Mobile Photo Workflows: Lightroom vs. iCloud Photo Library

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Lightroom on the left, Photos on the right

I’ve been putting this article off for a while because I was daunted by the thought of how long it might be. Photo storage has always been an important aspect of my tech life, but it has become a lot more central to me since I got more serious about photography in March 2015. I stopped taking as many pictures with my iPhone and started to take a lot more with my Sony A6000. The image quality in my photo library went way up, but so did the file sizes. My old iPhone shots were about 4 MB on average, and the shots coming out of my cameras now are about 10-20 MB each.

I initially used iCloud Photo Library because it was a first-party solution that could store all of my photos at full resolution on all of my devices. I’m pretty greedy when it comes to this stuff. I don’t want just a subset of my photos with me, I want to bring as many as I possibly can with me everywhere.

I tried the Optimize Storage options in iCloud Photo Library, but found it lacking and unreliable in 2015. So when it came time to upgrade my iPad and iPhone, I chose the 128 GB options for each, in order to ensure I could keep all of my photos locally.

However, I learned from my recent trip to Japan that there are still stupid bugs with iCloud Photo Library. In particular, the service can pester you with low storage warnings, even if you still have 8-10 GB available on a 128 GB device. I tried everything I could think of, but I wasn’t been able to get those warnings to go away. It was a pain to dismiss them on a daily basis, so I looked for alternative photo storage options.

So it was the state of iCloud Photo Library in iOS 9, combined with the recent changes to Lightroom 2.2 to allow full-resolution syncing, that led me to revisit Adobe for my mobile photo workflow.

Lightroom doesn’t make the promise that it’s the one place for all of your mobile photos, but it does have some great solutions for selectively syncing portions of a large Lightroom catalog. So that’s how I’ve approached it.

I’ve been using Lightroom for over a month now, and there are some really killer reasons to consider it as an iCloud Photo Library alternative for people who care a lot about their photography.

Selective Offline Editing

As I mentioned earlier, you can set iCloud Photo Library to download full resolution photos, but it’s an either/or scenario. You either download absolutely everything to your device, or you use the Optimize Storage setting, which keeps some of your files locally (it’s impossible to tell which ones) and streams the other photos and videos as needed.

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Lightroom improves on this by allowing you to choose which Collections (read: albums) you’d like to store for offline editing.

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All of these pictures are then stored right on the device, accessible at any time (even in Airplane Mode).

There’s a giant main Collection called Lightroom Photos, which acts as the master view of all of your photos in LR Mobile. You can’t choose to download the main Lightroom Photos Collection, but you can add all of your photos to a manually created Collection, which you can then download. This is what I’ve done with the aptly titled ALL Collection. I’ll leave it to you to guess what I keep in there.

Full-Resolution Sync, Depending on the Source

The Lightroom 2.2 update was really significant because it added the ability to sync mobile-imported images at full resolution to any other mobile device. That’s a mouthful, though, so here’s what it means in a more material manner: if I import shots with my SD Card Reader to the iPad Pro and let the iPad upload them, those same shots will sync to my iPhone at full resolution.

This is a big change to Lightroom that users have been clamouring for, because it enables a much richer JPEG workflow. Previously, photos synced in LR Mobile would only be transferred as 4 Megapixel Smart Previews, which were not even close to the 24 Megapixel shots that my cameras capture.

There’s a funny lack of feature parity on the desktop client, which is the most powerful version of Lightroom, because it will still only sync Smart Previews to mobile devices. An iPhone running Lightroom can sync 15 MB JPEGs to my iPad, provided that the iPhone had the full-res file to begin with. However, my Mac will only send 900kb Smart Previews to mobile devices, if the Mac was the original device to upload the full-res picture. What this means in practice is that uploading must start from my iPad or iPhone if I want full resolution syncing across all of my devices.

Pre-Camera Years

As strange as this Lightroom workflow is, I’ve decided to take advantage of it and sort my catalog into Pre-Camera years and Post-Camera years. Everything up until March 2015 is synced as Smart Previews through Lightroom. Since most of those shots were lower-fidelity smartphone shots, the Smart Previews don’t actually degrade the quality noticeably.

