Photoshop Or Lightroom | What's Right For You?

A glacier on a rugged mountain side along the Drygalski Fjord on South Georgia Island.

Adobe has a suite of programs, some of which are employed by photographers. But with this variety comes the need to choose. Can one program meet all your needs or is it necessary to own several programs?

When trying to make your decision cast your net widely and be careful not to make your decision based entirely on advise given by any single individual, particularly if they don’t qualify that advise with sound reasoning.

Beware Of Overly Opinionated People

Often an individual will recommend Canon or Nikon, Topaz or Nik, Ford or Holden based on the fact that they own one or the other. And, if they own/use one of these products, it must be the right choice for you to. Right! Other than cars I see this phenomena raising its ugly head particularly strongly with cameras.

Beware Of Geeks Bearing Advice!

For you to contemplate a different model or, heaven forbid, a different brand might suggest they’d made the wrong decision or their camera is no longer as good as it was. Not being prepared to buy a new camera their ego causes them to aggressively recommend the one they currently own as the best camera for you. This is quite primitive cave man behavior, which I frequently witnessed in my days as a teacher in a formal classroom environment. 

Perhaps you drive a Ford, because your old man did. Or perhaps the fact that he did is the very reason you won’t be seen dead in one. There is, after all, a lot of emotion invested in purchasing a car or an expensive camera. It’s all basic psychology.

In the case of software you may have used iPhoto for the simple reason that it was part of the bundle of software that came free (though, of course, nothing ever comes for free) with your Mac computer. Perhaps, after mastering iPhoto, you decided to move to a more professional program. Up until it was discontinued some folks chose Aperture, a very good program.

Brand Loyalty Cannot Be Underestimated

But what was behind that choice? Was it because they loved their Mac and Apple manufacture Aperture. And what do you do now that both iPhoto and Aperture has been discontinued. Do you move across to the currently de-featured Apple Photos application or cast your net further afield.

Maybe you’ve considered purchasing Adobe Lightroom for similar reasons. You may already have purchased, or had experience using, Adobe Photoshop Elements or Adobe Photoshop.

Frankly, the idea of a suite of applications that allow you to move, relatively easily, from one to another always made sense to me. And that, together with my familiarity with Photoshop, was one of the reasons why Adobe Lightroom, which is actually branded as Adobe Photoshop Lightroom, has become such a crucial part of my own workflow. So, even though I’m a dedicated Mac user, I’m firmly in the Adobe camp when it comes to image processing software.

But, outside of the fact that it is part of a larger suite or family of products, there are other reasons why I dig Lightroom. I love the application’s modular design. The attractive interface allows you to access any of the five main modules within Lightroom (there are actually seven modules, including Book and Map) quickly and with ease. These modules can be described as follows:

A beautiful street art image of the Hindu god Ganesh in Hosier Lane, Melbourne.

Lightroom Library Module

As well as allowing you to import your photos the Library module also allows you to store, rate and tag (via keywords) your images. This sorting process is critical as these metadata instructions, that you’ve attached to your images, allow you to locate one or more images, from a catalog of thousands, within a matter of seconds.

Gone are the days of sorting through shoe boxes of prints and negatives. Digital photography saw to that. Gone to are the days of sorting through thousands of files in dozens, or even hundreds, of folders on your computer and/or external drives. Regardless of where you store your photo files they can be easily located and retrieved from within the Lightroom Library module. That is, of course, once they’ve been imported and tagged into Lightroom and, as a consequence, incorporated into the Lightroom catalog.

These image sorting and retrieval features are, to my mind, what separates Lightroom from the competition.
The Library module also allows you to group selected images, from one or more photography sessions or events (I don’t like using the word shoot), into Collections (e.g., Christmas 2016, China 2017, Bush/Blair wedding, etc).

Lightroom Develop Module

For me this is where the fun begins. Adjustments to color temperature; brightness (i.e., exposure) and contrast; color vibrance and saturation; as well as clarity and sharpness can all be made quickly and easily in this module. There is a lot to do but, with proper instruction, much of the work can fit into a very straightforward, quick and easy to implement workflow.

For folks making lots of images it’s essential to be able to develop and share them quickly. And Lightroom allows you to do so.

Lightroom Slideshow Module

This module provides a quick and easy method for you to present your images, in sequence, in a kind of slideshow format, with or without backing music.

Lightroom Print Module

The Print module is great for setting up files for printing, either directly to a desktop printer or, with the appropriate Color Print Profile attached, saved to a memory stick or disk, or uploaded for printing at a conventional photo lab.

