Lightroom Mobile Realworld Test

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Okay, it is now a little while since we’ve travelled to Europe and celebrate Christmas with our family. But there is one thing that I wanted to write about and I have not done so, yet: remember, I started playing with Lightroom Mobile in October last year, was slowly learning that the 2 GB storage limit of the Creative Cloud Photography plan does not seem to count photos and eventually even wondered whether I’d still need a laptop.

Now, there are several things I still cannot do on an iPad which I certainly need a laptop for, but when it comes to editing photos Lightroom Mobile had taken me surprisingly far at that point already. And so I made a bold decision: when we travelled to Europe end of last year, I did not take my laptop and brought only my iPad Pro. If you love taking photos and you are into meticulously editing them like I am, you might understand this is a big deal.

On this trip I knew I would take hundreds of photos (it turned out to become 418 “keepers”) and while it would certainly be possible to edit all of these on my Mac once I’d be back home, besides the actual time this takes when done at once, it would have also been a massive cognitive load. No! I had to have a solution to work on the photos in a quality way during the vacation, in the occasional “cracks of peace” during the day and that does not take much editing later on. So I decided to take the risk and at the same time enjoy the convenience of not taking both my laptop and my iPad Pro. Sure – both are light weight and not very bulky. In theory I could have taken both “just in case”. But I did not want to do that (and frankly, we always stuff our luggage to the max, so any relief is very welcome.

We’re now back from this Christmas holiday for something like 4+ months and I wanted to write about my experience given that we are leaving again to Europe end of this week. Obvious questions would be: did I regret not bringing my laptop? What are the shortcomings of Lightroom Mobile it you want to edit photos? And were there any problems?

Did I regret not bringing my laptop?
Not a minute! I might have missed it if I had wanted to do some other specific tasks. When I was on the iPad, it was mostly in the evenings and I edited the photos that I had taken during the day. While the SD card dongle is certainly not pretty when it sticks out of the iPad, it’s a practical way to transfer RAW files quickly from my camera’s memory card to the iPad. Once the files are transferred it’s gone and I can just use the iPad as large photo editing playground which is actually pretty amazing and from a visual stand point beats the experience on my Mac (despite my 4+ year old MacBook having this absolutely gorgeous display).

Here’s the import dialogue in Photos once the dongle with the SD card is inserted in the iPad’s Lightning port:

Pretty straight forward and only a problem when you have hundreds of photos on your card. In that case Photos is slowly building the full catalogue of thumbnails of the photos on the card. After 2 weeks I had accumulated enough photos that it would take a while until the photos I wanted to import would show up, because the catalogue is built anew each time and it’s happening sequentially. I could have of course erased photos from the card once they were on the iPad. During this trip to Europe, however, I did not want to do that. I did not know yet how reliable this photo workflow worked and I wanted to make sure I’d be able to access the original RAW files later on my Mac, just in case the iPad Pro or Mobile Lightroom screw something up. This did not happen with one exception, but more on that later.

For now one pro tip, though: I realized there was a simple way to speed up importing photos without having to wait until the full catalogue was built up. This only works reliably assuming that you only want to import the most recent photos you’ve shot, but if this fits your workflow you can save quite some time. Here goes: when you import the photos in Photos and the thumbnails come up, you’ll see that the actual image count is already complete: the images on the card are represented virtually immediately as grey boxes. And these are then replaced with the image thumbnails, one by one. But photos that have been already imported have the green tick mark, even if the thumbnail is not available yet. If you do not erase anything from the memory card, all the older, already imported thumbnails or grey boxes are identified by the green tick mark. So all you have to do is to scroll down to the bottom of the list, and select the sequence of photos without a tick mark at the very end of the list. Then you import these and bingo – you’ve just saved a few minutes. And if you do not want to keep all the images in the Photos app after importing them to Lightroom to save space, just keep the last imported photo in Photos and then screen for the single image with a green tick mark in the list the next time you import newer images. Every image after that one will be from the latest photo shoot you have done.

Now, once the photos are inside the Photos library you can import them into Lightroom. In the beginning I was not sure whether Lightroom would actually import these into a dedicated library or whether it required these photos to stay within Photos. But as mentioned above, the photos are in fact copied  into Lightroom Mobile and can be removed from the Photos app to save some storage space. This works with both JPEGs and RAWs.


