Whenever Lola and I post images on our website and the Facebook fan page, we get plenty of requests on post-processing from our readers. One question that keeps coming back all the time is about Lightroom vs Photoshop – many beginners do not know differences between Lightroom and Photoshop and have a hard time choosing which one to get first. In this article, I will show the main differences between these two software packages from Adobe, what they are used for and what you can do in Photoshop that you cannot in Lightroom. Most of this article will also apply for Aperture vs Photoshop discussion, because Aperture and Lightroom share very similar functionality.
1) What is Photoshop?
Photoshop was originally created as a tool for simple image editing, which since 1990 has grown into a monster software suite with many functions and capabilities to accommodate graphic designers, architects, animators, publishers, photographers and even 3D artists. Think of it as a Cadillac of image editing with an unlimited potential that can grow not only with software updates and upgrades, but also with special plugins known as “filters” from Adobe and third party software companies. Want to stitch multiple photographs into a single panorama? Or create a High Dynamic Range photograph? Or get rid of skin blemishes? Or perhaps make a person look taller, shorter, thinner or fatter? Yup, Photoshop can do all that; and much much more. It would be pointless to try to list what Photoshop can do, because it would probably be a never-ending list. The term “Photoshopped” is now a part of our daily jargon, because we are constantly exposed to altered images that might look realistic while being fake – that’s the power of Photoshop.
2) What is Lightroom?
The full name for Lightroom is “Adobe Photoshop Lighroom”, which may sound confusing, because it contains the word “Photoshop”. In a way, it makes sense, because Lightroom can be considered a subset of Photoshop with specific functionality that Photoshop does not and probably will never have. It was created for the main purpose of managing a large number of images, keeping them organized in one place. Photoshop is a very advanced image editing tool, but when you edit hundreds of images, keeping them organized becomes a problem over time. Before I started using Lightroom, my photography workflow solely consisted of Adobe Camera RAW (which allows opening, manipulating and converting RAW files) and Photoshop (which I used to fine-tune images before saving them into my hard drive). It was a complex, cumbersome and inefficient process, even after I semi-automated it through a batch process in Photoshop. The biggest challenge was organizing edited images in my hard drive, sorting and cataloging them. I am not even going to talk about finding images, because it was an impossible task that required reviewing thousands of thumbnails and image metadata in order to find what I was looking for. As my file catalog grew, I realized that I had to find a better way to organize my photographs. And that’s when I discovered Lightroom.
Lightroom is a database-driven image management software that automatically reads image metadata (such as camera make and model, date/time captured, aperture, shutter speed, ISO, white balance and more), known as EXIF and writes information about each photograph in a new database known as “catalog”. As images are imported, Lightroom has built-in functionality to add additional information to each image, allowing you to tag images with specific keywords, flags and star ratings. This makes it very easy to sort through hundreds of images and pick the best ones, edit them selectively or in batches, then export the best images directly into websites like Flickr and Facebook. This type of tagging and indexing is not available in Photoshop, because Photoshop does not keep a database with cataloged images.
In addition to media management capabilities, Lightroom contains a set of tools that allow photographers to manipulate images. In short, think of Photoshop as an image editing tool while Lightroom is an image management tool with some limited image editing capabilities.
3) Lightroom Image Editing Capabilities
Lightroom has a specific set of tools that make it easy to edit and manipulate images. Here is a list of tools available in Lightroom’s Develop Module (version 3.5):
- Histogram Sub-Module: Histogram, Crop & Straighten, Spot Removal, Red Eye Corrections, Graduated Filter, Adjustment Brush
- Basic Sub-Module: White Balance Temp and Tint; Exposure, Recovery, Fill Light, Blacks, Brightness, Contrast; Clarity, Vibrance, Saturation
- Tone Curve Sub-Module: Highlights, Lights, Darks, Shadows, Point Curve
- HSL / Color / B&W Sub-Module: Hue, Saturation, Luminance
- Split Toning Sub-Module: Highlights Hue & Saturation, Balance, Shadows Hue and Saturation
- Detail Sub-Module: Sharpening Amount, Radius, Detail, Masking; Noise Reduction Luminance, Detail, Contrast, Color, Detail
- Lens Corrections Sub-Module: Lens Profile, Distortion, Chromatic Aberration, Vignetting
- Effects Sub-Module: Post-Crop Vignetting Style, Amount, Midpoint, Roundness, Feather, Highlights; Grain Amount, Size, Roughness
- Camera Calibration Sub-Module: Process, Profile, Shadows Tint, Red Primary Hue and Saturation, Green Primary Hue and Saturation, Blue Primary Hue and Saturation
As you can see, the list of tools is rather long – from cropping and changing basic exposure to fixing lens-specific problems. Here is a screenshot of the Histogram / Basic sub-modules:
Specific changes can be saved as Presets and applied to a group of images. As Adobe develops new versions of Lightroom, new sub-modules and other sub-module specific features become available.
In addition to the image editing capabilities highlighted above, Lightroom also has built-in modules for creating slideshows, printing images, exporting image galleries for the web and more.
