Getting photos from a Lightroom catalog to an iPhone has always been like treading through treacle. Until Lightroom Mobile there was no practical way of doing it without creating an intermediate copy of the photos in iPhoto or the file system, which then has to be kept up to date. If you have photos that appear in multiple albums the situation is even more of a maintenance nightmare.
My requirements are simple enough; I use Lightroom on the desktop to organise and post-process my photos, and I want the results of that work to appear on my phone for viewing and sharing. I’m sick and tired of having to work so hard to achieve this simple objective, so I decided to sign up for Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography plan which offers the promise of automatic catalog synchronisation to a mobile device. I wish I hadn’t bothered. Against all odds Adobe has managed to make the mobile sync experience even worse with Lightroom Mobile than using iPhoto as a sync hub.
Lightroom was a game changer for digital photography. It comprehensively solved the challenges of photography workflow with remarkable ease and seemed to have a relentless focus on usability. It does almost everything you would want it to with just the right balance of configurability and simplicity. New releases have consistently introduced the features I most wanted. I love Lightroom, which is why I found the disparity in usefulness between Lightroom Mobile and Lightroom on the desktop so confounding.
When I first installed Lightroom Mobile, I expected my catalog to just appear on my phone. That’s how a cloud service should work, but after a few minutes I realised it doesn’t work that way. You have to individually mark collections for mobile sync. Annoyed, I set about marking all 265 of my collections to synchronise. It took two days and the fan in my laptop was going berserk the entire time for reasons not entirely clear to me. Once the synchronisation completed and I started using Lightroom Mobile, the real disappointment set in.
It’s user interface is abysmal. Consider the screenshot atop this page; on my iPhone 6 Plus with it’s 1920×1080 resolution screen, I can see one third of one collection thumbnail, and a giant button to import photos from my phone, which I have no interest in doing. That’s it. It’s hard to imagine a more inefficient use of screen space. Lightroom Mobile lists your collections in a one column list (even in landscape orientation), with each collection shown as a massive square thumbnail and a title that gets truncated at the width of the thumbnail with no way to expand. There is no way to change this view, and at best you can see two collections at a time.
There is no concept of searching (photos or collections) or even the collection sets used to folder the collections in Lightroom on the desktop. You can sort the collections by name, size (why?), on/offline status and import date, but since the import order is effectively random on first synchronisation, this is about as useful as a chocolate teapot. If I had to choose a sort order I would have gone with date taken on the newest photo in the collection, but sorting would be irrelevant if collection sets or collection name search were supported.
Collections are not download to the phone by default. For that you have to enable the collections individually for offline editing and if you don’t, browsing through your photos is a deeply unpleasant experience because each one will load in a low resolution preview with a progress spinner whilst the high resolution version is downloaded from the cloud. Smart Collections (of which I have many) are not synchronised at all. Any metadata change in Lightroom on the desktop results in a resync of the affected photos, which can take hours for large batches. This seems deeply inefficient when all that has changed is metadata text.
With all my photos in Lightroom Mobile I finally realised the worst downside of using this method of synchronisation. Any other app on your phone has no access to your photo library because it isn’t in the official Apple Photos app. I realise this last one isn’t Adobe’s fault, but it none the less reduces the usefulness of Lightroom Mobile.
Suffice to say that Lightroom Mobile is not remotely useful to me as a method of synchronising my Lightroom catalog for mobile viewing. It doesn’t really seem to be geared towards that use case, but rather towards editing on mobile. The appeal of photo editing on a phone is lost on me; despite Apple’s best efforts to convince us otherwise, I stand firm in my opinion that smartphones are for consuming content, not creating it. I can’t even use Adobe Creative Cloud to synchronise my Lightroom catalog between two desktop computers which I thought would be a useful side benefit to the package – desktop sync is not supported. Lightroom Mobile is still fairly new and perhaps it will improve over time. For now though, I’m going back to my time tested process of export to iPhoto, create album, sort photos, rename event, re-order events, re-order albums, add photos to other albums, connect iPhone with lightning cable, open iTunes, sync. It’s tedious, but it works.