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Lightroom vs Photoshop: Which Editing Program Is Best?

Lightroom vs Photoshop: Which program is best?

Adobe Lightroom Classic and Adobe Photoshop are both powerful editing programs, but determining which to use – whether you’re a beginner, an enthusiast, or even a professional – can be tough.

And while the two programs are widely used by the photographic community, they each serve a unique purpose and feature essential differences. In other words, it’s important that you choose between Lightroom vs Photoshop carefully.

In this article, I explain everything you need to know about these two programs. I discuss key similarities and fundamental differences, and I conclude with a discussion of the best editing software for you.

Ready to pick a post-processing program? Then let’s dive right in!

Lightroom vs Photoshop: Overview

Both Lightroom and Photoshop are designed to do the same thing: edit images. How the programs go about handling that task, as well as how they’re designed to be used, 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.

The two programs are capable of handling multiple file types such as JPEGs, PNGs, and TIFFs. Technically, Photoshop can’t edit RAW files directly, but it includes a RAW processor that’s highly sophisticated. In fact, both Photoshop and Lightroom use the Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) processing engine to handle RAW image files, so you can expect similar editing capabilities when adjusting saturation, working with curves, correcting for lens distortion, and so on.

Lightroom vs Photoshop
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 best suits your needs.

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 that’ll allow you to instantly apply black and white, sepia, and other artistic effects.

Bottom line: Photoshop and Lightroom are highly capable 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.

That said, it’s worth exploring the benefits and drawbacks of each program so you can pick the software that best suits your needs, starting with:

Lightroom vs Photoshop: File handling

Lightroom, unlike Photoshop, doesn’t actually edit photos, nor does it move your images to different locations on your computer. Instead, your image files remain untouched, and every change you implement is kept in a separate catalog file (a sort of recipe book of instructions for how each photo should be processed).

Therefore, when you apply an edit in Lightroom – such as an exposure adjustment or a saturation boost – the software simply logs the alterations in its database while leaving the original image intact. This is known as non-destructive editing.

For example, several months ago I sent my father a photo I took of him, which I had spent some time editing in Lightroom.

Lightroom vs Photoshop
The edited image I sent my father.

But because I edited in Lightroom, the original file was left unchanged, and I can go back and re-edit the photo any time I want.

Another benefit of this approach is that the Lightroom catalog itself is generally quite small; it’ll often take up only a few hundred megabytes on your hard drive, even if you’ve imported thousands of files.

Lightroom vs Photoshop
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 file, you’re always working on the original, unless you save a Photoshop PSD copy that is usually several dozen megabytes in size. A PSD file contains all of your edits, and in order to share the final image, it must then be saved as an easily displayable JPG, PNG, etc. In essence, if you want to perform non-destructive edits in Photoshop, you’ll end up with three separate files: the original camera RAW file, a PSD, and the final copy saved in a shareable format. The process works something like this:

Lightroom vs Photoshop
A basic diagram of the Photoshop workflow. If you want to preserve an image, you must start by saving a separate PSD file.

To sum up, Lightroom and Photoshop’s editing processes look similar on the surface, but they come with one major difference: in Lightroom, all your edits are saved in a relatively small catalog file, while in Photoshop, all your changes are saved in unique files for every single picture you edit.

A Photoshop workflow will therefore require far more space, and you’ll end up with multiple versions of each image, too. So why would you want to choose Photoshop instead of Lightroom? In a word, power.

Photoshop vs Lightroom: Editing capabilities

Lightroom is kind of like an all-terrain farm vehicle: 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 bales of hay, pulling a horse trailer, or ploughing in mud and snow.

Years back, Adobe realized that not everyone needed the capability of Photoshop, particularly photographers who needed to edit hundreds of images at high speeds. What this new generation of digital photographers demanded was the core editing tools of Photoshop – without all of the fancy extras – packed into one easy-to-use program (Lightroom).

Lightroom vs Photoshop
Lightroom’s tools are basic but effective.

Because when it comes to editing capabilities, Photoshop is far beyond Lightroom. The program contains a dizzying array of filters, brushes, and other tools that allow you to perform hundreds of edits to your images. While Lightroom does offer a handful of excellent local editing options, Photoshop offers a level of precision that Lightroom can’t match.

