Photoshop vs. Lightroom: The Epic Battle

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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 a new contender came along: Adobe Lightroom.  It boasted some pretty fantastic features, and seemed similar, yet somehow different than Photoshop. I mean, they both are for editing your images…

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!

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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.

Strengths

Retouching

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

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.

Compositing

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.

Weaknesses

Expensive

Weighing in at $699, Photoshop is a pricey program!

Potentially Destructive

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!

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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.

Strengths

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.

Efficient Workflow

Lightroom covers nearly every step of the post production process. You
can 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.

Presets

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.

Non-Destructive

Whether you’re working with RAW files or JPEGS, 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.

More Affordable

Lightroom weighs in at $299, which is still a significant price tag, but much more affordable than Photoshop.

Weaknesses

Retouching

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.

Photos Only

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?

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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.

Rob Lim

Hi there, I’m Rob! I’m a photographer and head ninja here at Photography Concentrate. I love all things photography: shooting, teaching and always learning more! If I’m not reading up on the latest photography news, or studying a technique, I’m probably reading a book or planning our next adventure!

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Comments

49 Comments // Leave a comment

  1. Crystal Moody says:

    I'm fairly new to all this and learning lots from your posts. However today I'm thoroughly confused. I just recently started shooting RAW and I use Photoshop Elements. I haven't had any problems opening, editing, and saving them as a JPG. Maybe new versions of Photoshop convert RAW images?

    • I was thinking the exact same thing as I was reading. I use both Lightroom and Photoshop and I shoot in RAW.

    • Are you sure your photo opens on Photoshop, or is it Adobe Raw Editor? Cause when I go to open a raw file in Photoshop Raw Editor opens for me. I am assuming that it came with Photoshop cause I never installed it separately.
      Happy shooting.

    • Loved your comparison post on both the softwares. I’d like to point out that subscribing to the Adobe Creative Suite is a great way to exwerience all the softwares Adobe has to offer at a nominal price.

      Happy Editing!

  2. Great post as usual guys! Thanks for the insight, always helpful and appreciated :)

  3. I pretty much keep photoshop around because it's so good at formatting, and printing. I rarely need to retouch beyond what LR3 does. It's a bummer that Lightroom can't do that stuff as well. Removing Photoshop from my life would be wonderful!

  4. Thanks very much for this! I have Lightroom, but was totally overwhelmed by all the products Adobe has to offer! I am glad to hear that elements might be just what I need!! Keep the info coming! I'm learning like crazy over here. :)

  5. *@Crystal:* Hey Crystal! Sorry for the confusion! As far as I know (we don't have Elements so I don't know for sure), you're using Adobe Camera RAW to first make your adjustments to your RAW file, before being able to edit it in Photoshop Elements. The full version of Photoshop is the same way. So you absolutely can open them, but not with Photoshop itself. You have to use another program first, whether it's Adobe Camera RAW or Lightroom. The advantage Lightroom has over ACR is that it's designed to work with groups of images, making it easier to edit a lot of photos! Hope that makes sense!

    Thanks for the comments guys!!

    • So when I open my raw files in Photoshop Elements I am actually opening them in a different program? I didn’t know that, I just know that it works fine. I just bought Lightroom and I’m going through a Quickstart from lightroom queen. I am also looking over some tutorials on line from Adobe. Both excellent sources. Thanks for the help Adobe. Great job.

  6. i agree 95% of my edits are done in LR, but it is nice having PS there to finish things off if i need a few more detailed edits. i love how fast LR is!!

  7. You're totally right Jaleen! Photoshop is perfect for those detailed edits, but can't match the speed of Lightroom for large groups of photos! Having both is great!

  8. Good post, i like the way you weighed it up pros and cons for both programs. I personally only use adobe bridge, camera raw and photoshop if i need to. I have tried it out lightroom but not used it much. As I learnt to work on photoshop first this kind of put me off learning it over again on Lightroom but having read this article I would like to try lightroom once again as I think it might speed up my workflow quite a bit. Lightroom having all features as global retouching of raw and to the printing is all you need really. Photoshop is more advanced peace of software and good for playing around with pictures, doing some artwork etc.

  9. Thanks Sondra! We started with Photoshop as well, so I totally understand the hesitation to learn a new way of editing. But Lightroom really does speed things up so much! Photoshop definitely has it's place too, but for different things!

  10. Excellent post guys but I don't think this is a battle. On the contrary, LR and PS complement each other very well. I use both all the time. LR for WB, b&w, colour and exposure adjustments, PS for retouching and more detailed edit.

    http://www.facebook.com/pages/John-Quintero-Photography/173409702689362?ref=ts

  11. Thanks for the comment John! You nailed it. They really are complimentary programs! We do the very same thing as you. Lightroom for the majority of the processing, Photoshop for the retouching and detailed work!

  12. Thanks a ton for the comparison, it's very smart and quite interesting.

  13. Hi,just found your website,through a Google search. I actually searched for the difference between Lightroom and Elements. Elements is so much cheaper. What does lightroom do that Elements can't? Also can rash be removed from a baby's cheeks with either of these programs? And sharpening just a certain area of a photo? Those are the things I would like to edit,but so far can't figure out what program would do those things. Hopefully this makes sense.