Lightroom Web Module

The web module provides a quick and easy way for your collections to be placed into a format appropriate for viewing in a basic website template.

A houseboat moored by the Murray River near Echuca, Australia.

It’s worth noting that the Develop module, while it has a jazzier interface, is almost identical to the features and functionality found in Adobe Camera RAW (i.e., ACR). There are also some similarities between Adobe Bridge and Lightroom’s Library module. And as ACR and Bridge come for free with Photoshop, some experienced Photoshop users don’t see the need for Lightroom. I, on the other hand, love Lightroom and, as a result, no longer use Bridge or Adobe Camera RAW.  

Most of my time in Lightroom is spent in the Library and Develop modules. Initially, while the Slideshow, Print and Web modules were of interest to me they didn’t have the same level of sophistication as the first two key modules. The print module has really come up to speed over the years and the slideshow module functions quite well for folks interested in placing their images into a cohesive slideshow presentation.

While the functionality with the Develop module is improving all the time, it still works best when working on images at a global level. For example, warming or cooling; lightening or darkening; or sharpening an image. While you can work locally (e.g., via tools such as the brush tool and, to a lesser extend via the HSL (i.e., Hue, Saturation and Luminance) panel, Photoshop is the superior application when it comes to working at a local level.

I need both programs. Lightroom to import, rate, organize and export my images for printing and sharing; and Photoshop to retouch, develop (i.e., process) and for more artistic interpretations of the image.

Should You Bother To Learn Photoshop?

When I’m asked to recommend software, cameras or even cars I’m always very careful what I say. Folks are usually hoping for a simple and convincing recommendation, which I’m rarely able to provide.

I don’t think it’s right to say that one program is better than any other. I prefer to base my recommendation on what’s most appropriate to the individual’s needs, aspirations, skill set and budget. 

Photoshop is an amazing program but, as photographers are only one of its many and varied user groups, it has to cater to a broad range of needs, many of which are not relevant to photographers. Lightroom, on the other hand, is made by the same company (i.e., Adobe) and is targeted specifically to photographers, professional and enthusiast alike. And that’s why I like it. There’s almost no major feature in Lightroom that I don’t use, while most photographers would be lucky to make use of 10% of the features in Photoshop. So, for most people, it’s worth considering whether there’s sufficient value associated with the big kahuna, even though you might only want to take a bite, every now and again.

There is a substantial learning curve associated with any major software application. And it’s hard to remember everything you learn, particularly when certain features are used infrequently. But, in the case of Lightroom, most of what you learn you’ll use on a regular (e.g., daily) basis.

There are basically three segments of the photography market: amateurs, enthusiasts and professional photographers. Which one would you consider yourself falling it?

Of course you may not call yourself a professional photographer, simply because you don’t run a photography business. But you might be a practicing artist or passionate enthusiast who will stop at nothing to make the best image you can. In that case, regardless of what demographic manufacturers might put you into, you’re a definite candidate for the best gear and best software you can afford.

Sticking with the above rational, it might be helpful to try to match each demographic with a camera and software application/s. What follows should be read as a very basic guideline, which may or may not prove useful to your own particular circumstances. 

Amateur Photographer

These days most folks will be well served by an up to date mobile device (e.g., phone or tablet) with a photography app like Snapseed.

Enthusiast Photographer

A mirrorless or DSLR camera, probably in the sub USD$1,500 price range, that includes at least a decent kit lens in addition to Lightroom would be a great starting point.

If you love image processing, and are prepared to spend significantly more time working on important images, then you might also consider Photoshop. But, outside compositing or high end studio-based work (e.g., fashion) requiring a lot of retouching or the addition of text, I’d only move up to Photoshop once you’ve already got your head well and truly around the Lightroom workflow.  

Professional Photographer

One or more mirrorless or DSLR cameras plus one or more top line (e.g., Canon L series) lenses is the starting point for the working professional photographer. The price you’ll need to pay for your camera kit will depend largely upon the kind of photography you’re undertaking (e.g., landscape, portrait, wildlife or sports).

Depending on the kind of photography you undertake, and the market segment in which you’re working, Lightroom and possibly a range of other applications (e.g., Aurora HDRCapture One, Topaz) should be considered, possibly in conjunction with Photoshop.

I hope this post helps by clarifying the software application that’s most appropriate to you and the photography your most likely to undertake.

Glenn Guy, Travel Photography Guru