Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic: Which to Choose?

Updated: Mar 27

Understand the key differences between the two versions of Lightroom (updated November 2021)


Thanks to a poor naming convention and a general lack of clarity from Adobe, there's a lot of confusion as to which version of Lightroom is the right one to choose.


Is Lightroom Classic still supported? What's Lightroom CC? How can you sync files to the cloud and other devices? What's the deal with the subscription plans? Which version has which features? Which one should you use???


Read on for my take on both versions and find an in-depth list of the actual differences between the two. For those less inclined to reading, you can also check out my video for this topic via the link below. Here's a quick breakdown of each section of the blog (click on one to jump right to it):


  1. What's the Difference? A High Level Overview

  2. A Closer Look at Lightroom Cloud

  3. A Closer Look at Lightroom Classic

  4. Verdict

  5. Relevant Videos

 
 

Click above if you'd rather watch/listen

 

Other blog posts/videos you may enjoy:

 

Ever since Adobe switched to the subscription-based model for Lightroom back in 2017, it seems there's been perpetual confusion for new - and even some veteran - users as to what the heck they're actually doing with the platform. Suddenly, in addition to doing away with the option to buy the software outright, there were also two entirely separate options: Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC.


Depending upon which subscription plan you opted into, you may have access to both... or not.


If you go to Adobe's web page for Lightroom, almost all the teasers they use to talk it up are centered around the non-Classic version; it's not until you compare the actual subscription plans that you see the first mention of Classic. Adobe is doing a huge disservice to that version, as you'll see below once we start taking a closer look at the two options.


Adobe is doing a huge disservice to Lightroom Classic, as you'll see below once we start taking a closer look at the two options

In the intervening years, they've dropped the CC from the name yet you'll still commonly find people referring to "Lightroom CC" online, which almost always requires subsequent clarification, especially if they're asking a how-to question.


I lurk in r/lightroom on Reddit on a regular basis to help answer questions and, if I had a dollar for every time I've had to ask a poster which version they're actually talking about, I'd probably be able to retire! Many times they aren't even sure as they didn't know there were two different options.


Now, there are already a lot of articles and videos out there that cover this very topic, so why am I even bothering with this? Well, quite frankly, I've found that a lot of the info that's out there is pretty outdated - and things have changed a fair bit since 2017 - or is horribly lacking in specific details, barely going beyond what I cover in the next section.


If you're a new user trying to make a fully informed decision as to which version is best for you, there's a lot more to consider than it may appear at first glance.

 
 

What's the Difference? A High-Level Overview

A comparison of Lightroom Classic Develop module vs. Lightroom CC

Lightroom Classic Develop Module (left) vs. Lightroom Cloud (right) (click to enlarge)


Lightroom (aka cloud-centric Lightroom, or non-Classic Lightroom, or "new" Lightroom) is the modern, rebuilt-from-the-ground-up version that first came about with the subscription model in 2017. Besides a clean, modern user-interface (and new underlying code), the biggest difference between this version and Lightroom Classic is that it is centered around using Adobe's cloud storage and online community features. As a user, you sync your full-resolution files up to the cloud, and they can be subsequently accessed via mobile devices (and even Lightroom Classic).


Lightroom Classic (aka "old" Lightroom) is the tried-and-true Lightroom that has essentially been around since 2007, however, even though the word "classic" may seem to indicate it's been put out to pasture for retirement, it is still fully supported by Adobe, receiving updates and new features at the same cadence as "new" Lightroom. This is the file and asset management powerhouse, and editing platform, many people are used to; instead of relying on Adobe's cloud storage you have full control over your files on your own local storage.


As you'll also see below when I break out the list of all the differences between the two versions, it also has far more tools, modules, and features than the newer version. The main drawback is that you cannot sync full resolution files to the cloud (but that doesn't mean it's completely out of the game for cloud functionality... more on that in a bit).


Clear as mud?


For the sake of simplicity, throughout the rest of this article I'll refer to the versions as Lightroom Cloud and Lightroom Classic.

