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For a long time Adobe Photoshop has been known as the reigning champion of image editing programs.
The term “photoshop” has even worked its way into the language of popular culture. People know that to “photoshop” something means to digitally alter an image. Just look at the glossy magazine covers, and you’ll know what it means!
Since Photoshop has developed such a glowing reputation, it’s usually the first choice among many new photographers looking to edit their images.
But then one day…
So the big question on many photographers’ minds is “Which one should I use? Photoshop or Lightroom?”
Let’s take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of each program, and see which one will win the battle! Fight!
In The Blue Corner: Photoshop!
Photoshop is a pixel based image editor. (Pixels are the tiny dots that make up photographs.) When you use Photoshop to edit your photos you have ultimate control—right down to the individual pixels. Lets take a look at the strengths and weaknesses of this contender.
Photoshop excels at retouching. If you need to remove blemishes, get rid of stray hairs, reduce bags under eyes, whiten teeth, remove garbage, or perform any other change to a specific part of an image, then Photoshop is likely the fastest way to do it.
It has powerful tools like the clone stamp, the spot healing brush, and the patch tool that make for speedy and powerful retouching.
Layers and Opacity
Photoshop works on the principal of layers (imagine the way cartoons used to be drawn). You can create layers of different adjustments and control their opacity (the intensity of that layer). This allows for super precise control of the look of your image.
Actions let you to record a sequence of steps in Photoshop so that all you need to do is press a button and they’ll automatically be carried out.
For instance, you could create an action that automatically duplicates the current layer and then adds a curves adjustment layer to create contrast. By using an action you’ll save the time it typically takes to perform those steps manually.
Actions can be quite complex and an entire industry has sprung up around creating and selling them. Because Photoshop has a steep learning curve, buying pre-made actions to achieve certain effects has become a popular option for many photographers.
Did you run into a blinker in a group photo? No problem with Photoshop! You can copy a pair of open eyes from one image, and paste them into the blinking image!
This magic is possible because Photoshop is a pixel based image editor. Being able to select specific pixels (like the eyes from one photo), and paste those pixels into another photo means Photoshop can be used in a wide variety of ways to combine and manipulate images.
This combining of images is termed compositing, as you’re combing elements from multiple images into a single one. Photoshop is fantastic at it.
Content Aware Fill
Content Aware Fill is a magical feature of Photoshop that can be used in a couple different ways. You can use it to remove huge and distracting elements from images (like removing a tree or a building).
You can also use it to artifically stretch or extend an image. It doesn’t work perfectly every time, but Photoshop does a pretty impressive job of filling things in.
Weighing in at $699, Photoshop is a pricey program!
If you’re not careful it’s easy to accidentally save over your original file, making it impossible for you to return to the untouched image.
Steep Learning Curve
Because Photoshop offers you so much detailed control, learning how and when to use each feature can be pretty overwhelming.
Not Workflow Centric
Photoshop is designed to work with individual images. It’s not designed to work with groups of photos. You won’t find it much fun to open hundreds of photos simultaneously in Photoshop! Instead, you’ll generally find yourself opening up each photo individually, which takes quite a bit of time.
Also, because Photoshop’s main purpose is being a pixel based editor, you need to use other programs like Adobe Bridge to view, sort and organize your images.
Not A RAW File Editor
If you’re shooting in the RAW format (which you should be!) then you’ll need to either process your images in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) or Lightroom before bringing them into Photoshop.
In The Grey Corner: Lightroom!
Lightroom is an image management and editing program also developed by Adobe, the same folks who created Photoshop.
Using Lightroom, photographers are able to work through their images from import, to sorting and organization, to processing, and finally all the way to export and sharing on the web. It’s a workflow centric program designed to help you efficiently work with large quantities of images.
Just like Photoshop, Lightroom has it’s own unique set of strengths and weaknesses. Let’s lay it out.
Process RAW Files
At the heart of Lightroom is the same Adobe Camera Raw engine you find with Photoshop and Bridge, only it’s presented in an interface with far better design.
