The Difference Between Photoshop and Lightroom Explained

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Understanding the Difference Between Photoshop and Lightroom

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One of the most common questions I hear from people just starting out in photography is, “What program should I use to edit my photos?”. There are many free options such as iPhoto, Picasa, GIMP, and other commercial programs such as AfterShot Pro and Pixelmator but the most popular programs are Photoshop and Lightroom.

That question is usually followed by another, which seems quite logical, “What’s the difference between Photoshop and Lightroom?“. While the two programs do share many similarities, and are both widely used by the photographic community, they each serve a unique purpose and are quite different in some very major ways. Understanding what makes them similar, as well as different, can help you make an informed choice when selecting the right software for your needs.

What's the difference between Photoshop and Lightroom?

If you’re not sure what the difference is between Photoshop and Lightroom, you’re not alone.

Similarities

At the core level both programs do essentially the same thing, edit images. How they go about handling that task, as well as how you actually use each program, is quite different – but if you are simply looking for software that will allow you to alter, tweak, and enhance your photographs, either one will suffice. Both are capable of handling multiple file types such as: JPEG, PNG, TIFF, and a perennial favorite of many photographers, RAW. In fact both Photoshop and Lightroom use the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) processing engine to handle RAW files. So, you can expect similar controls and editing options in both programs when doing things like adjusting saturation, working with curves, and correcting for lens distortions.

Both Photoshop and Lightroom are powerful additions to any photographer's digital toolbox, but understanding what makes each one unique can help you choose one that suits your needs.

Both Photoshop and Lightroom are powerful additions to any photographer’s digital toolbox, but understanding what makes each one unique can help you choose the one that suits your needs best.

Both programs also feature an extensive set of editing and manipulation tools allowing you to do everything from; basic edits like cropping and adjusting exposure, to advanced alterations such as working with brushes, tone curves, and graduated filters. You will find a variety of built-in effects in both programs that will allow you to instantly apply edits such as black and white, sepia, and other artistic styles. The two programs are quite powerful image editors. I know some photographers who use Lightroom exclusively and never touch Photoshop, as well as plenty of others who spend all day in Photoshop and never open Lightroom. However, in order to understand which one is best for you it might help to see how they are also quite different from each other.

Difference #1: File Handling

One of the most significant ways in which Lightroom is different from Photoshop is that it does not actually edit photos, nor does it move your images around to different locations on your computer. Instead all the changes you implement are kept in a separate file called the Catalog, which is sort of like a recipe book of instructions for how each photo should be processed. When you apply some type of edit, like a radial filter or adjustment brush, Lightroom is essentially keeping a log of the alterations in a database, while leaving the original image intact. It’s a technique called nondestructive editing, which stands in stark contrast to how Photoshop operates.

For example, several months ago I sent my father this photo I took of him, which I had subsequently edited in Lightroom.

simon-dad-edited

Since the original file was left unchanged I can go back and re-edit the photo any time I want. The edits in Lightroom are a set of instructions for how to process the file, similar to how a recipe is a set of instructions for making food like a cake or casserole. After you finish making changes to an image in Lightroom the photo must be exported at which point it can be printed, shared, or posted online. Because the original photo remains on your computer fully intact and untouched you can go back to Lightroom at any point in the future and re-edit the photo however you want.

Another benefit of this approach is that the catalog itself is quite small, often taking up only a few hundred megabytes on your hard drive even if you have several thousand images in Lightroom.

LightroomEditingWorkflow

A basic diagram of the Lightroom workflow: editing instructions are stored in the Catalog file and no changes are made to your original images.

Photoshop, on the other hand, operates quite differently. When you edit a picture such as a JPG, PNG, or RAW file in Photoshop you are always working on the original file itself, unless you save a copy as a Photoshop PSD file that is usually several dozen megabytes in size. This PSD file contains all the changes made to a photo, and in order to share a given image it must then be saved to a final format such as JPG, PNG, etc. In essence, if you want to perform nondestructive edits in Photoshop you will end up with three separate files: the original camera RAW file, a PSD, and the final copy saved into a shareable format from the PSD. The process works something like this:

PhotoshopEditingWorkflow

A basic diagram of the Photoshop workflow: If you want to edit an image later it must be saved as a separate PSD file.