4) Photoshop Image Editing Capabilities
All of the above Lightroom image editing capabilities are automatically included in Adobe Camera RAW, which fires up when a RAW image is opened from Photoshop. While it looks a little different than Lightroom, every single function is mirrored in Camera RAW. When Adobe releases updates to Lightroom, it also releases updates to Camera RAW at the same time, so even small things like Lens Profiles get refreshed in both. Here is a screenshot of the Camera RAW panel:
And here is a comparison of the exposure sub-module:
As you can see, both have exactly the same functionality.
To sum it up, everything you can do in Lightroom can be done in Photoshop, plus much more. Some photographers use Adobe Bridge with Photoshop as part of their workflow without Lightroom. While bridge has some of the Lightroom functionality, it is not a database / catalog system. Think of it as a browser or file manager. Searching for an image requires going through all files, which could take a long time, whereas a similar search in Lightroom could be done in a matter of seconds – again, because Lightroom’s database is optimized for searching. If you have been using Adobe Bridge, try Lightroom and you will never go back to Bridge again.
5) What to buy – Lightroom or Photoshop?
The real question is what to buy – Lightroom or Photoshop? Since all of Lightroom’s image manipulation tools are already available in Photoshop, wouldn’t it make sense just to buy Photoshop? I always recommend to start off with Lightroom for the following reasons:
- Lightroom is easier to learn than Photoshop
- Lightroom already contains a big number of post-processing tools (as shown above) – good for 90%+ of editing tasks
- Lightroom will help you in establishing a solid photography workflow process
- Lightroom makes you more efficient, because you can go through and process many photos quickly, without having to deal with opening and closing files
- Lightroom will keep you organized by cataloging all of your images in one place, making it easy to find and work with images
- As a file and media management tool, Lightroom allows creating folders and sub-folders in your hard drive and can mass-rename files using templates.
- Editing images in Lightroom is non-destructive, which means that the original file never gets permanently changed, whereas Photoshop is a mix of destructive and non-destructive editing
- Unless separate layers are kept for every change, Photoshop does not keep historical changes. With Lightroom, you can go back and restore earlier settings after making changes
- Lightroom can display image metadata as an overlay as you edit photos. Photoshop cannot do that once an image is opened
- Lightroom is more than twice cheaper than Photoshop
I am sure there are many other advantages to using Lightroom, but these are the ones I personally find important.
Now remember when I said “I always recommend to start off with Lightroom”? This means that you will eventually have to get Photoshop. If you are planning to do any serious editing, you will have to get Photoshop to be able to do things you cannot do in Lightroom. It could be for something simple like removing an object from your image, to something more advanced like stitching panoramas.
6) Which version to buy
Buying Lightroom is easy – there are only two editions (besides education version) to choose from:
If you already own an older Lightroom license, then you buy the upgrade. If this is your first Lightroom purchase, then you buy the retail package.
Buying Photoshop, on the other hand, can be rather challenging. There are two different Photoshop editions – Adobe Photoshop CS5 and Adobe Photoshop CS5 Extended. The latter contains extra tools for 3D animation, video, web design and more. Do not waste your money on the Extended edition and buy the regular one. Another problem is that Adobe Photoshop is also shipped in different packages and there are all kinds of upgrade packages available as well. Don’t worry about any of those either, unless you need specific software like Illustrator in addition to Photoshop and you are looking for a packaged deal. Here are the two Photoshop editions for photographers:
- Photoshop CS5 Upgrade Package for Mac and for Windows
- Photoshop CS5 Retail Package for Mac and for Windows
Again, if you already own an older copy of Photoshop, get the upgrade package. If you are looking for a bundle package for photographers that includes Lightroom and Photoshop, here are the two packages:
- Lightroom and Photoshop CS5 Bundle Upgrade Package for Mac and for Windows
- Lightroom and Photoshop CS5 Bundle Retail Package for Windows
If you are just getting into photography, but want to explore an alternative image editing software without breaking the bank that can do many of the things Photoshop can, then you might want to check out Adobe Photoshop Elements. At a fraction of Photoshop’s cost, it has many of the features, tools and filters from Photoshop. Think of Photoshop Elements as a light version of Lightroom and a light version of Photoshop combined. While you can use Photoshop Elements to organize, edit, print and publish photographs, it can also nicely integrate with Lightroom if you choose to use Lightroom’s image organization features instead. If you just take pictures of your family and occasional landscapes & nature photos, then Photoshop Elements is a good choice.
The best photography workflow, in my opinion, involves both image editing and image management software working hand-in-hand like Lightroom and Photoshop do. When you come across an image in Lightroom that you need to edit in Photoshop, you simply right-click the image and click on “Edit in Adobe Photoshop”. The image opens up in Photoshop and once you are done with all the changes, saving the image imports that new image back into Lightroom and this kind of two-way communication is automatic. No need for imports or exports. The good news is that you can simultaneously work in both, which speeds up your workflow even more. The bad news is that owning both Lightroom and Photoshop is expensive. Another bad news is that once you get Photoshop, you will probably want to get good third party plugins as well, which means additional investment.
At the end of the day, good and reliable software is important for every photographer. Start off with Lightroom and once you learn its functionality and its limitations, get a copy of Photoshop to open up new doors in front of you. But be warned – Photoshop can be both a rewarding and a frustrating experience. It often takes years for professionals to truly master it.