Lightroom as we know it is changing today.

Adobe is introducing Lightroom CC, a brand new, cloud-centric desktop application for Mac and Windows. At the same time, the application formerly known as "Lightroom CC" has been updated and rebranded as Lightroom Classic CC. The core Lightroom experience is at the heart of both programs, but they have different strengths and limitations, especially at this early stage of Lightroom CC development.

For people who do not yet use Lightroom, or have been told by friends that they should use it but were intimidated by it, Lightroom CC should be a welcome introduction to the Adobe ecosystem. For photographers who have used Lightroom for years… it’s complicated.

Let’s unpack what "Lightroom" means going forward.

The Cloud and the Desktop

At over ten years old, Lightroom is facing a modern software dilemma. Every release still harbors legacy code, and at some point it all adds up and affects performance. More significantly, the greater world of photography has changed around Lightroom, prioritizing phones and tablets instead of a single photo library stored on a hard disk connected to one computer in one location. People expect their photos to be available everywhere.

To the first point, both Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC address performance. Lightroom CC gave Adobe’s engineers a chance to build for speed from the get-go. And existing Lightroom customers will be glad to know that the top new feature in Lightroom Classic CC is improved performance.

Lightroom CC is engineered for the cloud, yes, but it’s also aimed at a different audience than many of the people who currently use
Lightroom Classic CC

As for mobility, even though Lightroom Classic CC can already sync photos to Creative Cloud, it does so on a selective basis, where you must choose which collections should be synced. Lightroom CC is cloud-based: everything is uploaded to the cloud and made available to Lightroom apps for iOS and Android, Lightroom Web (, and Lightroom Classic CC (with caveats I’ll get to shortly).

A third important factor also comes into play. Lightroom CC is engineered for the cloud, yes, but it’s also aimed at a different audience than many of the people who currently use Lightroom Classic CC. Lightroom CC is sparse, lean, and presents a more welcoming appearance. It’s not trying to cram as much of the interface onto the screen as possible.

An obvious example is the Import screen. In Lightroom CC, importing from a camera or memory card gives you two options: which photos you choose to import and whether you want those added to an album. (Collections are called albums, the nomenclature that every other application has adopted.)

Lightroom Classic CC’s import screen includes a host of advanced options that, honestly, are pretty great: applying keywords during import, making backup copies to another destination, applying presets, and so forth. When you learn how to use those features, they can be very powerful.

But a lot of people simply don’t care about all that. They want an application that makes it easy to import and edit their photos, they’ve heard that "Lightroom" is the tool to use, or they don’t want to invest in another ecosystem. And Adobe wants to grow the base.

Adobe is stressing that both Lightroom desktop applications are in active development. Lightroom CC is the choice for a cloud-centric experience, and Lightroom Classic CC is the choice for customers who have more advanced needs that the desktop-centric version addresses.

Make Plans

Before we dig deeper into the differences, let’s look at what this costs.

All Lightroom products now require a subscription. Lightroom 6.x will be the last stand-alone, non-subscription version that Adobe releases; it will be updated for bug fixes and camera compatibility through the end of the year.

Lightroom Classic CC (version 7.0) and Lightroom CC are available via the following plans:

  • The Lightroom CC Plan includes Lightroom CC and 1 TB of cloud storage for $9.99 per month.

  • The Creative Cloud Photography Plan includes Lightroom CC, Lightroom Classic CC, Photoshop CC, Adobe Portfolio, Adobe Spark (unlocking premium features), and 20 GB of cloud storage for $9.99 per month.

  • You can optionally get the Creative Cloud Photography Plan with 1 TB of cloud storage for $19.99 per month. For a limited time, Adobe is charging existing Photography Plan customers $14.99 per month to jump to the 1 TB tier.

  • The Creative Cloud All Apps Plan includes pretty much everything that bears an Adobe logo and 100 GB of cloud storage for $49.99 per month.

  • The Lightroom Mobile Plan applies just to Lightroom for iOS and Lightroom for Android and includes 100 GB of cloud storage for $4.99 per month.

For many photographers, 1 TB of cloud storage won’t be enough for their libraries, so Adobe is also offering additional storage tiers:

  • 2 TB for $20 per month
  • 5 TB for $50 per month
  • 10 TB for $100 per month

What happens if your photo library is stored on Creative Cloud and you decide to end your subscription? Adobe will keep the images in the cloud for one year after the membership finishes, during which you can use Lightroom CC to download the original files.

For Lightroom Classic CC, the application will continue to access photos on your local hard disk. You can import and organize photos, and output any edited photos, but the Develop and Map modules stop working when the subscription ends.

Syncing with Creative Cloud

When you import photos into Lightroom CC, the originals, including raw files, are uploaded to Creative Cloud. Everything is synced; you don’t specify which albums get uploaded. Lightroom Classic CC continues to work the same as in Lightroom CC 2015, syncing individual collections of your choosing.

