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Photoshop Versus Lightroom Which is Right for You?


As a photographer, whether it be professional or hobbyist, you have several skill sets to juggle and many hats to wear; you’ll need to be an artist when composing your photo’s scene, technically proficient with your camera and settings, and in the case of professionals, an adept businessperson who can maintain a business and satisfy clients consistently.

Lightroom versus photoshop

One of the most important roles you play as a photo enthusiast is that of image editor. Rarely do our images come straight out of the camera exactly as we had envisioned, so before release we are required to put our shots through the post-processing phase; this is where our raw photos are enhanced, adjusted, toned, and sharpened to give us the final image we want to deliver.

Although we have many tools at our disposal these days to help us through this phase of processing, the industry juggernaut has undoubtedly been Adobe Photoshop since its first version’s release in 1990. The software has been used by amateurs and professionals alike year after year, and is considered an essential part of most photographer’s toolboxes.

Through the following years, and the popularity surge of digital photography, Adobe realized the need for a tool more targeted for photographers, and in 2007, released Lightroom. This workflow-centric and management software has become incredibly popular in its own right, and maintains a massive following in today’s industry.

Post processing poll 2013 dPS

Click to see more on the survey results

So the obvious question is, as a photographer, which software package do you need? Both titles are excellent and carry their own strengths and weaknesses, so let’s drill down and examine them in a bit more detail to discover which one is right for you!

What we require in post-processing software

Rarely do we get a perfect result in camera that allows us to bypass the post-processing workflow, and even then, some editing is almost always required to prepare the photo for different mediums.

Generally, photos will need to be altered in size, adjusted for exposure and contrast, edited for blemishes or other imperfections, and possibly toned or have their appearance altered through filters, presets or other means. The file then needs to be exported in its final format, ready for the client, printing, or for web use.

Photoshop’s strengths

  • Pixel-level editing – images created or opened in Photoshop are comprised of pixels, which are the small physical points in a raster image, and are the smallest addressable elements in a photo. The software allows for editing even at this tiny level, meaning limitless manipulation is possible. Raster and vector images can be created from scratch.
  • Layers – Photoshop allows for multiple layers to be stored within a master file, meaning that you can keep different images or edits on separate layers, and then hide, modify or enhance any of those layers independently.

    Photoshop’s layers


    Layer blending modes in Photoshop

  • Actions  – an extremely useful feature, actions allow manipulation steps to be chained together and recorded, letting you recreate an entire editing process with a click of the mouse.
  • Compositing and blending – because of the ability to layer components within an image, it is possible to blend those layers together in unique ways. Masking allows you to protect specific parts of the photo from any adjustments being made down to the pixel level, simply by painting out the area you’d like to keep.
  • Huge toolbox – each progressive release of Photoshop seems to bring more and more useful tools into the mix. From content-aware filling, reducing camera shake effects, photo filters, and automatic panoramic image stitching, there is a tool for almost every task a photographer would need.

Photoshop Actions

Photoshop’s weaknesses

  • Steeper learning curve – with great power comes… a steep learning curve. Although you have a massive array of tools at your disposal, mastering them is something that takes time and practice.
  • No built-in RAW editing – unlike Lightroom’s native ability to manipulate RAW files directly from your camera, Photoshop must rely on a plugin like ACR (Adobe Camera RAW) or something similar in order to import and modify these files.
  • No image management – Photoshop is built from the ground up to be a powerful image creation and editing tool. Although there are batch import and export tools available to make some aspects of the process easier, there isn’t a fully-recognized  built-in management or workflow system for photographers.

Adobe Camera Raw must be used for processing RAW files in Photoshop

Lightroom’s strengths


Built-in RAW processing in Lightroom

  • Built-in RAW editing – no plugin required! Lightroom natively accepts RAW files straight from your camera, and allows all of the editing you’d expect from within the software.
  • Image management and workflow centric – Lightroom was born from the desire to give photographers something better to manage their photo libraries with.  The entire program is based on creating a solid, consistent workflow that will help you make the most of the post-processing phase.


