Photoshop vs. Lightroom: What if You Had to Pick Just One?

Aug 27, 2014

Jeff Guyer

Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class three years ago, where rumor has it he learns more from the kids than they learn from him.

Photoshop vs. Lightroom: What if You Had to Pick Just One?

Aug 27, 2014

Jeff Guyer

Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class three years ago, where rumor has it he learns more from the kids than they learn from him.

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One of the questions I get a lot comes from new photographers wanting to know whether they should be working in Photoshop or Lightroom. I particularly enjoy their deer-caught-in-the-headlights look when I reply, “Both!” While it’s true that either of these incredibly powerful Adobe tools could, in theory, provide photographers with everything they need to edit their images, I really am a firm believer that a strong workflow rests on a solid foundation of both PS & LR. Having said that, though, learning just one of these applications can be a daunting task for even the most dedicated photographer. Learning two can seem insurmountable.

It’s really rather staggering when you stop to think about how much of our time is spent in front of a computer, rather than behind a camera. That being the case, you really do want to make sure that you are using your time as efficiently as possible. I touched on this a bit in an article last week regarding 10 Steps to Better Photo Workflow. I mentioned in that article that I had been reluctant for a long time to fully embrace what Lightroom has to offer. Part of the reason was that I’d gotten so good with my Photoshop workflow that taking the time to learn something new seemed to be taking up way too much of my time.

So, if you had to pick only one, which would it be? It’s not an easy question to answer. Each has its strengths and each has its weaknesses. Let’s take a look.

Photoshop Pros

LAYERS- For me, this is by far the best advantage that Photoshop has over Lightroom. By applying local edits and modifications on individual layers rather than globally to the image itself, I have much more finely tuned control over every aspect of the image. Being able to add layers– and adjust how those layers interact with each other with blending modes– opens up a world of almost endless possibilities when it comes to images requiring a lot of work in post. Think about a sunset, for example. Being able to bump the contrast in the top half of the image without losing detail in the bottom half is a job made infinitely easier with layers, layer masks, and blending modes.

TONS OF TOOLS– Lightroom is a pretty robust program, but it doesn’t have anywhere near the toolbox that Photoshop has under the hood. Granted, I don’t think I’ve ever met a photographer who uses each and every tool or process that Photoshop has available, but the fact remains that these tools do offer a range of possibilities that Lightroom simply can’t.

WHAT KIND OF POSSIBILITIES?– For starters, you can create new images and graphics from scratch. This may not seem like that big a deal at first. After all, you’re using this software to work on images you’ve already taken, right? Most of the time that may be the case. But sometimes you may actually need to create the basis for a new image. Stitching panoramas or creating composite images are just two examples of this important capability.

ACTIONS– Don’t confuse actions in Photoshop with presets in Lightroom. A preset is applied globally to the entire image, creating an overall effect. An action, on the other hand, is a recorded sequence of steps, allowing you to complete complex editing tasks without reinventing the wheel every time. While there are countless options available for purchasing commercially created action sets, it’s important to remember that any photographer working in Photoshop has the ability to create their own actions of their favorite editing processes.

Photoshop Cons

THE LEARNING CURVE– Photoshop’s biggest drawback used to be its price tag. Vast numbers of photographers just couldn’t afford it. That created a situation where they either relied on weaker choices, or perpetuated the pirated software epidemic. Neither of these was a very attractive option. This stumbling block has been pretty much eliminated by the new Creative Cloud subscription plans. The steep learning curve– always an issue with Photoshop– has taken over as the #1 problem for photographers jumping into the deep end of the Photoshop pool. I’ve been using Photoshop for about thirteen years, and I like to think I’m pretty good with it– at least when it comes to my own needs. It’s a bit mind-boggling, though, when I consider the fact that my Photoshop knowledge probably only touches the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the program’s full potential.

