When I first found out about the updates that were coming to this year’s Adobe MAX release of Lightroom and Lightroom Classic, I was pretty excited. The updates, announced Tuesday morning, represent some of the biggest updates made to the Lightroom ecosystem.

Josh Haftel

I had the chance to talk with Josh Haftel, Director of Product Management, Digital Imaging at Adobe, about some of this year’s updates, including the new Selective Adjustment tools.

AI leading the charge

“Artificial intelligence and machine learning are so foundational to the future of everything in life. I mean, heck, I’ve got a rice cooker that has AI inside of it,” said Haftel.

“When I was shopping for my very first film SLR, there was like the fuzzy logic AI Servo from the Canon cameras back in the day. That was AI, right, and we’re still talking about AI, but it’s evolving, and it’s changing. And some of the new opportunities that AI provides are just astounding, and really, really powerful.

“We started introducing some of these AI based masking tools in Photoshop earlier. The Select Subject or the Sky Replacement tools were two examples of some of these machine learning based tools that enabled our customers to have more control and capabilities related to masking. We saw just how well those are being like responded to and sort of Photoshop and we saw that there was a huge opportunity to accomplish something similar inside of Lightroom.

“Customers really love this AI and ML stuff, right? It makes your life a lot easier and a lot better, saves time on doing mundane tasks and it’s something that we really believe is the future. We really believe that in order for us to continue to evolve the product we need to lean in more and more and more.”

Making selective editing easier than ever

One of the reasons I’m most excited about the new selection tools is the ability to easily mask out certain elements in an image. I can quickly and easily select the sky, for instance, to bring down the highlights and exposure. Or with a subject, I can make their jacket pop on the screen (or change color).

Haftel agrees that the selection tools are pretty exciting, as it gives users some pretty powerful capabilities that weren’t possible with Lightroom before.

“I’m incredibly excited about it. There’s been a number of different features we were finally able to get in this release,” said Haftel.

“This is one of those times in which we said like, well, what can we do to be able to support AI [and] ML inside of this masking and selective workflow. Which, if you think about it, it’s one of the most complicated things to do is to separate different parts of the image from the backgrounds. And we know that there’s limitations in terms of kind of the dumber approaches of whether it’s contrast edge detection, or color similarity detection.

“We know as human beings, we can look at a thing and be like, ‘Oh, that’s a person, that’s a shirt, that’s a thing.’ That’s what the promise of machine learning is. Is to be able to give ourselves the opportunity of guiding our customers toward a world in which they can just say, ‘What do I want to do? I want to make the sky darker. I just want to be able to do the thing that’s in my head.’

“You can imagine I don’t really want to make a really super intense selection if I don’t know for sure it’s going to be what is gonna be great. Now it gives people a chance to do so with one button.

The selective editing tools — in addition to other AI editing tools inside Lightroom — have the aim of making edits easier on the end user. Ultimately, easier selections leads to faster editing, which means a faster overall workflow.

“What we want to do is we want to go more and more toward this goal of being able to say, ‘I want you as the photographer, to be able to focus on the thing that you want to do. Don’t worry about like which tool you would use.’

No more “where’s that pin?”

We all remember from the previous versions of Lightroom and Lightroom Classic that we’d have individual pins for each adjustment while using the masking tools. These were cumbersome, especially if you have more than a few, as they were difficult to track down which pin did what.

“If you’re trying to figure out what’s affecting your photo, and this one particular area, you have to click on three different buttons to see if there’s a pin for this one there,” said Haftel. “Is that one a brush or a radial gradient? Oftentimes, it could be either one of those two things, and you don’t know which one it is and not to click through three different things.”

Pins are a thing of the past … and I certainly won’t miss them!

With today’s update, it not only means that masking and selecting is easier than ever, but the organization of your masks is simple. And it’s easy to find what does what.

“Now, all the things are showing up for all the different tools simultaneously inside of one mask. And so that means that I can see at a kind of overview level, all the things that are affecting this mask currently together in one place.

“That’s just one example of fast … like this person’s workflow, they showed a side-by-side comparison of what they did to edit this photo originally, and the old version of masking, so to speak, and then what they did in the current version of masking. The difference was like, you can see that this person was able to, like, immediately find the offended pin. He was able to just like, find it, click on it, delete it, done down to the next thing.”