In order to get these pictures into Lightroom, I exported all of the JPEGs from Photos on OS X to preserve any edits I had made.

I made one Collection per year dating from 2003 to 2014 and they appeared on my ios devices as the uploads finished on the desktop. Unfortunately there was a little more massaging required to get the viewing experience on iOS to a decent level. Unless you specifically download a Collection by tapping the “Enable Offline Editing“ button, Lightroom Mobile won’t even generate thumbnails for a collection until you view it. Even then, Lightroom will only generate as many thumbnails as is necessary for the pictures you can see on-screen. Otherwise, you get large swaths of blank thumbnails that look like this:

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The good news is that the thumbnails load up pretty quickly if you have a good connection, so I spent a bit of time viewing individual Collections on my iPhone to ensure that it had navigable thumbnails, even for the Collections I wasn’t going to download fully. Lightroom seems to permanently cache these thumbnails once they’ve been generated, so I won’t have to do that again.

Somewhere out in our future there is a happy medium between the way that Lightroom handles selective syncing, and the way that iCloud Photo Library generates hi-res thumbnails even for optimized files.

Post-Camera Years

For the Post-Camera years (March 2015 onward), I made sure to upload everything to Lightroom via iPad and iPhone. This took forever and a day to do, because Lightroom does not do anything in the background on iOS. I left the devices on overnight with device Auto-Lock set to Never.

This was a pain but it did provide full resolution shots to each of my iOS devices in Lightroom. I’ve set my iPhone to fully download the 2015 and 2016 Collections, and I stream everything else over Wi-Fi or LTE as needed. For the iPad Pro, I’ve chosen to download everything since it doesn’t have an LTE connection. However, thanks to the way that the desktop syncs Smart Previews, all of my photos from 2003-2014 take up far less space than if they were full-res JPEGs.

This is the level of nuanced control I’ve been wanting from iCloud Photo Library. I don’t need everything at full-res all the time, but Lightroom is able to do a better job of letting me choose how to store my entire catalog on mobile.

Viewing Experience in Lightroom Mobile

One of the biggest selling points of Lightroom Mobile is the various thumbnail sizes for viewing photos. I can pinch in to see a collection of photos at several different grid sizes: 3×3, 7×7, or as small as 15×17.

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I appreciate the small grid for perusing old photos of years past, where it’s a general feeling that I’m going after, and not really any particular shot. The larger thumbnails make my current photography more enjoyable to browse because I can see how blisteringly sharp certain photos are.

Lightroom shows metadata regardless of whether you’re viewing the full-screen loupe view or are just browsing thumbnails. I can see details like ISO, shutter speed, aperture, and even what focal length was used to capture the shot. I really love having these details easily accessible in Lightroom.

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This is in stark contrast to the stock Photos app, which does a crappy job of actually displaying photos in anything other than full-screen or tiny thumbnails. Photos also doesn’t show any metadata aside from capture time, unless you install an extension like PhotInfo.

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There is one caveat to Lightroom though: even though it can import and output photos at full resolution, the full-screen loupe views aren’t actually full-resolution on the iPad Pro. You won’t necessarily tell until you zoom into a photo to check for sharpness, but once you do, it’s noticeable. Here’s a side-by-side comparison of my friend’s baby bulldog:

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Split View of Lightroom (left) and Photos (right). Notice how much sharper Photos is by default.

With both images zoomed in to the same extent, notice how much sharper the fur is on the right side. There aren’t any Smart Previews in play here, since I made sure to import directly from my camera to the Photos app (right side), and then importing the shot from the camera roll into Lightroom (left side).

What I think Lightroom does is generate a full-screen thumbnail that’s sized for the iPad Pro’s screen, but it doesn’t have any more detailed thumbnails if you decide to zoom in. One way you can trick the app into showing a sharper image is to crop the image, which suddenly forces the app to show the image at full fidelity. I’m pretty sure this is a bug so I’ve reported it to the Adobe team and highlighted it in their forum, so I’m hoping for a fix in the next few updates.

