Lightroom or Photoshop?

Lightroom has grown up. I've made 30x40 inch prints from this image using only Lightroom (except for the final print sharpening). Yet Photoshop can still do things that Lightroom can't.
Lightroom has grown up. I've made 30x40 inch prints from this image using only Lightroom (except for the final print sharpening). Yet Photoshop can still do things that Lightroom can't.

"Should I get Lightroom or Photoshop?" This is a question I get asked a lot, usually by people who own Photoshop Elements and are thinking of upgrading to either Lightroom or the full version of Photoshop.

Six years ago this was an easy decision, because Lightroom didn’t exist. If you wanted to upgrade from Elements, the full version of Photoshop was the only real choice. But then Apple launched Aperture, Adobe countered with Lightroom, Nikon and Canon upgraded their software, and a host of other companies added even more options.

For now I’m going to keep this simple and just talk about Lightroom and Photoshop—mainly because these are the two most popular choices, but also because they’re the two applications I’m most familiar with, and they’re natural choices for people wishing to graduate from Adobe’s other photo-editing program, Elements.

The Short Answer

Here’s the simplest solution to the Lightroom vs. Photoshop dilemma: get both. But I’ll assume that people ask me this because they can’t afford both, or don’t want to learn two different programs.

So here’s a slightly longer answer: If you want to wring every ounce of perfection out of a few images, make big prints from them, and don’t mind learning a complicated piece of software, then take the plunge and buy Photoshop CS5. If you don’t need perfection, want to process many images efficiently, and/or wish to spend less time learning software, then get Lightroom.

Of course it’s not quite that neat and simple. You can make beautiful, big prints with Lightroom and Elements—but the full version of Photoshop will give you some extra tools that Lightroom and Elements don’t have. And you can process large numbers of images fairly efficiently with Photoshop CS5—but Lightroom is faster and, for most people, easier to learn.

Some Pros and Cons

In comparing these programs, it’s important to realize that Photoshop CS5 includes almost all the functionality of Lightroom, and more. Bridge, a separate application included with CS5, contains most of the viewing, sorting, and keywording functions of Lightroom’s Library module. Adobe Camera Raw (ACR), also included with CS5, is essentially identical to Lightroom’s Develop module. And then, of course, CS5 also has something Lightroom doesn’t have: the 800-pound gorilla of the photo-software world, Photoshop itself.

So if you want the ultimate power and sophistication of the full version of Photoshop, you could actually save money by skipping Lightroom, since you can do essentially all the same things with Bridge and Camera Raw.

The problem with this scenario is that going back and forth between these three separate applications—Bridge, Adobe Camera Raw, and Photoshop—is inherently clunky. And Bridge is slow, unintuitive, and buggy.

Lightroom elegantly melds the functions of Bridge and Camera Raw (plus a few others) into one program. Lightroom is also usually faster than Bridge, and, given its complexity, fairly intuitive and easy to learn. (Some people might differ with this of course—it depends on what you’re used to.)

I’ve seen many students who were unfamiliar with Lightroom at the beginning of a workshop become fans by the end. It’s a great tool for people who have made the transition from film reluctantly, or who don’t want to delve into all the complexities of the digital darkroom, yet want something sophisticated enough to grow into it as their knowledge and skills improve.

My Experience—And Why I Now Use Lightroom More Than Photoshop

I came to Lightroom from a different direction. I’d used Photoshop for many years before Lightroom existed. At first Lightroom was just a more convenient substitute for the awkward combination of Bridge and Adobe Camera Raw—a better way of viewing, editing, sorting, and keywording images than Bridge, with ACR’s engine for making basic adjustments to Raw files before bringing them into Photoshop.

As Lightroom has grown more sophisticated I use it more and more, and Photoshop less and less. The addition of the Adjustment Brush with Lightroom 2 allowed me to do dodging and burning—something I find essential with every image. Now I can take many images directly from Raw file to large print without ever touching Photoshop except for final print sharpening.

Re-processing this image from 2007 with the latest Lightroom engine gave me a sharper print with better contrast.
Re-processing this image from 2007 with the latest Lightroom engine gave me a sharper print with better contrast.

I’ve also come to appreciate the flexibility of Lightroom’s non-destructive workflow. Lightroom never alters your original Raw or JPEG file. Instead, it writes a set of instructions about how you want the image to look, and applies those instructions only if and when you export the image out of Lightroom (This applies to Adobe Camera Raw also). This means that I can always go back and change any aspect of any image without having to start over.

Let me give you an example of why I think this is so important: Last year, with the advent of Lightroom 3 and Photoshop CS5, Adobe upgraded the noise reduction and sharpening algorithms in Lightroom and Adobe Camera Raw. This was a major improvement in my opinion, something I wanted to take advantage of.