FileDifferencesThe two processes look somewhat similar on the surface with one major difference; in Lightroom all your changes for every photo are saved in one single, relatively small, catalog file. In Photoshop all your changes are saved in unique files for every single picture you edit. This means much more space on your hard drive will be taken up as you work with multiple files in Photoshop, and you will end up with multiple versions of each image as well. So why would you want choose to use Photoshop instead of Lightroom? In a word, power.

Difference #2: Editing Tools

Lightroom is kind of like an all-terrain-vehicle you might see on some farms. It’s fast, nimble, and can be used for a variety of tasks like hauling small objects and towing little trailers. But it simply cannot match the sheer power of a massive farm truck when it comes to getting big, serious jobs done like transporting massive bales of hay, pulling a horse trailer, or ploughing through mud and snow.

Nearly a decade ago Adobe realized that not everyone needed the capability of Photoshop, particularly photographers who were returning from events with hundreds of images to edit quickly. What this new generation of digital photographers demanded was the essential editing tools of Photoshop in one easy-to-use package which resulted in Lightroom.

PhotoshopLayers

Photoshop uses layers, which can be intimidating for beginners but offers incredible versatility that Lightroom simply can’t match.

Photoshop contains a dizzying array of filters, brushes, and other tools that allow you to perform all manner of edits and changes to your images. But more than that, Photoshop operates by letting you create different layers on which your edits actually take place. For example, the image on the right shows the various layers I used to edit the image of the statue, and each layer can be edited independently of the others. This might look like a lot, but it is not uncommon for a digital artist to use dozens of layers when editing an image. Lightroom, by contrast, works in a much more linear fashion with no layers, fewer editing tools and less overall flexibility. Both programs contain a history panel that lets you step back in time to any of your edits, but working with layers gives you infinitely more control over exactly how you edit your image.

Case in point, let’s say you want to add a vignette to a portrait. In Lightroom it’s as simple as clicking the “Vignette” option and changing a few basic parameters like the amount, how big the untouched middle portion should be, and how gradually the vignette should fade from the center. It’s a quick no-fuss solution that is incredibly useful for all sorts of photography situations, and if you want a bit more control you can click on the Radial Filter for a few more options.

SereteanStatueFinal

After image

 

SereteanStatueOriginal

Before

 

To do the same thing in Photoshop would require adding a special layer to your photo called an Adjustment Layer such as  Levels. Then you’d adjust the levels to darken the image in the highlights and overall, and apply a mask to the layer to only darken the outer edges. You could also change the opacity of the layer (lightening the effect) or the Blend Mode,  or you could apply a Dodge and Burn layer – and that’s just the beginning. While all these additional steps might seem hopelessly convoluted, the more you learn how to use the tools Photoshop has to offer the greater degree of control you will have over the editing process.

LightroomVignette

In Lightroom adding a vignette is as simple as clicking a button. In Photoshop it’s much more complicated but you get much more control as well.

With all of its options and features (including support for text, 3D graphics, and even video) Photoshop is ideal for almost any image-editing situation. Lightroom essentially distills Photoshop down to the tools that Photographers use most, which is one reason it is so appealing to many shutterbugs.

Difference #3: Workflow

Features and file options aside, the trump card that Lightroom has over its big brother involves its end-to-end workflow solution for photographers. Since it is designed specifically to address the needs of photography enthusiasts and professionals, it handles everything from importing photos from your memory card, to organizing, editing, sharing, and finally printing them. Lightroom has support for keywords and virtual folders to help you keep track of your images, and you can even use it to create a slideshow or photo book. Many photographers, even professionals, will go weeks or months without ever opening Photoshop, because Lightroom takes care of everything they need.

