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Hands-on with Adobe Lightroom Mobile for iPad

Adobe's Lightroom has become the dominant image organising and non-destructive-editing application among serious photographers. However, it has been very awkward to integrate mobile devices into a Lightroom-based workflow. Not only has it been inconvenient to incorporate images shot on a mobile device, but unless your tablet runs a full version of Windows, it hasn't been possible to review, edit, or share your images on the go in a way that is compatible with your main Lightroom system and catalogues.

Adobe has just changed all that with Adobe Lightroom mobile – available today for the Apple iPad. Lightroom mobile allows you to view and edit your existing Lightroom collections on your mobile device, and to create new collections from your mobile images.

Adobe has made the process of sharing a collection with your iPad amazingly simple and efficient. You simply mark collections in your desktop or laptop Lightroom as "Sync with Lightroom mobile." Adobe then uploads smart previews of those images to its cloud-based servers, and these are then downloaded by Lightroom mobile for review and editing.

To get started you'll need the new Lightroom 5.4 – a free update for registered Lightroom users, available today. You'll also need to have a subscription to one of Adobe's Creative Cloud offerings. You simply log into your Adobe account and link your desktop or laptop Lightroom to your mobile device once you've installed Lightroom mobile from the App Store on your iPad. The app is currently only available for iPads running iOS 7, with the iPhone scheduled as the next supported platform, followed by Android.

Lightroom mobile makes image editing fun

I get to see a lot of compelling software demos, and Adobe's Tom Hogarty gives some of the better ones. So I wasn't surprised that he was passionate about the advantages of Lightroom on the iPad, and made using Lightroom mobile look not only useful but fun for reviewing and editing images. I wasn't even surprised that when he handed me his iPad and showed me around the interface, I found it was straightforward and easy to learn. Unlike a lot of other products that demo well but fizzle in real life, when I had a chance to set Lightroom mobile up for real with my image collections and my iPad, it was actually as easy to use and as fun as when I demoed it. Adobe has done an amazing job of stripping down the basic tasks of image review (simple thumbs up, thumbs down), and editing, into something intuitive and tablet-friendly.

The first thing you see after logging in with your Adobe ID is a screen of your collections – the ones that you have synced from your desktop or laptop Lightroom. You can also create a collection of photos from your iPad's camera roll that will show up on the main screen. Touching a collection brings it up in a stylish grid for quick reviewing. From here, selecting an image displays it in Loupe View – where you can examine and edit it in detail.

Loupe View offers four different modes: Filmstrip shows thumbnails of the collection below the image, Adjustments lets you edit the image non-destructively using Lightroom's Basic settings, Presets lets you apply any of a number of Adobe-defined settings, and Crop lets you crop the image. The Adjustments are dead simple to use. You simply click on the adjustment you want to change and a slider appears that you can move left or right to increase or decrease its value. You can also share the finished image from here.

Lightroom mobile's clean UI is augmented with some simple gestures. Swiping up flags an image as a "Pick," while swiping down makes it a "Reject." A three-fingered touch switches between your original and edited image. Adobe was very careful with the design of the Loupe View to make sure it would work in both portrait and landscape modes – as well as eventually on the smaller screen of the iPhone and other smartphones.

Adobe is not the first company to offer a simplified editing capability for mobile devices. Google's Snapseed for Android and iOS, and Nokia's Creative Suite for Windows Phone users both offer similar features, for example. However, Adobe's tight integration with its popular Lightroom software makes Lightroom mobile uniquely suited for serious photographers who need a unified editing and review paradigm that spans both their desktop and laptop systems – as well as their mobile devices.

Lightroom mobile can be your all-in-one darkroom – if you shoot JPEG

For those starting to drool over the idea of having a fully mobile workflow, Lightroom mobile makes it possible with one caveat – you need to shoot JPEG. As long you shoot with your iPad – or only transfer JPEGs from your camera to your iPad – you can use Lightroom mobile to edit your images on the go. You can even tell Lightroom mobile to automatically upload your images as you shoot them – through the cloud and then to your home Lightroom system. At least for now, this capability doesn't work with RAW files, just JPEGs.

Until Lightroom mobile is available for smartphones – the workhorse of mobile photographers – using Lightroom as a mobile-only darkroom will be of limited value. However, pros needing a quick preview of a scene or a shoot that they can touch up and share quickly with clients will find it useful. So will amateurs who use their tablet as their primary camera.

Stop worrying and learn to love the cloud?

Adobe has an interesting pricing model for Lightroom mobile. The app itself is free, but using it requires one of its Cloud subscriptions. For those who have already bought into Adobe's Creative Cloud, or taken advantage of its £8.80-per-month Photoshop Photography Program subscription, you're good to go. But if you've been buying Lightroom or Photoshop a la carte, you'll need to move to the cloud. For £105 per year for both Photoshop CC and Lightroom, the Photography Program is a pretty good deal for any serious photographer, but that doesn't mean everyone is going to love the idea of moving to a rental model for their productivity tools.

For me, one of the most exciting parts of Lightroom mobile is how much power it packs into a very simple and easy-to-use interface. Much like Photoshop Touch, the process of reinventing applications for tablets can turn up some great simplifications and improvements that would also benefit desktop users. I expect to see future touch-friendly versions of both of these applications that run on desktops but allow for streamlined interfaces as an option.