I often get questions about Lightroom vs. Photoshop and how the two programs compare.
Have you ever been disappointed after you download your photos to your computer? The result on the screen does not look like you envisioned when you took the photo. Other photographers photos have punch and vibrant colors, yours are dull and boring. What's going on?
I can tell you it's nothing wrong with your camera.
The fact is most digital image files need editing to some extent to make justice.
Therefore at some stage in your photography career, you will need a photo editing software.
There are many options available including some great free ones.
In this article, I will discuss the similarities and differences between the two most popular alternatives Lightroom and Photoshop. Both are made by Adobe. Photoshop has been on the market since 1990 and have gone through a huge transformation over the years. Lightroom is much younger, released in 2007.
Important: In this article I am comparing Lightroom to the full version of Photoshop. There is also a “light” version - Photoshop Elements. Photoshop Elements is a stripped down version of Photoshop CC and falls somewhere between Lightroom and Photoshop CC.
At a core level, Lightroom and Photoshop are both image editing software. Both can process different image file formats including RAW files. RAW is the file type that offers most flexibility when you edit your photos. I recommend you save your files as RAW if your camera has this feature.
With RAW files, all the data the sensor captures are intact, and you can pull out a lot of information from the files. Both Lightroom and Photoshop use the same RAW engine - the Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) processing engine.
Adobe Camera Raw is built into Lightroom. Photoshop cannot process RAW files without installing Adobe Camera RAW as a plugin.
With both programs you can do basic editing such as Exposure, White Balance, Contrast, Colors, Noise reduction, Sharpening and more.
Lightroom is as made for photographers. Photoshop is massive and have many features not only for photographers but also graphic designers, web designers, digital artist, 3D artist and others. With all the features Photoshop is a lot more advanced but also harder to understand and learn.
Lightroom Develop interface
Photoshop Adobe Camera RAW conversion plugin
Both Lightroom and Photoshop work with RAW files. In Lightroom the Adobe Camera RAW converter is built into the interface. In Photoshop the Adobe Camera RAW converter opens up as a separate plugin in the Photoshop interface. The different sliders appear similar in both programs.
One important feature with Lightroom vs. Photoshop is in Lightroom you work with your image files none destructive. All edits you make to the image are stored as references to the original in a Lightroom catalog. The original file remains untouched when you edit in Lightroom.
This is a huge advantage as you will never by mistake overwrite or destroy your original files. In Photoshop you work directly on the image and all changes are applied directly to each file. If you forget to Save as and give the file a new name, you will overwrite the original. By using Smart objects, you can work around this in Photoshop.
It might surprise you, but Lightroom doesn't even have a Save button. You never save a file in Lightroom. You export the files with the edits when you are finished. Lightroom automatically saves the edits in the catalog.
Photoshop is a pixel level editor. This is an advantage if you need to do very detailed edits on any parts of your images. You can make extremely accurate masks and adjustment with Photoshop.
When you save a file in Photoshop, and you want to be able to go back and make changes to the image later, you must save the file as a PSD-file (Photoshop format). PSD files can be huge and occupy a lot of space on your hard drives.
Because the edits you make to a file in Lightroom are saved as instructions in the Lightroom database, you use much less hard drive space.
Lightroom vs. Photoshop - Workflow
With the Lightroom workflow, you can do everything from importing your photos, tag and keyword them, do advanced editing, and finally exporting the photos in many different ways.
Another great feature in Lightroom is you can batch process photos. This might not be the most useful tool for landscape photographers as we tend to work on one photo at a time. Portrait and wedding photographers often work with a whole series of photos for their clients. For this kind of work, it can be useful and time-saving to batch process similar images from the same shoot.
Lightroom has more time-saving possibilities compared to Photoshop. Presets are one way to automate your processes in Lightroom. You can read more about Lightroom presets in this article.
Photoshop has something similar but much more advanced called actions. You can record anything you do in Photoshop into an action. If you want to do the same process to another image, you can run the action and save a lot of time. Photoshop actions are not as intuitive as Lightroom presets, and they are more challenging to create.
Another useful feature in Lightroom is the possibility to create Virtual copies of your images. You can create several copies of the same file with the purpose of testing different edits. These copies have a reference to the original file and do not take up any extra hard drive space.
