Photoshop vs Lightroom, which is best? It’s not that simple, as anyone who uses them will know, because although there is some crossover (well, a lot of crossover), they have very different roles and very different strengths and weaknesses. One is not better than the other because it depends on what you want to do. With that in mind, however, I would suggest that Lightroom is more often better than Photoshop.
Photoshop and Lightroom go together. Both the regular Adobe Photography Plan and the Photography Plan (1TB) subscriptions come with both programs.
There is an exception. The Adobe Lightroom CC (1TB) plan comes only with Lightroom CC, not Photoshop. If you want both (which is what this article is about) you will need one of the two regular Photography Plans. You can find out more in this article: Adobe Lightroom and Photography Plans explained.
But assuming you have both of these programs, the actual question is which one should you use for each stage of your photo editing workflow, or each particular editing job? There is a lot of crossover between the tools in Photoshop and Lightroom and it’s not immediately obvious which program will be best for what you want to do. There are two versions of Lightroom, explained in this Lightroom CC vs Lightroom Classic article. This guide is based around Lightroom Classic, but many of the points will apply to Lightroom CC too.
We all work in different ways, so this is just my way of looking at the Photoshop vs Lightroom debate. Hopefully you will find it useful.
1. Photo organising
Photoshop itself simply isn’t set up for organising. It will display recent images on its home page, or photos stored or synchronised in Creative Cloud by Lightroom, but that’s as far as it goes. But Lightroom is not your only choice for organising photos. You can use Photoshop with Adobe Bridge, which you can download and install as part of your subscription. Adobe Bridge is a not a cataloguing tool like Lightroom, but it is pretty effective at straightforward image browsing and filtering. However, if you’re just comparing Photoshop vs Lightroom, Lightroom wins this particular contest hands down.
• A clear win for Lightroom, but don’t forget Adobe Bridge
2. RAW processing
Lightroom and Photoshop actually use the same Camera Raw processing engine for RAW files, so there’s no difference in the tools available or the results you get. However, there are big differences in the workflow. If you open RAW files in Photoshop they are processed into an editable image for Photoshop to work on as a one-way process. You don’t have the same seamless editing, or the same easy settings changes later that Lightroom offers. With Lightroom you can go back at any time and tweak your settings. You can also create Virtual Copies to try out different looks. If you have both Photoshop and Lightroom, it makes sense to do your RAW enhancements in Lightroom and then send the files to Photoshop if they need editing work that Lightroom can’t do. (See RAW vs JPEG: things you can do with RAW files you can’t do with JPEGs.)
• Both can process RAW files, but Lightroom has a much more efficient workflow
3. Everyday enhancements
These are the regular, everyday enhancements that photographers will typically make to photos. They include exposure, contrast, shadow and highlight recovery and other tonal adjustments, white balance and colour adjustments, lens distortion and aberration correction, perspective correction (see Lightroom CC Geometry panel explained), sensor spot removal and basic object removal, creative color profiles and preset effects, cropping, rotation and more. Lightroom is very good at these. It’s also fully non-destructive, so you can go back at any time to make adjustments, and you can create Virtual Copies with different adjustments that don’t take up any more disk space. There hardly seems any point in using Photoshop for this, especially as it would mean creating new, often large image files. It’s easy to forget in the Photoshop vs Lightroom comparison that although both can do the same things, one is much more efficient than the other.
• Both can carry out routine adjustments, but Lightroom does it much more efficiently
4. Local adjustments
Photographers will often want to make local adjustments, using a Linear Gradient filter to tone down a sky, a Radial Gradient filter to focus attention on a subject or an Adjustment Brush to dodge or burn different areas of a picture. These are jobs you would once have done in Photoshop with selections and masks and layers, but Lightroom’s adjustment tools are now so quick and efficient that you can do most of these jobs directly in Lightroom. You might still need to send an image to Photoshop for more precise masking and manipulation, but as far as everyday local adjustments are concerned, Lightroom handles them so effectively that Photoshop hardly seems necessary.
• This is closer. Lightroom may do almost all the local adjustments you need non-destructively, but you may still need Photoshop for trickier work
Here, the balance shifts towards Photoshop. Lightroom is certainly quick and simple. Its Spot Healing Brush is all you need for sensor spots and it can also take out small blemishes and distracting objects in moments and you can smooth skin tones with negative Clarity and Dehaze adjustments. But if your image needs larger, more complex repairs, you need the Clone Stamp, Patch and advanced Content Aware Fill tools in Photoshop. Lightroom is all right for easy quick fixes, but Photoshop is the one you need for any serious retouching work.
