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Lightroom vs Photoshop, what should I use?

One of the most popular questions about photography is actually about software. Should I buy Photoshop or Lightroom? With 2 power filled choices, and any number of possible uses, it’s an intimidating question – but let’s look at a few of the details and see if we can make the decision easier for you.



If you want to change pixels non-destructively (as many times as you want) then Lightroom is your game. If you want to move pixels (in more ways than you can imagine) then its Photoshop for you.





Lightroom Tank

Lightroom Icon
   Lightroom is
   like a battle tank.


It’s been streamlined to be so easy a soldier can operate it, and it does one thing really well – in particular, processing and improving your DSLR’s RAW files. Everything is in its place, and all the tools work together. Sure it’s versatile (you can output in many different ways, like choosing the right ammunition for the job). Lightroom’s strength is in its elegant focus on making photographs come to life.


Photoshop Icon
    Photoshop is
    like a fire engine.


It’s huge. It’s versatile. It can deal with almost everything – but that means a lot of the tools are tucked away in groups which can be hard to locate, and some of them look strange. Photoshop can do almost any task 3 different ways. As a result, there is a lot of complexity. Sometimes it can take a while to find a tool. Then you discover you’ve not been quite using that tool the way it was intended. Training is essential, and commitment is required. Photoshop is a powerhouse that can do graphics, photos, and even video! It integrates with lots of other programs to be the hub.


So, which one to choose?

Well, given that you can get both together at a very low price via Adobe’s CC (cloud) program – you don’t have to decide. And here’s the kicker: all the tools in Lightroom are included in in Adobe Camera RAW (ACR) in Photoshop. So why do we have Lightroom?

Lightroom thinks like a photographer. You have lots of photos, yeah? Lightroom understands that. You can import hundreds (thousands in my case) of images and effectively organise and archive them. Photoshop just opens one file at a time, and you have to use Adobe Bridge, a separate, but very powerful in its own right, program, to manage all your files.

You can copy and paste your changes from one image in Lightroom to any and all other images. You can create collections and selections of images. You can directly compare images against each other. Once again, it’s because Lightroom is for photographers, and very few of us come back with just one picture.

By now, you’ve probably twigged that Lightroom is a play on ‘dark room.’ And everything you used to do in a darkroom (and a heck of a lot more) is now at your fingertips without the mystery, complexity,cost of chemicals and hardware, or even a dedicated space.

But due to the focus of Lightroom’s functions, there are limits. Limits are good. Limits bring simplicity. Lightroom stores changes to pixels, while keeping the original file untouched. This means there are some things you just can’t do. Enter Photoshop.

Photoshop is the granddaddy of all image editing software. Its influence and involvement in the recent history of art and image expression cannot be understated. It makes it possible to illustrate the impossible – or to at least improve on reality. Photoshop has its roots in making Star Wars look more realistic, and easier to make. However, it’s not the only tool. Adobe Illustrator does illustration better. InDesign does layout for publishing better. Lightroom handles photos with speed and precision. All of these programs can open their files (and vice versa in many instances) in Photoshop because in there are the tools to really go to town and make your images do things.

The ability to work in layers and to mask, rather than delete. Pixels lets the user combine images and pieces of images in new and interesting ways. For example, you might have produced a great image in Lightroom, but in Photoshop, you can add a texture layer that transforms your image into a ‘painting'.

You can import your Illustrator file and add some real world atmosphere and texture to bring your picture into ‘reality’. 3D artists do this all the time as a common example.

As a heavy Lightroom user, I see Photoshop as a ‘finishing tool’ for my images. But when I have to design a brochure, add text, incorporate images together, Photoshop is king. It’s the power to bring pieces together in separate layers that gives you flexibility only limited by your imagination, and your mastery of the tools.

Lightroom can change pixels without any permanent change to the underlying file. Lightroom saves those changes, but you can go back anytime and undo, redo or retry.
The RAW file is the 'negative' of the old film days - you can reprint that negative as many times as you want, in as many ways as you want and it’s simple. For most photographic concepts and functions – Lightroom is THE purpose built solution.