Close to editing parity

When I first spoke with Tom Hogarty at Adobe MAX in 2018, he mentioned the goal with Lightroom was to have parity with Lightroom Classic. So where are we at on that journey? Well, when it comes to editing … we’re there, at least when it comes to desktop.

“Between my desktop in Lightroom and Classic, there is now 100% parity between the editing tool sets,” Haftel said.

“One of the main things that was missing prior to this new masking functionality was luminance range masking and color range masking across like on Lightroom desktop or Lightroom mobile. And now that exists.

On the mobile front, there’s a few things still missing, mainly due to limitations put in place by the devices. But those are starting to be lifted, and Haftel hinted that editing parity on mobile could be on the horizon.

“The one caveat is that mobile still doesn’t have two editing features, which is the HDR and panorama merge, as it still has difficulties about random access. And we know that iOS 15 on tablets, especially made it accessible for those iPad Pros to have access to more stuff.”

When it comes to the organizational tools, Lightroom seems to be a bit further behind, missing things like color labels. And when it comes to local storage, Adobe is continuing to push Lightroom Classic to professionals who need a massive amount of storage they don’t want in the cloud.

“In terms of other kinds of parity, there are elements, other elements, but there isn’t parity. That still is the case. And they’re still a question like, the there’s that process of evolving like a desktop and adding more features in there based off of the needs of the customers.

“And so some things like tethering is still not there, printing is still not there. There’s a couple other features that we’re constantly evaluating and looking at are the needs of our customers, the opportunities, how we build the right thing to do it, what is like the area that has the most need, and just balancing things together. We have to be focused on the things that brings the most joy to the most customers.”

On the organizational front, there’s a bit more work to do.

“We’re constantly exploring what the needs of our customers are. For now, we’re seeing that customers that need a lot of local storage are opting for Lightroom Classic. There continues to be significant interest in Lightroom though, which we see as different types of customers with different needs.”

Is Adobe going to kill Lightroom Classic?

With each update Adobe announces, there are inevitably some photographers who think that Lightroom Classic will sail off into the sunset. But this is anything but true.

“We’re finding that there are people really like Lightroom Classic, great, we continue to invest in Lightroom Classic. You can see that Classic got all the new features and the masking functionality.

“[But] we keep on hearing people like you’re gonna kill [Lightroom Classic]. Why do you believe that? Just because Google kills every product under the sun doesn’t mean that we’re Google.”

Getting the community involved

Over the past two years, with each new major update to Lightroom, there are a few different community features added. Last year it was the Discover edits feature. This year, it’s Community Remix.

“We’re definitely seeing a really nice level of early adoption, but it’s still early days,” Haftel said.

The possibilities here though are exciting, as it will let users experiment with different looks, and get inspired by other users. And for beginner photographers who are looking to not only edit their images, but to understand the process of getting from start to finish, Community Remix holds a lot of potential when it comes to education.

What does the future hold?

Haftel gave a few hints on what to possibly expect in the next few years, with most of it being AI and ML-based in nature.

“We have a lot of different things that are happening. I think that everybody that’s keeping notes at home is aware that Mark Lavoy joined Adobe. Mark Lavoy was is the father of computational photography and was working on the Google Pixel. And you know, he was the person that came up with night sight, before Apple had it. And we came up with a lot of these other really, really interesting technologies.

“We’re working with him very closely. So you can imagine that Mark and his team are going to be impacting the ecosystem in various different ways, that I won’t get into specifically, but you can read between lines.”

Ultimately though, it’s about the user experience, making the product easy to use and helping the end user.

“But there’s another part of it, which is success. Like how do we help people be successful, faster and easier? So if you look at the AI and ML-based masking tools, the idea of, how do I just like with one click whether you are brand-new to the ecosystem or professional, those tools really, really make your life better, and [it’s] faster and easier to accomplish your goals.

“So it’s not just about like these shiny new machine learning technologies. It’s also about like the kind of like the user experience and product development one on one, like make the product easy to use, yeah, figure out what your customers need, get out of their way and help them accomplish their goals.”

Needless to say, after a huge product launch, I think Haftel put it best: “Hold on to your shoes, folks, because they’re starting to come right off.”