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Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic: Which Is Right for You?

A guide to Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic

Lightroom has long been a stalwart of the digital photography community, but understanding the differences between Lightroom Classic vs Lightroom can be a bit tricky. Both programs are great for organizing and editing all your digital photographs, and both are available for the same monthly price.

However, Lightroom and Lightroom Classic have unique strengths and key differences that can make a huge difference in your editing workflow. One program will likely be better than the other for your unique needs, and knowing a bit more about them will help you decide which one is right for you – and that’s where this article comes in handy!

A bit of background

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: logos of each program side by side.
Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic: Both programs are excellent, and they’re similar in many ways. Even their application icons are nearly identical! But which one is right for you?

In the early days of digital photography, nascent editing applications like Adobe Photoshop and Corel PaintShop Pro let photographers edit, alter, and otherwise manipulate their images. The process was often slow and painstaking, but over time those types of programs improved – and now they’re indispensable tools of the trade.

However, as digital photography increased in popularity and image libraries ballooned to tens and hundreds of thousands of files, it was clear that photographers needed more than just an editing solution. They needed a digital asset management solution.

Adobe solved this problem in 2007 with the release of Photoshop Lightroom, an all-in-one program that handled every element of a true end-to-end digital photography workflow: importing, organizing, editing, and exporting. While its suite of editing options was not nearly as comprehensive as traditional Photoshop, it quickly became the de facto solution for photographers who wanted one program to manage and tweak all their digital images.

Everything changed again ten years later when Adobe rewrote Lightroom from the ground up to meet the changing needs of modern photographers. The company kept the traditional Lightroom but renamed it “Lightroom Classic” and named the new program “Lightroom CC.” More recently, Adobe dropped the “CC” from the newer program’s name, making it just “Lightroom.”

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The editing interface of Lightroom Classic, with image thumbnails at the bottom.
Lightroom Classic has an extensive, refined set of tools for managing all aspects of a digital photography production workflow. Lightroom continues this tradition, albeit with a few caveats.

Both programs continue to be used by millions of photographers around the world and are updated by Adobe on a regular basis with new features and tools to help photographers get the most out of their digital images.

Lightroom Classic overview

Lightroom Classic is the tried-and-true version of Lightroom that has been around since 2007. It’s built around a desktop-based workflow and allows photographers to copy images from cameras directly onto local storage media like an external hard drive, organize them in the Library module, and edit them in the Develop module. It includes other modules like Map, Book, Slideshow, Print, and Web, which are useful for many photographers who rely on the program when creating additional products and services for their clients.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The Library interface of Lightroom Classic with dozens of image thumbnails shown.
The user interface in Lightroom Classic has received many tweaks and changes over the years, but it’s still remarkably similar to early versions. This is a boon to photographers who want consistency and reliability.

Lightroom Classic is kind of like an old pickup truck: It’s not flashy and has a few odd quirks here and there, but it does everything most people need and always gets the job done. When Adobe released Lightroom and renamed its existing program Lightroom Classic, the photography community was rife with speculation that the company would sunset the Classic version and force everyone to use the new Lightroom.

Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case, and Lightroom Classic continues to be updated regularly with new features like adaptive presets, AI-based masking and AI-powered noise removal, and support for all the latest cameras and lenses. While not as sleek and fancy as its cloud-based counterpart, Lightroom Classic is a reliable powerhouse that has enough tools for most photographers.

Lightroom Classic pros

  • The gold standard in digital asset management for millions of photographers
  • A wide range of editing tools that cover almost everything people might need
  • Rich, in-depth organizational options for photographers with massive photo libraries
  • Easy-to-edit images in external tools like Photoshop or third-party apps
  • Albums can be shared on the web and synced with the Lightroom app

Lightroom Classic cons

  • Designed for a desktop-based environment with images stored locally and not in the cloud
  • The user interface is confusing
  • Some tools like book creation and facial recognition are very slow, even on high-spec computers
  • Users are responsible for creating and maintaining backups of all their images
Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The Library interface of Lightroom Classic, with six large images shown in the Compare view.
Lightroom Classic does so many things that it can feel confusing and overwhelming for new users.