NO FILE MANAGEMENT SYSTEM– One of Photoshop’s biggest weaknesses is one of Lightroom’s biggest strengths. Since Lightroom was designed primarily with photographers in mind, its ability to manage and catalog files is one of its best selling points. Photoshop can do some pretty amazing things for your photos. Helping you keep them organized, though, is not one of them.

NO NATIVE RAW EDITING– I honestly don’t see this one as being that big of a deal, but I’ve heard some photographers complain about it so I thought I’d mention it. Lightroom lets you work on raw files straight off the camera. That’s partially because when you import an image into Lightroom you aren’t actually working directly on the image itself. In Photoshop, however, plug-ins like Adobe Camera Raw (ACR) are required for opening your image files in a way that you can do your edits. The reason I don’t see this as that big a deal is that in either scenario, we still need special software to open raw files. We always have and probably always will.

Lightroom Pros

ON-BOARD RAW PROCESSING– As just mentioned, Lightroom allows for raw processing without any additional plug-ins. Also as just mentioned, I personally don’t see this one as a huge advantage, but it does create a smoother workflow. You be the judge.

MORE USER-FRIENDLY– Where figuring out a solid workflow in Photoshop can be intimidating, Lightroom seems to have been designed with a logical progression in mind. In the Develop module, for instance, simply following the order of the panels and sliders can help even the beginner get the results they want, without the steep learning curve that Photoshop requires.

FILE MANAGEMENT– I realize that it seems like I’m just flipping the Photoshop cons around to talk about Lightroom pros, but it really is more than that. The importance of a good file management system cannot be undersold. If you’ve been doing this for a long time, I’m sure you have thousands of photos in your image library. If you’re just starting out, it won’t take you long to realize there’s no way you can rely on your memory alone to keep track of all of them. The fact that Lightroom not only has such a system, but is flexible in your ability to tailor it (by date, by name, etc.) is a huge plus.

BATCH PROCESSING– Another big advantage to Lighroom is its batch processing capabilities. Photoshop also has a some batch processing, but I find Lightroom to be vastly superior in this regard. Being able to tweak and adjust a single image and apply those changes to an entire series of images with just a few clicks is the biggest time-saving innovation we’ve seen in photo editing. Anything that gets me away from the computer faster is a big selling point for me.

Lightroom Cons

PHOTOS, AND NOTHING BUT PHOTOS– For most photographers this may not be such a big deal. My projects, however, often require me to create graphics from scratch– something I can only do in Photoshop (assuming my only choices are Photoshop or Lightroom). Also, don’t forget what I said earlier about composites. The time may come when you may need to create something brand new.

NO LAYERS– As noted earlier, I believe Layers to be one of the single greatest editing tools that Photoshop has to offer. I probably could switch over to an almost all Lightroom workflow for some projects if it wasn’t for this one major drawback. Being able to fine-tune adjustments to very specific areas without affecting others is too important to my process. While effects can be stacked on top of each other in Lightroom, it’s not the same as working with independent layers.

Assessing Your Needs

This is pretty much what it all boils down to– What do you need your software to do? If all you need is basic adjustments (tone curves, brightness, contrast, etc.), along with cropping, resizing, and minor retouching, Lightroom may be enough to suit your needs. Anything beyond that, however, is going to require Photoshop. I’m not putting this out there as a single, definitive answer. These are just my own observations, based on a lot of years of starting at images on a computer screen and trying to match what’s on the screen to what’s in my head. For me, I obviously want both. If I had to choose just one, however, it would definitely be Photoshop.

The Good News

There was what seemed like a seismic shift not too long ago when Adobe switched to the Creative Cloud subscription model. The initial reaction was like an angry mob of villagers armed with torches and pitchforks. What do you mean we have to pay every month? What do you mean we no longer own our software? The list of complaints was a long one. Thankfully, Adobe listened. The result is different subscription models tailored to different needs. The current Individual Photography plan, for instance, costs only $9.99 (USD) per month. No system is absolutely perfect, but that’s a pretty tough price to beat for access to all of the most current versions of both Photoshop and Lightroom.

