[UPDATE: This article was first published on July 7, 2021, predicting that Adobe was going to have to give Lightroom users greater masking tool flexibility to keep up with better competition. Last week, Adobe did exactly that. The headline has now been updated.]
Adobe had a good conceptual model of what Lightroom was… 15 years ago. Now things are bleeding together, and Lightroom’s competition is providing photograph editing features that puts even more pressure on Adobe to include some of the critical Photoshop functions.
Back in the day, Lightroom was a primarily catalog of your photos, with a little editing capability, and was an introduction into the Adobe ecosystem, hopefully hooking you into its flagship Photoshop application if you required more editing power. Over time, more and more of that editing power bed into Lightroom, even as it operated in a fundamentally different way. The big difference between the apps remained that Photoshop involved manipulating pixels – often in ways that were “destructive,” meaning that once a change was made, it was hard to go back to that earlier step. Lightroom always preserved the original file, but with an ever-lengthening recipe of instructions that affected how it displayed the image.
It was with this separated model in mind that Adobe opted to exclude some of the most coveted features of Photoshop – particularly the powerful selection tools available for creating “masks,” that determined which bits of an image are affected by an edit, and the concept of layers, allowing multiple image elements and adjustments to be combined in very controlled ways. It was precisely the combination of those two features that caused the brand Photoshop to become a universal verb across multiple languages – meaning that something can be added to a picture that wasn’t originally there.
But Photoshop nowadays is used more often as a non-destructive editor, with the use of many adjustment and masking layers to effectively create edited image presentations that still keep the original files intact. And Lightroom has added more and more selective masking features allowing for selections based on brightness, color or depth, even if they tend to work poorly versus those in Photoshop. The signature feature it lacks is the use of layers.
So with the introduction of Capture One’s new version 14.3, yet more pressure is added on Adobe’s product managers to pull still more tech from Photoshop. The new Capture One allows for selective masking, essentially meeting and beating Adobe’s masking capacity.
In the meantime, Lightroom is in the midst of an identity crisis. Adobe created a new, cloud-based product designed for amateurs that took most of Lightroom’s features. Oddly, they called this new, separate product “Lightroom” and renamed the older product “Lightroom Classic,” which didn’t score many points among users trying to determine if their professional-grade photography editor would continue to be supported by the sometimes fickle software giant.
Combining Lightroom Classic with Photoshop isn’t much of a solution. Lightroom Classic was designed to be relatively approachable for photographers who don’t also happen to be professional editors. Photoshop – in contrast – was designed to be an ecosystem-scale journey learning for an entire professional lifetime. The Lightroom Classic users just need to be able to borrow some features from the code closet; among them some additional basic selection tools (like the “inverse” selection feature), a simplified layers interface, the use of basic filters and plugins.
Capture One could be pushing Adobe in that direction, but it remains unknown how committed Adobe is to feature parity between its two Lightroom brands, and whether it believes that the slider-pushing users of Lightroom will be able to handle the power of Photoshop without exploding their heads or – more to the point – increasing support labor resources to where it isn’t as profitable. Efforts to reform Photoshop itself into a more approachable interface have been met with predictable user ire. The subscription model Adobe introduced to great opprobrium years ago no longer gives the firm an incentive to encourage the purchase of both Photoshop and Lightroom, as both are typically included in a photography subscription.
All of this becomes more relevant as Adobe has done a fantastic job of completely re-writing much of the code for the mobile platforms, giving it new codebases designed from scratch. Just which model was anticipated back when those designs were sketched out isn’t entirely apparent from the releases to date.
It seems all three primary Adobe photo editing products are moving on their own courses, but Lightroom Classic is the one that has serious competition, and this may encourage Adobe to exploit its wide stable of editing features to keep ahead.