LightroomLibraryModule

Lightroom’s Library module lets you quickly sort, organize, and manage all your photos.

On the other end of the spectrum is Photoshop which doesn’t transfer files, won’t organize your images, and certainly can’t make slide shows or photo books. But again, it’s all about the tradeoffs you are willing to accept. Nothing else can even come close to Photoshop in terms of sheer editing power. However, you can use Adobe Bridge to handle some workflow-based tasks like importing photos and organizing the digital media on your computer, which when paired with Photoshop, does offer a more comprehensive Lightroom-esque workflow experience. It’s not quite as streamlined as working in Lightroom alone, but it does provide a welcome degree of automation as opposed to manually organizing all your PSDs, JPGs, and other photos by hand.

Sometimes the best solution involves both programs. I used Lightroom to import this photo from my camera and do some basic edits, and then used Photoshop to add some more extensive tweaks.

Sometimes the best solution involves both programs. I used Lightroom to import this photo from my camera and do some basic edits and then used Photoshop to add some more extensive tweaks.

Which one is right for you?

By now you probably realize that this is a question only you can answer, and until recently it meant spending $150 on Lightroom or several times that amount on Photoshop. Thankfully, Adobe has made the decision much easier with its release of Creative Cloud and you can now get both programs for $10/month. If you don’t like the idea of subscribing to software, you can still buy Lightroom by itself, and Adobe has stated they will continue to sell the standalone version for all future versions as well.

This article could be much, much longer and in many ways it seems like I have just scratched the surface, but I hope you have a better understanding of what makes these programs similar and different.

What about you? What differences do you think are worth noting between both programs, and what purpose does each serve for you? Leave your input in the comments section below.

Read more from our Post Production category

Simon Ringsmuth is an educational technology specialist at Oklahoma State University and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm for photography on his website and podcast at Weekly Fifty. He also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him at sringsmuth.

  • Errol Westoll

    You are crazy to delete RAW files! You should save them as digital negatives and keep them safe in a place other than your PC/MAC. If you can keep them in a different location do that. This is valuable stuff, man.

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  • Choo Chiaw Ting

    Sharpness, color rendering wise, photoshop renders photo much better, especially when it comes to printing. Photoshop enables you to select different profile and ways for color rendering. When you are editing bunch of photos, photoshop may not that suitable, but when you are focusing on a small numbers of photos, then photoshop is the best. this is especially true when you need to print them on large format printers, LR may not support the printing corrently.

  • nice article 🙂

  • Thank you for giving clear picture on PS and LR. I use Photoshop but eager to learn LR too. I feel difficulty in managing photos manually. Let me try using LR from trail version.

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  • Olivia White

    I use PicMonkey.com, and find their simple tools enough to edit my pictures. Anyone else use Picmonkey?

  • I’ve never tried picmonkey.com, but if it works for you then I say go for it. I’m always in favor of each photographer using the tools that suit his or her own workflow 🙂

  • clikchic

    There is a lot of missing info in this article. Adobe Camera Raw that comes with photoshop treats photos exactly the same way as Lightroom. Sure you can edit photos in Photoshop itself, but for non destructive RAW photo edits I regularly use Adobe Camera Raw as it does everything Lightroom does and in the same way. You don’t need Lightroom if you have Photoshop. Adobe Camera Raw and Bridge does everything Lightroom does.

  • clikchic

    You can do that in Adobe Camera RAW also.

  • clikchic

    You should give Adobe Camera Raw a go. It comes with Photoshop and does everything Lightroom does. I have both but just use ACR, I have uninstalled Lightroom because I don’t need it.

  • Santanu Bhattacharjee

    Thank you for a article..

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  • Bill

    Captions in Photo Shop Elements Organizer can contain an unlimited amount of information about each photo. And all photos containing a date, person or whatever can be retrieved quickly. I am an amateur and have about 3,500 photos in Organizer with many more family photos to scan. All are tagged and captioned.