Unfortunately, I have a lot of older images that were processed with initial adjustments in Camera Raw or Lightroom, then taken into Photoshop for the rest. Since I processed these photographs before it was possible to bring Raw files into Photoshop as Smart Objects (if you’re unfamiliar with Smart Objects, you can see an example in this video), I have to start over with each image if I want to take advantage of the new Lightroom 3 engine.

If I had originally processed these images entirely with Lightroom I wouldn’t need to start over. A few clicks would update all these images with the latest noise reduction and sharpening algorithms, while keeping all my other adjustments to the images.

Having learned this lesson, as I’ve re-processed my older images I’ve used Lightroom as much as possible, Photoshop as little as possible. Not only has this been relatively quick and easy, the results—not just the sharpness and noise, but overall appearance—are as good or better than my previous work in Photoshop. No doubt this is largely do to my increased experience, but it shows what Lightroom is capable of. And if Adobe ever upgrades the engine in Lightroom again, I can update all these Raw files with just a couple of clicks.

Yes, you can make Photoshop behave in a non-destructive way by using Adjustment Layers and Smart Objects, but there are limitations. And you can’t update the sharpening settings on a hundred Photoshop files containing Smart Objects with just a few clicks.

Why Photoshop is Still Essential

As you’ve gathered, I’ve grown to like Lightroom quite a bit. It’s not perfect, but it does a lot of things well. Yet I still find Photoshop indispensable for some things, like these:

- Perspective cropping
- Serious retouching (for simple dust spots I can use Lightroom)
- Complex selections
- Combining two or more images (composites, expanding contrast range, expanding depth of field, panoramas)
- Targeted curves
- Adjusting a precise range of hues with Hue/Saturation
- Selective Color adjustments

Many of these things can be done in Elements, including perspective cropping, retouching, combining two or more images, and the finely-tuned Hue/Saturation adjustments. Of course there are some limitations—for example, you can’t open images in Elements as Smart Objects, restricting flexibility. And then there are those things that Elements and Lightroom can’t do. I frequently use that Selective Color adjustment for landscape photographs (see this video for a demonstration). Targeted curves are also sometimes indispensable (as shown in this tutorial by Charlie Cramer).

But nevertheless I think the Lightroom/Elements combo can work for many photographers, even most. Again, it depends on your goals: ultimate power to achieve perfection, but with more complexity, or slightly less power, but with greater ease and simplicity.

I always welcome your questions and comments, so have at it—or let me have it, as the case may be! What’s been your experience with these programs?

- Michael Frye

In the Moment: Michael Frye's Landscape Photography Blog

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    A most useful piece – thanks. I came at this through PSE9, then added Lr3. I have often wondered about adding CS5, though it’s really beyond my meaI agreagreee with you that most things are possible with the Lr3/PSE9 combination, though, more and more, I would like to use targeted curves. But is that worth an extra few hunddred ??/$s??

    Fizzog, thanks for chiming in. Is it worth that extra money to get CS5? Tough one. I guess only you can decide that. I’m hoping Adobe will include curves as one of the adjustment brush controls in the future, but who knows.

    Hi Michael. Interesting article. I have to add a little OT comment here as I’m reading. In fact I’m trying to move from CaptureNX to a CameraRAW/Lightroom and PS/Elements boundle. In the meantime I’m discovering how damn good CaptureNX is and at the same time how outdated is. CaptureNX really is a sort of combination of RAW converter and quasi pixel editor. Nearly is an ideal tool for landscape shooters. Marko

    Marco, some shooters like Moose Peterson use CaptureNX as one piece in a complex puzzle of software as the raw processing engine only. No real editing. Just the basic raw conversion. A tiff is then exported and Photoshop is used to finish the image. The idea is that Nikon knows their RAW image file the best and Adobe is just guessing. For me it’s too much trouble, and the quality I see works for me.

    Michael, what I would add is “try it your self!” I am amazed at the number of people that ask the “what should I use” question. Today the quality out of applications like LR, Ps, and Aperture is very good. Just like how a Nikon or Canon fit in different peoples hands, it comes down to feel and how your workflow fits with how the applications work. The good news is that LR and Aperture have full 30 day trials. Buy a book such as Scott Kelbys LR3 for Photographers and allocate a weekend. If it doesn’t fit donate the book to a friend and move on.

    I always think you should start with what you need. At less than $100 elements won’t break the bank. Find out if you say, “aw shucks, I need full PS to do that.” If that happens enough, you have your answer: shell out the big bucks. I started with elements and got an upgrade offer from Adobe for CS3 a couple years ago that saved me money too.