• Lightroom is OK for light retouching work, but you’ll need Photoshop for large or complex repairs
6. Effects and presets
Photoshop certainly excels and detailed retouching and image manipulation, but it’s not really set up for single-click image ‘looks’ and ‘styles’. This is an area of photo editing that has really moved forward over the past few years, as photographers have shifted their attention from microscopic manipulation towards overall appearance and the expanding range of expressive image styles now available. This is where Lightroom excels, with a large array of internal styles and profiles and the limitless potential of third party presets and the ability to make and save your own. There’s probably nothing you can do with Lightroom presets that you can’t do in Photoshop, but why would you do all that manual work in Photoshop when Lightroom can create all these looks instantly, reversibly and with any number of virtual variations on the same image? This is an important point in the Photoshop vs Lightroom comparison: in Photoshop, everything is possible… but not necessarily simple.
• Lightroom is set up for looks and styles, Photoshop is not
7. Working with plug-ins
Photoshop started the whole plug-in industry, and even now every plug-in that’s produced is Photoshop-compatible. The fact is, though, that they are almost all Lightroom compatible too. When a plug-in is updated or released, it will be installed for both of these programs. This means that unless there is a special reason for opening an image in Photoshop rather than Lightroom (it needs detailed retouching, for example), it makes more sense to use plug-ins from Lightroom. Lightroom will generate a TIFF a JPEG file automatically (you can choose) and start the plug-in – and when you finish your work in the plug-in and save it, it’s automatically added to your Lightroom catalog alongside the original image. It couldn’t be easier. However, Photoshop has a special trick. If you convert your image into a Smart Object you can use plug-in filters non-destructively. If that’s important to you, then Photoshop has an edge.
• Both can use plug-ins. Lightroom has simple efficiency, Photoshop has Smart Objects
8. Composites, layers, masks, illustrations
This is Photoshop territory, pure and simple. If you want to combine images, if you want to add text, if you want to incorporate a photo into a larger design, you need Photoshop. Lightroom is brilliant at photographic enhancement, but that’s where its expertise ends. Photoshop offers powerful layering, blending and masking tools that Lightroom simply doesn’t have. At the same time, it’s important to remember that Photoshop is not just a photo editor. It’s very good at photo editing, obviously, but it’s really a broader tool aimed at creatives who work with photographs as components in design projects that incorporate other elements and techniques too. Artists use Photoshop for hand-made digital art, illustrators use it for diagrams, annotations and infographics, graphic designers use it for layouts and packaging and so on. This is perhaps what confuses the Photoshop vs Lightroom question: for this kind of work, Photoshop is the only choice. But that doesn’t make Photoshop better, it simply makes it much more specialised in a specific direction.
• For any kind of composite imagery, it has to be Photoshop
9. Finishing and sharing
Photoshop is set up for single images and a largely linear editing workflow where you decide what you want to do, do it, and then go back and do it again if you need something different. It’s a powerful tool as part of your photo editing workflow, but it’s not the all-encompassing digital hub that Lightroom is. Even if you need Photoshop for specific retouching or manipulation tasks, it’s still better to launch it from within Lightroom so that your edited image is returned to Lightroom where it’s much easier to find it, group it with others in albums, share it, post it to social media and publish it online. And when your Photoshop file is returned to Lightroom, you can create any number of Virtual Copies with different effects, different crops, different aspect ratios and so on, all without to create additional image files to clog up your hard drive.
• Photoshop can be an important tool in your workflow, but it doesn’t handle your whole workflow in the way Lightroom does
10. Summing up
There is a lot of crossover between Lightroom and Photoshop, but for regular photographers Lightroom does so much that they might hardly need Photoshop at all. Photoshop is still needed for detailed retouching, multi-layer compositing, design work and some advanced effects, but it’s not the quick and effective all-in-one tool that Lightroom is. Lightroom is an ideal digital ‘hub’, a centralised starting point for everything you do. Photoshop is more of a specialised tool that is still valuable and still needed now and again for the jobs that Lightroom can’t do. Photoshop is just as good as it’s always been, but in a way it’s been overtaken by new ways of working and new expectations about what a photo editing tool should do.
Photoshop vs Lightroom: two suggestions
Read more: Best image cataloguing software