 
 

A Closer Look at Lightroom Cloud

Learn, Community, and Profile pages in Lightroom Cloud (click images to enlarge)


Ah, the latest and greatest version of Lightroom. New means best, right? Well... not necessarily. Maybe. Kind of?


How about... it depends. You'll understand why I'm being evasive on this as you continue to read, and especially after I step through the Lightroom Classic details.


I already mentioned a few of the biggest differentiators above: new code, a new look and feel, and - biggest of all - cloud storage for all your files, in all their full-resolution glory. That said, there are several other intriguing features that are exclusive to this newer version of Lightroom.

  • Learning - Built into the app, you can easily find how-to guides for using the various tools within Lightroom Cloud; also included are step-by-step walkthroughs that let you actually take control during the lesson

  • AI-powered Search - Pretty self-explanatory, and powered by Adobe's Sensei machine learning and artificial intelligence platform; search for "mountain," as an example, and it will use Sensei to find all your images which include mountains in them

  • Sharing & Collaboration - Invite others to view, download, or add photos to your cloud-based collection; share your processing settings with the public for specific images and views others', as well, and with the newly released version 4.3 you can now invite others to even edit your images to work on them collaboratively

Oh, and that new code means it may run faster on your system, and that shiny new user interface is less confusing, less intimidating, and is (mostly) consistent across desktop, mobile, and tablet.


Sounds pretty great, right? Well, let's take a look at what Lightroom Classic has to offer, shall we?


If you're a new user trying to make a fully informed decision as to which version is best for you, there's a lot more to consider than it may appear at first glance
 
 

A Closer Look at Lightroom Classic

Library, Print, Map, Web, Slideshow, and Book Modules (click images to enlarge)


The geriatric of the Lightroom family, Lightroom Classic had its time and is quietly enjoying retirement in sunny- wait, no... that's not right.


Contrary to what the rather silly "Classic" tag may seem to indicate, Lightroom Classic is still fully supported by Adobe, although you wouldn't necessarily know it looking at their Lightroom web page. If you just search online for "Adobe Lightroom," the main result for Adobe's own site basically just shows and talks about Lightroom Cloud.


It actually took me about five minutes just to find anything about Lightroom Classic and, even then, I can't find a simple overview of its tools and features; all I've found is a page with tutorial videos that range from 1 to 15 minutes long. There is a page that goes into more specifics but the only way I've found it is by searching online specifically for "Lightroom Classic."


Adobe does have a Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic page but it's laughably incomplete, listing only five differences. You'll see how ridiculous that is down below.


I realize I'm on a tangent here but, if you're a new user just looking for "Lightroom" online because you've heard people use it for editing photos, there's a good chance you'll never even come across the information you need if you just stick with Adobe's site, and you probably won't know to search for "Lightroom Classic" because you may not even know there are two versions!


Okay, I'll step off my soapbox...


Adobe does have a Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic page but it's laughably incomplete, listing only five differences

So what's the deal with Lightroom Classic, then? It's still fully supported, although Adobe seems to be trying to hide that fact (or, to some extent, the fact that it even exists), and... guess what? It actually has a lot more functionality than Lightroom Cloud. In an upcoming YouTube video where I'll prattle on about this Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic topic, I'll be covering a handful of reasons I'm unable and unwilling to switch over to Lightroom Cloud:

  • Local Adjustment Presets - I actually just stumbled across this one as I was preparing notes for the video and this article... in Lightroom Classic, you can create slider and color presets for your local adjustments (Graduated and Radial filters, and the Brush adjustment) so you can replicate a certain look/edit quickly and easily, which is key for me when applying, for instance, my Orton Effect adjustments in Classic; you guessed it, Lightroom Cloud doesn't let you create local adjustment presets

  • Edit in Photoshop Options - With Lightroom Cloud, you can right-click on an image and choose to open it in Photoshop - and bring the new file back into Lightroom - but you cannot select multiple images to open as layers in Photoshop, nor can you open an image as a Smart Object in Photoshop... as you can in Lightroom Classic (I use the layers option, for instance, to open multiple frames I captured for focus stacking or more advanced exposure blending)