But more than that, Photoshop operates by letting you create different layers on which your edits actually take place. You might use dozens of layers to edit a single image, and each layer can be modified independently of the others.

Lightroom, by contrast, works in a much more linear fashion. There are no layers, fewer editing tools, and less overall flexibility. This is great if you’re looking to make some basic edits and move on, but it’s not ideal if you’d like to spend hours carefully adjusting colors and tones in targeted portions of your images.

Lightroom vs Photoshop

Note that 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 the editing process.

Lightroom vs Photoshop
Photoshop uses layers, which can be intimidating for beginners but offer a versatility that Lightroom simply can’t match.

Let’s say you want to add a vignette to a portrait. In Lightroom, this is as simple as adjusting the Amount slider of the Post-Crop Vignetting tool, and while you can change a few basic parameters, there’s not an overwhelming number of options. 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 always create a Radial Gradient.

In Photoshop, however, you would need to add an adjustment layer to your photo – probably Levels or Curves – and use it to darken the image. You’d then need to apply a mask to the layer so you only affect the outer edges, and you’d also have the option to modify the layer’s opacity or blend mode. That’s just the beginning, and 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’ll have over the editing process.

Lightroom vs Photoshop
In Lightroom adding a vignette is as simple as moving a slider. In Photoshop, it’s much more complicated, but you also get more control.

Thanks to its huge number of options and features (including support for text, 3D graphics, and even video), Photoshop is ideal for almost any image-editing situation, but it takes longer to learn and each process requires more effort. Lightroom essentially distills Photoshop down to the tools that photographers use most, which is one of the reasons it is so appealing to shutterbugs.

Lightroom vs Photoshop: workflow and image organization

Photo organization is where Lightroom really shines – in fact, the program offers an end-to-end workflow solution for photographers. Since it’s 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 printing.

Lightroom also 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, a photo book, or a print. Many photographers, including professionals, go weeks or months without ever opening Photoshop because Lightroom really does it all.

Lightroom vs Photoshop
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 slideshows or photo books. You can use the free Adobe Bridge software to handle some workflow-based tasks like importing photos and organizing the digital media on your computer, and when paired with Photoshop, it does offer a Lightroom-like workflow experience – but it’s not quite as streamlined as working in Lightroom alone.

At the end of the day, Lightroom is far and away the better choice if you’re looking for software that can handle your file organization. In fact, it’s one of the best image-organization programs on the market, and it’s often worth the subscription price for this reason alone. But if you need the power of Photoshop, then working with Adobe Bridge is definitely an option (or you can use both Lightroom and Photoshop for an integrated solution).

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

Lightroom vs Photoshop: Which program is best for you?

By now, you undoubtedly realize that both Lightroom and Photoshop have their advantages and disadvantages. So which program is best? That really depends on you!

If you’re serious about image editing and you want to post-process each image with pixel-level precision, Photoshop is probably the better choice (along with Adobe Bridge to manage your files). It’ll let you apply all sorts of targeted adjustments using brushes, gradients, and more, and it’ll even let you apply focus stacks and do high-level compositing.

Lightroom vs Photoshop

But if you’re looking for a program that offers basic to mid-level editing and that can also take care of all your image workflow needs, then Lightroom is the way to go. Its digital asset management capabilities are outstanding, and it’ll help you keep each and every one of your images carefully organized.

One more factor to consider is price. You cannot purchase either of these programs for a single fee; instead, you’ll need to pay monthly for an Adobe Creative Cloud subscription plan. You can currently purchase Adobe’s basic Photography plan for just $9.99 per month, and it includes both Photoshop and Lightroom (as well as 20 GB of cloud storage).

So if you’re not quite sure which program to use, consider buying a Creative Cloud subscription, then try out both products and see what you think!

Now over to you:

Which program do you plan to use, Lightroom or Photoshop? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

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Simon Ringsmuth
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 and his brother host a monthly podcast called Camera Dads where they discuss photography and fatherhood, and Simon also posts regularly to Instagram where you can follow him as @sringsmuth.

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