Lightroom overview

In 2017, Adobe took many of the features that people had grown to love and rely on in Lightroom Classic and put them in a new application: Lightroom. It shared a name with its forebear, yet it was designed from the ground up to be cloud-focused, mobile-friendly, and ready to meet the needs of a growing number of photographers who grew up without relying on desktop-based storage.

If Lightroom Classic is a trusty pack mule, then Lightroom is a sleek young racehorse. While it doesn’t have the sheer depth of features or the number of users as Lightroom Classic, its cloud-first design, impressive phone and tablet support, and integrated features like Discover have won over a new generation of photographers who want to do more with their digital images.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The editing interface of Lightroom, with a red Indian Paintbrush flower and sliders such as Temp, Tint, Vibrance, and Saturation.
Lightroom contains many of the same editing tools as Lightroom Classic, but they’re revised to be more streamlined and easy to use.

In addition to an all-new user interface, Lightroom also completely reimagines the idea of digital photo storage. Instead of keeping images on a computer or external hard drive, Lightroom imports all your images to the cloud and stores them on Adobe’s servers.

If you use a DSLR or mirrorless camera, your photos are uploaded from your memory card, and if you shoot with an iPhone or other mobile device, you can have all your files automatically sent to Lightroom as well. This means that all your photos are always available on every device and you never have to think about creating backups or buying more hard drives for your computer.

Lightroom’s cloud-first design means you can easily share photos with others, create public and private albums, and invite people to edit your images or create remixes of your edits. This approach also allowed Adobe to create a program that remains (nearly) functionally identical whether you use the mobile app, iPad app, desktop app, or Lightroom in a browser.

Additionally, the Discover interface in Lightroom functions kind of like a social network; you can follow photographers, see their images, and step through each individual edit they made to their public photos. It’s an incredible learning tool since you never have to wonder how a particularly stunning image was edited – instead, you can see all the edits one by one. You can also import these images into your library and share your own images to Discover.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The Discover interface of Lightroom with 11 image thumbnails shown.
The Discover interface in Lightroom lets you follow photographers, see images they have shared, and step through individual edits on any image to see exactly how the final result was achieved. It’s an amazing learning tool, especially for new photographers.

Lightroom pros

  • Ideal for mobile photographers who want more editing options than native camera apps can provide
  • A cloud-based workflow means all your images can always be accessed and edited from any device
  • The Discover feature is an outstanding way to learn new editing techniques and improve your photography
  • Automatic tagging and keywording of images, along with smart searching tools

Lightroom cons

  • Not as comprehensive as Lightroom Classic
  • The 1 TB cloud-storage limit can be easily reached if you’re shooting in RAW, and additional storage is very expensive.
  • The lack of Smart Collections and comprehensive filtering options makes large libraries difficult to manage
Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The editing interface of Lightroom, accessed in a web browser.
This screenshot isn’t from the Lightroom app. It shows Lightroom in a web browser window, which lets you do almost everything you can do in the mobile or desktop Lightroom app.

Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic: Ease of use

I have used Lightroom Classic since 2012, and it continues to be a core component of my photography workflow. I rely on it for personal work, client photoshoots, and family snapshots. It does everything I need – and a lot that I don’t.

However, its wide range of tools and options is also its Achilles heel. Lightroom Classic’s biggest barrier to entry, especially for new photographers, is that it’s just not very easy to use. Its dizzying array of modules, panels, drop-down arrows, dialog boxes, and preferences takes months or years to understand, and many actions are powerful but unintuitive.