  • patti

    Is there an intense description on how to use these two in unison including the terminology meanings? I just started to use Lr/Ps, I never felt so lost and confused when using these post processing programs…..

  • I had the impression that LR is the poor man’s PS. But your post has cleared that misconception. I would say, it might be better for a photography enthusiast to first try LR a month or so on subscription. Then see if your needs are met. Else try PS for a month and see that as well. But use extensively before you decide to commit too many of your dollars on either. Assess on the following counts: Results, Ease of use, Processing speed (and its impact on your computer), Cost.

  • I like your idea of trying LR for a month to see how well it works for you, especially since Adobe gives you a month free trial if you want it.

  • Denise

    I enjoyed reading because I wondered the difference in both of these. I am still wondering what makes them both better than some of the others youb mentioned in the top of the article. GIMP is basically a free version of an older Photoshop. Pixelmator (Apple exculsive) seems to do a lot of things that they do and PicsArt is also very good and free. Can you get away with the same results using any of the free ones out there or the relativly in expensive ones?

  • Good question, Denise. You can certainly get much of the same results with other programs such as Pixelmator and GIMP. It’s all about finding a workflow that works for you and your particular goals. While none of these are objectively better, Photoshop and Lightroom are certainly much more widely used than some of the alternatives which might make it easier to get help and tutorials.

  • Michael

    Very good information Simon. I use mostly LR 5.7 and very seldom PS CS5 when I want to change a background and remove something from an image and so on. As a hobbyist photographer I am fully satisfied with the editing capability of LR. Well, I guess something I still don’t know about LR nondestructive editing process because after I edit my RAW (.CR2) photo and I want to get back to the none-edited original RAW image, I don’t know how to view the original unedited image without using the Reset button which destroys all my editing changes. The only way I do that is creating a Virtual copy and Reset the copy to go back to my original while preserving the edited version.
    Thanks!

  • One quick way is to press the backslash key (this: not this: /) on your keyboard when developing a photo in LR. It will instantly show the unedited file and pressing the key again will return you to your current edited photo. I use this all the time to compare the originals to my edited photos.

  • Michael

    Thank you very much Simon. I do know that but you still be working on just the same photo. Is it possible to get original photo back without affecting the edited one? So the idea is to end up with two the same photos but one is untouched and the other one is edited so I could do the different editing process to see the differences between the two. I hope it’s not too confusing. The only way I could do that via creating a Virtual copy and resetting it to the original version.

  • You can! You can use LR to save a Snapshot of a photo which basically saves the state at which it is currently edited, and then you can recall that Snapshot any time you want. You’ll find Snapshots on the left-hand side of your Develop screen, and hit the + button to create a new Snapshot.

  • Michael

    Thanks a lot Simon!

  • owswitch

    Photoshop is indeed the powerhouse program – if you’re willing to invest the time in learning it. I use PSE 11 and LR6 together – and also incorporate the powerful tools provided by the NIK plugins.

    As with most things in this hobby, you start with your goals and purchase what’s best for your situation.

  • Duncan Gibson

    I must admit I’ve use Psh , since almost the beginning .I did try Lr but found it hard to adjust my way of doing things..I photo log my shots by the month / year ..I start out in Br looking for keepers ..then proceed to Raw ,where I do a lot of work , then into Psh ,, most times I use LAB / CMYK with lots of Luminosity masking ..I always ( Option ) OPEN COPY my settings from RAW into Psh thus saving the original at the end of the year I burn onto a disc the whole RAW / Photo….I have in my library 142 disc that I do look at through out the year just to see the difference from then til now ..I’m not a great photographer just a fair amateur who enjoys himself ..I must say in all honestly for any one starting out in photography go for the Lr version or any other photo program with-in your price range ,and enjoy the editing of your photos ..thanks for the article I think it clears many misunderstandings

  • Paul Gaecke

    Nice, brief comparison. I would make only one amplifying thought: once you decide to subscribe via Creative Cloud, you get both programs for the same $10 per month price. The $120 per year is likely to be only a little more than what you might spend buying upgraded versions of Lightroom each year.

