Post-processing is an integral skill for any photographer who wants to get the most out of their DSLR (digital single-lens reflex camera), which is why it’s so important to pick up and learn how to use a photo editing program. But which one?
The two most popular choices are Photoshop and Lightroom, and if you can gain access to either one, we highly recommend you do so. In fact, with Adobe’s Creative Cloud, you can actually buy access to both programs for the stunningly low price of $10 per month.
MakeUseOf readers enjoy 15% off the Creative Cloud plan which includes access to Photoshop CC and Lightroom.
But both programs have big learning curves, so the most efficient path to take would be to specialize in one or the other — not both! Which one should you pick? Let’s find out.
Note: Unfortunately, neither Photoshop nor Lightroom are available for Linux. The good news is, once you decide which of the two you actually need, you can then check out these Photoshop alternatives for Linux and these Lightroom alternatives for Linux.
What’s So Great About Photoshop?
Photoshop is the Mustang of photo editing programs: it’s powerful, it’s popular, and it’ll overwhelm you if you aren’t careful. Since its launch in 1988, Photoshop has climbed its way up the ladder and currently reigns as the king of image manipulation.
Its defining feature is just how flexible it can be, especially when you consider all of the additional functionality that’s possible through plugins. Most plugins are developed and maintained by third-party companies that depend on Photoshop for their livelihoods, meaning these plugins will be around for years to come.
Need to rebalance exposure? Crop out unwanted elements? Apply filters to change the mood or style? Export into dozens of different formats? Manipulate an image into something completely different? You can do all of that — and more — with Photoshop.
But that last point is where Photoshop really shines. It’s an image manipulation program, meaning that it provides hundreds of different tools that allow you to alter an image to your heart’s content. On the contrary, if you just want to do some simple retouches, Photoshop is actually a bit overkill.
For example, Photoshop has layers — a crucial feature that lets you isolate and organize different changes to different areas of the photo. So many aspects of Photoshop would be crippled if it didn’t have layers… and Lightroom doesn’t have layers, which means that it pales in comparison regarding what it can actually do.
The best part is that there is an abundance of educational resources for easing into the Photoshop learning curve. You’ll find plenty of Photoshop tutorials on YouTube, but we also provide some great tips in our guide to Photoshop series (with parts 2, 3, and 4).
But there are some downsides, too.
For one, Photoshop is a “destructive” editor. When you open an image, make a change, and save it again, you’re overwriting the old state of the image with the new state of the image. The only way to preserve the old image is to save the new image as a separate file.
The other option is to open an image, make changes, and save as a PSD file which can track all of the changes being made — but PSD files are notoriously big. If you have a library of 1,000 images, it can cost a lot of space to also maintain 1,000 source PSDs for those images.
Photoshop is also terrible as a photo manager. It’s basically a canvas that’s there to edit individual photos separately from each other. Yes, you can open multiple images at once and you can create presets that apply across many images, but at the end of the day, you aren’t managing your photos.
Here’s what I mean: After a typical photo shoot, you might have anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred different shots. First you have to transfer them to your computer, then you have to sort through and categorize them somehow, and then you have to open each photo individually.
Doing this with 100 photos every day? That’ll eventually drive you mad. Photoshop is great at image manipulation, but it leaves the actual management and organization of your images up to you, and that can be rough.
What’s So Great About Lightroom?
In short, Lightroom excels in most of the areas where Photoshop falls short — and falls short in most of the areas where Photoshop excels. As such, if Photoshop doesn’t seem like the right fit for you, then Lightroom probably is.
But let’s explore the ways in which they differ.
Lightroom’s greatest benefit is that it provides a complete environment for managing and editing photos. The positive effect that this has on productivity cannot be understated.
Normally, when you connect your DSLR to your computer, you have to use software provided by your camera company to pull the images off (or you can do it manually through Windows Explorer). Lightroom can handle all of that for you: importing photos to wherever you specify, and converting file formats if necessary.
Once imported, these photos remain untouched. Lightroom provides something called a “catalog”, which is a separate file that keeps track of where each photo is located. This makes it easy to manage entire collections of photos within a single program.
But more importantly, the catalog keeps track of changes made to each photo. Unlike Photoshop, which actually changes the data inside of each edited image, Lightroom simply remembers which changes you made and in which order you made them. Then, when you view an image, it just applies them before displaying the image to you.
The benefit of this is two-fold. First, you always have the original photos just as they came from your camera. Second, the catalog file is tiny — rarely more than a few megabytes — so the only space you need is the space to hold the original photos.
And because Lightroom is an entire environment that’s designed to manage hundreds or thousands of photos at once, it makes it easy to edit multiple photos at the same time. In one fell swoop, you can simultaneously alter the exposure of 100 photos.
Which brings us to our next point: Lightroom is a photo retoucher, not an image manipulator. It’s great for adjusting a lot of core elements (exposure, white balance, contrast, etc.) and it has some capacity for detailed edits (e.g. dodge and burn), but it’s nowhere near as powerful as Photoshop.
This is both a pro and a con. You lose a lot of the flexibility and freedom of Photoshop, but in exchange, you get a program that was specifically designed with photographers in mind. Lightroom covers 95 percent of what you might need in post-processing, and it’s really good at delivering those things.
Even so, Lightroom has one huge drawback: the interface.
It’s not that the interface is bad, but it’s certainly different, and when it comes to photo editing, different is a killer. Photoshop is so ubiquitous that most people know how to use it to some degree, but Lightroom is a completely different experience that can be overwhelming at the start.
The layout is actually optimized for a photographer’s workflow, but getting to the point where you’re actually comfortable with that layout can be challenging. As such, Lightroom has a much steeper learning curve than Photoshop. It’s only when you overcome that initial curve that Lightroom really starts to shine.
And the Winner Is…
Well, there is no winner. You saw that coming, didn’t you? The one you should pick depends on how you want to approach photography, what kind of workflow you prefer, and which features are the most crucial to you.
Are you going to do a lot of heavy image doctoring and major manipulations? Do you need a lot of extra functionality through plugins? Do you have another process or program that handles image organization for you? Then Photoshop is what you want.
Do you need help managing your photos? Do you prefer to work with sets of photos rather than individual photos? Or only need the core image editing features for light retouching across many different photos? Then Lightroom is what you want.
Ideally, you’ll learn and master both. But if you’re just a newbie, pick one instead of learning both at the same time. Jump-start your education with these Lynda courses for photographers and these online photography classes, both of which include education for both Photoshop and Lightroom.
Which do you prefer for photography: Photoshop or Lightroom? Which would you recommend to newbies who haven’t learned either yet? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below!