The Tale of Two (or more?) Lightrooms

For quite a while now, I’ve been trying to make sense of what Adobe now calls “Lightroom” – not in the sense of “which is which” (more on that below), but what Adobe actually wants to accomplish with “new” Lightroom.

Victoria “Lightroom Queen” Bampton describes Lightroom Classic as “a distant cousin” to the “Lightroom” range of products, which leaves me scratching my head if and how and where Lightroom Classic belongs, and its place and future too. From my point of view though, LR Classic is not the distant cousin, it is the professor – and the new “Lightroom” range of new programs and apps are a bunch of kids that still have a lot of learning to do…

Naming Lightroom. It’s so simple.

I didn’t intend to write (another?) commentary on the naming confusion but inevitably, this section turned into one. Whenever I myself write or say “Lightroom”, I really mean “Lightroom Classic” (and apparently, so does everyone who is not Adobe*). Lightroom Classic is the new name of the well-established Lightroom version we all use in our photographic workflow, from getting the files onto the computer in an organized manner over developing them, to staying on top of things with its organizational features. I’m going to call this “LR Classic” here.

Adobe however decided to use the name “Lightroom” for an entire range of more or less individual products for a while now – their “cloud based” set of apps and services. I’m going to call those “LR Cloud” here. Needless to say, with this renaming stunt Adobe caused and continues to cause a lot of confusion. Thanks a lot, marketing department! (cue Bill Hicks)

Let’s take it apart though and truly identify the individual components, with a little bit of snark and sarcasm thrown in for your amusement, just to make clear how simple it really is:

  • LR Classic is the desktop software (Windows and Mac) with its familiar catalog database; LR Cloud is “a bunch of stuff”: a program for the desktop (Windows and Mac), an app running on mobile devices, and a service running in a browser – all united by cloud storage and sync. Adobe calls this entire bunch of stuff “Lightroom” – because someone decided to mess with everyone’s head.
  • In Adobe’s help forums (found at, you can find separate categories for: LR Classic, LR Mobile, LR Desktop, and LR Web – the latter three being the “LR Cloud” bunch. So even Adobe found the name “Lightroom” alone too ambiguous to make sense of it all in the support context. Great!
  • There are two varieties for the desktop, both for Windows and Mac: the official names for these two are Lightroom Classic and… Lightroom! (from the LR Cloud bunch.) Except in the support forums. There, it is Lightroom Classic and Lightroom Desktop – which is just Lightroom when you and I install it on our desktop computers. Got it?
  • Lightroom Desktop and Lightroom Mobile both used to be called Lightroom CC! (those were the days when it all made more sense.) Lightroom Mobile runs, as the name implies, on a bunch of mobile platforms, including but not limited to iOS, Android, ChromeOS – when you install it there, it’s not called Lightroom Mobile though. It’s just called, you guessed that right, Lightroom. But again, not in Adobe’s support forums. There, it is Lightroom Mobile indeed. Clear?
  • Lightroom Web actually runs in the browser – and is also called Lightroom. You can find it at (because is actually a photo lab in Berkeley, California that goes by the name The LightRoom).

Because this is all so simple, it’s not necessary to repeat I’m sure, but just in case: I’ll be saying LR Classic for our well-established, feature-rich desktop software, and I’ll bunch the rest together and call it LR Cloud.

Confusion, Anyone?

Needless to say: none of the people I know and work with mean any of the LR Cloud stuff when they say “Lightroom.” They mean LR Classic, and this is where most of the confusion happens. People get a new computer and dang, their old perpetual license of LR 5 or 6 doesn’t run on the latest operating system anymore – so they fuss for a while, and then buy into the Creative Cloud plan. :-}

They have an existing photo collection and catalog, so they get the plan for, and install… Lightroom. Because that’s what they’ve been using. Except that, as explained above, “Lightroom” is the LR Cloud bunch – and not at all the program they’ve been using. It also doesn’t know what to do with a catalog – well, it has a “Migrate from…” menu to import files from a catalog, but when people find that option, they begin to suspect that something is rotten in the state of Denmark.