You can quickly make adjustments to settings like exposure, contrast, and saturation. You can also perform sharpening, noise reduction, add vignettes, crop, add split toning and even apply creative dodging and burning effects with the adjustment brush.
Lightroom covers nearly every step of the post production process. Youcan import your images, sort through selects, tag images with keywords, organize collections, perform RAW processing, create slideshows, print photos, create web galleries, and even share directly to Facebook & Flickr! Adobe managed to pack a ton of practical features into one program.
Lightroom has presets, which are similar to actions in Photoshop. The difference is that instead of saving a sequence of steps for how an image should be processed (like actions in Photoshop), Lightroom presets record how all the adjustment sliders are configured.
Presets are less flexible in that you cannot easily control opacity like you can with Photoshop actions. However it’s easy to make individual adjustments to sliders to fine-tune the look.
It also takes far less time to apply a Lightroom preset to a batch of images than it does to apply a Photoshop action to a batch. Since actions are based on steps, Photoshop has to carry each step out individually, on each image individually. With Lightroom, presets can be applied to multiple images simultaneously, making it far more efficient.
Whether you’re working with RAW files or JPEGS (learn about RAW vs JPEG files here), Lightroom does not edit the original files. When you make adjustments to an image what you’re actually doing is creating a set of instructions for how Lightroom should save a copy of the file. These instructions are stored in the Lightroom catalog file, or in special sidecar files known as XMPs.
You don’t have to worry that you might accidentally save over the original—which also make it easy to experiment without fear!
Easier to Learn
Lightroom is a more global program (focused on making adjustments to the whole image) as opposed to the the pixel level control found in Photoshop. Because of this, Lightroom is more straightforward and easier to learn. The interface is also designed to help you work through images in a logical manner.
Lightroom weighs in at $299, which is still a significant price tag, but much more affordable than Photoshop.
While simple retouching is possible in Lightroom, it’s really not the program to use if you need to do moderate to extensive retouching. It doesn’t have the fine tuned control or speed necessary.
For that you’re going to need to head to Photoshop, where the clone stamp and spot healing brush will allow you to perform retouching much faster and better than you possibly could in Lightroom.
Advanced Image Manipulation
If you need to combine photos, stitch photos together, or do any sort of heavy image manipulation work then you’ll need to head to Photoshop. Lightroom works well for making global adjustments to images, but for pixel level editing Photoshop is what you need.
Lightroom is a program designed specifically for photographers editing photos. Photoshop, on the other hand, can be used to edit a wide variety of graphics, not just photos.
And the Winner Is?
Yep! It’s a draw!! See, Photoshop and Lightroom are two very different programs that both offer immense value to photographers. It would be a mistake to say that you should only be using one program or the other!
Most wedding and portrait photographers will find they can do 90-95% of their editing in Lightroom. Lightroom helps you speed through your workflow, especially when working with RAW files. However, when it comes to retouching or advanced image manipulation, Photoshop is definitely the winner.
For photographers who don’t need all the horsepower that Photoshop offers, Adobe has a consumer level version of the program called Photoshop Elements. It offers a lot of the essential retouching features you might need, but at a fraction of the cost of Photoshop (~$80). Photoshop Elements and Lightroom would be a great, relatively affordable combination for new photographers to start out with.
Lightroom Vs. Aperture (A Preview)
Aperture is an image editing program made by Apple that is very similar to Lightroom (available on Mac only). It’s actually much more affordable than Lightroom, at $80 in the App Store.
Aperture is a powerful program as well and certainly deserves a more detailed review in the future. It’s another situation of both programs having pros and cons.
Having tried both programs, I found Lightroom to be more effective from a usability point of view. You may want to take advantage of the free trials of Aperture, and Lightroom, and decide which you enjoy more.
Wrap it UP!
Photoshop and Lightroom are friends, not enemies. Lightroom can handle the majority of editing, helping to create a streamlined workflow. Then, when retouching is needed, Photoshop steps in and finishes the job.
There is no winner. Just two powerful programs that are equally well-suited for different tasks!
What do you find indispensable about Photoshop or Lightroom? What do you dislike about the programs? Share it with us in the comments below.