    Lightroom’s image management system

  • Simple and easy to use – since Lightroom doesn’t have the huge toolbox found in Photoshop, there is MUCH less to learn. Everything from the tools available, to the interface itself, is simple and easy to manipulate.
  • Presets – a photographer’s dream; imagine having the ability to string together exposure levels, contrast, and toning, and then save those to a handy file. Then imagine you can have unlimited variances of these, and apply them to any photo with a click of the mouse. Welcome to Lightroom’s presets! Photographers around the world share these online as well, giving you limitless potential options for your photo’s look and feel.

The power of Lightroom’s Presets

Lightroom’s weaknesses

  • No advanced editing tools – because Lightroom wasn’t intended as a full-on raster editor, most of the editing functions Photoshop users take for granted are not present here. With the exception of a few basic tools, you’ll want to use Photoshop in situations where heavy image editing is necessary.
  • No layer management – the powerful layer system in Photoshop is non-existent as well. Effects and modifications can be stacked on an image, but there is no real separation of image segments or any ability to use blending modes.
  • Photos only – again, Lightroom is intended as a workflow system for photographers, meaning you’ll only be able to import existing photos and modify them; there are no raster or vector image creation tools to be found here as there are in Photoshop. Lightroom is assuredly one-track minded.


Adobe Creative Cloud logotype with icon RGB vertical

Creative Cloud and pricing models

Up until fairly recently, Photoshop would have had one additional disadvantage compared to Lightroom, and that would be price. In the past, purchasing Photoshop could set you back $400 to $900, depending on the version and any discounts you could use.  Comparatively, Lightroom could be had for less than $100. The huge up front cost made buying Photoshop outright a financial strain for budding photographers on a slim budget.

Those days are gone, thanks to Adobe’s awesome cloud and subscription program. As of the last release, all of Adobe’s main products have been converted to cloud-based programs and are all rooted in the new Creative Cloud subscription model. Generally, $20 per month will give you unlimited access to one Adobe title, such as Photoshop or Lightroom, and ample cloud storage, enabling you access to your files regardless of where you were. $50 per month will give you access to Adobe’s entire Creative Cloud suite, which is quite a deal.

This year, however, Adobe unveiled their Photography Program, and if you haven’t already gotten involved, you might want to take a look. For less than $10 per month, Adobe gives you Photoshop CC AND Lightroom CC, along with the aforementioned cloud storage. It’s an unbeatable deal, and eliminates the need to pick and choose which image program to use.

Which one is right for you?

Since pricing is no longer an issue, the choice as to which program to use for your photography work comes down to what is most important to you.

Use Lightroom if…

You value a smooth clean workflow more than infinite control over the editing of your images. Having said that, Lightroom is no slouch when it comes to processing photos, and you can recreate almost any look using the controls available to you in this software.

The presets provide an endless array of styles, and thousands more are available on the internet. Lightroom’s clean, efficient interface will allow you to process those multiple wedding or portrait shots quickly and consistently, and make managing all of those photos simpler than you could have imagined.

Use Photoshop if…

You need more control over your images. Photoshop can do it all, but of course the cost of that is a higher learning curve. Quick presets are not what the program does best; instead, it offers complete image editing with masks, layers, and a multitude of other tools, giving you all of the options you could ever need.

At the end of the day…

BOTH titles can be an integral part of the post-processing workflow.  Like anything else they both have strengths and weaknesses.  Fortunately, with Adobe’s wonderful new Creative Cloud subscription model, you can enjoy both programs, and employ the advantages of each within your workflow, without breaking your bank.

For more information and tutorials on both programs check out these dPS articles:

Read more from our Post Production category

Tim Gilbreath is a natural light photographer, writer, designer and musician with a love for nature and the outdoors. He's also a retro/pop culture aficionado, and although he was born and raised in Houston, Texas, he has called the Florida west coast his home for the last 12 years.