This is why using both programmes is so great. Some people will prefer to work in one program or the other for ease of use, and to avoid having to learn too much at once. I agree that mastery of one, then the other will be easier for you. We need to break down some of the choices so that you can start somewhere.


Lightroom vs Photoshop


Who is Adobe Lightroom for?

The simple answer is photographers.

Yes, other can use it too – but all the tools are ordered and described in a flow that suits the photographer. The terminology and basic functions will all be familiar and easy to understand if you’ve got a simple understanding of cameras. Even if you don’t (point and shooters, this means you) the easy to grasp flow of the interface, how you use the modules and the tools in them, makes sense, and everything is 'undoable'.

Unlike Photoshop, the order you make changes in Lightroom does not affect the quality of the output – Lightroom does all of that under the hood. You can apply processes in any order, and it will come out as good as possible. That’s not to say you can’t push controls beyond taste and quality limits. The grain control and sharpening are often abused, but that’s not Adobe’s fault.

Lightroom makes it easy to get the photos in, and get them out in a variety of useful ways that suit the photographer. It also works with 3rd party plug-ins that add some of the secret sauce that Lightroom can’t produce, or would be complicated in Photoshop. Be wary though, most trips out of the Lightroom environment mean you end up with a finalised file such as a TIFF. Your original RAW file, however, remains untouched and is still there with all the Lightroom changes intact.

Who is Adobe Photoshop for?

Photoshop has such a powerful collection of tools, it’s for graphic designers, digital artists, illustrators and even photographers.

It can open your camera’s RAW files and has most of the tools that Lightroom has. It just operates with a different mind-set. When you want to move a pixel, or part of an image, you can do that in Photoshop. Once you understand working in separate layers, you see how you can affect change in specific small areas of the image. When you understand masking layers, you see how you can change things in a way that’s not permanent which deleting a pixels is.

You can’t move pixels in Lightroom. You can’t edit graphics with the same power in InDesign. You can’t work with photos in Illustrator. That’s why they all go home to Mamma Photoshop.

Photoshop’s amazing power to create graphics from scratch and combine so many different elements makes it invaluable. If you are a working professional in some aspect of the visual arts, and that includes video, then you’re probably already using Photoshop.

Okay – I have both. When should I use one or the other?

If you are using both Lightroom and Photoshop (you did get the cheap deal on Adobe Cloud, yes?) then you are probably a photographer, or you work with photos as part of your creative process.

You need to decide (at the beginning helps, but it’s too late for most of us) if you will manage your photos with Lightroom, or all your images (stuff you’ve downloaded, finished files, etc.) with Adobe Bridge.

This is important, because they both have powerful methods of sorting and tagging your images.

I use Lightroom to organise ALL of my original photos, and folders in Windows. For everything else. Bridge can see what’s in a .PSD file, or Photoshop file, so it’s a better way. But I have over 10,000 RAW files and only a few hundred other bits and pieces – so Lightroom is way more important.

I encourage you to explore the functions of Adobe Bridge, and if you are a heavy Photoshop user you will reap the rewards.

If you have RAW files, you might as well import and manage them with Lightroom. This also matters for JPGs out of camera, as you can still edit them, you just can’t push them as far as the more flexible RAW format.

Develop and do as much as you can in Lightroom, then open a copy of your image in Photoshop for the heavy lifting. An example might be using the liquefy tool in Photoshop to slim a waistline, or replacing the background in an image. You can always finish and save in Photoshop and your final image will be waiting for you in Lightroom to export as a print, upload to a website like Flickr or incorporate into a slideshow.

Once again, because of the tailored software of Lightroom, there are more options and more customised control in Lightroom for dealing specifically with photos. Try making a Slideshow with Photoshop and you will understand.

How much does Lightroom cost Vs Photoshop?

