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Since the first version was released over eight years ago, Lightroom has become the go-to software for many photographers, both hobbyist and professional. But if you’re new to Lightroom you may be wondering exactly what it does, what you would use it for, and how it differs from other well known programs like Photoshop.
Lightroom is part Raw converter, part photo processor (yes, you can edit JPEG and TIFF files in Lightroom too), and part photo organizer. The latter task is often referred to as digital asset management (or DAM for short).
The key thing to understand about Lightroom is that it is a workflow application. It is designed to take care of your photos from the moment you copy them from your camera’s memory card, to your computer’s hard drive. Once in Lightroom you can process photos, add them to a map to show where they were taken, create a photo book or slide show, print them or export them to other programs for further processing.
This is why Lightroom is so useful, and so popular. It becomes the centre of your workflow, and while it is powerful enough to be used independently, it also integrates seamlessly with programs like Photoshop. You can use Lightroom by itself, or in partnership with other programs.
At the heart of Lightroom is the Catalog – a database that contains a preview of every photo that you have imported into the program, a record of each photo’s metadata (including processing) plus the location where it is stored on your hard drive.
It is important to note that the Catalog doesn’t contain the photos themselves, just information about them. Your photo files are always saved on a hard drive, even if you use Lightroom CC (Creative Cloud).
Because Lightroom is a database, it gives you several advantages over programs like Photoshop.
Lots of it. When you process a Raw file in Lightroom, the edits you make are saved in the Lightroom Catalog as a series of text commands which take up very little space.
When you process a Raw file in Photoshop, you have to convert it to a 16 bit TIFF or PSD file first (yes, you can use JPEG instead but the other formats give better image quality). TIFF and PSD (and even JPEG) files take up much more space than the text commands in the Lightroom Catalog do.
The end result is that, over time, you save hundreds of gigabytes of storage space, making it much easier to manage your growing photo collection.
Note that this benefit is diminished if you are in the habit of exporting photos to Photoshop or plug-ins for processing. That shouldn’t stop you from using those applications (although it is good practice to see if you can do something in Lightroom first) nor should it put you off using Lightroom.
Provided you import all your photos into a single Catalog (it is possible to have multiple Catalogs in Lightroom but this is for advanced users only) you can view any of your photos using Lightroom’s Library module.
Lightroom is a database, which is designed to collect, organize and search information.
Would you like to find all your photos taken with a particular camera or lens? That’s easy in Lightroom. How about all portraits taken with the aperture set to f/2.8? That takes a little more work as it relies on accurate keywording, but it’s entirely possible. Or what about all photos of a specific person taken in 2012? Easy with the face detection tool in Lightroom 6 and Lightroom CC.
The problem with storing images in folders is that you can only save a photo in one location. Let’s say you took some photos of a friend called Sarah, in London, in July 2015 (maybe you were at Wimbledon). When you copy those files to your hard drive, you can only save them in one folder (which may be called Sarah, or London, or something entirely different).
One of Lightroom’s key features is Collections. A Collection is like a virtual folder. You can call a Collection whatever you want, add as many photos as you like, and add photos to as many Collections as you need.
Using the above example, once you have imported your photos of Sarah into the Lightroom Catalog, you can add them to multiple Collections. For example, you may have one Collection that contains all your photos of Sarah, another with all your photos of London, and another with all the photos taken in July 2015.
It’s a simplified example, but the advantages of Collections become more apparent the more you use them. In short, they give you the flexibility to organize your images in a way that suits you.
Does that mean you should use Lightroom exclusively and forget about programs like Photoshop? Not at all. There are plenty of things that you can do in Photoshop (not to mention all the other plug-ins and editing programs that you can buy) that you can’t in Lightroom.
Many photographers use the two in conjunction. This is encouraged by Adobe with its Creative Photography Plan, which includes both Photoshop and Lightroom, along with Lightroom mobile and Lightroom web.
If you are new to Lightroom your first task is to import some photos into it so you can work on them. I’ll show you how to do that in my next article.
If you were unsure about what Lightroom is and what photographers use it for, then I hope this article has helped. Do you have any questions? Please ask in the comments and I’ll do my best to help.
The Mastering Lightroom Collection
My Mastering Lightroom ebooks will help you get the most out of Lightroom. They cover every aspect of the software from the Library module through to creating beautiful images in the Develop module. Click the link to learn more or buy.