    That being said, you might as well learn to use both programs in tandem as I do, always saving your Photoshop images in your Lightroom catalog. The only downside to this approach–other than the ten bucks a month subscription fee–is the additional hard drive space needed for storage. But most who use both programs together as I do have found memory to be very, very inexpensive.

  • Barbara McNary Spindler

    This is the very comment I was looking for as I use Aperture, so was wondering where to go next because of Apple discontinuing any further development with Aperture. (Rats….), but it seems LR will be the way to go as I too need to quickly process through 400-500 sports photos quickly to post. Thanks!

  • No problem, Barbara. Honestly I don’t miss Aperture at all and I think Lightroom is a much more powerful and feature-rich application. You’ll like it 🙂

  • Good points, Paul. I still use old versions that I paid for individually so I’m not on the monthly subscription plan, but I’m really glad it’s there for anyone who wants to dig a little deeper into photo editing. I’m really glad Adobe gives you both programs for $10/month instead of making you pay for them individually, and that really is quite a good deal when you think about what you get for your money. It’s basically two of the best image editing programs for the price of a few cups of coffee each month 🙂

  • freeopinions

    If you don’t have Lightroom, you can still do all of the “developing” of a raw image in Adobe Camera Raw (ACR). All the lighting, shadow/highlight (and more controls) are the same. You can do batch edits just as in Lightroom.

    If developing and spotting the file is all you require, then just stop there. Nothing has been done to change your original file, no pixels have been altered, there is nothing to save (although you may if you wish to) and the next time you need the image, it will open in ACR with all your edits intact. You don’t need to save another file (or two files) if you have no need for them.

    However, if you need to open eyes, swap heads or backgrounds, add or subtract major elements, etc., Lightroom just can’t do that. You need Photoshop for that. If you love the controls in ACR/Lightroom so much that you can’t live without them, even on an image that you are already working on in Photoshop, there is a Camera Raw Filter in the Filter dropdown that will allow you to use those controls. Those edits are permanent, and you must save a copy to preserve the edits, but that is the same for any file that is ultimately worked in Photoshop.

    I have used Photoshop since ver. 2.5. I have tried Lightroom twice, one of those times I put a great effort into it, and just don’t see it helping me with anything. There is nothing Lightroom does that Photoshop can’t do, and there is very much that Photoshop can do that Lightroom can’t do. I don’t save a file (except the raw) until I need it for something, so there is no wasted space. Bridge is a browser, not a database that has to be backed up constantly, and has lots of features that make files easy to find and access.

    I use Photoshop exclusively.

  • Leslie Hoerwinkle

    My images always come out of the camera perfectly…lol

  • David Blacker

    except for the workflow management part, everything else that LR does can be done via PS’ Camera RAW plug in. the vignetting mentioned can be done identically, the edits are all saved in a catalogue and the original CR image remains untouched. etc etc. i rarely use PS proper except for maybe using a high pass filter for occasional sharpening. the article doesn’t really show me any advantage in using LR. i don’t need a picture book, and how hard is dragging a batch of files off my camera card to my hard drive?

  • It sounds like you have a workflow that suits your needs quite well, David, and I think that’s great. What I like about LR is its all-in-one approach to both photo management and editing, and even though all the adjustments can also be made in ACR, Lightroom’s Library makes managing my pictures much easier than sorting through various folders on my hard drive.

  • David Blacker

    perhaps, but is having to move files around manually a big enough factor to pick LR over the far higher editing abilities of PS? frankly, for 90% of my work, i don’t need PS itself, just the ACR plug-in, and if ACR came as a stand-alone system, i probably wouldn’t use PS at all. so at that level, there’s probably no difference to me whether i use LR or PS since ACR is actually what i’m using.

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