Does Adobe Need to Start Again and Build Lightroom from Scratch?

Does Adobe Need to Start Again and Build Lightroom from Scratch?

Lightroom totally dominates the realm of digital asset management (DAM) — a solution for everything, it fits the mold of most photographic workflows, however the bitter pill to swallow can be the treacle-like performance and that monthly subscription. Is it time for Adobe to start again?

Digital asset management is something we all do as photographers — whether its as simple as copying image JPEGs straight off your SD card and dumping them in to a "Pictures" folder, or ingesting the raw files pre-tagged into date named folders that are cloud synced for anywhere access. The care you take will depend upon what you want to achieve and who you are delivering the images to.

Of course it's not always been this way. The product that eventually became Lightroom — Shadowland — started out in 1999 with the first public beta in 2006 before version 1.0 arrived in 2007. Rolled into that first product was Pixmantec's Rawshooter which enabled Lightroom to de-mosaic raw files, in addition to more traditional JPEGs and TIFFs. In one stroke it nestled up to Photoshop, leaving the heavy lifting for layer based editing, whilst specifically targeting the photographic workflow of ingesting images, raw conversion, and non-destructive edits.

The paradigm was to offer the digital equivalent of the darkroom, allowing you to develop your images to a final product. Perhaps this is where Lightroom really shines and highlights Adobe's true focus: the creative process and ultimately the output. Lightroom was intended to deliver print and digital media which is why the book, slideshow, print, and web modules have such prominence. The crowning glory is arguably the image catalog which is incredibly important for maintaining a coherent digital archive and — again using the analog metaphor — as part of the creative culling process. It's laid out as a contact sheet for a reason, to allow you to tag the photos you want to develop. Of course, the catalog remains the big buy-in: if you have your library of 100,000 photos then that is a big disincentive to move to another product.

This process has served film photographers for decades and fits the mold of the digital realm. Lightroom has hit the sweet spot when it comes to workflow and with each iteration adds increasingly sophisticated levels of photo development. All of this is non-destructive leaving the original digital negative untouched. So what's the problem with this?

So What Is the Problem?

The dramatic expansion in digital photography from the 1988 Fuji DS-1P through to the rise of the burgeoning DSLR market fitted the niche that Lightroom was intended to fill. The DS-1P could shoot up to ten 0.4MP images on its 2MB memory card, whilst Nikon's D1 shot 2.5MP images on to a 2GB CF card. Early on images were predominantly JPEGs, but DSLRs made the raw format more commonplace. More problematic was the vendor specific file so if you shot with different brands you needed a range of manufacturer software products to import them. Photojournalists exemplified the problem where multiple photographers, potentially with different cameras, needed to go from digital file to broadsheet.

What has changed since the birth of digital asset management is our shift as photographers to shooting more images than ever, using higher resolution sensors that create larger files. This "wealth of the visual" is creating a data headache that affects all aspects of the photographic workflow, foremost amongst these is the size of the data archive being created. When shooting film there was always an upfront cost associated with image processing: you paid for the film, the development, and then the printing. There was a cost at every stage, before you carefully indexed and filed your negatives. Digital was heralded as an almost "no cost" solution; you already had a computer and just dumped those tiny JPEGs in to a spare directory. However with cameras such as Fuji's GFX100 creating 100MB+ size files you need large media cards, an ultra-fast connection to your PC, manifold storage, and a large back up solution. If you are a wedding photographer, shooting 2000 images for a single event is common, which creates a significant data processing headache. That's 200GB of data for one wedding which needs to be ingested, culled, processed, delivered, and backed up. That entire processing chain costs a considerable amount to set up.

The problem still remains asset management, but added to this task is one of data management. It's not so much that Lightroom can't manage your photos — it can — but rather how quickly can it do it.

Rapid Asset Management

As a result of the much greater number of larger image files, we are now seeing pressure on the software that manages those photographic assets; when files were small there wasn't an imperative to seek high performance processing, but this has become an obvious bottleneck. This is even more important in time critical photography such as sports and news, where you can be required to upload your imagery literally seconds after having captured it. There is an acute need for Rapid Asset Management in these domains, but all areas of photography would benefit from being able to rapidly cull and catalog imagery. I would then separate processing in to two areas: those that require simple batch driven edits and those that require more refined manual processing. The former benefits significantly from being integrated in to the culling process, whilst the latter can more readily be performed externally (for example, in Photoshop). Tethered capture is perhaps a special case.