What is it?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while. What is the LR Cloud “bunch of stuff”? Take the following ingredients and throw them in a blender:

  • Picasa
  • Apple Photos
  • Adobe Camera Raw
  • Cloud storage & sync
  • Vendor lock-in

It’s relatively simple, like Picasa; you can develop photos with it, quasi ACR; it’s stored and synced in the cloud, like Apple Photos. It also tries to lock you into Adobe’s cloud system. More on that below.

Organization & Workflow

Here’s my biggest grief with all this: what the name “Lightroom” stands for, at least for all LR Classic users, is photo organization and workflow (if it was just about the Develop module, we might as well use Adobe Camera Raw). But guess what’s almost 100% absent from the LR Cloud offerings? Features for photo organization and workflow! Adobe stripped all of that away, and slapped the good name Lightroom onto it. Are you kidding me?

The product suite that is officially named “Lightroom”, the very name that everyone associates with photo organization and workflow, has NONE of the features that I use daily when working with my photo collection and organizing it.

Here’s what the LR Cloud service has:

  • Collections (aka “albums”), populated manually only
  • Library filters

…and so much more! No, just kidding. It doesn’t have anything else. You can’t even define your own folder structure in it. (because there are no physical folders, more on that below.)

  • Smart Collections to help stay on top of a workflow? Nope.
  • Color labels for folders and collections? The big negative.
  • Snapshots? Virtual Copies? Nein.
  • Plugins? Njet.
  • Publish services? Nada.

The Publish Services alone are incredibly useful. You upload your photos to Flickr, Zenfolio, SmugMug, Facebook, WordPress, PhotoShelter, etc. etc. with them – and then keep them in sync. All directly from LR Classic, partially through plugins. You can also use a Publish Service to keep a local folder in sync with your LR edits. For example: you could keep a “best of” or “portfolio” in sync with a folder in your Dropbox, Google Drive, OneDrive; you could make a collection of desktop wallpapers or screensaver pictures and keep them in sync with the folder from where your operating system automatically grabs them; etc. etc.

LR Cloud has “connections to your favorite platforms” – and those are, brace yourself: Adobe Portfolio. Blurb. WHPP. I’m sure your favorites are covered by this extensive list just as much as mine are… :-}

This is what the developers of Luminar, C1 and all the other alternatives don’t understand: it’s not about developing your photos differently. It’s about organization, workflow, publishing. LR Classic is to this day the only piece of software that has all of this.

Who is it for? Do I want it?

This is what I’d really like to know. I’ve read that LR Classic has an overwhelming number of features that may intimidate new users. Something simpler was needed. Adobe tried to take the complexity out in LR Cloud as far as I can see, but will this convince the vacation photography hobbyist folks (that increasingly use a cellphone)? The entry point is the subscription. I don’t see that happen for folks with compact cameras and cellphones and at the same time, it’s still far too simplistic for serious photographers.

The Develop features that LR Cloud shares with LR Classic are the same (ACR). In my workshops that solely focus on the Develop module, I spend two hours thoroughly explaining what the different panels in the Develop module do – and then another two hours showing how to put those features to use, on participant-submitted photos. If that level of complexity is okay for users of LR Cloud, then the organizational features of LR Classic are just as easy – so that’s not an argument IMHO.

(and if someone is saying now that one doesn’t have to use all the fine-grained controls of the Develop module, then a) the same is true for LR Classic’s organizational features and b) those users might as well use Apple Photos for editing then, which has all the global controls for Highlights, Shadows, Vibrance, etc. etc. – and it’s free with nearly every Apple device.)

I wish I could say that I know some “LR Cloud only” users to better understand this – but I don’t. One person I know bought the plan – by accident, because of Adobe’s naming tomfoolery! No one saw that coming, ever. They switched their subscription to the Photography Plan with my help, got rid of LR Cloud, and installed LR Classic (“why would I want to keep that other thing installed?”).