Within Lightroom Mobile photos can be sorted into folders. Photos and all the edits made are immediately synced with Adobe’s Creative Cloud, i.e. they are uploaded to a server from which they are then again available to download to other devices. The little cloud on the upper left will show an animation as long as syncing takes place. Even when I added dozens of photos at once, the syncing happened reasonably fast. And yes, the original files are uploaded, not a watered down, smaller file version.

Photos can be edited via a pleasant interface. I don’t want to say it is 100% better than the desktop version of Lightroom, because there are some steps which are cumbersome (pretty much like there are cumbersome steps in the desktop version). By and large, editing photos on the iPad feels more direct and I enjoy it more than on a laptop, because a tablet removes a lot of friction (a keyboard, a mouse, weight, partly app launch times) and you can engage better with your content.


If I could have one wish, I would want to implement a way that the editing selection tool (the one on the left, which is represented by an aperture icon in the above screenshot) would be accessible from anywhere on the screen, or at least from anywhere in the black area with all the functions below. Maybe it’d be enough to have it positioned in the lowest row, so it’s more or less in the center. This would make changing editing tools much quicker and you would not have to move your finger to the far left. Not a biggie, just sayin’.

While you edit, everything is again directly synced with the cloud. Once you are done you move to the next photo or you export the edited file back to Photos as a JPEG to be used in other apps (like in WordPress to write your blog, for example). 

This workflow is pretty neat and it works really well.

Once back home I simply open Lightroom on my MacBook, look at the dedicated syncing folder within the app and wait till all the photos I shot are showing up. And they will of course carry all the edits I have already completed on my iPad. I then transfer these into my “normal” Lightroom library.

What are the shortcomings of Lightroom Mobile?
As I said, the workflow is great and it was so convenient that I did not miss having not brought my laptop. There are shortcomings of Lightroom Mobile, where it is missing functionality compared to the desktop version, however. Some of this I don’t really care about, but a few features made my life a little harder.

I really wished Lightroom Mobile would also include:

  • sharpening
  • noise reduction
  • GPS editing or addition
  • keywords (please synced with the existing ones in Lightroom Desktop)
  • other EXIF modifications (time shift correction would have been nice)

Some of these gaps I could handle with other apps. The Photoshop app has a very decent sharpening and noise reduction feature on the iPad. And it is linked to Adobe’s Creative Cloud, so it’s easy to edit photos and then save them for usage on my blog (the collage feature is also quite good). GPS editing or addition I tried to work through the Exif Photos app. This is a pretty good app, but it does not work for this situation because it cannot write the GPS data (or other EXIF information for that matter) into a RAW file. It will create a jpeg file from the RAW data and when you import this into Lightroom, Lightroom will pick the (still present) RAW data and disregard whatever Exif Photos did.

Were there any problems?
Surprisingly few. The biggest issue came from a single photo of the Christmas tree at my parent’s place that whatever I did would not show up in the Photos import dialogue. I restarted the iPad, I tried duplicating the file within the camera in the hope to make it visible… all to no avail. Eventually I simply transferred a jpeg version of it by creating a hotspot with the camera and pulling it into my Photos library via the Canon app, so I could use it in my blog. This only happened once, but it was quite annoying. When I got home I put the SD card in my Mac and particularly looked for this file – I found it and could download it, no problem. So beats me what went wrong here:


But this was in fact the only issue I encountered during nearly 5 weeks of quite heavy shooting and editing. This is of course not bad, but this also means that – even though I am super happy with how this experiment played out – I do not trust this workflow 100%, yet. I trust it enough to rely on it in the future, too, but I hope this will remain a freak incidence.

Nonetheless, Lightroom Mobile is an impressive app on the iPad, too, and the syncing feature via Creative Cloud works really well. I maintain my opinion that at the price for the Photography package, where you get Lightroom for Mobile and Desktop plus Photoshop for Desktop plus what seems like unlimited cloud storage for photos, this is a steal and if you’re using these apps once in a while, you’d be nuts if you did not try it out at least.

Another testament to how well this works is of course that my photo workflow is now to always go through the iPad, even when I am home and have access to my MacBook. After I am done with my edits on the iPad I will eventually move to the laptop and finish the things that cannot be done (yet?) on Lightroom Mobile.

Who would have thought I’d ever say that, but well done, Adobe!

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