  • Export Options - Lightroom Classic lets you export images as PNG or PSD files, has a robust arsenal of ways you can rename files upon export, allows you to set a file size limit and control the pixels-per-inch, and provides the ability to create export presets that you can use to meet your various needs (print, web, social media, or whatever else you may need on a regular basis)... Lightroom Cloud is far more limited in its options for exporting

  • Printing Tools - If you plan to do any printing of your own, or want more control of your images when sending them to a third-party for printing, Classic is the way to go as it has not only Soft Proofing - where you can select paper and ink parameters to visualize how a printed version will look so you can tweak settings specifically for printing, without impacting your primary edit - but also an entire Print module where you can control margins, layout, resolution, create proof sheets, and more; you get none of that with Lightroom Cloud

  • History Panel - One of the core characteristics of either version of Lightroom is that your editing is entirely non-destructive, meaning you can always undo what you've done and your original file is never altered; because of this, it is extremely easy to jump back to a previous state of your edit via the History panel in Lightroom Classic which, for some inconceivable reason, is not included in Lightroom Cloud; you can undo changes but you can't immediately jump back, say, 20 steps in your history if you're not happy with your changes

  • Range Masking - I could, in one way or another, more or less workaround the previous missing features within Lightroom Cloud, although for some it would be pretty cumbersome to do so, but range masking is one feature of Lightroom Classic that I use on basically every single one of my images and it simply does not exist in Lightroom Cloud; this is a total deal-breaker for me

IMPORTANT UPDATE:

With the October 2021 Lightroom updates this Range Masking gap has been closed! All version of Lightroom - "Cloud", Classic, and the mobile apps - received a complete overhaul of the local adjustment tools with Lightroom Masking. You can read a high-level overview of Masking by clicking HERE, or watch my hour-long video tutorial HERE (this is a significant change so there's a lot to cover).

 
 

But wait, there's more! For the sake of avoid an hour-long slog in the video I'll be glossing over these but here's an additional list of what I consider core features within Lightroom Classic that are either lacking in Lightroom Cloud, or outright missing:

  • Import Options - With "new" Lightroom, the main schtick is that you're adding your images to the Adobe Creative Cloud and it seems that may be the justification for Adobe leaving out many of the robust importing options that are available in Classic, such as moving or copying files from your source storage (SD card, drive, etc.) to a specific location (or two), creating Develop presets to be applied at import, managing metadata at import, applying keywords at import, adding images to existing (or new) collections at import... there's quite a bit missing

  • The Calibration Panel - I use the calibration panel in Lightroom Classic on 99.9% of my edits; it's a great way to make an impact with one or two sliders and it doesn't exist in any way, shape, or form in Lightroom Cloud

  • Color Labels - Color coding my edits is an integral part of my editing and organization workflow: Red tells me I've started an edit but it's still in early stages; Yellow indicates I've reached a "final draft" state, with Sharpening and Noise Reduction applied, and I'm just letting it percolate for a bit to see if I want to tweak anything before sharing or making available as a print on my site; Green indicates a finished image that's been shared on social media and is a candidate for my print store, blue and purple help me group images that need to be combined in Photoshop for one reason or another... Lightroom Cloud does not have color labels at all

  • Reference View - This is a great feature when you're working on images from the same shoot or location and want to make sure you're processing them all similarly as you can view a completed edit next to the image you're working on to dial things in to keep a cohesive look, instead of trying to bounce back and forth between the two, viewing only one or the other, as is the case if you're working in Lightroom Cloud

  • Virtual Copies - Yet another handy tool in Lightroom Classic that's missing from Lightroom Cloud is the ability to create as many Virtual Copies of an image as you want; it doesn't actually duplicate the original file itself, so you're not taking up more space, and creating multiple copies is a great way to quickly try out different crops, styles, etc. without messing with your original edit

  • Plug-in Support - Currently, Lightroom Cloud does not support any type of third-party plug-in; as an example, in Lightroom Classic I can right-click on an image and "round trip it" out to one of the Topaz Labs software tools I own (DeNoise, Sharpen AI, Gigapixel) and, when done with those tools, it automatically saves the new file back into Lightroom Classic

So there you have a full dozen features that are either exclusive to Lightroom Classic, or more robust compared to what's included in Lightroom Cloud. Now, one could argue that some of what I've outlined above is really only needed for more advanced use cases, such as the printing tools, robust import/export options, or plug-in and more advanced Photoshop support.