What about you? Which would/do you pick? Does your workflow include something other than PS or LR? Tell us in the comments.

Thanks to Tim Gilbreath of DPS for the inspiration for the post.

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Jeff Guyer

Jeff Guyer

Jeff Guyer is a commercial/portrait photographer based in Atlanta, GA. Still an avid street photographer and film shooter, Jeff also launched a kids photography class three years ago, where rumor has it he learns more from the kids than they learn from him.

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20 responses to “Photoshop vs. Lightroom: What if You Had to Pick Just One?”

  1. Rostislav Alexandrovich Avatar
    Rostislav Alexandrovich

    why no mention of bridge?

    i vastly preffer it to LR, cant stand the idea of being tied to a database

    1. Jim Johnson Avatar
      Jim Johnson

      I have the exact same response. Because of the way I work on files, then move them afterward, and because of the way i backup, the database works best for me.

      But then again, I had a complete workflow in place for years before I used any kind of supplemental software.

  2. Maggie Avatar

    The adjustment brushes in LR can allow you to make changes to specific areas of a photograph. I know they aren’t as powerful as layers but they are mighty handy. For me as a hobbyist, the biggest advantage of PS, aside from the fact that I use the layers function for digiscrapping, is the ability to composite. Many times when shooting scenery, I will bracket exposure then composite in PS as opposed to HDR.

    1. Kay O. Sweaver Avatar
      Kay O. Sweaver

      Exactly, people seem to forget this one all the time. Adjustment brushes allow you to do many of the things that layers does in Photoshop, though certainly not all. I pretty much only go into Photoshop for compositing.

  3. Wil Fry Avatar
    Wil Fry

    (Disclaimer: I’m a hobbyist now; background: a few years as a photographer for a small-town newspaper.)

    90% or more of my images are only touched by DPP (Canon’s included software), in which I use crop/rotate, unsharp mask, levels, curves, saturation, white balance adjustment, and other tools. All my “file management” is done with the OS (in my case Windows).

    If I had to choose one of the above, it would be Photoshop. As you pointed out, it can do much more than simple image editing, and I have no need for a “file management” system, and probably will never understand the need for it.

  4. Jim Johnson Avatar
    Jim Johnson

    As long as Photoshop includes Camera Raw, LR is just a workflow aid. I sometimes find it useful and other times would rather just open it in PS.

  5. jason bourne Avatar
    jason bourne

    The cloud service is a money grab. The entire point of it is to perpetually tap money out of the user.

  6. Merlinda Little Avatar
    Merlinda Little

    I really need this in my life but even their cheapest is expensive to a non working student like me.

  7. thieum Avatar

    I have completely stopped using photoshop, apart for some montage or sfx, which I do twice a year.My workflow is folder based and relies on LR for keywording and rating.
    When I need to prepare my photos for a video production (I’m an editor), I no longer use PS : everything can be done in LR, batched crops with the right ratio, straightening, color grading, etc. Sure it can be done with PS, but it takes 10 times longer.
    I have indeed given up PS for LR. In the meantime the cloud subscription is awfully attractive: It’s only marginally more expensive than the license upgrade and you get PS in the bundle, which I no longer use at home, but can’t really hurt. The big incentive would be the oh so sexy LR mobile…

    1. Shifty303 Avatar

      I went to lightroom almost exclusively as well, though I’ve been trying out Capture One Pro lately and out-of-the-box RAWs are processed MUCH better. I don’t like the Libraries in CP though.

  8. Sam Dickinson Avatar
    Sam Dickinson

    Without buying an old version of Photoshop (ie. CS6), is it even possible to get Photoshop without Lightroom now? $10 per month for the photographer package, or $40 per month for the entire suite, both include Lightroom. Are there other options?

