One question that keeps coming from our readers 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.
Table of Contents
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 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.
What is Lightroom?
The full name for Lightroom is “Adobe Photoshop Lightroom”, 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.
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:
- Histogram and Tools Sub-Modules: Histogram, Crop & Straighten, Spot Removal, Red Eye Correction, Graduated Filter, Radial Filter, Adjustment Brush.
- Basic Sub-Module: Treatment: Color and Black & White; Camera Profiles; White Balance: Temp and Tint; Tone: Exposure, Contrast, Highlights, Shadows, Whites and Blacks; Presence: Texture, Clarity, Dehaze, Vibrance and Saturation.
- Tone Curve Sub-Module: Region: Highlights, Lights, Darks, Shadows; Point Curve.
- HSL / Color / B&W Sub-Module: Hue, Saturation, Luminance.
- Split Toning Sub-Module: Highlights: Hue, Saturation and Balance; Shadows: Hue and Saturation.
- Detail Sub-Module: Sharpening: Amount, Radius, Detail and Masking; Noise Reduction: Luminance, Detail, Contrast, Color, Detail and Smoothness.
- Lens Corrections Sub-Module: Lens Profile: Remove Chromatic Aberration, Enable Profile Corrections; Manual: Distortion, Defringe and Vignetting.
- Transform Sub-Module: Auto Transform, Transform: Vertical, Horizontal, Rotate, Aspect, Scale, X Offset, Y Offset.
- Effects Sub-Module: Post-Crop Vignetting: Style, Amount, Midpoint, Roundness, Feather, Highlights; Grain: Amount, Size, Roughness.
- Camera Calibration Sub-Module: Process Version, 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.
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.
Which to Start With – Lightroom or Photoshop?
The real question is, which software should one start with – Lightroom or Photoshop? Since all of Lightroom’s image manipulation tools are already available in Photoshop, wouldn’t it make sense just to start using 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.
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 should eventually start exploring Photoshop. If you are planning to do any serious editing, you will have to get into Photoshop to be able to do things you cannot do in Lightroom. For example, removing objects in Lightroom is very limited and slow, whereas Photoshop’s healing tools are very powerful in comparison. There are many other tools that are simply not available in Lightroom, such as the ability to focus stack images, or working with different layers.
Which Version to Buy
Unfortunately, Adobe has discontinued the retail versions of Lightroom and Photoshop, so you can longer buy them separately. The only way to buy Lightroom or Photoshop today is to subscribe to Adobe’s Creative Cloud platform. We have written a number of articles at PL criticizing Adobe’s subscription platform, but the company is not going to back out of its decision and will no longer provide support for any retail versions of the software.
You can subscribe to Adobe Creative Cloud plans through Adobe’s website, or through our trusted partner B&H Photo Video below:
- Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan (12 Month Subscription, includes Photoshop) ($119.88)
- Adobe Creative Cloud Photography Plan at Adobe.com ($9.99 per month)
If you are just getting into photography, but want to explore an alternative image editing software without having to pay a monthly subscription fee, then you might want to check out Adobe Photoshop Elements. It has many of the features, tools, and filters from Photoshop, with some stripped out features. 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. If you are wondering about differences between Elements and Lightroom, see our Photoshop Elements vs Lightroom article.
The best photography workflow, in my opinion, involves both image editing and image management software working hand-in-hand as 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 you will need to pay Adobe $9.99 per month to be able to do that. Another bad news is that once you get Photoshop, you will probably need to get additional education and possibly third-party tools as well, which translates to additional investment of time and money.
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, start using Photoshop to open up new doors in front of you. But be warned – Photoshop can be both a rewarding and frustrating experience. It is a complex piece of software that has a significant learning curve.