Lightroom is much easier to understand for photographers who have not used either program, and its cloud-based, mobile-friendly nature means that people who are comfortable doing everything from an iPhone or iPad will feel right at home. Editing is simple and intuitive, and the entire application has a simpler interface that removes some of the more complicated tools offered in Lightroom Classic in order to create a streamlined but still very powerful set of options that will please most photographers.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The editing interface of Lightroom. The cursor is hovering over the Crop and Rotate tool, and a small thumbnail of how that tool works is being shown.
Lightroom is incredibly easy to use, especially for new photographers. When you hover over a tool such as Crop & Rotate, you not only see a text tip showing the name of the tool, but an animation also appears illustrating exactly what the tool does.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: Performance

Lightroom and Lightroom Classic are both highly capable digital asset management tools, but once again, one of Lightroom Classic’s biggest strengths is also an important weakness.

The newest version of Lightroom Classic is built on a code base that predates the original iPhone, which means that it’s not optimized for speed and efficiency the way modern applications are. Adobe has refined Lightroom Classic immensely over the years and newer versions are certainly better, but even something as simple as scrolling through large photo libraries or changing the size of image thumbnails can result in hiccups. Normal operations like applying edits, converting to DNG, and exporting are plenty fast, but other features – such as the facial-recognition tool – can bring even the most powerful computer to its knees.

Lightroom, by contrast, absolutely sails through anything you throw at it. Scrolling through tens of thousands of photos is fast and smooth, flipping from one photo to the next is practically instantaneous, and working with edits is as zippy as anything.

If sheer performance is all you want out of a digital asset management tool, Lightroom is the preferred choice. However, if you prefer a richer set of editing and organizational tools but don’t mind some performance hiccups, Lightroom Classic will probably be more to your liking.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The facial recognition interface of Lightroom Classic.
If you want to slow Lightroom Classic to a crawl, just use the facial-recognition tool on a large collection of images. It’s faster than it used to be but nowhere near perfect.

Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic: Photo organization

While Lightroom has the edge in terms of performance and ease of use, things start to get interesting when we look at more complex operations like photo organization. Here, Lightroom is positively anemic compared to Lightroom Classic, and even several years after it was released, it is still missing what many would consider to be very basic organization features.

Lightroom organizes images using a simple Album/Folder structure: Photos are physically stored in Folders but one image can be in several Albums. Images can also contain star ratings and Flags such as Pick or Reject and be sorted on the fly to show only the photos that match these specific criteria.

But in terms of sheer photo organizational capability, Lightroom Classic wins hands-down – it’s not even remotely close. Lightroom Classic has a bewildering assortment of methods that can be used to organize, sort, filter, and manage your pictures. You can use the Filter bar in the Library module to instantly narrow down all your shots according to specific criteria, and you can also search by Flag, Rating, and Color status. Smart Collections can be created that contain all images which match (or don’t match) certain rules, and these are continually updated in real-time. When you import images, you can add metadata, change filenames, and specify exactly where you want your shots to be located.

Therefore, if organization and file management are your priorities, look no further than Lightroom Classic.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The Smart Collection configuration dialog box in Lightroom Classic.
The sheer amount of parameters you can apply to a Lightroom Classic Smart Collection is mind-boggling. Features like this make Lightroom Classic vastly superior to Lightroom for photo organization.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: Editing capabilities

When Adobe released Lightroom in 2017, longtime Lightroom Classic users such as myself were stunned by its scant capabilities. It could only do basic operations and did not have much in the way of masking, grading, and other editing functions that photographers relied on for their workflows. Since then, Adobe has dramatically improved Lightroom’s editing features, and it now covers nearly all of the operations that most photographers need.

Lightroom and Lightroom Classic offer basic tools like exposure and color adjustments, tone curves, color grading, and lens correction. Lightroom Classic goes a bit deeper on a few things – for instance, it lets you have pixel-precise control over chromatic aberration, whereas Lightroom does CA-removal automatically – but those kinds of operations are outliers.

Lightroom Classic’s AI-powered masking features are incredibly impressive, and they’re not available in Lightroom – but they almost certainly will be added to Lightroom in the near future. Lightroom Classic does also give you much greater control when copying edits from one photo to another or when syncing edits across many photos at once.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The editing interface of Lightroom. A red flower is shown, along with Point Curve, Temp, Tint, Vibrance, and Saturation.
Lightroom contains most of the editing tools available in Lightroom Classic, and the ones that are missing may be added soon. Adobe has been continuously updating both apps for years and will likely add updates far into the future.

