Photoshop versus Lightroom? Wrong question!

I’ve been asked a version of this photoshop versus lightroom question over and over: “For working on my images, should I use Lightroom or Photoshop?”

photoshop versus lightroom. Image of boxers from creative commons.
Image of boxers from creative commons.

To me, that’s the wrong question, perhaps not even a fair question. Photoshop and Lightroom are not designed to replace each other; they’re designed to complement each other – they’re two different programs, with two different purposes.

So, what are the right questions?

“In order to enhance my images and get the absolute most out of my digital capture, which is the better program?” Answer: Photoshop

“In order to critically edit and manage my collection of images, which is the better program?” Answer: Lightroom

Here’s another way of thinking about it…
Photoshop is your “Digital Darkroom”
Lightroom is your “Digital Library”

Let me explain, and to do so, let’s first define each program, both products from Adobe.

Photoshop Versus Lightroom – Definitions

What is Photoshop?

It’s an image manipulation & enhancement software program – or for you propeller-heads out there, it’s a “raster graphics editor”. It’s an industry standard for a reason: it’s an incredibly powerful (and complex) program.

What is Lightroom?

I like this definition from Wikipedia – it’s an image management application database which helps in viewing, editing, and managing digital photos. It’s also powerful for what it’s designed to do, but not near as complex as Photoshop.

Is there “crossover” in what each program can do?

Of course, and therein lies the confusion. For instance, the program “Bridge” comes free with Photoshop and it’s a very good “file browser”; Lightroom has a “Develop” and “Print” module.

But you should never confuse what you can do in Bridge with the organizational power of Lightroom, nor should you even remotely confuse the “Develop” module to the full capabilities of image enhancement capable in Photoshop.

With that in mind, you have 3 choices when choosing photoshop versus lightroom

In my comments, I’m going to focus (pun intended) on getting the absolute most out of your digital capture, which is my passion and area of expertise.

1.) Use Lightroom Only:  The best “Digital Library” out there, but for critical digital output, I don’t consider this the best choice. It’s a fallacy that the “Develop” module in Lightroom is “just as good” as Photoshop – in fact, the “Develop” module is exactly the same as the Adobe Camera RAW Plug-in in Photoshop, and no more. Photoshop is a “NASCAR race car” to Lightroom’s “passenger car” – no comparison!

Another question I get asked: Should a newbie try Lightroom first to enhance their images, and then step up to Photoshop later?

Unless you need the power of Lightroom (Digital Library), I would recommend against it. If you want to start right and truly discover the power of digital capture, learn Photoshop first (Digital Darkroom). The learning curve is a bit higher than Lightroom (see below), but the results to your digital output are worth it.

2.) Use Photoshop Only (with Bridge):  As a custom photographic printer for over 30 years, I’ve seen what works and what doesn’t, and Photoshop is the best – no serious pro would consider not using the best in any discipline. A downside: Photoshop can no doubt be a bit harder to learn than Lightroom, but as a photographer, you only need to use about 10 to 15% of this complex program, and you can pretty much ignore the rest if you want. Oh, and it’s not nearly as complicated with the right instruction designed for photographers (Hint-hint: shameless plug below for my Photoshop CS6 /CC book.)

3.) Use both Lightroom and Photoshop: Now, I confess – I’m not a Lightroom fan and don’t use it, but I also don’t photograph hundreds of images a week. If you do, then you may want to consider using Lightroom too. Keep in mind the added complications to your digital workflow, as well as having one more program to learn. If you don’t need the power of Lightroom, why learn a second program? That I’ll leave up to you. You best know your workflow needs.

My approach?

As I’m big on keeping things simple (and don’t make hundreds of images a week), I rely on Bridge as my file browser, and use Photoshop exclusively. Oh, and I don’t run every image through Photoshop – only those that, after critical editing, I’ve decided need a Master File. You can learn more about Master Files at “Photoshop CS6 / CC: The Master File and Workflow

My recommendation in photoshop versus lightroom question?

If your goal is to get the absolute most out of your digital capture (for print in particular), you should include Photoshop in your arsenal. If you’re a newbie, I’d suggest that you start with Photoshop (Digital Darkroom), and use Bridge as your Digital Library. If Bridge is not getting the job done, step up to the better “Digital Library” – Lightroom.

By the way, you can download both programs from Adobe’s Creative Cloud for Photographers, for $10 a month – click here.

You can learn more about the creative cloud here:Photoshop CC: Time to Get Your Head into the ‘Cloud’?

by John Watts, Watts Digital Imaging
All text & photos / screen shots: © 2014 John Watts, Watts Digital Imaging. All rights reserved.

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