That's a fair argument, however, tools such as the History panel, range masking (no longer an issue if you're on the latest versions), calibration, Reference View, Virtual Copies, local adjustment presets (also no longer an issue on the latest version with Lightroom Masking)... those are all things that can be extremely useful for beginner, casual, and advanced users alike.

 
 

And would you believe that there's even more missing in Lightroom Cloud? Here's a lightning round of what else you miss out on when using the newer platform:

  • Local File Management - Basically non-existent in Lightroom, without support for multiple drives, external drives, etc. for file management or storage

  • Renaming of Files - You can only rename files upon exporting, otherwise any renaming you want to do has to be done outside of Lightroom

  • Workspace Customization - What you see with Lightroom is basically what you get, whereas Classic lets you reorder and hide panels as you please, or even change the background color of your workspace

  • Collection Sets - Lightroom Cloud does have Albums, which are basically the same as Collections in Classic, but you can't further organize Albums into groups like you can with Collection Sets

  • Keyword Hierarchies - Not available in Lightroom Cloud, they're great for quickly applying groups of keywords to images

  • Compare Images - There's no way to compare two images side-by-side in Lightroom Cloud, whereas you can do so in Classic to help with culling images after import, etc. (this is different from Reference View as it's part of Classic's Library module, where you focus on image review and organization tools as opposed to editing)

  • Survey View - In Classic you can view more than two images at once, based on which you select, to help you quickly compare, cull, etc.

  • Batch HDR Merge - In Lightroom Cloud, you cannot select multiple batches of images for multiple HDR merges to be processed all at once; you have to select and process them one at a time

  • Batch Panoramic Merge - Same as batch HDR, there's no ability to stich multiple pano images at once in Lightroom Cloud

  • Snapshots - With Lightroom Classic, you can create Snapshots of various points-in-time of your editing progress on an image, allowing you to compare different Snapshots, or jump back to a prior Snapshot if you aren't happy with the direction you took after it was created, etc.

  • Tethered Live View & Capture - Admittedly for more "professional" users more often than not, this is still a biggie if you're looking to do in-studio portrait work, or even manage product shoots for which you want to be able to view the images more or less instantly within Lightroom Classic

  • Map, Book, Slideshow, and Web Modules - Much like the Print module in Lightroom Classic, these additional modules are exclusive to that version, as well

That takes us up to nearly two dozen differences between Lightroom Classic and Lightroom Cloud or, looking at it differently, that's nearly two dozen missing features in Lightroom Cloud. A far cry from the five differences outlined by Adobe, ain't it?

 
 

The One "Big Glaring Gap" of Lightroom Classic


Okay, okay... Classic isn't perfect. Given the wall of text outlining all the things missing in Lightroom Cloud, you may have forgotten about the one big draw of the newer version of Lightroom: cloud storage.


More specifically, cloud storage of your full resolution image files.


Lightroom Classic can sync your images to the Adobe cloud but there's a caveat

Why do I keep stressing the full resolution bit? Well, it turns out Lightroom Classic can sync your images to the Adobe cloud but there's a caveat: it only syncs Smart Previews instead of the full files. A Smart Preview is still high quality but it is lower resolution; you're not going to want to export it for printing or high-quality sharing but it is sufficient for most editing (you won't be able to zoom in as far for fine detail work) and is perfectly fine for exporting to share on social media, via text or other messaging apps, etc.


Just like the full resolution files synced via Lightroom Cloud, Smart Previews synced up to the cloud are also available across all your devices, including the Lightroom Cloud desktop app.


