Lightroom vs. Photoshop: Here’s How To Compare The Two Best Photo Editing Programs From Adobe

Nearly every budding photographer eventually ends up considering the question: Photoshop vs. Lightroom?

Since the release of the first version in 1988, Photoshop has remained one of the most popular and well-known image editing programs out there. The word “photoshop” has even become a verb in popular culture, when referring to digitally altering an image.

But Photoshop is no longer the only game in town for photographers who want a stellar image editing software.

Now, with their new workflow-centric program called Lightroom, Adobe Systems has finally created a rival to their original Photoshop program. Lightroom is targeted specifically at photographers, whereas Photoshop offers tools for professionals in other disciplines as well.   With an impressive list of features, this image editor has already amassed a large following similar to that of its counterpart and is a worthy choice among the best paid image editors out there.

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Whether you’re an amateur or a professional, every photographer needs a solid post-processing process in addition to their camera skills. Rarely do images (even those of professionals), come straight out of the camera just the way you envision they will. Post-processing, or image editing, allows you to adjust and enhance the photo until it becomes the final image you want to deliver or print.

Now the question is – which one do you use?

Both programs are capable of marvelous editing feats and can transform your photos into stunning works of art. But even though they are quite similar, each program has a different set of strengths and weaknesses that make a difference depending on what you will use it for.

Each program also approaches image editing very differently. Below, we’ll go over each program in depth and help you determine whether Photoshop or Lightroom is the best choice for you.

Lightroom

What is Lightroom?

How do you choose between these two image editors? Let’s look at Lightroom first, and examine what it contains and what the program does well, so you can discover which is the right choice for you.

Lightroom can be properly called an image management and editing program. Using Lightroom, you can import, organize, process/edit, and export and share your images in one smooth process. Lightroom is designed to be workflow-centric, meaning it’s relatively easy to work with large quantities of images and bring them through this process.

Compared to Photoshop, the Lightroom interface is more intuitive for photographers and easier to master for a faster workflow.

Unlike Photoshop, which offers a huge array of features that let you tweak everything imaginable in an image, the goal of Adobe Lightroom is to offer a comprehensive platform photographers can use to edit any number of photos in a fast, consistent way.

For managing your images, Lightroom really excels. You can search for specific images by name, date, or even specific subjects in the photos (for instance if you want to find an image from your cousin’s wedding from 6 years ago).

Unlike Photoshop, all edits in Lightroom are nondestructive. This basically means that you can always go back and reverse an edit if you change your mind and decide you don’t want it (even if it’s years later!).

Key Features

  • Easy RAW image editing: Lightroom natively accepts RAW file formats so you can add them straight into the program from your camera – no conversions required. You’ll also find the same Adobe Camera Raw engine in Adobe Photoshop and Bridge, but in Lightroom, the interface is presented with a far better interface and easier-to-understand design.
  • Image Management System: Lightroom excels with its simple and intuitive interface and image management. Even though you won’t find the huge toolbox Photoshop offers, Lightroom still covers almost anything you’d need while being far easier to learn.
  • Workflow: With nearly every post-production step efficiently designed, Lightroom’s biggest benefit is arguably its efficiency. It takes far less time to apply edits and presets to a batch of images in Lightroom than it does to apply a Photoshop action to a batch. You can import your photos, tag images, add keywords, sort through selections, organize collections of images, perform RAW processing, create slideshows, create web galleries, print photos, and even share photos directly to social media!  
  • Presets: Lightroom presets are a busy photographer’s dream. With presets, you can create and save a batch of selective edits to apply to multiple photos, much like you would a filter. You are then offered unlimited variances in each preset to create custom images that follow your specific editing guidelines – so a whole batch of photos can all have a similar look and feel that’s completely custom. All with a click of the mouse!
  • Editing Options: You can quickly make adjustments to your image with tools that adjust the contrast, saturation, exposure, brightness, and white balance. The correction toolkit contains all of your necessary equipment including sharpening, noise reduction, cropping, dodging/burning, vignette, and brush tools.
  • Non-Destructive: All images edits in Lightroom are nondestructive. Unlike Photoshop, Lightroom does not edit the original files. So when you make changes to an image, Lightroom actually creates or adds to a list of instructions for how to save a copy of the image. All this means you won’t have to worry about saving over your original files, so you can edit and make changes more freely without worry!
image management in Adobe Lightroom

Adobe Lightroom

Best used for…

So, what can you do in Lightroom that you can’t do in Photoshop?

While it’s true that there aren’t any tools you’ll find in Lightroom that aren’t also found in Photoshop, you can still accomplish things in an easier and more efficient way with the former.

One of the greatest benefits of Lightroom is its non-destructive editing process. To illustrate why this is helpful in some cases, let’s play out an example.