Adobe has aggressively pursued a ‘licensing’ model where you download the software, pay a monthly fee, and get every upgrade as soon as it’s available for free. In years gone by, most Adobe products got a serious upgrade every 18 months. You had to buy the full version every 18 months. That’s in many cases more than $400. If you are a power user with Photoshop, Illustrator, Premier, After Effects and Lightroom – that could add up to thousands of dollars every couple of years. Yes, there are free updates, but a bug fix or added cameras to your RAW list is nowhere near as fun as a whole new feature.

At the time of writing (November, 2014) a boxed version of Photoshop is AUD$827.20 or NZ$921.05

A student version (which cannot be upgraded) of Lightroom is NZ$130. The full version in a box is NZ$250.00

Now do the maths on getting Photoshop CC and Lightroom CC with continuous and free upgrades: AUD$119.99/year. Yep. $10 a month for Photoshop & Lightroom. Now do the maths on replacing that boxed version every 18months. It’s that much cheaper to go with the cloud model. $180 vs $1,171. Anyone who says ‘this cloud thing is a rip-off’ deserves to pay nearly $1000 more every year and a half. We’ll call it ‘ignorance tax.’

Adobe’s reward is the massive reduction in piracy. The sort of piracy that broke smaller companies, leaving them to be gobbled up by Adobe (the original story of Adobe Audition). Yep – your ‘well-meaning’ mate with the ‘latest version’ he didn’t pay for killed several cool companies leaving unemployed people scattered about the place and feeling rather sad that they didn’t reap the rewards of their ingenuity.

Adobe’s new and very affordable ‘user pays’ model lets you download and use programs at monthly or yearly rates. No one has a reason to complain at the price anymore. If you only edit 1 video every year, then rent it for 1 month every year.

If you qualify for an academic discount, consider carefully that you can’t get a discount on future upgrades with educational versions. Also consider the value of having the latest version all the time.

To learn more about prices and how to subscribe:

Just to make it easier on you, I will again state that even if you just wanted one of these, it’s cheaper to get both (Ps & Lr), and they complement each other so well, you will use both.

When is it time to get training in either program?

The sooner you get Photoshop training or Lightroom training,the sooner you will realise what you don’t know. One of the sneaky problems for most of us who are self-taught is that we miss things. Or we find the most complicated way to do something that has a dedicated tool.

I recently heard one of Adobe’s chief trainers admit she watched her own videos and learned something.

Photoshop in particular has so many tools, they’ve had to be compartmentalised, and we the humble user don’t actually know they are there…let alone know what they do.

Hands on training with a professional gives you a much needed ‘fill in the blanks’ overview that will create the foundation all your experiences will rest on. Make sure you get a well-designed foundation.

There are a ton of videos online, and watching them is a great way to learn. However, I have to stress the need to ask questions. Make sure at some point, even if you have used Ps or Lr for years, you get in front of a teacher who can assess where you are at and answer those nagging questions.

You will never lose money getting quality training, because you will gain back hours (years) of your life using the tools the right way.


The TL:DR* Conclusion

Both Lightroom and Photoshop are powered by the same engine. Lightroom’s control and workflow are designed for a photographer and have unique features that make life good for those of us primarily ‘developing’ pictures from our digital cameras.

Photoshop is great for putting lots of pieces together and moving pixels about. That’s why even when you use other software, Photoshop will enhance what you are doing.

Because Photoshop is so well endowed with lots of tools, there is more of a learning curve.

Lightroom is non-destructive and easy for a photographer to grasp.
Good training will make life better for anyone using either of these – there is a lot you can miss out on if you don’t know what you are doing.

Photoshop Elements is a cheap way into both programs, but not as powerful as Photoshop. There are a few other alternative programs, but none has the support like Adobe does from 3rd party software and training etc.

The cheapest and most efficient way to get both (and you will use both) is Adobe’s Creative Cloud Photography bundle.


*Too Long: Didn’t Read
(Which means you probably never read the instructions and need to sign up for some excellent training here at Bring Your Own Laptop).



Deane Patterson

About the Author: Deane Patterson is a Lightroom trainer, photographer, writer and media maven currently raising a small herd of children in Northland, New Zealand. He has a couple of decades of experience in broadcast television, film and the music industry. He has not yet grown up and chosen a career.





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