Triaging in Lightroom

Another process that feels smoother in Lightroom is triaging photos after a day of shooting. My best workflow in iCloud Photo Library was to “favourite” (heart) the images that I planned on deleting so that I could then use the Favorites (note American spelling on Canadian iOS installs) album to delete them en masse. I end up doing something similar with the photos in Lightroom. I go through each shot one by one and swipe down to flag it as Rejected. I’ve got filters set up within Lightroom Mobile to hide any photos flagged as Rejected so I don’t see them afterwards.

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What I’d like to do at this point is filter to show just the Rejected shots in the main “Lightroom Photos” Collection, and remove all of them. This would remove the photos from all other Collections and from my mobile devices. However, the missing link in this workflow is finding those same Rejected photos in Lightroom on the desktop. Removing a photo from Lightroom Mobile will strip it of any flags associated with it, so those photos will still take up space on the Mac, but there’s no easy way for me to identify them for deletion.

My workaround for now is to flag and hide the rejected photos on Lightroom Mobile, and then do all of the actual file deletion on the desktop. This is still silly because it means I end up uploading all of the rejected photos from the iPad, only to delete them when they’re later downloaded to the Mac…but it’s the best solution I can think of right now.

No Background Sync

The great big bloody downside to Lightroom Mobile is that it doesn’t sync in the background. iCloud Photo Library can do this because it’s built right into iOS, and that’s huge advantage.

There are downsides to background sync — it can suck up bandwidth if your upload speeds aren’t great, and there’s no obvious market to show that an iOS device is syncing — but as much of a pain in the ass as that is, it’s still a killer feature. So much so that I’m still reluctant to give up completely.

I don’t see why Lightroom doesn’t at least activate the limited multitasking available to iOS apps via Background App Refresh. I understand I might not be able to download 250 MB worth of new photos in the background, but it would be nice to get part-way there before I ever have to open the app up. I see Lightroom as an app built for power users — hence the paid subscription and fine-grain editing controls — and I think it should allow power users the choice to activate background sync if they see fit.

Until background refresh arrives, I’ve found that the best device for starting uploads is actually my iPad Pro. The iPhone just doesn’t stay awake long enough for me to complete uploads without babysitting it, and leaving Lightroom on-screen means that I can’t use any other smartphone apps.

On the bright side, Lightroom does support Split View on the iPad Pro, so I can leave it on as a secondary app and still do some browsing or messaging while uploads complete. It still isn’t ideal, but it’s far better to let the iPad take care of uploads, and have the iPhone download the latest shots whenever I next load up the app.


Sharing shots from the iOS Photos app is dead easy. It’s faster because it’s native to the operating system. I can choose to share from the Photos app with extensions, or I can import pictures from Photos by just tapping on an import button within most any app.

Lightroom can’t compete in this regard, and I knew that right from the start. It was one of the things I was most nervous about when I decided to give LR Mobile another shot. What I was hoping for was to get close enough by sharing photos from Lightroom, or at least being able to copy and paste them out of the app.

This worked for the most part, since LINE Messenger, Google Hangouts, and iMessage all have share extensions that handle text and photos. Unfortunately, the 2.3.1 update to Lightroom in May 2016 seems to have disrupted this workflow by adding carbon text to anything I access through the Share menu.

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This text actually prevents me from using the share extensions of apps like LINE, since they aren’t equipped to handle text and pictures as input. I’ve reported the issue and am using the Open In menu to work around this, since it does not seem to include the weird carbon text.

For apps like Skype that have no extensions, I have to save my files to the camera roll first, and then share them from there (like an animal!). I do have hopes that Adobe will reverse this change in time, or at least let me choose to disable the placeholder text, since I am a paying customer.

Editing in Lightroom Mobile

I’ve recently switched over to a Fuji X-Pro 2, which has film simulations that are so good that I’m spending a lot less time in post. I like this. A lot.

However, when I made the decision to switch to Lightroom, I was still using the Sony A6000. It was great for saturated and contrasty pictures, but I’d have to spend time in post if I wanted any other kind of look. Lightroom makes this process quick and enjoyable — much more so than Photos does in iOS 9.