You have no such possibilities in Photoshop. You must save different edits as separate files. Each of these files uses an equal amount of hard drive space.
A powerful tool in Lightroom is collections. With collections, it is possible to group photos for easy access later. The same photo can be part of many collections without being copied. Similar to virtual copies the files in collections are only referenced in the database. Again these files don’t take up any additional hard drive space.
Photoshop has no similar feature unless you use Adobe Bridge. This solution works but is not as seamless as in Lightroom.
Exporting and printing
Exporting a large number of files is a simple task in Lightroom. In Photoshop, you have to export one file at a time.
Printing your photos at home is easier with Lightroom. Printer settings and dealing with printer profiles can be a daunting task. When I used Photoshop to print, I lost a lot of paper and ink because I missed an important printer setting.
For advanced color calibration and professional offset printing Photoshop has more advanced features.
Finally in Lightroom, you can create slideshows, print books, and share your photos directly to Facebook and your other social media sites.
Lightroom for mobile
Lightroom Mobile is one of the new and powerful features of Lightroom.
You can synchronize collections of photos from Lightroom to Lightroom Mobile on your smartphone and tablet. You can rate, tag and edit photos with Lightroom Mobile and synchronize the changes back to your desktop version of Lightroom. When back in Lightroom you can further enhance your photos.
Lightroom vs. Photoshop - archiving and organization
One strong feature of Lightroom you cannot do in Photoshop is archiving, ranking and tagging your photos. Lightroom is a very powerful database where you can store all your photos in a structured way. You can organize thousands of photos in an easy to use interface. You can easily search and find back photos if they are tagged and rated the right way.
Photoshop users have to use Adobe Bridge for keywording and cataloging features.
Photoshop Elements has a built in “Organizer” but nothing near as powerful as the Lightroom database.
Lightroom for landscape photographers
Some of the tools and features in Lightroom seems to be made for landscape photographers.
The Gradient tool is one of the most used tool when you edit landscape photos. In many situations with the sky in the composition, it is a problem to get the exposure right for both the sky and the foreground.
Instead of using a physical Neutral Density gradient filter in front of your lens, you can achieve the same effect by using the Gradient tool in Lightroom.
The High Dynamic Range (HDR) function where you can merge differently exposed photos into one correct exposed photo.
Stitching several photos into a Panorama has never been simpler after Adobe implemented this tool directly into Lightroom in version 6. Earlier you had to use Photoshop for HDR and Panoramas.
When do you need Photoshop?
Photoshop's strengths are when you need to do complex edits and manipulations of photos. With Photoshop, you can create a photo from many layers, and you can use advanced masking techniques. These are incredibly useful tools for digital artists that make composites. Photoshop is also the go to software when you need to make advanced selections.
Photoshop Elements comes at a lower price but has many of the features of the full version of Photoshop. Some features in Photoshop Elements are easier to use for beginners because Elements guides you through the tasks. In general Elements is a consumer software intended for basic edits and to have fun with your photos.
The main reason to choose Photoshop Elements is the price. Photoshop Elements is not tied to a subscription plan. You can buy the standalone product for a one-time payment of $100.
When I create composites and digital art there is no way around using Photoshop. This image is made out of several layers.
So, what is the result of the Lightroom vs. Photoshop comparison - which software should you choose?
The answer is not so difficult anymore as you get both Lightroom and Photoshop if you buy the photographers Creative Cloud subscription ($10/month).
You can still purchase the boxed version of Lightroom, but Adobe will no longer update this version with new features. You can keep going for a while with the available features in Lightroom boxed, but the problem is when new cameras are released. If you buy a new camera, you run the risk Lightroom does not support this new camera's RAW files.
If you are a beginner photographer I recommend you to start with Lightroom. Lightroom is sufficient for most photographers, even professionals.
I rarely use Photoshop for regular photo editing. Occasionally I need to do advanced layers and luminosity masking. I also use Photoshop when I create composites and digital art. I guess I do about 90-95% of my photo editing in Lightroom, and it works totally fine. I’ve been using Photoshop since version 3, and I have used Lightroom since the launch.
I have used the boxed versions of both Lightroom and Photoshop for a long time, and I must admit it took me a while before I jumped on the subscription plan. I have not regretted, and it is totally worth the cost of USD 10/month to have an updated software at all times.