Although Lightroom CC is cloud-obsessed, you don’t need a persistent Internet connection to use it. Imported files are stored locally and then uploaded to Creative Cloud. In fact, there are a few ways to choose what stays put. A setting directs Lightroom CC to target a percentage of your library to retain on the drive. You can also specify that copies of the originals for individual photos or folders (or even the entire library) remain on the local drive. That’s helpful when you expect to be away from an Internet connection.

In practical terms, unless you have a very fast Internet connection, it’s going to take a while to upload gigabytes of photos. And if your Internet service provider imposes data caps, you’ll have to watch those carefully depending on the size of your library.

If you’re thinking of using Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC in parallel, there’s one important syncing difference. When you import photos into Lightroom CC, the originals are uploaded to Creative Cloud. When you import photos into Lightroom Classic CC and add them to a collection that syncs with Creative Cloud, it converts the originals to Smart Previews (DNG files) and uploads those.

So, if you were to import into Lightroom Classic CC and edit in Lightroom CC, you’ll be editing the low-resolution DNG version instead of the original. That applies to JPEG files as well as Raw files. In many cases, that’s not an issue: adjustments such as tone and color are synced as descriptive text instructions, so they get applied to the original in Lightroom Classic CC. But sending the Smart Preview from Lightroom CC to Photoshop for some editing that’s beyond Lightroom CC’s abilities results in a lower-resolution file that gets synced back to Classic.

Sibling Differences

In many ways, the differences between Lightroom CC and Lightroom Classic CC are sibling comparisons. One of them is more capable because it’s been around longer, while the other is brand new. Lightroom CC is still a 1.0 product, which means many features that currently reside in Classic don’t exist in Lightroom CC. And yet, they’re clearly related.

While I’m sure some people will want to choose one over the other, the reality is that most existing Lightroom users will want to give them both a spin. It is possible to use them in parallel, as long as you go into it with a clear head. This isn’t meant to be a "what’s missing from Lightroom CC" critique; more of a focused look at some of the differences.

  • The core editing features found in Lightroom Classic are there in Lightroom CC, and edits are synced across devices.
  • Color labels are gone in Lightroom CC.

  • Due to a revamp of the keyword architecture, keywords do not sync between Lightroom Classic CC and Lightroom CC via Creative Cloud.

  • Keywords do ride along when migrating a Lightroom Classic CC catalog into Lightroom CC, but any hierarchical keywords are simplified. Lightroom CC does away with hierarchies, so if you have a photo tagged with a nested group such as, “outdoors > forest > Oregon,” those are added as three separate keywords: “outdoors, forest, Oregon.”

  • Migrating a catalog turns off Creative Cloud sync in Lightroom CC 2015/Lightroom 6. You need to upgrade to Lightroom Classic CC to continue syncing.

  • Lightroom CC cannot print.

  • Currently, the only sharing options from within Lightroom CC are to export to disk or share to Facebook.

  • Lightroom CC has no Web or Book modules.

  • Similarly, there’s no Map module, although location data does appear in the Info panel when it’s available. However, there’s currently no ability to add location info to photos that don’t already have it, or copy and paste locations between images.

  • There is no HDR or Panorama merge features in Lightroom CC. These are features Adobe has said are on the table to add in an upcoming release.

  • Lightroom CC does not offer tethered capture.

  • Lightroom CC has just one library, tied to your Adobe ID; the notion of working with separate catalogs is being left behind.

  • Lightroom CC uses Adobe Sensei search technology to identify elements of photos based on visual content, and tags the images behind the scenes (the keywords aren’t user-accessible). This feature is good for people who don’t bother to keyword their photos in the first place, because they can perform searches for items like “coffee” and get results without any prior work. However, Sensei search requires an active Internet connection; the search happens on the server, not locally.
  • Oddly, Lightroom CC doesn’t know what to do if you’re shooting Raw+JPEG mode on your camera. It sees both files separately, with no way to discern which is which in the Review for Import screen aside from mousing over each thumbnail and waiting for a tooltip to appear.

Shining Light on the Future

It’s not hard to look ahead and contemplate how the two Lightroom paths move into the future.

It’s easy to envision Lightroom CC gaining more feature-parity with Classic and then becoming the One True Lightroom

Lightroom Classic CC is more than a decade old, which means there’s no doubt a lot of legacy code weighing it down. The focus on speed improvements and new features in Classic is most welcome. And it makes sense that Adobe is developing both applications side-by-side.

But It’s also easy to envision Lightroom CC gaining more feature-parity with Classic and then becoming the One True Lightroom. That was the approach the original Lightroom took—it started as a lean application with a few core features and built up from there.

As it exists today, Lightroom CC is a fast and polished 1.0 with a lot of promise, but it’s also an application that existing Lightroom customers will want to take a cautious look at before going all-in eventually.

Disclosure: Jeff Carlson has worked on a contract basis for Adobe in the past.