Adobe Photoshop vs Lightroom: When and Why to Use Each Program

Photographers ask us all the time to compare Adobe Photoshop vs Lightroom. They want to know which one they should use. The truth is, there’s no clear cut answer – it depends on the project. Here’s a brief rundown of when and why you should use each program.

What is Photoshop?

Photoshop is synonymous with photo editing. Originally created by Adobe for simple digital photo editing, the program’s functionality has greatly expanded to be used by graphic designers, architects, publishers and photographers.

In short, it’s a beast of a program that helps give creatives their power to create. At this point, Photoshop should really be called Photo-Graphic-Design-Animation-Studio-Shop… though that’s not nearly as catchy.

Also, Photoshop is a pixel level editor, meaning you can get up close and personal with the little dots of color that make up your digital image.

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What is Lightroom?

As a photo editor, Photoshop Lightroom includes a subset of Photoshop’s features that are custom tailored to the contemporary photographer. Lightroom covers the majority, if not all, of the image manipulation tools you’ll most likely need.

However, Lightroom is much more than a photo editor. It’s also a great image management software. Lightroom helps you import, organize, management and find your images. In turn, Lightroom is photo management and photo editing, combined into a single tool.

Unlike Adobe Photoshop, Lightroom is a non-destructive photo editor, meaning that you don’t have to worry about that pesky “save as” button. In fact, Lightroom has no “save” button at all. All of the edits are automatically kept in your Lightroom catalog, which acts as your database of edits and history.

When should I use Lightroom?

If you shoot in raw (which you should), then I recommend that you first import your photos into Lightroom. Lightroom is a raw file editor so you don’t need Adobe Camera Raw. Also, because of the photo management capabilities of Lightroom, you’ll be organizing your images as you import.

Lightroom is perfect for most basic photo editing, including (but not limited to) cropping, white balance, exposure, histogram adjustments, tonal curves, black and white conversion, spot removal, red eye corrections, gradients, local adjustments, sharpening, noise reduction, lens profile corrections, vibrance, and saturation. If you’re comfortable in Adobe Camera Raw, then developing a photo in Lightroom will look very familiar.

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If you’re a beginning photographer, you’ll most likely be satisfied with these features. Lightroom is also much easier to use than Photoshop, which can produce anxiety fits for new users.

Lightroom Workflow:

When it comes to workflow, I believe Lightroom blows Photoshop out of the water. With Lightroom, you can create collections, add keywords, move multiple files around your hard drive, create slideshows, print books, and share your photos directly to Facebook with relative ease.

As importantly, you can also copy or sync your photo edits to multiple photos at once. If you think Photoshop “Actions” are easy… They are nothing compared to the ease of using Lightroom. You can also use and create Lightroom presets to apply common settings across your photos.

So photographers who shoot in volume, whether it’s for weddings, portraits, schools or babies, Lightroom will be a time saver.

So When Should I Use Photoshop?

The easy answer is when you can’t use Lightroom. Depending on the type of photography you do, this can be fairly often or practically never. That being said, there are a few specific areas where Photoshop outperforms Lightroom.

Advanced Retouching: If you want to have pixel level control for publishing, or if you want to make an arm thinner or a person taller, Photoshop is needed.

Composites: When you want to slice and dice a couple of images to create a single awesome image, Photoshop is your answer.

HDR: Although there are some great HDR plugins available for Lightroom (AuroraHDR), if you want to blend images together to pull out the highlights and shadows from multiple exposures, Photoshop can do this. Note: Lightroom does this as well, but with different effect.

Panoramas: With Photoshop, you can stitch several photos together to create beautiful panoramas. Note: Lightroom does this as well, but with different effect.

Advanced Healing: While you can remove blemishes, stray hairs, whiten teeth, and remove small objects in Lightroom, the capabilities aren’t as awesome as using the content aware magic of Photoshop’s healing brush and patch tools.

So What Do I Do: Photoshop vs Lightroom?

There is no right answer. The great news is that you can certainly use both Lightroom and Photoshop together because they integrate quite well. If you are getting started with photography, Lightroom is the place to begin. You can add Photoshop to the mix later.

Both Lightroom and Photoshop are great software packages that have the ability to bring out your post processing creativity. Just choose the right tool for your photographic needs on a project by project basis.

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Article Written by Gerard Murphy is the former CEO of Mosaic (which sold to OnOne Software).

As seen first on: CreativeLive Blog

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    • I use both on nearly every image. I start in Lightroom, move to Photoshop where I use Topaz plugins and finish in Lightroom.

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    • Under HDR and Panoramas - can you expand on "Note:  Lightroom does this as well, but with different effect."  How do the effects differ?

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    • The proper comparison is not Lightroom to Photoshop, it's Lightroom to the CC platform, which includes Bridge and ACR. Bridge handles the file management and collections features of Lightroom. In one sense, Lightroom adds a lot of additional complexity in the management of catalogs, corrupt catalogs and often un-needed histories.

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    • I second Michael Vail's motion!

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    • Lightroom and Photoshop aren't the only games in town. Phase One's Capture One Pro is a great tool that an increasing number of people are using instead of Lightroom.

      Affinity Photo from Serif is a very good alternative to Photoshop that many feel is faster and easier to use and produces as good or better results.

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    • Lightroom's processing window is just a prettier version of Adobe camera raw, and I do not need a "village" to assist in how I keep my photos on my computer. Photoshop works just fine.

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    • I have been a Photoshop user since V4 - now have CC - and have finally started to explore Lightroom. My files are organized in folders where the top level has the date and subject - e.g. "20160215 Mt Rainier" under which I have a "RAW" folder to keep my RAW files safe and a "Working" folder where I do all of my editing. I am a little uncertain as to the best way to establish the Lightroom catalogue without significant disk reorganizing. Any suggestions?
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