  9. Morgana Avatar

    I love PS and never use LR at all. My hubby is a big LR fan and never uses PS. It just comes down to which program gives you what you need. I’m a big fan of whatever works. :)

  10. Doc Pixel Avatar
    Doc Pixel

    Sorry, but it’s painfully obvious you’ve only touched “the tip of the iceberg” when it comes to PS and it’s companion software like Bridge and ACR. You could say the same about the entire article if anyone is considering PS or LR based on your pros and cons.

    Some things in LR, like printing photo books to PDF, photo packages, watermarking, transparent cover/compositing overlays, compare/select tools, simple lights-out slide shows or presentations, and a host of other advantages within the modules in LR you didn’t even touch on.

    Each program has it’s strengths and weaknesses and can (should?) be used depending on the project in my opinion. I personally like to edit big shoots in LR, and small portrait or product shoots in PS, Bridge and ACR, including: stacking, rating and labels, keywords, and meta data input, collections, renaming, batch output to multiple formats as well as profile conversion (CMYK), batch copy/paste saved developer settings through ACR or directly in Bridge, or use ACR Smart Layer imports for focus stacking. Also Bridge/ACR edits and meta data is carried over if you later decide to import to LR. To add to a pretty decent list above… you can even edit and export short movie clips in PS… with layer adjustments even(!)

    You missed a heck of a lot of features in both PS (plus free companion software) and LR for anyone to make a choice between one or the other. Good thing that all of the above is available as a sub for only $9.99/month so that people can experiment, learn and enjoy working with the one… or all of them… that “feels right” for them and the project at hand.

    Note: if either Bridge or ACR added cost to the sub, wasn’t available, or you want to (unfairly) not allow them to muddy your comparison, I’d probably still choose PS because if it’s ultra-flexibility. Then use OS features for tagging, keywords, organization, fast viewing, etc…. and find an alternative for straight up RAW processing. Even if it meant relying on the horrendous camera maker software.

  11. GM Avatar

    Photoshop has ACR which performs most of the raw editing of Lightroom. Lightroom and ACR run off the same engine, but ACR has a connected and seamless transition into Photoshop for layers work if needed – I like layers for the ability to easily turn them on or off… using brushes in Lightroom is not so easy to toggle.

    I use both programs, but for different reasons. Lightroom for my digital and everyday snaps, Photoshop for anything that gets printed or is for a client.

  12. Roman Solovey Avatar
    Roman Solovey


  13. Bernadette Simpson Avatar
    Bernadette Simpson

    This article looks remarkably similar to something I read a couple of weeks ago on dPS. Seems to hit almost exactly the same points in remarkably similar order!

    Check out the other post at – is there a relationship between the posts?

    1. Darlene Hildebrandt Avatar
      Darlene Hildebrandt

      No relationship, yes very similar indeed

    2. Tim Gilbreath Avatar
      Tim Gilbreath

      I just came across this, while doing some research….I can’t really tell, but your post seems to have a bit of an accusatory tone to it..I’m hoping that’s not the case. I’ve never seen this article before, and any similarities are coincidental.

      I’m assuming you’re saying that just because this article also takes a linear pros/cons/verdict approach? I don’t see the issue. I can point to many articles that use the same roadmap.

      If you’re not familiar with this concept, it’s not considered very responsible to make any form of accusations without any proof.

  14. dkjoller Avatar

    In my growing attachment to photography I dislike and find repugnant the notion of altering the image in a substantial way. That is exactly what Photoshop is capable of and is exactly what has given, in some sense, Photoshop a bad name – Photoshopped.

    I have Photoshop as part of a creative suite and I’ve used it and done things with its various tools to change an image (not taken by me) into something different. Its all impressive but with respect to photography and the images I take, I’m not interested in making ridiculous alterations to it beyond those that are customary in post editing.

  15. KC Avatar

    Lightroom. I do use Photoshop for fine retouching, sometimes compositing. The truth is neither are far from perfect, which is amazing considering how “mature” they both are. I can do a great deal of work in Lightroom alone – with a Wacom tablet. That’s an undocumented plus.

    Both are long overdue for an overhaul.