People who actively use parts of the LR Cloud offering like about it that everything is in sync across devices. But even those users (that I know) bought the Photography Plan, not the Lightroom Plan – and they sync it with their LR Classic, in the end. Because they want access to their originals, directly. Without Adobe as a middle man.

Trust in Cloud Storage

From my point of view, the whole charm and appeal of LR Cloud is indeed that it is available for all kinds of devices, and keeps your stuff in sync on those devices. And that is its main problem, at the same time: with LR Cloud, all of your photos are in Adobe’s cloud storage. There is no selective sync. It’s all or nothing. I don’t know why any serious photographer would want that.

LR Cloud takes the “complexity” out of of importing photos, and simply lets you “add” them. It doesn’t matter where they come from. If it’s a memory card, it will only upload them (from some temp location) to Adobe’s servers – once the upload is complete, the status will say “synced and backed up” – this is incorrect. A backup would be a copy of an original, but LR Cloud doesn’t tell you that it does NOT keep a local copy. That’s your responsibility. If you format your memory card, the only originals of your photos will be on Adobe’s servers.

Why would I want to lock my originals into Adobe’s cloud storage system, where I need a subscription-based software service to access them?

Having my originals locally, on storage devices and backups that I OWN and control seems very desirable to me. It’s a question of trust and confidence. My digital assets, the originals of my photos, are the most valuable thing not just of my photography business, but also irreplaceable memories. The thought of having that stored in Adobe’s cloud only is simply disturbing.

LR Cloud’s Desktop app does NOT keep your originals locally after uploading – unless you check that box in its preferences:

Local storage setting for Lightroom Cloud
Screenshot: the local storage setting for LR Cloud Desktop defaults to NOT store your originals locally (underlined red)

Even with that though, there’s no “Locate on Disk” or “Show in Finder/Explorer” in the right-click context menu: the files are stored in an Apple Photos like database (default name: Lightroom library.lrlibrary). On the Mac, you need to right-click that file in Finder, select “Show package contents”, and then under a folder with a long hexadecimal name, you find your “originals” folder.

That’s not better than LR Classic’s catalog! That’s worse. How do I get a series of images into Helicon Focus from there? How do I open them with Topaz Sharpen AI, or any other plugin? As soon as you want out of Adobe’s walled sync-garden, LR Cloud is a complete showstopper.

And while those files are your originals, at last, what those files do not contain are your edits and all other metadata that you might have added in Lightroom – ie. all the stuff that Lightroom Classic stores in it’s catalog and (with few exceptions), in XMP data (embedded or sidecar files).

To address the problem that a complete local backup is not possible at all with/from Lightroom Cloud, Adobe actually provides a downloader tool: – this makes me wonder: why not install Lightroom Classic instead? You set a local destination folder for the synchronized files, and your local backup (Time Machine etc.) can pick them from there.

Working Together

If you like the online/everywhere/sync aspect of LR Cloud and don’t want to sync large amounts of photos, but only the most recent ones, or otherwise a selected few, here’s my suggestion: make LR Classic your “master” installation. You can create a collection in Classic, and sync it with LR Cloud, and that way have only those photos on all of your devices.

Whatever you add from other devices (laptop, tablet, phone) gets downloaded to your LR Classic “master” installation. You have the originals in your control, in an accessible, conventional folder structure – with the added benefit of having all of LR Classic’s organization features available to you.

This does solve problems, like the typical travel situation that used to be non-intuitive with two installations of LR Classic. I have my LR Classic install on the desktop only. When I’m traveling, I import photos onto a laptop or tablet with LR Cloud. That way, I can work with them, and they’re (temporarily) stored & backed up in Adobe’s cloud. When I’m back home, LR Classic downloads the originals as soon as I start the software, and I’ll have them safely on my own hard disk – in my own local storage, backup, and online backup. No need anymore to import from the “travel catalog”, moving files from one computer to the other with external drives, and all that.