    Start with what you need now.

    I very much appreciate the information and thoughts on which way to go. I’m totally lost when it come to the Adobe programs. I’ve been using Corel Paintshop Pro X3 for the past year. We have an old version of PhotoShop Elements so I chose to learn the Corel program since we had it and it was the newest version. Most articles I’d read said the Adobe and Corel programs were “somewhat” comparible. The PaintShop Pro X3 has done everything I’ve need with my limited knowledge but I’ve not run into anyone else using the Corel program and many on the workshops I’ve considered attending are using Adobe Photoshop for photo developing.

    I spent the weekend discussing whether or not to go for the full Photoshop CS5 or start with the Lightroom 3. Leaning more towards the CS5 at this point but not yet fully committed.

    Marko, thanks for sharing your thoughts about Capture NX. I’ve seen and heard some good things about Capture NX (or NX2, or whatever the latest version is), but since I use Canon I don’t have hands-on experience with it, so it’s hard to judge. In theory Canon and Nikon should be able to get more out of their own Raw files. In practice it’s not that simple, as there could be particular images where the Adobe Raw converter (in Lightroom or Adobe Camera Raw) works better. The new engine and sharpening algorithms in Lightroom 3 and CS5 are impressive, real game-changers for making large prints (and something I’ll write about here at some point). I don’t know how this compares to Capture NX, obviously, but I’ll just say that I’m very happy with the quality I’m getting in Lightroom 3.

    Chris, indeed, all these programs come with free trials, so you can try them out and judge for yourself. The only issue is the learning curve – it’s hard for anyone to spend the time to learn any of these applications well enough on a trial basis to know all the pluses and minuses. But you can certainly get a good feeling for how well the tool fits you – as you point out.

    Rebecca, thanks, I’m glad you found this helpful. I’ve never used the Corel programs, so can’t speak about their relative merits. But you point out an issue with all of this, which is the amount of knowledge and information available for each program. The more popular the application is, the more information, workshops, etc. you’ll find to help you use it. It’s hard to buck the trend and go in a different direction, as, for better or worse, it’s just easier to find good information about the most popular programs.

    Willoughbys, there’s no doubt that Photoshop has a lot of controls that Lightroom lacks. I’m not sure how you define “specialized and unique color and tone,” but certainly if you want to create a different look, something less realistic and perhaps more creative, then Photoshop is a more powerful tool, although you can do a lot in Lightroom. I’m usually after a realistic interpretation of my photographs. I want them to look their best, and evoke the feeling I was after when I pressed the shutter, but I’m not going for creative post-processing effects. For my purposes, Lightroom usually works well.

    Alas, Elements has a number of major shortcomings of its own, such as sRGB color space only and no 16-bit data, which makes its combination with Lightroom less than ideal. However, it should be noted that Lightroom is very capable at interfacing with with many non-Adobe products such as Photomatix. I am finding less and less reason to rely upon CS5 for most of my photographic processing. The real power of CS5 is in the hands of experienced artists and graphic designers.

    I have PSE8 & LR3, I love them, they are so easy to use, with one exception – LR3’s library! I swear it will drive me crazy before I get it mastered. I would love to find a comprehensive FREE tutorial on this. I’ve looked but haven’t found anything useful yet. Any direction would be appreciated.

    I am so glad to have found this post. I have been considering my options re:upgrading from Photoshop Elements over the past couple of weeks, only having v5 installed on my pc. I’m now convinced that my decision to get both is correct and the way forward. It does come at a cost, but on the Adobe site they are offering a bit of a discount on Lightroom 3 if you buy it in conjunction with CS5. I’d do it immediately but my internet connection in deepest, darkest Africa just can’t handle it. I’m going to have to wait – and I am now incredibly impatient! Thanks for the info..

    Roger, Elements does have its shortcoming, for sure, but with PSE 9 for Mac I have the option of setting Adobe RGB as the default working space. Better yet, I can take images into it in ProPhoto RGB and it will retain that color space. And I don’t miss 16 bits. There’s a great theoretical difference between 8 bits and 16 bits, but I have yet to see an actual difference in the appearance of an image file. And you’re right, you can use Lightroom with Photomatix, or any of the Nik products, or my favorite exposure-blending software, LR/Enfuse. Using these plugins can make it less necessary to use any version of Photoshop.

    Janine, I don’t know of a free tutorial on the Lightroom library offhand. Maybe if you can tell me what your issue is with it I can direct you to something.

    Makul, Lu, I’m gad you found this timely and helpful! Lu, I hope you don’t have to wait too long.

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