Let’s say you capture some amazing photos of your son’s fifth birthday. You apply a vintage filter to the photo because you think it looks fantastic and timeless (and maybe it’s in vogue on Instagram as well). Thirteen years later at your son’s graduation, you want to print photos from his past birthdays and you pull up the photo with the vintage filter – but this time it looks overdone and too dark!

If you had applied this edit in Photoshop without making and saving a separate copy of the original, you’d be out of luck. But with Lightroom, all you have to do is reset your edits in the photo and you’re left with the beautiful original. No more dark vintage!

If you’re a working photographer with assignments or client shoots that produce a large volume of images to sort through, then Lightroom will probably feel like the best choice. You can import your photos and neatly organize them so you can find any photo you’ve ever taken within seconds. In contrast, Photoshop does not contain any photo organization tools, so you may find it harder to locate images you’ve previously worked on.

Weaknesses

Even with all the benefits you get using Lightroom, it would be a disservice if I didn’t mention its weaknesses.

  • Fewer Editing Tools: If you’re looking for very advanced editing tools, you may not find what you need in Lightroom. This program was intended by Adobe Systems to be a full-on raster editor, so most of the terrific features that Photoshop users will find second-nature aren’t included here.
  • Lackluster Layering and Retouching: The powerful layer system in Photoshop is also nonexistent in Lightroom. So, unfortunately, you won’t be able to take advantage of the separated image segments and blended editing modes that Photoshop offers. Likewise, Lightroom isn’t the program to use if you want to retouch photos – it simply doesn’t possess the control or speed necessary for those kinds of adjustments.
  • Photos Only: If you’re using Lightroom, then you’re only going to be able to edit photos. There are no vector or raster image creation tools that users find so handy in Photoshop. While this is perfectly fine for most photographers who only need to edit images, users who often work in other formats will find Photoshop a necessary tool.
  • Less Flexibility: Photoshop may be much more complicated to learn how to use, but it pays off in the sheer amount of flexibility and control you get. With Lightroom presets, for instance, you cannot easily control the opacity like you would be able to with Photoshop actions. You can, however, make individual adjustments to sliders to control your effects.
  • Difficult Image Manipulation: For pixel-level editing, combining photos, and stitching images together, Photoshop is still your best bet.

If some serious image editing is necessary, you’ll want to use Photoshop in most cases. The sheer amount of possibility in editing that Photoshop offers is still unmatched by Lightroom, which values a streamlined workflow and efficiency over fancy tools.

Photoshop

What is Photoshop?

Originally introduced in 1988, Photoshop has been around for a long time and continues to get better. Originally, the program was used primarily by graphic designers but has evolved into a versatile program for photographers, illustrators, filmmakers, and other media creators.

Because of this versatility, Photoshop can seem incredibly intimidating to learn, and even more time-consuming to master. Depending on what you’d like to accomplish, there are usually several different ways to achieve an effect using different tools in Photoshop.

Photoshop lets you edit down to the pixel – this is the smallest addressable element in an image, so you have an incredible level of control over the process of editing. Photoshop also lets you create raster and vector images from scratch.

The basic idea here is that practically anything is possible in Photoshop. If you have an idea, chances are you can produce the effect using the hundreds of available features. Want to put a shark’s head onto a tabby cat? Simple. Want to draw a fictional 3D character entirely from scratch? It’s possible!

Key features

  • Micro-Editing: Photoshop lets you edit all the way down to a single pixel – this level of editing control goes way beyond Lightroom’s capabilities and allows the user to create and manipulate files in thousands of different ways. For instance, let’s say you’re running through wedding photos and you notice someone blinking in an image you otherwise love. You can simply compose their open eyes from another image onto the blinking photo and presto – you have the shot you need.
  • Layers: Photoshop also allows you to create and save as many layers as you’d like for a file. You can then keep different edits on separate layers, and also hide, enhance, or change whichever layer you choose.
  • Actions: Photoshop actions are similar to presets in Lightroom. Actions are extremely useful in editing because they allow you to apply many changes at once to an image. You can save your own specific actions or download action steps from other photographers as a .atn file. Though they don’t have the versatility and fine-tuning capabilities that presets do, actions are a great way to give your photos a consistent look and feel.
  • Retouching: For portraiture, wedding photography, or any sort of image that needs retouching, Photoshop is definitely the winner. If you need to remove blemishes, flyaways, whiten teeth, remove dust, or adjust just about every aspect of a photo, then Photoshop gives you the tools and precision to do so like the pros.
  • Sheer Number of Tools: With each new release of the program, more useful tools keep getting added to the program. Existing tools are becoming easier to use and more streamlined as well, from automatic panorama creation to content-aware image filling.
adobe photoshop image editor screenshot

Adobe Photoshop

Best used for…

All in all, there isn’t anything you can do in Lightroom that you can’t do in Photoshop.