  • Daniel Walter Scott

    I made a little graphic to help explain where I see the essential differences are. A friends of mine wrong something similar here and I made some graphics for it:

  • Elliott Cowand

    Based on these comments I’m going to try Lr to get started. But I’m a big fan of faked tilt shift “tiny town” f/x. Can Lr add this in post or via a plug in?

  • Jordan

    I think your article is great and illustrates the clear cut differences between the two, surprisingly I’ve never seen anyone do this before! What I think could enhance the article and address this complaint is adding a bit at the end that shows how you can use both together. For a lot of photographers, LightRoom is going to suffice 90% of the time with just a few images which need more advanced editing. You could show how both can be used together and how it doesn’t necessarily need to be one or the other.

  • Ed

    Hi, I am a hobbyist photographer, yet own and operate a small website which utilizes a substantial number of photos. Recently, I upgraded to a new MAC and am attempting to decide whether to buy LR or PS.

    I am not interested in paying a monthly fee for the Adobe Cloud service, as I simply can’t justify that. My preference is to purchase a disk at a one time fee which I will be able to use for years to come.

    Researching the subject, and comparing LR to PS, I understand that they both do great things and it would be best to have both.

    Having used an old version of Adobe Photoshop Elements for years, I was very happy with it’s results for what I do. However, I would like to up my game a bit and have some new, more advanced capabilities, such as RAW.

    Pretty certain I will purchase LR5 but, and am thinking of buying something like PS Elements 13 to go with it.

    Again, I not a professional nor a graphic artist, but would like to be able to utilize some of the features from PS, and suspect PS elements 13 would do everything I need.

    I am curious as to whether anyone can tell me if LR5 will function smoothly with PS Elements 13 ?

    Also, any input or advise in regards to my line of thinking would be greatly appreciated.

    Thank you

  • Tony Lewis

    Hi Ed
    If you only buy one of them make it Lightroom 5 for sure. As many have said, 90% of all your editing (all non-destructive) can be done there and it has the advantage of managing your photo library as well.

  • RICH


  • Damien Breezer Branch

    Wow I really enjoyed this article! I’m new to using Adobe products, but I’m learning so I can make my photos look better for online sales. Thanks for writing this! 🙂

  • arthur schwartz

    You can save by Buying Adobe CS6 Master Collection for Only $151.00 which has Photoshop CS6 Extended and just about all Adobe software and it downloads right from Adobe who makes this Adobe software.
    Plus as a extra bonus and Our Exclusive, we will also include the new Adobe Photoshop CC which there is NO Monthly Subscription Fee & Never Expires.

  • jake

    in most cases LR will do the job and to be honest it is so easy to use. I know Photoshop is for more advanced users and have features that LR doesn’t have. I personally own both but i find myself using LR more and more. Specially now with the release of LR 6 which is just damn awesome.

    You can check out some of the free LR Presets that i give away on my blog here if you are interested:

    Have fun playing around with it 🙂

  • Shane

    Hey Tim I know this conversation started over a year ago but I think its a great article & certainly enlightened me in regards to Photoshop & Lightroom.
    Thanks Shane

  • Thanks Shane! I do appreciate it, and it’s never too late, our articles are here to be a reference for as long as photographers need them 🙂

  • Thanks Damien! I hope your photography is coming along nicely!

  • BobD

    I think of it like this: If you desire a special creation from one image, you need layers, which means photoshop. If you’re producing a large number of images for a client, then you need lightroom.

  • DD877

    I like Lightroom but it eats Ram…

  • Yes it does like a lot of RAM for sure, but then again so do most of the other editing programs too.

  • Ron

    OK, a lot of good comments & I’m pretty certain Lightroom 5 would be good for me. If I get a copy will I be able to load it on to my laptop and my desktop?

  • Theodore Charles

    Thanks for the article. It looks like the only way to move pictures from your catalog, in Lightroom, is to drag them to the new collections folder? Is this correct?

  • This is my view point… everything we can do in Lr can be done in Ps, plus much more…..

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