Until recently there wasn't much choice. But in the last few years the landscape has changed, and photographers have many other options. One of the best of these new tools is Lightroom. Actually the full name is Adobe Photoshop Lightroom—it's made by the same people who make Photoshop. Yet despite the name Lightroom seems to be off the radar screens of most photographers.
In the Spring Yosemite Digital Camera Workshop I'm leading for the Ansel Adams Gallery this week I teach both Photoshop and Lightroom. One of my students asked me recently why she should learn Lightroom when she has Photoshop CS3. What can Lightroom do that Photoshop can't?
My answer was: very little. Photoshop is the most powerful image-manipulating tool in existence, and can do anything to a photograph that Lightroom can, and much more. But Lightroom has two main advantages over Photoshop: It's a much better editing, sorting, keywording, and cataloging tool than Photoshop combined with Bridge, and it's easier to use. And while it's not as powerful at manipulating photographs as Photoshop, for most images it's all I need. The image of Mono Lake above, for example, was processed entirely in Lightroom. Having one program that elegantly integrates all these functions takes a lot of friction out of my workflow.
I should point out that I've used Photoshop since 1998 and know it inside and out. So I don't use Lightroom because Photoshop is too complicated for me. But for many people Photoshop is difficult to learn, and Lightroom is a friendlier alternative. I should also add that Lightroom is not for snapshooters. It's for serious photographers who want an easier, more integrated solution than Photoshop.
There's one more advantage to Lightroom: It's a non-destructive editor. Adjustments you make in Lightroom never modify the original Raw or JPEG file. The adjustments are just a set of instructions describing how you want the image to look, and these instructions are only applied when you export the image out of Lightroom. While Photoshop can be tricked into behaving in a non-destructive way, that's not the way it was designed.
Photoshop is still essential to me for things that Lightroom can't do. But I'd never want to go back to using only Photoshop and Bridge. And I think Lightroom is a better tool for many photographers than Photoshop. It's probably time it appeared on more photographer's radar screens.