In addition to having more tools at your disposal, Photoshop layers allow you to stack effects and images in ways you cannot replicate in Lightroom, which has no ‘layers’ functionality. So, if you often work with layering multiple images, Photoshop is clearly a better choice.

If you prefer smaller, surgical-style precise edits in your photos, then the wide range of tools Photoshop offers will definitely outmatch those in Lightroom. For example, Lightroom has a Sharpen feature with a simple output to adjust the level of sharpness in an image – Photoshop contains 6 different global sharpening methods, each with its own panel of settings, as well as brush tools for selective sharpening.

One of the coolest features you get with Photoshop is the content-aware fill tool. You simply select anywhere within a photo, for example, an object you don’t want in the scene. The tool then erases the object and also fills in the area with what would be there if the object weren’t in the way. It works rather incredibly to create a background that is indistinguishable from the original.

Lightroom also comes with a tool that works somewhat as a content-aware fill brush. But the results are nowhere near as streamlined as Photoshops, so until Adobe decides to upgrade the Lightroom tool, Photoshop is the better choice.

Weaknesses

  • Steep learning curve: With a long list of tools at your disposal, it will take a good amount of time to learn to use them. If you’re only planning on lightly editing photos, Photoshop will seem a little overkill.
  • No built-in RAW editing: Unfortunately, Photoshop doesn’t come with a native RAW image editor. Unlike Lightroom, which easily handles RAW file formats on its own, you’ll need to install a plugin like ACR (Adobe Camera Raw) to import and modify RAW file types.
  • No Image Management System: Unlike Lightroom, which has intuitive importing, processing, and batch editing tools, Photoshop is still sold primarily as an editor. Thus, if you want to organize and batch-process lots of photos without much effort, Lightroom is still the way to go.
  • Destructive Editing: If you save over your original file in Photoshop, then it’s lost forever. If you’d prefer a nondestructive approach, Lightroom should be your choice.

Choosing Between The Two

Since price no longer seems to be much of an issue between the two programs, deciding which one to purchase comes down to personal preference.

Most professional photographers use Lightroom for the bulk of their editing needs and accomplish more complicated and specific tasks using Photoshop.

Both programs offer tremendous value for photographers. Wedding, portrait, and action photographers can generally accomplish nearly all of their editing using only Lightroom, as the program is geared to assist professionals in streamlining their workflow, especially when working with RAW files.

If, however, you find yourself working on projects that require any sort of design or image manipulation work, Photoshop should be your go-to program.

Price-Wise

Photoshop and Lightroom were originally sold as downloadable software packages, and Photoshop in particular would run you around $700 in total. Now, Adobe charges a monthly or 18-month subscription fee (around $10 and $180 respectively). The cost for each program is now roughly the same, and Adobe offers a Creative Cloud subscription bundle that gives you both programs for only $9.99 a month. But you can still manage to locate downloadable versions of each if you don’t want to pay indefinitely, in which case you will be paying a lot more for Photoshop.

If you’re on the fence about purchasing Photoshop but clearly need more features, Adobe offers a program called Photoshop Elements. Elements is basically a slimmed-down version of Photoshop that contains nearly all of the essential retouching tools you might need at a fraction of the cost ($69.99, instead of an indefinite monthly subscription).  Combining Elements with Lightroom would be an excellent and relatively inexpensive setup for beginning photographers to start with.

Final Thoughts

When you really get down to it, Lightroom is the obvious choice for most beginning photographers. Later on, you may want to add Photoshop into the mix to get really detail-specific with your images.

Lightroom comes with great image management tools built right in, so you can be organized from the get-go. For most digital edits, Lightroom clearly offers all you need.

Eventually, nearly all photographers end up using both programs in some way. But the only reason you would need Photoshop right away in the beginning would be if you needed to stitch or compose photos together or do work in graphic design.

adobe creative cloud home screen and logo

Adobe Creative Cloud

So What is Adobe Creative Cloud (CC)?

Until quite recently, Photoshop was nearly unaffordable for many photographers who couldn’t afford the hefty price tag of $400 – $900 dollars, depending on the version you bought. Lightroom, by comparison, was much more affordable at less than $100.

Luckily, these programs no longer cause such a huge financial strain for photographers, thanks to Adobe Creative Cloud. At $10 per month, you can use either program to your heart’s content with Adobe CC, and $50 per month gives you access to Adobe’s entire Creative Cloud suite, with programs like Illustrator, InDesign, and Premiere Pro.

If you’re still on the fence about what to choose, Adobe has also created a Photography Program, which gives you Photoshop, Lightroom, and cloud storage for $9.99 a month.

That’s A Wrap!

Both of these programs have their strengths and weaknesses. They both offer enormous potential to photographers that use them, and with Adobe’s new subscription model, you don’t have to break the bank purchasing either one!