Lightroom has grown up. I've made 30x40 inch prints from this image, and only used Photoshop for final print sharpening. Yet Photoshop can still do things that Lightroom can't.
Lightroom has grown up. I’ve made 30×40 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?