  14. Thanks so much! Super helpful! I've been using been Aperture but have found it super s-l-o-w. Ordered Photoshop Elements and plan to use it with Aperture for now but I think Lightroom may be calling my name…

  15. *@Tony: You're most welcome, glad you found it interesting!

    *@Elizabeth:* Lightroom is more for organizing and editing large batches of photos. You can make adjustments to exposure, contrast, colour very quickly and easily, and then make the same adjustments to a bunch of photos with one click. Very fast!

    Elements works better for editing one photo at a time, and doing retouching tasks.

    Both Lightroom and Elements can get rid of redness from cheeks. If it's a bad rash you'll probably find tools in Elements easier to use for that kind of retouching. And both can do sharpening in just one area, though Elements will have more control. Hope that helps!

    *@Karin:* We tried Aperture but just didn't find it as intuitive and workflow focused as Lightroom. We love Lightroom!

  16. I think one weakness you left out of your comparison that was mentioned by Karin is that Lightroom 4 is very slow if you don’t have the latest, fastest computer. I found it to be way too slow to use on my White MacBook.

  17. I’m primarily a photojournalist and I still find Lightroom way slower than using Photomechanic/Adobe Raw when editing to a deadline …

    • Thanks for the insight, Heathcliff! It certainly makes a difference what your needs are. For editing multiple hundreds of photos for a wedding, opening each and everyone one in Adobe RAW would take forever. But for just a few images for a fast deadline I can see how PhotoMechanic and quick edits in ACR could be very quick.

  18. It’s two different programs with overlapping capabilities. My juniors or those that don’t want to bother learning Photoshop use Lightrooom. We use both but my primary is Photoshop for graphic creations.

  19. Christine P says:

    Would be interesting to see how this “match up” would be now w/ LR5 on the market…has LR gained some ground in your opinion with the new features?

  20. Impressed with your blog. I’m here for around One hour. Can’t stop reading. Keep up the good work guys.

    I’m a newbie and I just wanted to know,

    Do I need to retouch a photo in photoshop before importing into Lightroom? Or retouch after completing adjustments in Lighroom? Because RAW files are not supported in PS.

    Or any way to do both at the same time?

    Any help will be appreciated.

    • Hey Surjith! Thanks for commenting! If you want to make adjustments in Photoshop it’s best to do them after you’ve done your processing in Lightroom. We use Lightroom to do 95% of our processing and Save photoshop for the stuff Lightroom can’t handle. The new features in Lightroom 5 also make retouching a lot easier (cloning and healing like Photoshop).

  21. jumpinjimmy says:

    I’m currently using photoshop elements 6 to re-work my scanned photographs from negatives and have found that it can only do enhancements in 8 bit for BW and 16 bit for color even though they were scanned in 16 bit BW and 24/48 bit Color. This obviously defeats the purpose of scanning at higher bit rates for better quality. Would this be the same in Lightroom and or Aperture?? Also, when printing, are printers able to print in 16 bit BW and 24/48 bit color or do they also revert to 8 bit and 16 bit?? For my scans, I’m only doing very basic retouching and contrast controls, so my work doesn’t merit an investment in photoshop, but I would just the same like to get the best quality possible and not be forced to work in the most basic format of 8 and 16 bit. Any advice would be greatly appreciated. PS. I’m saving all of my scans to TIFF, assuming that it’s the best quality level.

    • Hey Jimmy!

      I just did a quick search and it looks like Lightroom should support your 16bit TIFF files (http://help.adobe.com/en_US/lightroom/using/WS42D207D7-B290-4baa-A896-AB71965BF24B.html).

      As for printing I know that our Epson 3880 is capable of printing in 16-bit but whenever I enable that option I can’t really tell the difference (even under a loupe).

      Why not give the trial of Lightroom a shot to see if it works for you?

      • jumpinjimmy says:

        Thank you for a quick reply. I mistakenly wrote that I’m using Photoshop Elements 6 when in fact, I’m using the latest version 12. Theoretically, it also supports TIFF formats in 16bit and 24 bit, etc. but the problem arises if you need to do any re-touching (such as correcting blemishes or dust spots), All of the tools are disabled unless you re-convert the image to the lowest bit rate (8 bit for BW and 16 bit for color). Perhaps I’m needlessly worrying about this… is there no discernible quality difference between 8 bit BW and 16 bit BW? Why would it even be offered as an option if there wasn’t.
        Also, I’ll try and find a trial version of Lightroom. I didn’t even know that was a possibility. Thanks again for responding to my question.

  22. Forrest N says:

    Excellent information..I’ve been using a free program, called “Photoscape” for about two years.I’m an amateur photographer.The bad is, it doesn’t do raw,so I shoot in Canon JPEG faithful.The photos come out pretty good.So far, Its been a good learning tool,for all the special effects you can do.Time to get the real thing PH elements & Lightroom..

  23. Oh my goodness, this is just what I needed to read! I just getting started and I LOVE Lightroom for its efficiency and the fact that I can use presets/global edits. However, I was starting to feel guilty about not using my Photoshop program all the time too. Thank you for breaking this down!

