Thursday, April 23, 2009

Photoshop and Lightroom

Everyone has heard of Photoshop. It's permeated our culture deeply enough to become both a noun and a verb, as in, "She Photoshopped a telephone pole out of the picture." So when photographers first dive into the digital world they naturally think of Photoshop or it's baby sister, Photoshop Elements, for their image-editing software.

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.


  1. amen. ever since a photographer friend introduced me to lightroom, i haven't looked back. it is a wonderful tool and all but replaces photoshop for the majority of photo management needs. i haven't kept up with what v2 brings to the table, but v1 has served me well.

  2. The biggest difference in 2.0 (and higher) is the Adjustment Brush and Graduated Filter tools. They allow you to do dodging and burning and other localized adjustments. For me dodging and burning are essential, and those tools have allowed me to bypass Photoshop and use Lightroom for most photographs.

  3. Thanks for the post. I am a serious amateur photographer and use Lightroom for all my editing needs. I have never used Photoshop and have not spent much time looking into it, so I probably do not know what I am missing. I mainly shoot landscapes. Do you think I can benefit further from using PS. Any suggestions? Thanks.

  4. Thanks for your post Saurabh. There are a lot of things Photoshop can do that Lightroom can't. The biggest difference is that in Photoshop you can combine two or more images together, which you can't do in Lightroom. I do this frequently to get more depth of field than I can in one image, or to expand the contrast range, that is, take lighter and darker exposures to capture highlight and shadow detail in a contrasty scene, then combine those images in Photoshop. Both of these are rather advanced techniques. One thing that's easy to do in Photoshop is stitch images together in a panorama.

    Some other things that Photoshop can do that Lightroom can't: Perspective cropping to straighten converging trees, complex selections to change a specific area of an image, more sophisticated sharpening tools, and serious retouching (like taking out a telephone pole as opposed to just removing dust spots). The list is much longer, but those are some of the highlights.

    Of course to take advantage of these tools you have to learn how to use them. Whether it's worth the time and effort, not to mention the cost of the program, is a decision only you can make.

    Good luck!

  5. Hi Michael,

    Thanks for the information. Since I mostly do landscapes, what I should probably start looking into is how to combine various layers/images to best show both shadow and highlight areas. I try to do that with selective editing tools in LR such as graduated filters and brush tools, but they may not be as powerful as PS.

    Thanks for your advice again. Loved your Yosemite shots. Keep shooting.

  6. I havent tried lightroom before and im curious how good it is. Well., i appreciate the info. Great blog you have here.


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