Lightroom 3 vs. Photoshop CS5

Recently, I have been receiving a bunch of questions regarding which software to use to process images. And within those questions I am invariably asked which is better. Although I feel this can be a personal decision, I can offer up some advice on how and what I use and what the difference to those solutions are.

Processing images used to be a simple answer. Choose a film, run said film through your camera and have the lab develop the results. Though there were a few ways to change the effect of your film choice, cross processing, push processing, etc., your results were completely predictable. You learned how to work with your film choice and you made image creation decisions based upon the knowledge of the limitations of that film. Now the game has changed, and in my honest opinion, changed for the better.

Now in the world of digital you are bound, for the most part, only by your imagination--especially if you photograph using the raw capture like I do. There are multiple companies producing image adjustment software, but for me, the best, easiest to use, and most popular are made by Adobe. Lightroom and Photoshop are the two mainstays that most photographers come to use if their photography heads to a more serious level. It is the software that most plug-in manufacturers design for and this in turn extends the capabilities of the Adobe products extensively.

The Painted Hills Before Any Adjustments by Jay Goodrich
The Painted Hills Before Any Adjustments © Jay Goodrich

I use Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5 to master almost every photograph that I create. Is this a necessity? Can you create publishable photographs with just one of these software packages or the other? Or is there another software for that matter? The answer is undoubtedly, yes. I recently wrote an article that summarized my basic workflow process. In this process, I highlighted what I use and how I use it to organize the images in my file. Should you use one or both of these softwares? I think that decision can only be answered by you.

The Painted Hills Processed with Lightroom 3 Only by Jay Goodrich
The Painted Hills Processed with Lightroom 3 Only © Jay Goodrich

I use Lightroom 3 to catalog and complete global adjustments to contrast, color, and exposure to my images. Once I get an image pretty close to what I think they should look like, I then import that image into Photoshop to make targeted adjustments to very specific aspects of the image. This targeted image is then saved and stacked directly with the original raw in my Lightroom catalog.

The Painted Hills Lightroom Screen Shot by Jay Goodrich
The Painted Hills Lightroom Screen Shot © Jay Goodrich

The images in this post highlight how you can achieve image mastery with not only Lightroom but with Photoshop as well. If I were going to export an image from just Lightroom without any additional work in Photoshop, I would push my image adjustments a little further in Lightroom which you can see above. Notice how the starting image has a little less contrast then the Lightroom processed only image.

The Painted Hills Further Processed with Photoshop CS5 by Jay Goodrich
The Painted Hills Further Processed with Photoshop CS5 © Jay Goodrich

However, I am looking to take my photographs a little further. I have photographed for close to 20 years from the film era through to the current digital one. I want my images to convey the sense of the film that I used and loved for 15 years--Fujichrome Velvia. This film was super saturated, full of contrast, and the choice of many of the top pros at the time. Velvia was not perfect, it often over saturated the greens, went to far to the blue spectrum, and could easily go black with just a bit of underexposure. The beauty of our current state of image processing is that I can now get that contrast and color from within Photoshop, but I can also target my adjustments very specifically, and have less of the downfalls that existed with Velvia. Notice how much further my image can be taken from within Photoshop.

The Painted Hills Further Processed with Photoshop CS5 by Jay Goodrich
The Painted Hills Further Processed with Photoshop CS5 © Jay Goodrich

Here are the pros to using Photoshop and Lightroom to help you to consider which aspects might allow them to work for you. I am not listing any cons because, I feel for me, they do not add reasons for not using one of these softwares.

Pros for Lightroom:

All inclusive cataloging, editing, printing, and exporting software.

Uses the same raw converter as Photoshop.

Much faster than Bridge.

Easy to navigate.

Pros for Photoshop:

Can apply a targeted adjustment to any aspect of any image.

Image adjustments can be taken farther.

Many more production options.

Much more powerful software tool.

Neither of these techniques for processing an image is wrong or right. Again, it is entirely up to you regarding how far you take an image. If I were truly arguing which were better, you would already understand that I believe in both Lightroom and Photoshop and use both on almost every image that makes my file of publishable selects.

9 Comments

    Thanks Jay. This article answered a few questions I had regarding whether or not I needed CS5 in my workflow. I use Lightroom 3 and Nik Complete (Color Efex Pro 3.0, Viveza, Silver Efex Pro, Define 2.0, Sharpener 2.0) to do all my processing. The Nik software is my answer to “taking it a little farther” choosing film presets, cross-processing and making other choices to enhance my images. There still are a few things that can only be done in Photoshop, but that chasm grows smaller every day. Thanks again.

    Thanks for the comparison, Jay. I was having this exact discussion with a friend last week, but I couldn’t speak with true Lightroom experience–only what I’d heard. I “grew up” with Photoshop. I’ll send my friend to this post 🙂

    Great post Jay. I’m an ACR/Photoshop user who catalogs with Expression (going back to the iView days) and I think the catalog portion is where a lot of people get hung up in the decision. It’s nice to have an all inclusive package like Lightroom, but as you say, sometimes you need to take the individual components to the next level. Most importantly we can now get that look we loved in Velvia with RAW and a variety of digital solutions.

    Thanks for the comment Russ. I use Photomechanic at the initial upload. It allows me to edit, keyword, and rename super fast before bringing the main keepers into Lightroom and beyond. Workflow is a very personal thing. Those who master it make it work the way they think.

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