I also use LR Cloud’s Mobile app on my phone, where I set it to just grab everything from the phone’s camera roll. That way, I don’t need to worry about iCloud storage, can free up storage space in my phone, and have all my phone snapshots of friends, family and pets in LR Classic, on my desktop (where facial recognition helps with the organization of the people photos, for example). Occasionally, I also use the mobile app’s camera of course. I like that I can capture raw data with it – a significant quality improvement.

(once downloaded, I can also remove the originals from Adobe’s cloud, freeing up the space they take up. That way, the free 20 GB of cloud storage that Adobe provides with their Photography Plan are enough for me.)

It will undoubtedly also introduce problems – namely, if you want to have and keep syncing a lot of photos. My recommendation is to limit the sync via LR Classic to only those photos that you really need to have available on multiple devices.


Considering the number of long-standing bugs in LR Classic or the never-ending complaints about its performance, it’s clear that LR Classic has grown into a behemoth – its richness in features and options that have grown over many, many years now is what makes it less performant, no doubt. The new code base of LR Cloud’s desktop app would be desirable to have – except that, as stated, it’s lacking in every organizational aspect.

Quite honestly, I’d hope that Adobe would come to their senses and add the organizational features, selective sync and “bare” local storage of originals to LR Cloud (making LR Cloud Desktop the “master”, for example), but we’ve just seen another update and all that was added is support for new cameras, once more (so it’s essentially nothing more but an ACR update).

At the same time – as functionality is added to LR Cloud, will it be possible to maintain its current speed and fluid operation? LR Classic, freshly installed and with the default settings, runs really fast and smooth as well. But as you begin to enable its extra options (expanded grid cells, individual filters for each folder, multiple Smart Collections, etc. etc.) it begins to get slower. I want to believe that Adobe has spent considerable time optimizing LR Classic’s performance, and that makes me doubt whether it’s possible to gain any actually performance advantage from LR Cloud, once it would become more feature rich.

I hope this article was helpful, and that you enjoyed reading it.

PS: In LR Classic 9.3 (and other products that use the ACR Develop engine, namely ACR itself and “LR Cloud” bunch) introduced a bug in the way the clone/heal tool works at the edges of an image. This has not been fixed in version 9.4. Images render differently between all older versions and 9.3/9.4. If this is important to you, I still do NOT recommend to use any newer version than 9.2.1 (if you have been auto-updated, you can deactivate the auto-updates and manually roll back to 9.2.1).

Update 2020-08-19: clarified the import/local storage operation description for LR Cloud in the “Trust in Cloud Storage?” section.

*) which is also the reason why I don’t expect this article to receive much attention: no one cares too much about the LR Cloud offerings, except for the folks at Adobe, it seems.

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Alexander S. Kunz is an expert, tutor and teacher for Adobe Lightroom in San Diego, California. His services are available both in person and online, using remote assistance/screen sharing software. Whether you're stuck with a problem in Lightroom and need help, want to learn Lightroom from the ground up, or need assistance setting up your computer, storage and backup for your photographic workflow - Alexander can help you. Please get in touch if you are interested!

All images and content © by Alexander S. Kunz, unless otherwise noted. No re-use without express written permission.

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3 thoughts on “The Tale of Two (or more?) Lightrooms”

  1. For so many companies, it seems like the marketing teams really have lost their connection with true power users. So much branding confusion. I also have no interest in putting any type of work in Adobe’s cloud. I hope they have no inclinations of gradually phasing out LR Classic, it will be time for pitchforks on their corporate steps.

  2. I just wanted to take a minute to say how much I appreciate not only your perspective, but also how well you present it. Clear and well thought out. Rather than bloviating, you back up your opinions with good examples. This article almost made me late for work on the morning it came out. :). When I remember that you aren’t writing in your native language, it’s even more impressive. Thanks for sharing your well-considered thoughts. I also really liked your article on not getting hung up on gear.


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