Lightroom Classic continues to have the edge when it comes to editing capabilities, but Lightroom’s tools are a bit easier to use. The winner here is difficult to say; it really comes down to what you need, not which program does more.

If you shoot professionally, you will likely appreciate the greater level of control and flexibility offered by Lightroom Classic, but if you value simplicity and ease of use, then Lightroom will probably suit you better.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: Versatility

Once my kids are in bed, there are few things I enjoy more than sitting down in front of my 27-inch screen, putting on some music, and going through photos in Lightroom Classic. It’s my happy place, and I can get lost in a state of photography flow for so long that time just slips away. Lightroom Classic offers everything I need right in one app, and it’s versatile enough to handle any type of photoshoot and any type of photo. From importing to editing to exporting, it’s all right where I need it, and it’s organized in a way that makes sense to me.

Lightroom is equally versatile but in an entirely different way. It doesn’t have the same level of microscopic control over every minute detail of the image management and editing process, but it does allow you to edit all your photos from any device or web browser. You never have to think about where your images might be located or whether you synced specific shots to the cloud. With Lightroom, everything is at your fingertips any time you want it.

Additionally, Lightroom’s integration with the iPad and Apple Pencil is outstanding, and editing using this method is not just efficient but fun and enjoyable. Both Lightroom and Lightroom Classic are versatile in different ways. Neither one is inherently better, but one might be better suited to your needs.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The editing interface of Lightroom Classic.
Lightroom Classic is incredibly versatile as a full digital asset management program, but Lightroom is versatile in its own way.

Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic: Price and value

One feature that makes choosing between Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic easier? The price. Both programs are available for the same subscription fee of $9.99/month, which means you don’t have to decide based on which is cheaper. Instead, you just need to look at which will suit your needs. However, in terms of sheer bang for your buck, Lightroom Classic might have a little more to offer.

Adobe offers Lightroom Classic as a component of its Photography (20 GB) plan, which also includes the complete version of Photoshop, 20 GB of cloud storage, and access to Lightroom. The Lightroom plan does not include Photoshop or Lightroom Classic but does have 1 TB of cloud storage – enough for several hundred thousand JPEG files but not nearly as many RAW files.

I generally consider the Photography plan to offer better value, but if you don’t want or need the editing tools of Photoshop or the organization and management tools in Lightroom Classic, then the standalone Lightroom option is probably the optimal pick.

Lightroom vs. Lightroom Classic: The Photoshop user interface.
Photoshop remains the most widely-used image editor in the world. The Adobe Photography plan includes Lightroom Classic and Photoshop, as well as Lightroom (but with minimal cloud storage). A subscription to Lightroom costs the same and includes 1 TB of cloud storage but no access to Photoshop or Lightroom Classic.

Lightroom vs Lightroom Classic: Which is right for you?

While Lightroom and Lightroom Classic both have unique strengths and weaknesses, the choice isn’t about which program is the best. It’s about which program is right for you.

Lightroom Classic is great for:

  • Desktop-based workflows where images are stored locally and not in the cloud
  • Professional photographers who want a high degree of control over every aspect of their edits
  • Editors who rely on complex and customizable organizational schemes for their photos
  • Hobbyists and amateur photographers who want more professional tools as well as access to Photoshop

Lightroom is great for:

  • Cloud-based workflows where images are stored remotely and accessible on any device or web browser
  • Mobile photographers who want more power than what their native camera apps can provide
  • Users who want to learn from other photographers and share their images (and edits) with a worldwide community
  • Hobbyists and amateur photographers who value speed, simplicity, and ease of use

Now over to you:

Do you prefer Lightroom Classic or Lightroom? Which do you plan to use and why? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

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Simon Ringsmuth
Simon Ringsmuth

is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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