Is not having full resolution files in the Adobe cloud that big a deal? That's for you to decide.

 
 

Verdict


Now look, reading through this it probably seems like I have a bit of a bone to pick with Lightroom Cloud and, well, you wouldn't be completely wrong. That does not mean, however, it's without merit. It doesn't meet my needs but Lightroom Cloud could be a great choice for you.


Lightroom Cloud can be faster on some systems since it's using newer code under the hood. It's less daunting for new or casual users. It has built in guided tutorials. And, of course, it's the only way to sync full resolution files to Adobe's cloud service, giving you flexibility to access those files from any of your devices.


Conversely, some people have issues running Lightroom Classic smoothly, it doesn't really give you any training wheels to understand all its (robust) tools and features, and you're limited to only syncing Smart Previews up to the cloud (although - a key call-out - you can sync full resolution files down into Classic from the cloud).


At this time, you can get into either version of Lightroom for $9.99/mo. Each plan is tailored around the key benefits of the applicable version; for instance, with the Lightroom Cloud plan you get a full terabyte of cloud storage, versus only 20GB* with the Lightroom Classic (aka Photography) plan, but you only get access to Photoshop in the Lightroom Classic/Photography plan (just to make it more confusing!).


* Note that Smart Previews that you sync to the cloud via Classic do not count against your storage limit


But here's the thing: it doesn't have to be an either/or decision. If you go with the Photography plan, which includes Lightroom Classic and Photoshop, it also includes Lightroom Cloud. This is the plan I have and, as a result, I can view and edit all my synced Smart Previews within Lightroom Cloud and on my iPad or phone.


Yes, the storage space is pretty meager but that doesn't really matter as it's relying on local storage for your original files via Classic and, as noted above, Smart Previews don't count against your storage limit.


But here's the thing: it doesn't have to be an either/or decision

In my use case, I use Lightroom Classic as my main hub. That's where I import all my new images and, therefore, my only option is to sync Smart Previews but I get the full, robust set of tools and features that are currently missing from Lightroom Cloud.


Even so, I can still share my edits with the Lightroom Community via the Lightroom Cloud desktop app, could invite a friend to collaborate on an edit via the Cloud versions and, if I were so inclined, I could lounge around and cull or edit photos on my iPad and have the changes sync back to Classic via the cloud. If I felt a need to have a full resolution file accessible across all my devices, I could add it via the Lightroom Cloud desktop app instead of importing it to Classic.


To truly get the best of both worlds, you can even sign up for Adobe's 1TB Photography plan for $19.99/mo. That gives you everything in the $9.99/mo Photography plan - Lightroom Cloud, Lightroom Classic, and Photoshop - plus a full terabyte of cloud storage.


Does all this seem overly complicated? Yes. Is the naming convention and split software platform confusing? Absolutely. Regardless, although Adobe has mismanaged the Lightroom suite in my opinion, you have a pretty awesome set of options to choose from... as long as you're making a fully informed decision.


I hope this (very) lengthy article helps you make the right decision to meet your needs. Also, if you've already made your decision one way or the other but are now regretting it, you can always change plans and change which version you use. There are guides out there on how to do so, or feel free to contact me to set up a 1-to-1 online session to step through it together.


Down below, I've linked to several of my tutorial videos that are related to the features I've discussed or mentioned above.

 
 

Relevant Videos


The following videos show features that are exclusive to - or more robust in - Lightroom Classic (as of June 2021). Most of these are integral parts of my file management and editing workflows.


The Lightroom in a Snap videos are no longer than 30 seconds


More Robust in Lightroom Classic


More Robust in Lightroom Classic


Exclusive to Lightroom Classic


Exclusive to Lightroom Classic


Exclusive to Lightroom Classic


Exclusive to Lightroom Classic


Exclusive to Lightroom Classic


Exclusive to Lightroom Classic


Exclusive to Lightroom Classic


Exclusive to Lightroom Classic


Exclusive to Lightroom Classic


2,961 views2 comments