For Me, It's Lightroom AND Photoshop

By Roger (17 January 2016)

We talk to many new photographers, and a common question that keeps popping up is the difference between Lightroom and Photoshop. Which one do they need?

Well, I'm not sure why you have to choose one or the other. They are different tools, and both have advantages and disadvantages, strengths and weaknesses. In the past, Adobe would sell them separately; the pair were expensive, so this question made more sense. But, today, they bundle Photoshop with Lightroom for a greatly reduced price, and they are designed to work together. The simple answer is get both.

That answer may be a little too simple, so let's dig a little deeper.

Photoshop is much older than Lightroom and was created for graphic design professionals, before digital photos were the standard. Lightroom was designed for photographers. This historical fact helps explain some of the complexity of Photoshop and the reasons many of its tools aren't much use for photographers, while Lightroom is often the tool most beginner photographers are told to use.

While Photoshop can do almost anything Lightroom can do, think of Lightroom as a subset of Photoshop tools, specifically for photographers, with a database application for organization. I found Lightroom easier to learn than Photoshop because it seemed more logically designed for my use. The database is, in my opinion, the best part of Lightroom. When you shoot thousands of photos every year, finding a particular one, in sea of hard drive folders, can be difficult.

When you import your photos into Lightroom, the program puts the actual photo files wherever you direct and creates a link, in the database, to that location. When you view your photos inside Lightroom, it doesn't matter where they are located on your hard drive. You can set up any storage system you want for the files, and Lightroom will keep track (as long as you do all your organization within the program.) We recommend you set up a single folder for all your photos and use subfolders how ever you see fit. You could just put all your photos in the main folder and never create a subfolder. I like to create a new subfolder every year; others set subfolders by subjects, or some other method that makes sense to them.

Once your photos are imported into the Lightroom database, you can make lots of adjustments to the photos: color balance; contrast; sharpness; even some limited deletions to items within the photo. The Develop module is arranged in a logical workflow, but you can make the edits in any order that makes sense to you. Lightroom keeps a running history of your modifications; the record is visible and detailed; and all the modifications are reversible. Mistakes are easy to correct.

Lightroom allows you to easily add information to your photos. Keywords, captions, copyright information, city, state, country, GPS readings, and ratings all make finding a specific photo from your database much easier. Many can be added in batches or presets, making data entry consistent and fast. I'm not happy unless my metadata entries are complete.

Lightroom has modules to help you create books and slideshows to show off your work. And, speaking of showing off your work, Lightroom exports your photos in many different formats and file sizes, including, of course, the ubiquitous jpeg, for viewing on web and social media sites. You can, again, create export presets to make exporting one or dozens of photos easy and consistent.

Wow, huh? Lightroom has quite a list of capabilities. What would you need Photoshop for? Well, you don't need it, but it has some great features Lightroom will probably never have.

Photoshop can take your photos so far they don't resemble the original. You can make minute changes no one will even know were made; changes that can have major effects on how the photo is perceived by your viewer.

Unlike Lightroom, you will be changing the pixels in the photo as you work. The most common image manipulations are deleting or adding elements in the photo; pixel level image editing; and creating composites from more than one photo. You create different layers and masks that help you do this. You can keep all those layers, in case you want to make adjustments later, -called non-destructive editing - or collapse the photo down to a single layer, creating a smaller file size.

The tool set in Photoshop is massive and takes time to learn. Take your time; you don't have to know all (or most) of the functions to do common photo editing. Besides the tools we photographers regularly use, there are tools for graphic design, 3D, and video. There are many experts who bend and twist tools designed for one purpose and mix them into other uses. You might be surprised how useful 3D tools can be when you're creating a 2D photo composite.

For most of my images, I just use Lightroom. But I really like to do this stuff, so, probably more often than most people, I'll use both. Here are some examples of the software in action.

How did I miss that stake?

During one of my sesquicentennial trips, I saw this little girl, dressed up like the ladies, in her finest Civil War costume. She was waiting for the pass in review to begin. I couldn't get closer and was already at maximum zoom, so I shot the photo. That ugly green stake marked the boundary to ensure the crowd stayed out of the way of the marching “soldiers.”

This is a perfect example of something Lightroom can handle by itself. I adjusted the colors and sharpness, and, with just a small crop, I was able to get rid of the stake. There certainly was no need for Photoshop.

Cropped and processed with Lightroom

The next photo is of Grace, riding on her own, without someone pulling the pony along. The sun is behind her, which keeps the sun out of her eyes and provides a nice backlighting. I didn't have to coax her for a smile.

Original photo

I did my usual post-processing in Lightroom, but Lightroom can't get rid of the background distractions. Lightroom's healing brush is great for small touch ups, but it isn't going to allow me to make the parking lot of cars disappear. The slope of the far hill side needs to continue down; the clouds need to look natural when I take out the telephone pole. For these types of corrections, you're going to need the better tools in Photoshop. The clone tool and healing brush were the primary tools used here.

No more background distractions

While both Lightroom and Photoshop can create panoramas or high dynamic range photo merges, Photoshop has more tools to modify specific elements or tonal values. For this HDR bridge at sundown photo, I made the standard three exposures: one over-exposed to get the shadow details; one at the camera's solution; and one under-exposed to ensure the highlights weren't washed away.

I can crop in Lightroom or Photoshop to get that wide, panorama look, but I only wanted two of the children for the final photo (Photoshop). I, also, did some work on the bridge to make it stand out more. Only Photoshop can do this.

Newport, RI

Finally, there are some photo tasks where Lightroom is absolutely no help (at least, at this time), like repairing old photographs or colorizing them. These are Photoshop-only tasks. If you want to read an explanation of how to colorize an old black and white photo, you can find that blog here.

So, you can see why I believe you shouldn't choose one over the other; you should use both. They each have their own strengths to help you get that final look you want for your photograph. Lightroom is the easiest place to start for beginners, but, with Adobe's photographer bundle (link), you will get both for a reasonable price.

Or you can use a completely different set of software. We use Lightroom and Photoshop, but they aren't the only options. You can find many fans of other software on the internet. This isn't a political battle for us, any more than which camera is the best camera. One of the hottest photogeek battles these days is whether Lightroom's RAW converter is as good as the converter in Capture One (link). For those who want a free program that can do many of the things found in Photoshop, there is GIMP (link). Try them out and see if you prefer these solutions. I promise you that no one, other than a few photographers (who should be out making photos, instead of arguing over silly stuff), will ask you what software was used to make your photo.

Whatever you use, get out there; make some photos; process those photos; and have fun.