you can’t be certain that an iPad doesn’t have a color cast that will make your photos look wonky on another display or when printed.

Only Global Adjustments

Lightroom Mobile has a limited set of adjustments. Some of them are pretty handy and I don’t mean to bash their quality of usefulness. However, they are currently lacking features  like the Adjustment Brush. All of your edits are global on Lightroom Mobile.

Limited Access to Existing Lightroom Organization

My friend Michelle Hedstrom caught me off-guard with this comment about her experience with Lightroom Mobile.

I did an initial sync from LR of 119 photos. It doesn’t work with smart collections, or folders, just collections so even though I had a folder already with those 119 photos, I had to create a separate collection. It was very slow to sync to the cloud and then down to the iPad. It has potential, but I’d almost say this is more an alpha, early beta release.

Smart Collections are a useful tool for organizing photos, particular to gather photos that you want to review or edit. It’s probably the first thing that I would use to identify images that I would sync to Lightroom Mobile. To find out that Lightroom Mobile doesn’t recognize Smart Collections just made my jaw drop. Let’s hope that’s corrected in a future release.

Where Lightroom Mobile Shines

If this post is starting to sound a bit negative, that isn’t my intention. Adobe delivered the first shot. People wanted to connect Lightroom with the iPad and now it’s a reality. Sure, Photosmith was there first with an iPad connection to Lightroom. There’s a different buzz when Adobe creates the app. It’s more than Apple has done for Aperture users.

The sweet spot for Lightroom Mobile is going to be as a tool for review, culling images, and perhaps applying some metadata. You don’t have access to all of the tools that I’d like to see, but it’s a start. My guess is that some people will find room in their workflow for Lightroom Mobile after importing to Lightroom. They’ll sync images, go out to eat and review images because they don’t have a date, and then go back and sync with Lightroom during a rerun of The Big Bang Theory.

Limited Appeal, For Now

How many people will want to add a step in their workflow for Lightroom Mobile? I suspect the numbers are rather low. The tool is less capable than its big brother in all aspects except one. It’s mobile. The people who need this mobility are likely travelers. It’s easier to whip out an iPad on a flight than a laptop. I honestly don’t expect to see that many people selecting photos in Lightroom Mobile at Olive Garden.

I see two critical questions for Lightroom Mobile:

  1. Where does it fit in your workflow?
  2. Why do you need it?

I don’t think Adobe has a good answer to these questions. As it stands, Lightroom Mobile looks more like a workflow detour than an enhancement.

That detour also depends upon a Creative Cloud membership. Although Lightroom 5 is available as a stand-alone application and Lightroom Mobile is free, you can’t use them together. Lightroom Mobile only works when you enter your Adobe ID associated with a Creative Cloud subscription. Stand-alone Lightroom owners won’t be able to use Lightroom Mobile in their workflow.

One thing I can’t deny is the appeal that the idea of Lightroom on the iPad carried for so long. People knew they wanted it, even if they didn’t know exactly what they wanted or how it would work. Adobe took the step to make it happen. Now that Lightroom Mobile is here, I expect to see it grow in capability and appeal. It just has to find the right groove to find a useful need rather than catering to an unspecified desire.


  1. jimb says

    Good summary, and conclusion, about where this app currently stands. Even though it’s only version 1, Adobe completely missed out on providing something more useful. That is, the ability to add star ratings, labels, and metadata (keywords at a minimum). IMO, having this functionality would be much more useful on an iPad than editing, which in my experience with other apps is not particularly useful. The only thing you can currently do with the app is pick and reject images. And the CC subscription requirement — forget about it.

    • admin says

      I hope you’re right. However, we’ve seen placeholders for Aperture 4 books on Amazon and other places before and they never turned out. I’d like to see it, but I wouldn’t bet money on it based upon a projected book.

    • tim says


      Aperture is a dead man walking – soon to be replaced with Photos – whatever that is. I guarantee it won’t be as full featured.

  2. R. Atkins says

    Lightroom Mobile *could* be a great tool, but the exclusion of smart collections is, well, dumb. For anything other than the last shoot, it’s probably how most of us organize, especially for mobile use. I do not want to have to manually build a collection every time I need to edit on-the-go (nor do I even know – it’s usually while waiting for a delayed flight, etc. that I decide to do things of this nature).

    I’m also concerned as to what’s happening with this data. Adobe hasn’t proven itself very trustworthy as of late with credit card numbers, how/where are they storing my images, if at all?

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