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Understanding the Difference Between Photoshop and Lightroom

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.

Note: if you don’t yet have Lightroom check out this special deal Adobe currently have for dPS readers.


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.


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.


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:


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.


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.


After image





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.


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.


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.

Note: if you don’t yet have Lightroom check out this special deal Adobe currently have for dPS readers.

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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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