Lightroom provides your standard sliders for exposure, contrast, shadows, and highlights. It also adds more for Clarity, Black, and White points. But there’s quite a lot more power under the hood:

  • Tone curves help me selectively lighten or darken parts of the image. I can do this with separate apps like Darkroom, but Lightroom has great controls for this.
  • Split Toning lets me get creative by tinting the shadows or the highlights a specific colour. This is, by far, one of my favourite features in the app.
  • Dehaze helps to dramatically remove atmospheric haze from the background. I can use this even on JPEGs that are shot out doors to dramatic effect.

There are actually too many features for me to walk through them all, but those are definitely some of the highlights. My absolute favourite feature of Lightroom Mobile is the ease with which I can apply edits to multiple pictures. Here’s the standard editing workflow in Photos:

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Editing workflow in Photos

Unlike the Photos app, which requires you to confirm your edits before moving on to the next picture, Lightroom lets you swipe from picture to picture — and you’re already ready to edit once you get there!

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Editing workflow in Lightroom

This is a fantastic feature that makes a world of difference to the efficiency of my photo workflow. Editing 40 shots in the iOS Photos app is tedious. Doing the same thing in Lightroom is fun. This is probably the #1 reason I decided to pony up $120/year for Lightroom Mobile, and iOS really needs to pick up on this in iOS 10.

Features I’d Love To See In Lightroom

As good as Lightroom is, here are some of the top features I’d love to see over the next few updates:

  • A fix for the low-res Loupe view
  • An opt-out for the weird sharing text
  • Keywords and Face tagging in pictures
  • Custom presets (oh please, oh please!)
  • Hardware Keyboard Support on the iPad Pro
  • A search bar (for Collections or matching metadata)
  • Batch flagging and rating abilities

Another feature I’d love to see down the line, but doesn’t feel terribly likely: Smart Collection sync. iCloud Photo Library doesn’t have this either, and it must have something to do with how difficult it is to sync a dynamic playlist or collection.

Betting on Lightroom and Exploring Raw files

While I do have hopes that iOS 10 will introduce better RAW support and more powerful editing controls, I’m not really holding my breath. If those improvements do come, those changes on iOS would also have to be mirrored in the OS X version of Photos.

Photos on OS X is technically capable of processing RAWs, but it’s not a very user-friendly process, and it’s dog slow if you want to process multiple RAW files. I shoot RAW + JPEG and Photos auto-imports both, so in order to process one single shot, I need to select a picture, switch it to RAW mode via the menu, wait 5-10 seconds while it switches, make my edits, and then do that dance all over again with the next shot. It’s tedious.

Lightroom on the desktop was built around the idea of editing RAW files, so the workflow is much, much smoother. And it even comes with Adobe-made equivalents of the Fuji film simulations I love so much.

Hedging Those Bets

I really like working mobile-first, and it’s really important to me to find software that will aid in that regard. I respect the power and flexibility of desktop software, but because I started photography with phones (the Sony k750i), I want the majority of my tools mobile and accessible at any time.

By testing Lightroom Mobile out this year, I’m hedging my bets. I do think the photo experience on iOS will improve with iOS 10, but that’s really just a part of Apple’s business. Adobe makes their living off of apps like Lightroom and Photoshop, and they’re coming out with significant updates every few months that introduce new features or capabilities. Unless Apple makes a change to the way they deliver their OS updates, I can’t see how they can really compete with the rate at which Lightroom is maturing on iOS. So even though there are issues with Lightroom right now, I do think the subscription model incentivizes Adobe to continue to upgrade their mobile apps.

The good news is that, even if I’m wrong and iOS 10 outperforms my own expectations, it’s pretty easy for me to switch right back to Photos. I still have my iCloud Photo Library set up, so I’d just export photos starting from the date I started using Lightroom, and then import those files into iCloud. The changes made in Lightroom wouldn’t be reversible, but I’m usually happy with how I edit my shots in the first pass. With the recent changes to the Optimize Storage setting, Photos might even be workable from a space-management perspective, and I may not have to download everything at full resolution in future..

I don’t think Lightroom is ready to provide a fully mobile workflow yet, but it’s getting there, and improving at a steady clip. As it is now, Lightroom Mobile is a solid alternative to iCloud Photo Library for editing and photo management which, for a third-party app, is quite an achievement.