Rapid Asset Management is relatively new as Lightroom has largely sat on its own, with bespoke products (such as BatchPhoto and PhotoMechanic) targeting the rapid processing of images outside of an image catalog. Competition has come in the form of image processing on its own (e.g. Photoshop, Affinity Photo) or photo based ingestion and de-mosaicing products. These tend to operate in the same vein as Lightroom, focused upon photo editing and broad global edits, rather than the layer based model of Photoshop. This has changed over the years with adjustment brushes, control points, and more recently adjustment layers. That said, integrated cataloguing has been late coming to many products (e.g. Luminar, PhotoLab, CaptureOne), yet this can be one of the most important tools for a photographer that can lock you in to a product.

I know one of the tasks I dread after a wedding is ingestion and culling. It can be a soul destroying monotonous task but in terms of delivering the final product, everything builds from this. It is critical to cull out the images you don't want, tag the keepers, and flag anything else that is worth returning to. I then also want to color code them depending which media stream they will be delivered on. Lightroom is satisfactory for this process, but the import routine isn't flexible enough to let me cull, tag, and keyword at the same. I find myself either importing everything and then culling/tagging, or culling only then returning to tagging later on. This either wastes time importing all the images I don't want or repeating everything twice and then struggling with Lightroom's more pedestrian pace. Added to this is the "Adobe Subscription Tax" when I would rather own the software outright. However other products are starting to gain traction in the market with ACDSee PhotoStudio, DxO PhotoLab, Skylum Luminar, and CaptureOne — to name a few — all offering alternatives.

It's been 20 years since Lightroom first hit the drawing board and whilst it has huge market share, photography has changed in that period. Not least the sheer volume of imagery and the need for software performance to be top and center. Lightroom isn't known for it's speedy interface. However it runs deeper: I want to speed up my workflow and adding more developing tools to the interface isn't top of the list. I want to see the greatest efforts put in to culling and tagging at the earliest opportunity, along with lightning fast performance. Does Adobe need to start again with Lightroom?

Lead image composite courtesy of hamiltonjch via Pixabay, used under Creative Commons.

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Previous comments
Greg Edwards's picture

You're right that subscription models are more and more common and there's nothing intrinsically wrong with it either. Indeed, I'd never be able to afford the full Creative Suite otherwise and would resort to illegal pirated versions instead which I wouldn't feel comfortable with.

That said, I think the bugbear with subscription is the concept of 'ownership'. If you stop paying, even after being a loyal customer for years, then that's it. The software stops working. At least with the older licence model, once you buy it, it's yours for life, as long as you have a machine capable of running it.

It would be useful if there was a semi-ownership model for loyal subscribers. Much like a mobile phone contract - once you get to the end of the contract, the phone is yours. Perhaps after subscribing for a year or two, you could cancel the cloud portion of the subscription and remain at the version number you last had. Yes, you'd lose useful cloud functionality, but the software would still work on a local level and would be yours ad infinitum. Think of it like a mobile phone without a sim card!

Michael Campanella's picture

Just use Photo Mechanic and Photoshop Camera RAW. The ultimate solution. You get all the RAW editing tools you like from Lightroom without the shitty catalog, the clunky slow import, and the horrible tagging.

Joe Steger's picture

As I'm beginning to think about storage requirements beyond my computer's hard drive, a single back-up drive and Backblaze for cloud storage, I'm concerned with additional slow performance and other challenges with Lightroom Classic being able to manage all the different places in which my photos reside. For several months now, I have been considering using Bridge for cataloging since I have always saved my photos in folders with dates and descriptions. This would avoid some of the LR catalog issues for me. The only thing that has been holding me back so far is that I can sync photos in my collections on LR Classic to the cloud version to allow my friends to veie my photos on my iPhone from time to time. I realize there are other ways to view photos on my iPhone that I don't post to Instagram.

Karim Hosein's picture

«…a wedding photographer, shooting 2000 images for a single event is common….»
WHAT?!?!? A three-day Indian wedding with 500 guests, maybe?!?

“Back in the day, Sonny, I remember taking my 56 rolls of Agfa Pan….”

Learn to shoot events.

Anyway, the problem with Lr, why it has to be re-written, is that it, and Ps, have fallen behind the technology times. They do not do much CPU acceleration, they barely do any GPU acceleration, they do not any true multi-threading/multitasking to speak of, they do not do 32-bit floating-point image processing…. These are things that pretty much ALL their competitors do.

Furthermore, they took the opensource raw tools to add to Lr/ACR, et al, and allegedly ‘improved’ them, but, whenever a new camera [raw file] comes out, the opensource tools offer support before the Adobe tools do.

As for DAM, Lightroom does a very bad job with that. I remember one YouTuber speaking about how, after an event with over 1,000 shots, he has to start his import at night, and get to work in the morning, because it takes about 8 hours to import and build the previews. My ten year old system (with a more recent GPU, an Nvidia GTX 760), using DarkTable, pulled in over 10,000 images in a few minutes. [ASIDE] After a system disk failure, the DB got corrupt. Did a systems re-install, and had to re-import all my Images. Data disk was fine. [/ASIDE]

I concede that DarkTable does not have the world's best DAW, but it has more than necessary, and Digikam works great as a DAM, should I need more than what I get out of DarkTable. (Yes, like most F/LOSS, they work well together. I can DAM with one, and develop with the other).