  24. Dnastrand says:

    As a digital scrapbooker using PS Elements for many years, I have signed up for Lightroom and PS. However much to my disappointment, there is no connection between PSE organiser catalogs and PS or Lightroom. I have thousands of elements, all categorised for PSE but cannot use the search feature in PS or Lightroom (for example – paper, blue, distressed, floral pattern) would return the tagged items. I have tried importing the catalogs into Lightroom but it doesn’t recognise the tags. Might have to cancel my subscription.

  25. Aaron Henderson says:

    the hard part is using them together. my habit of going straight o photoshop every time. what work flows of organization do you suggest?

  26. What’s the difference between Lightroom and Bridge (or is that what this entire post is about!?) I never really learned to use Lightroom but rather learned to bring all my raw photos into Bridge where I can do a lot of basic processing before I even import them into Photoshop. If I’m using Bridge successfully, do I need Lightroom?

  27. Funny huh. It’s such a big un-answerable question. Normally when people ask me I say. If you’re a photographer start with Lightroom and move to Photoshop if you NEED too. If you’re a designer then start with Photoshop and you’ll probably never go to Lightroom.

    I made a little poster too: http://www.bringyourownlaptop.co.nz/images/wallpaper-lightroom-photoshop-small.jpg

  28. An article like this takes on totally different meaning depending ont he DATE. If this is an old article then the touching up blemishes strength of PS is meaningless since LR 5 does it just as well. As time goes by, things in PS and LR will change but this article will continue to show up in a Google search. The point, dear author, is DATE your articles!

  29. Interesting. I’m just beginning with Lightroom, but I’m finding it far harder than Photoshop. I hope that opinion will change soon. ;-)

  30. @Jeff–Are you able to do composite photos with LR 5?

  31. I am an artist and photographer, a MacUser for many years, and have the full complement of CS6 on my computer, which includes Lr, Ps, Ai, Id, etc. . Most of my experience has been with Ps, and I consider my skill level very high — as I am able to accomplish so many types of edits and effects… and then translate them into working finished files that I can apply for creating printed graphics, printed textiles, etc. . I am learning LightRoom, and it does offer some special tools like the adjustment brush and the gradient tool ( which I think are great) — but LightRoom would never ever replace Photoshop, at least in my opinion. By the way I am running Lr 4.4 … as well as the most recent version of PhotoShop.

    I am always open to new programs and products, of course… and enjoy learning from the viewpoints and experiences of others. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this web space.

  32. I feel so overwhelmed choosing a program. I am a brand new to photography and purchased my first DSLR and have been learning and snapping away. My goal is to honestly just be able to shoot pics of my kids and family (have a very large family with new babies being born all the time). I want to be able to edit my photos like the photographer that I used to pay 1k for pics once a year too) where I can remove a blemish or a toy in the background etc. so confused between LR and PS and now elements??? help!!!

  33. Interesting, although it seems like a bit of a production. The after photo looks nice though. :)

  34. Today i know the basic difference between these two. Now i can change editing preferences according to their merit and demerits. Thanks

  35. I’ve been trying to play with Boundary Warp today. I took a large pano (roughly 60 images), and neither Lightroom or Camera RAW can handle stitching the images. I was able to stitch them successfully by using Lightroom’s “Merge to Pano in Photoshop” feature. However, what I end up with is a merged image made up of several image layers. Is it still possible to utilize Boundary Warp when stitching photos this way?

  36. That’s a rather sensationalist title, don’t you think?

    Comparison PS and LR is like comparing apples and bananas, both together, and a few different fruits, make a nice fruit salad!

    It would be much more helpful to explain how both are used in your workflow.

    Most photographers will import raw images into the Lightroom library, do the culling, cropping and exposure/color adjustments. For some selected images, where the photographer chooses, there are the layers or tools (like the liquefying tool) that PS has, and LR doesn’t have.

    Lightroom was never intended to replace Photoshop, or be ‘better’. Both products complement each other.

  37. Thank you. I am an amature and did not know what program would be best. I have Elements 9 and want to upgrade to either Photoshop or Lightroom. I do a lot of touching up. Your solution of getting both Elements and Lightroom see perfect for my situation. I would like to know if Lightroom or Elements 14 perform layering for focus and exposure? I understand that panoramic photos are not possible with this set up. Is there a program that would accomplish that? Also I have read that Helicon is recommended for focus layering. Are the results better than Lightroom?

  38. Joseph Carrillo Sr says:

    Rob,

    Thanks for putting this together. Quite helpful in its concise, yet detailed comparison of the “image megas”. Good to know that PS Elements is a helpful companion to LR. Just starting to put thoughts to goals and your insight was very helpful. Off to add LR & PSE to my Christmas Wish List… “Oh KIDS….!”

  39. Adrian Brown says:

    Why did Aperture qualify for inclusion, no matter how small, in a comparison of Photoshop and Lightroom? Perhaps you should have also given a paragraph or two to Dark table which is another excellent contender but only for Linux and Mac. Or perhaps Gimp?

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