As a raw developer, all the problems outlined before is holding it back. The only reason that the whole world has not abandoned Lr, is that most of the world are too shortsighted to realise the ultimate savings of time they will achieve if they took the time to re-learn a new workflow.

No Lightroom alternative is “like” Lr. It will involve un-learning what one knows, and learning something new. It is called, “Progress.” Once the new workflow is learned, the time savings will be incredible. The arguments, “I do not have time to learn something new,” “It does not gel with my workflow,” “the ‘learning-curve’ is too steep,” “It does not integrate with Ps and other Adobe tools,” are all excuses to stay in one's comfort zone; the past.

The GIMP has learned to change, (and the change was coming slow, but steady, and the project is improving by leaps and bounds within the last two year). Darktable has learned to change, and their users, with a few complaints, are happy to evolve with the software. RawTherapee has learned to change, (and the first third-party to properly process Pentax PixelShift files, and did so better than Pentax did). Inkscape, finally moving from Python 2.7, to Python 3.x code. CaptureOne, Affinity, Aperture, Digikam…. Wait… Digikam?!?

Fine. Digikam is still in the past with Adobe products, (except for the DAM), limited to 16-bit integer processing, et al. Indeed, the DAM in Digikam is rather compartmentalised, each part doing what it does best, independently, thus one part needs not wait on the other.

The point is, Lr/Ps are both relics of the past, and need to evolve, through a complete re-write such as like The GIMP is going through, as do their users.

As for the subscription model, as a F/LOSS user, I am in full support of the subscription model; the way it ought to be, not the way Adobe does it. The software is free, but the support is by subscription. No subscription, no support… but your work is still your work. Storage as a service ought to be independent from Support as a Service, (but what other way is there of getting support, anyway 😉😆😁😀😄).

“Software as a Service” really only makes sense as, “Software Support as a Service”, while the data, whether input (raw files) or output (JPEG JFIF, HEIF/HEIC, WebP, PNG, AVIF, XMP, and the database), should not be a part of that support. If I end my subscription to support, I ought to still have full access to all my files & meta-files, (this is separate from Storage as a Service, where one pays to have their files in the cloud), and still be able to manipulate them.

Duck Man's picture

I'm just frustrated that Adobe doesn't properly leverage the embedded JPEGs of RAW images. It rejects them if it thinks the preview generated is smaller than the JPEG but then it is slower to load when reviewing shots in the library module. Finally, when you delete your entire lrdata preview folder, you can no longer access those embedded images.

Robert Lype's picture

One of the biggest issues today is not so much LR but photographers not taking advantage of the complexity of today cameras. As a Photojournalist coming from the film age the deadlines have decreased from hours to a matter of minutes capturing an image in the camera the way the shooter intends it to look requires a few things. The first one being learning how to use the tools built into cameras. Second is using calibration tools to have everything from the camera, monitor and printers producing the same result. It not inexpensive to purchase these tools and programs as well as time consuming to to set up but the results will save countless hours in the long run. 3rd issue is photographers relying on Lightroom to fix issues in LR when just learning the rules of photography and how the camera works not implying there is a no need for editing.
If you want to see how well your camera is working use the editing program which is provided with your camera then open the same shot in LR it make you think twice.
For instance my work flow start with downloading my images using Nikon VX it shows what I told the camera to do if it needs more work Nikons Capture is a powerful tool also and cost nothing.
If I want to perform extensive changes to an image LR is an option its seems the designers of LR have no clue what a smooth work flow looks like. For me its not the first option for start its slow compared to other imaging programs

Marcelo Rojas's picture

The issue is even if they completely rewrite Lightroom it’s irrelevant now. What’s the point of having a photo editing catalog app.. that competes with Adobe Bridge and photoshop both of which does its job far better than it.

Like idk why Adobe continues to make software that competes with other software they make by combining 2 of them but with worse features. Camera Raw is literally Lightroom. Without cataloging. But you can sync everything to bridge from photoshop so really honestly why does Lightroom continue to exist?

Nvm the fact that Capture One is a better cataloging app than Lightroom at the same time having better or equivalent features. So again, why lightroom. Photoshop, bridge and capture one or even just bridge and photoshop with plugins

Alexander Petrenko's picture

May be because Lightroom is more browser than Bridge and more convenient for quick edits than Photoshop in one package?

I'm not talking about absolutely useless modules like Book and Maps, but there are probably some people who love these features too.